This article originally appeared in the September 28, 1985, issue, as a “Letter From Europe.”
Racism and xenophobia have raised their ugly heads again in France. As I wrote in my last letter, this development explains the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultrarightist National Front, who charges that the “invasion” of immigrants has passed the “threshold of tolerance.”
In reality, the proportion of foreigners on French soil is about the same as it was in 1931, when they made up 6.6 percent of the population. Immediately after World War II the number of foreigners dropped, and it was during the 1960s that our “white niggers” were imported as a temporary work force to fuel France’s (and Western Europe’s) “economic miracle.” These people took the dirty, monotonous, low-paying jobs, allowing native-born workers to climb to better ones. By the time the economic downturn came, in the 1970s, the temporaries were here to stay. Between 1962 and 1982 the proportion of foreigners in the population rose from 4.7 percent to 6.8 percent. The largest gain, however, was registered by North Africans, who went from 0.9 percent to 2.6 percent.
The latter increase is what has aroused Le Pen and his supporters. France can absorb Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese, but not North Africans, whose manners, customs and religion are dissimilar from those of the French. Ironically the same objections were leveled against Jewish immigrants before World War II. But the point should not be overstated. There are several times as many North Africans as there were Jews before the war, and in a country as centralized as France this creates the need for much greater tolerance.
The Jacobin tradition is still strong in France. Black schoolchildren in the African colonies used to recite the same lesson as Parisian kids: “Our ancestors the Gauls had blue eyes and blond hair. ” This centralizing tradition was particularly strong on the left, which only in the last fifteen years or so has recognized a right to be different for Bretons or Corsicans, let alone for Arabs.
The problem should not be exaggerated, however. Although not a melting pot like the United States, France contains a rich mixture of ethnic groups, by European standards. If you go back three generations, some ten million French people, roughly one-fifth of the population, are of foreign origin. France has a tremendous capacity for assimilation, and it would be surprising if it did not manage to swallow the latest wave. The current tensions result directly from high unemployment and indirectly from the left’s failure for many years to perform its function as the principled enemy of every form of racial discrimination.
The Communists, proclaiming on their banners that workers of all lands should unite, did little to fight against the prevailing racial and national prejudices in the French working class. Indeed, at one point they pandered to these prejudices. In December 1980, the Communist municipal council in Vitry threatened to bulldoze a hostel for black immigrants, saying it should be relocated to another district. The party has since expressed regrets over its policy and, at least verbally, has altered its line, but in this area the damage done is not easily repaired.