Commentary Magazine


France Now

To the Editor:

I cannot agree with Michel Gurfinkiel’s description of the present situation in France [“Can France Be Saved?,” May]. He is correct that the country is going through an economic slump and a political crisis, but his conclusions about societal decline and the specter of Islamization are unwarranted.

Contrary to what Mr. Gurfinkiel suggests, France is not a nest of Islamic terrorism. There may be a significant and growing number of Muslim citizens, but most of them do not share the vision of Islamism. They want to be integrated and get their share of the common welfare. French society, for its part, certainly has much to do to improve the process of assimilation. The 2005 riots in the banlieux gave the country a bad name on that score, but they can be likened to similar riots by disgruntled minorities in the U.S. and Great Britain. They require appropriate political answers, but they do not mean national collapse.

I must add a remark about the Jews. There was indeed an appalling outburst of anti-Semitism in France in 2002. But it was not part of a global wave of hatred against the Jews. The crimes that were committed were mostly confined to youths of Arab and African origin, and a large majority of the French felt ashamed of them. As for France’s support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, it is for the sake of peace. France definitely wants Israel’s existence and security to be safeguarded. We cannot forget what we owe to our Jewish thinkers, artists, and statesmen. Nor can we neglect the only democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy is likely to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The condition of decadence or national decline is one that has often been diagnosed by French thinkers, whether of the Right or the Left. One thinks of Ernest Renan after France’s defeat at the hand of Prussia in 1870, Marc Bloch in the wake of the Nazi occupation, and, more recently, Nicolas Baverez and Raymond Aron. But these writers were French patriots whose pessimism was not hopeless. By highlighting shortcomings and weaknesses, they were seeking new ways for the future. France today is not bound to decline, and Mr. Gurfinkiel should not wish it to.

Joël Mouric
Paris, France

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To the Editor:

Michel Gurfinkiel does an admirable job of describing France’s chronic problems. As he shows, the sacrosanct modèle social of the French elite has resulted in the quiet erosion of the country’s wealth, entrepreneurial verve, and greatness. Bureaucratic intrusion, confiscatory fiscal and tax policies, and inane laws (like the 35-hour work week) have led to a steady flight of human capital and the loss of France’s competitive edge.

These problems have been compounded by the social chaos of a seismic demographic shift. The French population is aging at the same time that the country is absorbing a growing wave of immigration, dominated by North African Muslim youths who have failed to integrate into mainstream society. Cultural and institutional resistance was the initial cause of this marginalization, but increasingly it is a matter of Islamic radicalization in the immigrant suburbs. With unemployment rates well over 20 percent and the consequent enormous burden on the social system, these banlieues are a tinder box that has been ignited.

I differ with Mr. Gur-finkiel, however, on the prospects for dealing with this dire picture. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy, with a record level of voter participation (more than 85 percent), offers a horizon of hope. The French have emerged from denial, and have embraced a new president who has dared to suggest the need for shock therapy.

“Sarko” is a focused, energetic leader, with a strong sense both of himself and of France’s destiny. His urgency and forthrightness have struck a deep chord with the French people. He has awakened their long-dormant optimism with a simple recipe for national revival: provide opportunity for all, reward hard work, and reaffirm the rule of law.

Within days of his taking office, Sarkozy assembled a cabinet of diverse, youthful, and dynamic ministers, breaking many historical taboos. He crossed party lines to seek out like-minded bold thinkers. Bernard Kouchner, his new foreign minister, is a former member of the Socialist party and a well-known liberal interventionist, having supported the Iraq war. Sarkozy appointed Rachida Dati as justice minister—a Muslim woman with enlightened values who is prepared to confront Muslim radicals. And his new finance minister is Christine Lagarde, an American-trained lawyer with free-market principles.

Sarkozy is intent on dismantling the false gods of the modèle social. He wants to open up work opportunities for all, cut taxes, and lure back the country’s vibrant expatriate community. An astute politician, he understands that this is the moment to exploit the weakness of the French Left and to challenge the fashionable multiculturalism that has undermined the core values of the Republic. Though a secularist himself, Sarkozy understands the value of family, faith, and patriotism. He is sympathetic to the hopes of immigrants, but equally resolute that they must speak French and swear allegiance to France.

In international matters, Sarkozy has already paved the way for France to reconnect with the United Kingdom and the United States. He is clear in his support for Israel and a free Lebanon, and recognizes the threat posed by Islamofascism and groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Unlike his predecessor, who embraced the likes of Putin, Mugabe, and Saddam Hussein, he also understands that if France is to command respect, it must resist the commercial temptations on which these relationships with tyrants previously flourished.

As a committed classical liberal, I am pleased that, with Sarkozy’s rise, the ideas of Schumpeter and Hayek have finally found a place in the evolution of French thought. I never thought I would be able to say it with such confidence, but the answer to Mr. Gurfinkiel’s question is, “Yes, of course, France can be saved.”

Robert F. Agostinelli
Paris, France

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Michel Gurfinkiel writes:

Joël Mouric “cannot agree with [my] description of the present situation in France,” and I am afraid I must say the same about his. He dismisses any concern about the Islamization of France—whatever the underlying demographic evidence—on the grounds that most French Muslim citizens “want to be integrated and get their share of the common welfare.” I do not doubt that this last part is true, but what Mr. Mouric fails to acknowledge is that many French Muslims want to be integrated on their own terms rather than as loyal citizens of the Republic.

As anyone who visits France can see, Islamic practice is on the rise: female Islamic dress is commonplace, Ramadan is observed publicly, and mosques are being built all over the country. Innocent enough developments, these. But here and there one also sees demands for changes in societal arrangements, such as for separating the sexes at public swimming pools or hospitals. More ominously, according to successive official reports, many imams preach disaffection from and contempt for French society, and many condone violence toward Christians and Jews.

The paradox of enjoying the benefits of a pluralist democracy while at the same time waging war against it is not one that overly troubles such imams and their followers. This situation is not a sign of societal health. Neither is the fact that it does not appear to have concentrated the minds of French elites. We should not forget that the terrorists who carried out the suicide attacks in London in 2005 and those who were involved in the failed attacks this past summer in Glasgow were prosperous citizens of Great Britain.

Mr. Mouric also fails to acknowledge that large-scale Islamic terror has already hit France. There was a first wave of street violence in Paris in the 1980’s that claimed many lives and that was connected to the secret service of the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the summer of 1995, major bombings in the Paris métro killed eight people and maimed 200, and an aborted attempt to blow up the TGV high-speed train, had it been successful, would have resulted in the deaths of dozens more.

I agree with Mr. Mouric that the anti-Jewish violence that rocked France from 2000 to 2002 was related to the jihadist mood prevalent among a turbulent and growing ethnic minority and was not “part of a global wave of hatred agains the Jews.” My article did not suggest otherwise. By contrast, the 2005 riots were a form of jihadist warfare directed against France as a whole and not just the Jews.

There is little I need say about Mr. Mouric’s remarks on France’s commitment to peace in the Middle East: his innocence about the attitude toward Jews of many Fifth Republic leaders, including Charles de Gaulle, and about the nature of French diplomacy toward Israel from de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac speaks for itself. Nor need I dwell on the curious distinction Mr. Mouric draws between “good” declinists like Ernest Renan et al. who presumably seek renewal and “bad” declinists (like myself?) who presumably rejoice in the nation’s downfall.

Robert F. Agostinelli stands closer to my view of the scene, but I wish I thought, as he does, that the crisis I described has been allayed thanks to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy. Whatever my own sympathy for the new president of France and his agenda, the problems he must address run deep, and it will take more than one man to resolve them.

Nor is it so clear that he is that man. With respect to foreign policy, for example, I have no doubt that Sarkozy, in sharp contrast to most of his recent predecessors, is a true friend of the United States (and of Israel). Nevertheless, he is not exactly what some have made of him. True, he appointed the very decent Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister. But by the same token he has struck a far-reaching deal with Muammar Qaddafi.

In brief, I believe that Sarkozy is more Blair than Thatcher, and has a greater talent for pragmatic, incremental adjustments than for the kind of drastic change that is needed.

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