The Crescent and the Tricolor

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

France operates under constitutional traditions that cause it to move much more cautiously than the United States in fixing racial disparities. It's the Interior Minister who is charged with ensuring harmony among citizens, and every Interior Minister of the 1990s has had an Islam policy. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the Interior Minister from 1997 until his resignation in late August, went further than most. An ideological man, systematic in a way that is pleasing to the French, Chevènement broke with Mitterrand when the latter turned right on economics in the early 1980s. His initiative on Islam, which was signed with the support of four Islamic federations, was firmly grounded in the very French idea of citoyenneté. Literally, that's just "citizenship," but it's a more concrete idea in France than in the United States. It carries associations with voting rights, civic participation, cultural assimilation, and absolute equality under the law.

Chevènement tailored his initiative so that it answered at least some of the questions everyone was asking. Along with Claude Allègre, the former Minister of Education, he called for the creation of an Institute of Islamic Studies. This institute would help to create a political lobbying organization among France's disparate and contentious Muslim subpopulations, along the lines of the country's long-standing Protestant Federation. Chevènement urged extending voting rights for noncitizens who have been resident in France for ten years, calling it merely a necessary consequence of the Maastricht agreement that brought France into the European Union. Parts of the initiative will prove to be either gimmicks or brilliant ways of finding loopholes in the 1905 law that France now finds cumbersome. Typical is a tax on halal meat to fund mosques. And in a way that would have quelled the National Front's fears of looming minarets, Chevènement asked Muslims to "integrate the construction of their mosques into the landscape of our cities."

The person responsible for coordinating Chevènement's policies among ministries for much of his tenure was Patrick Quinqueton, a longtime politician in the Movement of Citizens party. Quinqueton, now a high-ranking official in France's National Police, is a straight shooter with a scholarly bearing and an Abe Lincoln beard. He has long hoped that Chevènement's idea of "citizenship" will cure a lot of ills. "It used to be that access to French nationality was simple," Quinqueton told me last year at the Interior Ministry. He was referring to the short residency requirements -- relative to those in other European countries -- for settlers seeking French citizenship. "But access to society didn't follow as simply. These [second-generation] young people are today the object of discrimination, in work and in housing -- not always as the result of racism." That sounds like a very fine distinction, but he explained: "You can't call this discrimination against immigrants, because in fact they're not immigrants at all. What we look for is access to citoyenneté."

Quinqueton rejected affirmative action out of hand. "Thinking about these issues poses that question immediately," he told me. "But we've made the choice not to install such a system. Absolutely not. France's political and social system -- very much attached to the principle of equality -- wouldn't accept it. Whatever gives the impression that positions are getting handed out on some basis other than merit winds up shocking people. It provokes other sorts of problems." Yet Quinqueton made the Clintonlike stipulation that the police, for instance, should "look like their communities."

The French state will be under increasing pressure to institute something like affirmative action, even if it comes under a different name. Last May, on the eve of a "black peoples' march" demanding, among other things, more representation in the media, the Minister of Communications, Catherine Tasca, ordered two national television stations, France 2 and France 3, to "more fully take into consideration the diversity of the French population." The French constitutional provision against advancing racial groups seems to be weakening. Although hard quotas are out, soft quotas have arrived, bringing with them a paradox: there is no government program more American than affirmative action, and Americanization is something that everyone in the society -- from Socialists to conservatives, from Communists to the National Front -- professes to dread.

The big problem is finding a way for the state to respect different religions and cultures without turning itself into an engine of de-assimilation. Fortunately or unfortunately, this problem is new to Europe, and the model for all such racial reconciliations tends to be the one that came out of the American civil-rights movement. Nouredine Hagoug says, "The cardinal mistake was to think of immigration uniquely as an importing of labor. That is, not to consider that these were also human beings, forming families and bringing children into the world. And these things manifestly weren't thought out. A policy built around low-qualification, low-pay labor may have been a good one in the 1970s. But now France is discovering that what it thought of as merchandise turns out to be human beings."

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Christopher Caldwell is the senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for New York Press. He writes regularly on books for Slate.

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