Commentary: Is France's Center Coming Unglued?

Behind all the ethnic turmoil, the idea of France itself is eroding

Consider two unrelated events that occurred in France on the same evening recently -- events considered so banal these days that they were buried deep within national newspapers the next day. On Jan. 31, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy visited a Paris shopping mall to win support for the center-right in upcoming elections. Within minutes, a group of youths -- most of North African background -- began hurling insults. Sarkozy, a potential presidential candidate, was chased until he reached a police station.

Later, in the Burgundian town of Mâcon, First Lady Bernadette Chirac attended a benefit concert for children's hospitals. All went smoothly until a Franco-Israeli chanteuse named Shirel began a song about Jerusalem. According to those present, up to 30 Arabs in the audience suddenly began screaming epithets: "dirty Jew," "death to the Jews."

Something is disturbingly amiss in the land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Deep fissures are again opening over race, religion, and national identity. Anti-Semitism, no stranger among the French, seems once more on the rise. And France must decide how it will integrate -- or not -- the 10% or so of its population whose background is Arab and Muslim.

Tensions have mounted for years. But they're now bursting into the open because of a draft law that would ban the Islamic head scarf and other "ostentatious" religious signs, such as the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses, in public schools. President Jacques Chirac had hoped the measure, which was approved in the National Assembly on Feb. 10 and is expected to sail through the Senate on Mar. 2, would reassert the primacy of secular values. Instead, it's adding to the perception among Muslims that the state is against them -- and fueling extremist groups such as the Muslim Party of France and its openly anti-Semitic leader, Mohamed Latreche. The controversy over religion and identity is also playing into the hands of the far-right National Front, which is seizing on Muslim resistance to further its own anti-immigrant agenda.

Chirac has taken courageous steps to open the closed world of France's governing elite to the sons and daughters of North African immigrants. By naming Muslims to prominent posts, he has acknowledged that "égalité" has left large swaths of the population behind. In January, Chirac appointed Aïssa Dermouche as a prefet -- the state's direct representative -- in eastern France. (Dermouche's car and workplace were then firebombed, and an explosive was left outside his children's school. It is widely assumed that the extreme right was responsible.)

But Chirac's efforts may be obscuring the real problem: that key pillars of the secular republic are cracking. For more than 130 years, governments nurtured an idea of Frenchness. All children learned the basics of French history, tradition, and reverence for the secular state through a famously centralized school system. The brightest went on to the universities, which produced first-rate civil servants who promoted the secular state in the next generation. The broad-based parties crafted a system of social benefits that cemented popular support.

And now? The school system is increasingly ill-adapted to the multicultural and multi-ethnic nation France has become. Underfunded universities are prompting an unprecedented brain drain. And the arrogance of the big political parties is alienating voters. A recent example is the government's support of former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, head of the ruling party, after his conviction on corruption charges.

With few public figures to respect, North African kids often figure they've nothing to lose if they join extremist movements. At the other end of the spectrum, plenty of native French are ready to ditch the old doctrines of moderation for something nastier. With regional elections due on Mar. 21 and 28, polls already are showing important gains for extremist parties -- and losses for the center-left and center-right coalitions that have long held the reins of power. Given the current climate in France, it's hard to be surprised -- and hard not to be discouraged.

By John Rossant

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