The Magazine

Allah Mode

France's Islam problem.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

France's Islamic immigration has been until recently something the country literally could not bear to think or talk about. This is largely a problem of historical guilt. Most Arabs in France are economic migrants from North Africa, where France waged a brutal counterterrorist war in the late 1950s and early 1960s against Algeria's FLN independence movement. The war involved widespread torture in Algeria (a subject painfully reopened two years ago in a memoir by Gen. Paul Aussaresses), the drowning of Algerian protest marchers in the Seine (revealed during unrelated investigations into the World War II activities of Maurice Papon, who was Paris's police commissioner during the murders), and the abandonment of Algeria's harkis, those who had fought for France against the FLN. Vast numbers were slaughtered, sometimes along with their entire families, for their loyalty to France. Those who succeeded in escaping across the Mediterranean were often greeted as an unwelcome reminder. When President Jacques Chirac declared a day of national recognition for the harkis last fall, it was hailed as the brave breaking of a taboo.

As far as Islam is concerned, France has had a tendency to avoid looking at problems until they rear up on several fronts. First, France now has an underclass, made up of jeunes issus d'immigration. Second, there is an ongoing problem of racial discrimination, which is both a cause of Arab/Muslim poverty and an effect of Arab/Muslim crime. Third, there is Islam itself, which has confounded every governmental attempt to assimilate it into France's sternly secular constitutional order. Fourth, there is the rapidly increasing influence of conservative Islam in France, in the context of a global terrorist war that certain schools of conservative Islam have declared on the West. Solving some of these problems means exacerbating others. That may be why, according to a poll taken in 2000 by the National Commission on the Rights of Man, 63 percent of French people think there are "too many Arabs" in the country. This may be evidence of racism, but not of knee-jerk racism: Only 43 percent of Frenchmen say the same of blacks, only 21 percent of Asians, and only 19 percent of Jews.

What worries people at the most visceral level is the growth of a real Muslim underclass. In his book La France et les beurs, Zair Kedadouche, a former professional soccer player who has become an adviser to the mayor of Paris, refers to the housing projects of suburban Paris as "a Soweto that dare not speak its name."

In some areas, the underclass problems are exactly those of the United States. Sebastian Roche and other social scientists have coined the word surdelinquance to describe a phenomenon familiar to Americans as "the superpredator problem." As in the United States, there is worry that welfare payments are subsidizing illegitimacy. The revenu minimum d'insertion, France's guaranteed income, which hovers around 500 euros a month, is increasingly deplored as argent braguette ("zipper money"). Riots and other disturbances are underreported but frequent. Last week on July 4, gangs burned 20 cars in Lille to protest the suspended prison sentence given to a police officer who had shot an Algerian youth during a car theft. The dominant concept of the ghetto is now respect (pronounced, usually in a menacing way, as "woo-speh"). The word was the centerpiece in the presidential campaign of Guyanan leftist Catherine Taubira, and it is used increasingly in the political harangues of the poor and their tribunes. It sounds nice, but generally means respect only for those who can impose it by force. It means, if we may draw another American parallel, "Don't diss me."