The burger fuss is of course just the latest manifestation of anxiety over what is perceived to be an assertive Muslim population. The sense of threat lies behind the popular steps to outlaw the full Muslim veil on transport, universities and other state-run services. It also fuelled Sarkozy's four-month great national debate on the nature of French identity. The exercise was called off this month after focusing only the six-million Muslims in France's midst.
(...) The opponents of Quick fastfood and Muslim veils draw on high-minded principles which go back to the equality of the 1789 Revolution and the Republic's more recent principle of laicité, the strict separation of religion from public life.
These "valeurs de la République" are cited by leftists and intellectuals as well as rightwing politicians to deplore the more visible practices of Islam. The argument is that religious behaviour outside the mainstream culture amounts to an act of separateness and should be discouraged (For the ideal of the mainstream, see yesterday's post on white Marianne, symbol of the Revolution). By setting themselves apart from traditional French life, Muslims are being "identitaire" and committing "communautarisme". Equivalent to sectarianism, this means putting one's ethnic or religious identity ahead of Frenchness.
Britain and the United States, with their supposed ghettos, are seen as examples of the ill. Anne Fulda commenting in today's Le Figaro, complained that France has imported communautarisme from the United States along with hamburgers and now it is too late to stop it.
The problem is that the sin of communautarisme has a flexible definition. That is what makes it dubious when applied to Muslims. With France's record in world war two, no-one would publicly accuse the Jewish population of communautarisme, let alone complain to prosecutors. No-one protests against kosher restaurants -- or says Chinese or Italian ones discriminate because they do not offer French cuisine. Try substituting kosher for halal in the complaints over Quick burgers and the effect is offensive.
One of the problems is that France has already americanized on the question of race, religion, and society for it is indeed ghettorized. There are parts of Paris, Marseilles, or Lyon where only members of a "community" and where they do so trying to recreate not only the atmosphere, but the norms of the place that they or their parents left behind. At the crux of the issue is that France no longer has a workable integration model and that instead of accepting and creating a new one, the French elites and bien pensants are improvising according to their ideology, which means either importing parts of the American/British model or trying the impossible by reverting to the "assimilating" one that worked when there were no visible differences between new and old France. It is for that reason that I am one of the very few people who regret that the debate on French identity was a failure. I had believed that it could have been useful not in defining what it means to be French, but to find common ground on the limits of tolerance and at the very least to make once again essential the principle that not citizenship is about both rights and inescapable obligations.