The Crescent and the Tricolor

France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food

It may be in the fascistic National Front that the most surprising shift in attitudes toward Arabs has taken place. During the European elections of 1998 Samuel Maréchal, the party's director of communications (and son-in-law of its founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen), addressed what he called the "multi-denominational" aspect of France. The National Front, he said, would continue to battle against "clandestine" immigration and to back the deportation of new arrivals who were criminals, but it now favored reaching out to Islam. It would continue to oppose the foreign financing of mosques, but would be in favor of changing the law of 1905 in order to ensure French government funding for them. In fact, the National Front is "absolutely" in favor of Muslims' building mosques, so long as they're not "cathedral mosques," with minarets and other symbols on display in ways that might provoke other religions. When the National Front adjutant Bruno Mégret broke with Le Pen over this and other issues, the movement split in two.

At least that's the way a young Front spokesman named Thomas Lagane explained it to me, from his desk in Le Paquebot, the party's boat-shaped headquarters, which looms over the Seine in Saint-Cloud, just west of Paris. Lagane is a sort of immigrant himself, having been born in the Central African Republic, formerly a French colony, in 1968. With me he went even further than Maréchal has gone publicly, arguing that France's minorities should be flocking to the National Front. "It's wrong to say that France has a single unique culture," he said. "In fact, the National Front is the movement in France that best defends multiculturalism. Let me explain. In your country especially there is a sort of destructive cultural imperialism, a global standardization of behavior, consumption, habits of thought, economic philosophy, that is causing European peoples to lose their identity. In defending our national identity we are protecting difference against standardization. The Islamic people loses its identity through the same process. We hope Muslims keep their roots, and don't try to integrate at the expense of them."

Lagane admitted that globalization has its merits. He should: he wears a stylish tattersall shirt, smokes Marlboro Lights, and does his writing on a brand-new Macintosh G3 laptop. (In fact, he left the Front just weeks after our talk, to start his own dot-com company.)"We're not against globalization," he said. "We're against a globalism that destroys the family and the nation." Certainly the National Front has changed since the early 1980s, when it tried to mix Reagan-Thatcher capitalism with a vociferous opposition to the then-prevalent high levels of immigration. The turning point seems to have been the Gulf War, in 1991, even today a staple of Le Pen's oratory, after which the movement adopted a virulently anti-capitalist stance and began to rail against American "imperialism," both economic and cultural. The new National Front seems to view Arabs as natural allies in a struggle against globalism, which it has traditionally viewed as American and Jewish. The Front is not against Israel, Lagane said (rather implausibly), only against its role, in cooperation with America, as policeman in the Middle East; what's more, he was heartened that "the Jewish community is evolving: it's now less viscerally led by left-wing Jews." He sounded almost like an old-style anti-American in his assurances that "the National Front has no quarrel with the American people."

It's doubtful that we need fear a National Front foreign policy from France anytime soon. But there are disquieting signs all the same. Last February Lionel Jospin visited Jerusalem, where he described Hezbollah guerrilla actions as "terrorist attacks." The ensuing criticism from Arab countries was not as extraordinary as his abandonment by the French left, which had theretofore been urging Jospin to try harder to wrest control of France's foreign policy from President Chirac. The growing weight of the Arab vote in France may be leaving French politicians precious little foreign-policy leeway. If so, that would help to explain why Chirac was the only Western head of state to attend the funeral of the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, in June.

It's hard to say how much of France's new cosmopolitanism is due to immigration and how much simply to globalization. If there's a Zidane effect, there's also a Michael Jordan effect. "Today," says the political reporter Blandine Grosjean, of the daily national newspaper Libération, "assimilation means getting not a beret but a casquette américaine" -- as the French have come to call those cheap and omnipresent baseball caps. France has always been full of foreigners, but in the past they were foreigners intent on becoming French and joining the world's leading culture. Interest in foreign lands was a matter for elite scholars and exoticists. Now Paris is becoming more like New York -- the kind of place where one is always able to get good food from many cultures. It was apparent in France by the 1980s that North African couscous had outstripped both rice and potatoes as the country's favorite accompaniment to meat, to become, arguably, the national food of France. Whole streets all over Paris are lined with couscous shops.

Even France's Minister of Education, Jack Lang, who in the early 1980s, as François Mitterrand's first Minister of Culture, railed against the importation of American culture and English words, has mellowed on the issue. Sitting in his office on Place des Vosges, in the Marais district of Paris, Lang told me that he regrets having called France an exception culturelle back then. "Globalization doesn't have to mean uniformization," he said. Besides, he added, he delights in a lot of American culture. "I love rap, just as I love hip-hop and break dancing. C'est fantastique. And in crossing the Atlantic it's transformed." Lang understands the risk: that cultural tolerance will mean not a more inclusive French culture but a "contraband American culture." But for him, the imperatives of anti-racism seem to have overwhelmed those of nationalism. "What's at issue here," he said, "is not protecting a so-called 'purity' of French culture. It's ridiculous. Such a purity doesn't exist. That would be chauvinism, racism. I can't bear that."

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