Last night I trekked into Paris to the American Library to hear Justin E. Smith expand on the themes he wrote about in his New York Times op-ed piece Does Immigration Mean ‘France Is Over’?
Ah, the surprise of a man who has unwittingly stepped into a subject fraught with peril. His article generated many comments and a fair amount of hate mail, he said. Diversity, immigration, and identity are all hot topics in the Hexagon. Where he is absolutely right is that one cannot simply transfer a North American conception of these things to European countries like France. If history really is "one damn thing after another" well, France and the United States had very different "damn things." In the latter race was of primary importance. Not so much in the Hexagon.
But he is also correct when he talks about Europeans in general having a sense of being les peuples autochtones. Exhibit A being the taxi driver who tried to convince me that France has always existed with exactly the same borders, the same language and the same people for thousands of years. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this obvious failure of the otherwise excellent French education system.
Two books that I would recommend that give a very different picture (and show how very silly the idea of an unchanging eternal autochthonic France really is) are
Qu'est-ce qu'un français? by Patrick Weil which shows that "identity crisis" is something of an ongoing concern; and The Discovery of France by Graham Robb which reveals France as a very diverse place with unknown territory, many different languages (and a few really good heresies) right up until the 20th century. There are surely other books about this but those are the two that come immediately to my mind.
National myths matter, however, and so we should not make too much of this. Every nation-state has them, though each one exercises its national talent for story telling in its own particular way. The United States has its own set of half-truths or outright lies that American academics may have a bit too much fun debunking these days .
The only point in his talk where I raised my eyebrows was how he came to his subject. Listening to an old man in the street standing before an ethnic restaurant and concluding, "La France est foutue." I have my own story about this sort of thing which is the day I was walking down the avenue de Paris in my headscarf after 6 months of chemotherapy and having a passing elderly Frenchman mutter to me, "Nous sommes en France quand même!"
My point is this: the French are "grumbly." They do a lot of complaining about everything. I spend a fair amount of time with older French women and their commentary about French youth is very nasty at times (and often quite entertaining). If the country is going to hell, the finger pointing is not limited to immigrants - everyone is a target including one's fellow French citizens. All this negativity feels very foreign to North Americans with their "happy happy joy joy" personalities which I actually find more irritating than the low level carping that I hear at the market, after Mass or at the dinner table.
In the immigration/diversity/integration debate the trick is to figure out how much of this is background noise and how much of it really matters and will be translated into concrete action against whoever the offending party is this election cycle. And there is good evidence that these things are indeed having an impact on politics - the arena where real sanctions can be decided and put in place at a national level.
(I recently went down to the local prefecture and got the requirements for obtaining French citizenship which have changed again and are mildly onerous even for those of us who have lived here for decades, have French children and French spouses. I literally walked home with a sense of: "They really don't want me or anyone else to be a citizen these days and so why should I go to all that trouble?)
Where I sometimes completely lose patience with the grumblers here is just how little faith the French seem to have these days in the power and attractiveness of their own culture and society. Integration is not easy but worth the trip and to a great extent inescapable. If it does not happen to the satisfaction of the French in the first generation, then it will in the second or third.
France has done an excellent job of integrating foreigners for centuries. No reason whatsoever to think that this has changed. Don't listen to what they say; watch what they do. I contend that what we see today in the Hexagon is not necessarily indicative of an unusual crisis and a permanent anti-immigration stance. If I thought it was, well, there are other fields, n'est-ce pas? Despite some rather discouraging signals in the midst of all that noise, I still put my faith in the French and the longue durée.