A correspondent of mine stated this morning that the recent terror attacks demonstrated that France had "spectacularly failed" to resolve its integration problem.
Here is my reponse:
How do we judge relative success and failure of integration? Have we been spectacularly successful in the US in integrating African-Americans (who have been here longer than most of us but still face challenges all their own)? The French journalist Jean Quatremer pointed out this morning that because France doesn't keep ethnic/racial statistics, we don't know how many Muslims serve in the French military and police, but we do know that they are "spectacularly" overrepresented. They are also well represented in the state bureaucracy. These institutions (at least the military and bureaucracy, not so much the police) were, despite the Dreyfus Affair, the royal road to Jewish assimilation in France, as Pierre Birnbaum has shown. They seem to be working for Muslims as well.
In another broadcast from France this morning, Alain Finkielkraut, Alain Duhamel, and Eric Zemmour discussed the integration issue. Finkielkraut and Zemmour are often classed these days as "neo-reactionaries" if not "neo-fascists," but they're worth listening to, because they are representative of a substantial body of thinking. They would agree with my correspondent that there has been a "spectacular failure of integration," which they attribute to a failure of the school system in the wake of "massification of education." Another word for this might be "democratization" of education. The Third Republic in particular vaunted the schools as the primary integrating institution, not just for foreigners but for the native-born, who needed to be turned into good republicans ("peasants into Frenchmen," as Eugen Weber put it). But education in the Third Republic was narrowly based and highly elitist. It did provide upward mobility for a very select group of talented pupils but did little for the rest. For Finkielkraut and Zemmour, the problem is that the French schools, because of "massification,," have abandoned the old system's emphasis on "la culture classique" and instead of inculcating Racine and La Rochefoucauld try to meet students half-way on their own turf, thus opening the door to the horrors of American multiculturalism, which for them is the root of all evil, or at any rate the opposite of the French monoculturalism they prefer. To me, "back to Racine" does not hold out much promise for integrating the disaffected, however.
What about today's terrorists? The Kouachi brothers, it seems, although born in the 10th Arr. of Paris, were educated in the countryside in a school run by a foundation to help children of immigrants find their way (if I remember correctly what I heard; I have no printed source for this, so it may be inaccurate). They fit in well, according to those who remember them. But when they returned to Paris they fell under the influence of an "unlicensed" Islamic preacher cum criminal with a bit of flair. Eventually they wound up in Yemen, where they were indoctrinated by an American-born radical who taught them that Americans were out to exterminate Muslims in Iraq. That message had nothing to do with conditions in France. Their alienation seems to have derived from an interpretation of geopolitics rather than a "spectacular failure" in France.
I would be the last to deny that France has an integration problem. But what exactly should it be doing to resolve it? Earlier generations of immigrants in other countries also at times succumbed to violence related to the geopolitical situation, as any reader of Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent or Henry James' Princess Cassamassima will recall. I'm sure I suffer from having gone a bit native on the French view of things, and I do recognize the specific difficulties of integration stemming from France's colonial past, but are French integration problems really so different from the problems of other countries in this regard? What is "spectacular" about France's failure, other than the fact that it issued in a spectacular display of violence?