Day By Day

Sunday, May 30, 2010

French Lessons? I Think Not!

Gilles Kepel has written a spectacularly stupid piece for the National Interest titled "French Lessons in Londonistan" in which he, with typical Gallic arrogance, asserts that French colonial policy was far superior to that of the Anglo-Saxon powers and as a result post-colonial regimes throughout the former French sphere and France itself have been relatively free from ethnic violence. This is absurd.

His argument is that England tried to govern its empire on the cheap by exploiting ethnic differences within the colonial populations, dividing them one against another and thus being able to control them with relatively few occupying troops. By contrast France was willing and able to make the massive investment of assuming the responsibilities of assuming the duties of keeping and administering the peace and of promoting cultural unity throughout their realms while treating all minorities fairly and with equal respect. The result was a damping of ethnic tensions and a relative lack of resentment against the ruling French elites. He points to the fact that England and America have frequently been the target of radical Islamist attacks, while France has been relatively untroubled. He writes:
THE IMPERIAL experience serves as a backdrop to the markedly contrasting ways that London and Paris have approached the immigration dilemma. France has created an intermingled culture, which is being forged on a daily basis between the native Gaul and the immigrant Arab and Berber. It revolves around two French obsessions: the bed and the dinner table. Your average young Muslim girl is interested in living and having children with a French gouer, a North-African colloquial term meaning “infidel”—i.e., non-Muslim.


These women would loathe the very idea of an arranged marriage to a fellah (peasant) cousin from the far away bled (North Africa) with his unrefined manners and pedestrian French.

By contrast:
IN THE UK, things were happening quite differently. From the beginning of mass migration in the 1950s, British Muslims organized as such and started to establish mosques on British soil. The segregated experience of the Muslim community under the Raj was duplicated in Britain, except this time the majority population was not Hindu, but the white English working class with its beer-on-tap-and-bacon culture. Meanwhile, intra-Muslim sectarian and denominational strife led different groups to create their own enclaves.


This secluded British-Muslim religious identity led to a far more introverted social life than was the case for North Africans in France.
Anglo-Saxon intolerance, therefore, gave rise to a hostile, unified Muslim reaction that contrasts decidedly to the French experience in which immigrants display a "wide array of available identities—Islamic, Algerian, working class, unionized, leftist, la├»que and what have you—that made the concept of Muslim categorization secondary at best."

He concludes that since the departure from office of the twin Anglo-Saxon demons, Tony Blair and George Bush, Britain and America finally have an opportunity to remake both their domestic and foreign policy along the lines of the more successful French experience and to begin at last to welcome and successfully integrate their Muslim minorities and make peace with their Muslim neighbors.

In response I would note that, while there certainly were horrific episodes in the period of British decolonization -- he makes specific reference to the partition of India and Pakistan -- that the French experience was not as salubrious he suggests. He points to North and West Africa [specifically Algeria and Senegal] as models of successful transitions in which colonial policy had muted Muslim resentment of the dominant French culture and which were presumably free from post-colonial ethnic conflict. But one need only remember the prolonged mid-century struggle in Algeria to give the lie to this claim of a superior transition to independence and, having recently returned from North Africa, I can assert that the area is hardly free from ethnic tensions. Only a couple of months ago I stood in a Jewish synagogue in Djerba that had, as recently as eight years ago, had been the target of Islamist attack. And as for the absence of ethnic conflict -- it is certainly muted in those former French colonies where ethnic minorities are so small and weak that resistance is, as they say, futile. But what about Lebanon which is in a near constant state of ethnic turmoil? The relative peace of North and West Africa, I would argue, was due not to superior colonial policies but to the local hegemonic dominance of one Islamic sect or another. And as for the supposed greater success of postwar French domestic policy, what about the months of rioting, looting and burning by Muslim "youths" that occurred in French cities just a few years ago? All in all it is hard to see through the smoke and flames of the Paris streets just what it was about French policy that was so superior.

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