France, Islam and the ‘spreading hatred’

There’s an area of French society bleak beyond any let’s-pretend action-plan or incantatory chorus about brotherhood.

The country’s existential problem of coming to terms with more than five million Muslims in its midst—and how these immigrants and citizens accommodate (or flout) French law and custom—is deepening into a new phase of what is described as intolerance, seeming incompatibility, and political polarization.

Minus the multi-syllabic wadding, reality says France is knee-deep in racial and religious nastiness. It is widely perceived at schools, in the metro and on the streets. And it precludes evasion.

New Year’s carbeque, 2014

“An unhealthy climate grows day after day in our country,” the leaders of four major religious denominations warned in a statement over the weekend. “It’s urgent to react and get a grip on ourselves.”

But the problem doesn’t go in a single direction. It involves a dissolving and disputed notion of French identity.
As real as discrimination against Muslims has become, researchers describe the growth of Muslim communities at the edges of large French cities that are developing parallel cultures. They are said to demand an allegiance to fundamentalist Islam, thus antagonizing the national majority’s notion of the French way of life.

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The result is a kind of double sense of victimization: Muslims are drawn by extremists into a rage about “Islamophobia,” while poor whites are lured toward the hard right with promises of understanding and protection by the National Front.

Ultimately, France can handle its tribulations with big deficits, low competitiveness and tardiness in meeting European Union fiscal-consolidation targets. But the EU has no extensions to offer for a clash of civilizations that exemplifies Europe-wide concerns.

When Prime Minister Manuel Valls took office March 31, as the head of a new government he was confronted with an alarmed official report on the decline of French tolerance. The report found an increase in tension in national life focused on “Arab Muslims,” who, it said, are perceived as being involved in criminality, taking advantage of the welfare system, refusing to respect the supremacy of the secular rules of the French state, and pressing aggressive religious practices.

The findings of the report from the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights were brutal. The commission’s poll found that 68% of respondents regard integration’s failure as the fault of the newcomers; 74% said they think there are “too many” immigrants in France; and 77% believe these immigrants are in France solely for its welfare benefits.

At the same time, in a book published last week titled “Passion Française,” Gilles Kepel, an Arabist and academic respected for his studies over 25 years of France’s Islamic communities, concentrated on what he called a new element moving at “lightning speed” into the identity equation. Mr. Kepel writes that the marked presence of Salafists, or Muslim puritans, in certain communities signals “a rupture in values with French society, a will to subvert it morally and juridically.” Mr. Kepel also describes public services in areas of Marseille as falling into the hands of local drug-dealing bosses.

All this creates an enormous challenge for Mr. Valls, who had previously dealt directly with the issue as interior minister. In appointing him as prime minister, President François Hollande chose a more popular Socialist and probable future rival, admired for his energy and combativeness—and a man portrayed as regarding the president as reluctant to engage on volatile issues such as security, immigration and Islam.

So the field of initiative is open for both Mr. Valls and for more determination. Still, because of the accompanying electoral risks, no one in a French government has ever attempted to install a national affirmative-action program favoring Muslim integration or a zero-tolerance police campaign aimed at reassuring the white majority. The new prime minister is unlikely to take either step.

As a candidate, former President Nicolas Sarkozy promised affirmative action but dropped it once on the job—just as Mr. Valls in 2011 called for an end to the 35-hour French workweek, then backed off.

All the same, Mr. Valls can be true to the spirit of what he has said concerning “Islamophobia” not being a legitimate complaint, but rather a concept employed by Islamic fundamentalists to make Muslims in France feel victimized by the state.

He can also proceed with the frank views he’s previously expressed on the presence of Roma in France: “These people have ways of life extremely different from ours which are in obvious confrontation” with the local population, Mr. Valls said last year. Fitting the Roma into France, he added, was “illusory.”

On the other hand, there is the business of staying in office, including through the European parliamentary elections in May. A Socialist prime minister must note that French Muslims who voted at an 86% rate for Mr. Hollande in 2012 turned away from the party in municipal elections last month.

Muslims who contributed to the Socialists’ drubbing exposed the additional and difficult-to-resolve electoral concern for the party in its advocacy of gay marriage. The new prime minister is a supporter.

So where does all that leave Manuel Valls, the politician? What does he do—and soon—about the appeal from the four religious leaders, which points to the “spreading hatred” that “threatens the unity of our country”?

Mr. Valls is genuinely smart and capable. But he has never gotten more specific about how to systematically extract this hatred than his September 2012 promise, as interior minister, that “the Republic will be intransigent with anyone who seeks to challenge it.”

Explanation please? Answer: obfuscation. In his first policy speech as prime minister last week, Mr. Valls issued this substanceless gush: “France, yes, has the arrogance to believe that what is done here has value for the rest of the world. This famous ‘French arrogance’ that our neighbors often attribute to us is in fact the enormous generosity of a country that wants to surpass itself.”

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Looks like diversity is not France’s strength.

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