Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veiled Truths

The Cour de Cassation has just issued a decision in the "Baby Loup" case, throwing out a previous ruling that the day care center's manager was within her rights to ban the wearing of a veil by an employee. This being private space, the court ruled that the veil could be banned by the employer only for carefully delimited reasons of safety, health, ability to perform duties, etc.

Nevertheless, a poll finds that 83% of the French favor the extension of the veil ban to the firm, the street, semipublic spaces like restaurants and stores, etc. Alain Finkielkraut, meanwhile, has just published L'identité malheureuse, one of the bestsellers of the fall season, in which he explicitly criticizes Americans like me with our "innocents abroad" notions of multiculturalism. France cannot survive the onslaught of conflicting symbolisms, he argues. It is and always has been a monist culture, in which the foreigner can assimilate only by shedding all alien affiliations. And the foreigner must be grateful for being deprived of his patrimoine by a culture as rich as that of France, which has brought the world so much treasure of truth and beauty. I caricature, but only slightly.

To tell the truth, I see more headscarves daily in my North Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood than I saw during 2 weeks in France, though I'm sure I wasn't sampling the towns and neighborhoods where the Muslim population is densest. Still, the response seems far stronger than the stimulus warrants. The same can be said of the Roma problem. Despite the fact that there are only 20,000 in the country, everyone I talked to seems to believe that they are at the gates of every town and village in France and Navarre. The mathematical impossibility of such ubiquity carries no weight against the evidence of what people think they have vu, vu de leurs yeux, vu! 

The eternal recurrence of these two highly symbolic issues calls for an analysis of the French psyche. I'm not sure I'm ready to give it, but I'm pondering the matter.

Brignoles: Is There Anything That Hasn't Been Said?

Sunday was my last full day in France, and it happened to coincide with the victory of the Front National in Brignoles. At a dinner party in Paris on Sunday evening, with the election returns already in, I heard both the glass half full and glass half empty versions of the election.

The optimists noted, rightly, that the FN candidate had been elected with only 2,728 votes in a town with only 20,000 registered voters, barely a third of whom had turned out. The pro-FN vote in Brignoles was no larger than in previous elections (giving the lie to allegations of mass defections of the working class), and the winning candidate benefited primarily from the abstention of moderates disappointed with both the current president AND his predecessor and therefore unwilling to do their "republican" duty to block an extremist candidate. What is more, pro-FN sentiment is hardly unknown in the Var, where it draws not only on anti-immigrant sentiment but also on a strong base of pied noir descendants.

The pessimists, on the other hand, simply repeated the stark fact that the FN had won with 54 percent of the vote despite a call by the president of the Republic for a "republican front." Significantly, however, the UMP did not join in that call, so the republican front was fatally weakened by the pre-emptive defection of the center-right, symptomatic of the larger dissension that is wreaking havoc in "respectable" rightist circles, where it is feared that despite the current unpopularity of the Socialists, hors d'une alliance avec l'extrême droite, pas de salut.

Make no mistake: the latter belief is the real danger here, and the real drama of Brignoles is that it may confirm many UMPers in the belief that this analysis is correct. Moderates on both left and right are banking on the notion that an economic recovery has begun: a Gallic version of the "green shoots" thesis that was prevalent in the US in 2009 before the debacle of the 2010 midterms swept into Congress a raft of radical rightists who survived the 2012 election to deliver us into the chaos in which we now find ourselves. The US example should be proof to moderates, if proof were needed, that attentisme is not the right strategy.

The 2,728 votes for the extreme right in Brignoles cannot be taken as indicative of a national trend, but national polls do indicate moderately increased support for the extreme right across the country and among all social classes and categories. This does not, however, represent adhesion to Frontist ideas or values. It is mainly, I believe, a protest vote against the lack of a clearly articulated response to the crisis from either the center-right or center-left. Sarkozy offered the frenetic bluster of a dervish who whirled but went nowhere, while Hollande has proceeded in his disciplined way to mark time, hence also giving the impression of no forward motion. Meanwhile, everyone is grumbling about increased taxes. To be sure, spending has also been decreased and the deficit shaved since Hollande took office, but what the average voter sees is a steadily increasing tax bite despite the presidential announcement of a "pause," soon postponed by his prime minister until next year (assuming that the "green shoots" have by then yielded a few ears of corn).

So this is a morose period in French politics, but I think the FN panic, to which I may have contributed with my two previous posts, is somewhat overblown, and there is a real danger that it will stampede politicians of both parties into emulating Marine Le Pen rather than fighting her. What is needed is the offer of some rival goods on the political market, not a flooding of the stalls with une rhétorique sécuritaire de pacotille.

UPDATE: On the other hand, there's this report of an impending alliance between Geert Wilders of the Netherlands anti-immigrant Party of Freedom and Marine Le Pen's National Front. Anti-EU feeling is on the rise across Europe.