Alain Finkielkraut is a well-known essayist turned radio host on the « Répliques » programme from national radio channel France Culture. Finkielkraut is seen as a somewhat conservativish, right-wingingish actor in the french intellectual landscape and certainly holds some debatable views, which make his work all the more interesting.
That is not the point here, but rather his latest show which aired last Friday, where he invited two thinkers on the topic of immigration: Georges Bensoussan, author of « The lost territories of the Republic » (1) where he analyses the development of islam, sexism and antisemitism over the past twelve years; and Patrick Weil author of « The meaning of the Republic » (2) which calls for a re-read of French history so as to integrate, rather than oppose, the different currents and communities that make up the France of today. Both writers are recognised specialists in the field of immigration and french society, but holding very different views on what it all means.
In a nutshell, Bensoussan’s view is that the muslim community, ever since 9/11 and the implicit link of islam with terrorism and the ghetto- style way of life of many muslims in France (of which there are a about 5 million, 8% of the total population) has created a dual, antagonistic society. This came to light right after the Charlie Hebdo attacks (3) where numerous muslims, especially young ones in schools and colleges, refused to see themselves as part of the « Je suis Charlie » mouvement, opposing that the caricaturists had deserved to be killed for blasphemy.
For Bensoussan, french society today is clearly divided between those who accept the secular nature of the State and its fundamental values, notably man-woman rights equality and religious freedom, and those who don’t and are mostly found in the muslim community. He argues that the failure by the establishment to tackle this problem 15 years ago, at a time when the Charlie Hebdo shooters were still kids attending french schools, has led to the current situation of a stand-off between a more and more aggravated and intolerant muslim community, and the rest of the population which views them as a growing threat to fundamental republican values.
Patrick Weil has a different take, arguing that the current problems are sourced in a misrepresentation of French history, pitting communities against each other (notably France’s colonial past and the Algerian War). For him the way forward is to re-asses History as a joint history of the different people making-up France today, rather than separate and conflicting histories. He refuses Bensoussan’s notion of a stand-off.
As always in these matters there is no single truth but the growing duality of (not only) french society is something that the political right is trying to surf on, and the political left is trying to hold at arm’s length. It is well recognised today that cultural traits and traditions cannot be changed through rational, intellectual Western-style discourse. One has to accept that notions of equality of rights, freedom of choice and speech, atheism and the like are simply not universal values, and that people from other cultures will not accept them unless they have a vested, qualified interest in doing so, which they mostly don’t.
The big question is whether one simply has to accept that fact and live in a kind of compromise where common values are renegociated to account for the realities of various imported tradtions, of whether one has to accept that there is a fundamental incompatibility between certain societal constructs and deal with that head-on.
A case example here is the availability of non-pork school menus offered to muslim children when the day’s standard fare includes pork. Many schools have adopted this procedure in the past 30 years, but there is now a backlash with mayors proposing that this is a violation of secular values, and muslim kids on pork days can either bring their own food or eat at home. Similarly, the veil law was passed under president Chirac some years ago, forbidding the wearing of ostentatious religious signs in schools, starting with the islamic veil but this also includes christian crosses or jewish symbols.
Michel Foucault, a very well know french philosopher of the last century, did warn decades ago of the growth of islam in a secular society, and the intractable situation that would ensue. One way forward would be for islam to reinvent itself so as to keep its spiritual base whilst integrating so-called Western civil values, but in France at least there is no body through which this can occur.
The official representative council of french muslims represents nobody, the muslim population being itself very varied, split in currents. The denunciation of islamic terrorism by the official body isn’t echoed by the muslim street, which for the past 15 years has been offended by Western destructive invasions in the Middle-East, the inpunity of Israël in Gaza and the Territories, and the feeling that Jews are affectively ruling the world at their expense. The first two, at least, being very defendable reasons for anger.
Hence the possibility that Patrick Weil’s approach might in fact be useful in the sense that the West has one big fat mea culpa to address to the muslim world. If this ever came to be and the corrupt, predatory nature of Western interventions since Afghanistan fully recognised by a new political generation, it might go a long way in helping to reduce tensions and encourage muslims here to upgrade to a secular-compatible version of islam.
My previous french chronicles are available here: https://zerhubarbeblog.wordpress.com/category/my_french_chronicles/