- Barbara Amiel
France, wrote Luigi Barzini, wouldn't be the great and endearing country that it is, la lumière du monde, if its quarrelsome people had not been "moulded down the centuries by antagonisms and tensions between tribes, clans, cliques, classes, coteries, guilds, camarillas, sects, parties, factions, regions..." The French are ever at the barricades.
Last week the barricades were at the prime minister's office, the Matignon, where the government was discussing the awkward business of
Dominique de Villepin, the foreign minister, gravely explained that the law is not aimed at any particular minority, community or religion, though there is, he said, some difficulty in making the essential tolerance of it clear to Arab countries.
Domenica Perben, the justice minister, felt the whole thrust of the issue revolved around the equality of men and women - which clears up why the French may be forcibly shaving prematurely mature Sikh schoolboys: they are a gender offset for de-scarfed female Muslims.
Given current birth rates, it is not impossible that in 25 years
In theory, the cultural and legal assimilation of
For Islamists, assimilation is contamination since, in Professor Bernard Lewis's words, "Muslims must not sojourn in the land of the infidel". Intermarriage should be another route to assimilation, though in
Meanwhile, the state of Christendom in
Currently, Islamists are only a fraction of
The borders of mainland
Early arrivals, such as the White Russians or the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters, never intended to assimilate. They were sitting out bad weather before returning home. More recent ones, who arrived because of Nato policies in the Balkans, have been greeted with hostility and distrust.
European countries are not organically immigrant societies. The groups that went to
Their beliefs were reinforced by many Christian groups, from Baptists to Mennonites, all in search of religious freedom. These founding fathers decreed separation of church and state, not to make sure the nation was secular, as in
European countries have none of this melting-pot principle. You cannot become German or Italian with the same ease with which you become American. Also, into this very different European environment came a very different sort of immigrant - people who had no interest in assimilation at all.
They came as settlers, wanting to establish their own communities; at best they favoured a merger - at worst, a takeover. Their approach was nurtured by notions of multiculturalism, a creed appealing to intellectuals, administrators and enforcers, but having almost zero appeal to the home population.
The cultural abrasions that developed, especially between the rapidly growing Muslim community and the French, became the problem that could not be talked about. All respectable political parties, journalists and academics felt it too volatile and far too politically incorrect. The field was abandoned to extreme Right-wingers and nativists who, by default, established the unpleasant tone of the debate and became exclusive owners of a subject affecting the whole nation.
In the absence of openness, the government's response was a cover-up - or, rather, an uncovering: to outlaw Muslim headscarves, shave beards worn for reasons of faith, or ban crucifixes if too large. In
There seemed to be a genuine belief among governments that they could solve this problem by violating Western traditions of religious freedom and by outlawing their own cultural traditions. Far from alleviating the situation, this only aggravated it. Worse, it gave fodder to the extreme Right.
Tribal friction has only two solutions: groups will either unite in the manner of Normans and Saxons, melding into a society that may have different religious practices but subscribes to the same laws and values - in which case headscarves, beards and demographics don't matter a fig. Or they will follow the pattern of warring tribes throughout history.
The question is not whether French and Muslims can co-exist with each other so long as Muslim schoolgirls are bareheaded. Rather, it is the fundamental question of whether Muslim groups will become part of the French nation. This is not one of those old "guerelles gauloises" that Barzini so loved. It is the fundamental dilemma of the new century.