Bad Politics

Racial prejudice in France, each time it manifests, is generally expressed under guise of secularism or laïcité. We’ve got nothing against Muslims – runs the argument, which can come from the left or the right – we just don’t believe that religion has a place in the identity of the French nation.

The public debate launched by Nicolas Sarkozy on November 2nd last year on the subject of ‘L’Identite Nationale’ was a misguided manoeuvre designed, at least in part, to purloin votes from the far right. It backfired, of course, mainly because there is a structural paradox inherent in French culture that makes it impossible to have a measured debate on this issue. Frenchness, since the Revolution, is supposed to be rooted in the so-called universal values of The Enlightenment, which include such vaguaries as the individual before the state, reason before custom. The result is that for most French people Frenchness can only really be defined by its opposite: i.e. being French means not being English or worse, American, or even worse, Romany or Muslim.

With this in mind it is not hard to understand why a recent poll attempting to assess attitudes towards Muslims in France and Germany, found that a staggering 42% of French people believe that “the presence of a Muslim community in France represents a threat to the nation.”

Consequently, most people know that when Nicolas Sarkozy waves the flag of anti-Arab sentiment, he is trying to control his plummeting popularity. It often works – for a moment, as it did last December when he condoned the Swiss ban on minarets and at the close of the year when he confirmed his intention vigorously to enforce the law banning the burka.

President Sarkozy has invited Abderrahmane Dahmane – President of the not-very-representative association, the Council of Democratic Muslims of France – to be his ‘advisor’ on the unpopular practice of praying to Mecca in the streets. The shortage of mosques means that it is not unusual in certain areas of northern Paris on a Friday afternoon, to see a street lined with kneeling men, their discarded shoes, lying neatly in the gutter behind them. In raising this issue again, only weeks after Marine Le Pen publicly compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi Occupation, Sarkozy is once again pandering to the extreme right.

Recession tends to bring out this uglier side of French politics. For that is what anti-Muslim prejudice is in France – an ugly political consensus which frequently uses Marine Le Pen’s extremist outbursts as a cache-sexe for its own intractable bigotry.


6 thoughts on “Bad Politics

  1. Hi Lucy,

    It saddens me also to see the racist effects of the recession on French society. While I think this problem is a universal – the ugliest sides of human nature and societies come out when money gets tight – you articulated it very well for France’s case.
    It gets so complex and twisted in the press, it’s not easy to follow even for those of us who speak French.
    I think you should read the papers more often! The way you cut to the chase is doing us all a favor!


  2. Hello Lucy

    I’m a 20 year old English girl spending a year in Paris as part of my degree, fascinated by the myriad differences between our two cultures. I stumbled on your book yesterday in Shakespeare & Co and spent two hours reading nearly all of it (“Sex Dwarves and the Patriarchy” has to be the best chapter title of any book I’ve ever read!) and I absolutely adore it, I would have bought a copy but it was in the library section (and I have no money).

    While my experience so far doesn’t begin to compare with yours in terms of cultural immersion, so many of the things you wrote about made sense to me, and lead me to reflect further on the many, many differences between Britain and France. I love your theorising on the relative differences between Catholic and Protestant cultures, and I agree with your theory that in so many ways the two countries are opposites. Where we have irony, the French have charisma, and it’s taken me 5 months of living here to rid the majority of my communication of the varying levels of irony present, I think, in the majority of English conversation. If it’s harder than I thought at first to really integrate here, then the cultural differences are even more fascinating than I thought at first.

    I hope you don’t mind that I’ve paraphrased some of your ideas for a blog I write; its audience is comprised entirely of my family and friends. I’ve mentioned you and I’ll link back to here as well. I find it really hard to try and explain to people back home (especially my parents who had never visited France before I came here, nor lived anywhere but our home down) just how differing the world views of these two countries are, but hopefully the inspiration your book has given me will allow me to communicate some simplistic analysis.

    Oh, I also just read the Daily Mail write-up where they put their own words into a first-person narrative; it was bizarre. As you said yourself, perhaps that it the ultimate example of Protestant prurience; that your measured and mature look at French libertinage became, in the mouth of a DM reporter, “Lucy, 44, a writer, was about to step onto a sexual merry-go-round where casual adultery was the norm”, with that usual tone of shocked judgement and titillation.

    Thanks for an excellent read, I really will buy the book at some point.


  3. Eden

    Thank you for being so polite and asking me before using material from the book for your blog. You are a rare species indeed!

    Thank you too for picking up on the sensationalist slant of the Daily Mail “interview”. What a strange experience that was. In fact I could write an appendix on the nature of the saucy spin the book was given by the UK press on publication. My ex-husband, Laurent was appalled by the way he was portrayed in the newspapers (as a kind of dirty old man) and he began to wonder if the manuscript I had shown him was indeed the one I had published. Thankfully, I was able to reassure him but the scale of the ooh la la factor really took me by surprise. Which just goes to show how much this culture has changed me.

    What, by the way, is the name of your blog?

    Enjoy Paris and take care of yourself,


  4. How silly of me, I didn’t include a link to the blog.

    It’s here–>

    At the moment, I keep posting lots of photos as I’m not sure what to write about. It’s hard to pitch at an audience that includes fellow assistants, my only French friend (there are many things I love about Parisians; their open-armed friendliness isn’t one of them), random university friends, parents, grandparents and now a published author! But Paris has provided more inspiration for a blog than I ever thought possible.


  5. I don’t think this is at all a uniquely French problem. What you may see in France is that the political class is a bit more ready to exploit this – partly as a result of a more responsive voting system that does not allow politicians to totally ignore what their voters think, as in Britain. That this produces a deplorable polity (at least as far as we modishly leftish/liberal sorts are concerned), is a price of democracy. That’s how it is. Nothing much to add, is there?

    In the sovereign and serene barony that I have declared in my corner of the hexagon, I have discovered that in France it is better to be a monarchist, while in the UK I remain a firm Republican.

  6. Hi Lucy. You’re a good read; pertinent, smart, insightful and incisive.

    I would like to set forth my disagreement on the following comment: “[…]for most French people Frenchness can only really be defined by its opposite: i.e. being French means not being English or worse, American, or even worse, Romany or Muslim.” I suggest otherwise and that in fact is the dream Anglo-Saxons want so hard to promote as reality, even as it is true Anglo-culture is indeed dominant in so many areas.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed, the French are by and large more deeply introspective than Anglos, and American superficiality in particular. It is an extension of this perpetual self-analysis in conjunction with Anglo cultural dominance and Globalization that ultimately prompts the French to compare themselves and their inner-workings, resulting in the affirmation they are not Anglo. It is simply a statement of fact, not a root definition.

    In 50-100 years, when possibly the Chinese are universally dominant, we will be viewed as defining ourselves in contrast to them?

    Best regards,
    Christian de la Pointe

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