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Frenchness 101

It is dawning on Europe at last that if a state is to survive, citizenship must mean something more than an aggregate of tribal affiliations. All that “land of the free and home of the brave” stuff is, perhaps, starting to look less like jingoism and more like a sound sense of national identity. With France’s occasional Muslim riots morphing into a steady Muslim boil, the French are beginning to wonder about this thing called immigration—why is it becoming the French nightmare if it has been so integral to the American dream?

Isolated in squalid quartiers sensibles or touchy neighborhoods, France’s Muslim immigrant communities are becoming an increasingly insular state within a state. Following their homelands’ mores and customs, the only needs these homogeneous communities have of larger France are the ample state benefits doled out,  no questions asked. In what feels like an emergency measure, France has decided to foster the idea of citizenship in these religious and cultural enclaves: the French government has just launched a program to train its Muslim clerics in Frenchness. The first class of 25 began meeting at the Catholic Institute of Paris in January. The program’s director, Olivier Bobineau, says he wants students to better comprehend the values and rules of France, particularly in regard to the relationship between religion and politics. In some cases, foreign-born clerics don’t even know how to speak French. (This, too, would presumably be addressed.)

Well, triage is a French word; perhaps they can start there. But then what? What do you do if, at the end of the day, being French means . . . being French? What enduring principle can these instructors point to as an ideological foundation for French citizenship? The French have made indispensable contributions to ideas and art, but how does that translate into a practical vision of statehood? Is there even a consistent direction in which French history moves, so that one can speak of an ideal not yet attained? Since 1776, France has done repeated stints as a monarchy, a republic, an empire, and once, a puppet regime of neighboring fascists. More recently, it has teetered on the brink of fuzzy socialism. (For all the talk about America’s youth as a country, it is the oldest existing democracy on the planet.)

Another problem is that citizenship is not a top-down proposal. France cannot redefine by fiat the motives of those who have already taken up residence inside her borders. Having come to France to be paid isolates, these immigrants will not suddenly wish to emulate Pascal or Voltaire because of a government-sponsored class. Any step towards bringing France’s Muslims into the fold has to begin much further upstream, with a clear definition of what France hopes to be and with a better understanding of what prospective immigrants expect to contribute to this vision.


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