France: A Referendum on National Identity

We may rely on some figures. According to Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union), metropolitan France was in 2011 the most immigration-oriented of all EU countries: 26.6% of its inhabitants were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. A similar figure is provided by Insee, the French National Institute of Statistics: they found that 23.9% of all babies born in metropolitan France in 2010 had at least one parent born outside of Europe, including the overseas French territories. Roughly speaking, this amounts to one quarter of the 63 million population, or about 15 million people.

Some 40% of the global immigrant community must be subtracted from these figures: the European, East Asian, or Latin American immigrants, as well as the Christian or Jewish refugees from the Middle East or North Africa, see themselves as French rather than as neo-French. On the other hand, the five million French citizens from overseas territories tend to identify with the neo-French and the post-Western project (overseas France voted overwhelmingly for Hollande on April 22). Which brings us back to 15 million.

By and large, this is a rapidly growing community. Its birthrate is much higher than the average French birthrate, and further immigration is constantly reinforcing it. Legal immigration only amounted to 180,000 individuals in 2011, which means that almost two million new citizens, most of them neo-French, might have aggregated to the French population as a whole by 2010. Illegal immigration is said to be as important, which would lead to a net immigration surplus of four million people, most of them neo-French. All in all, half the population of France writ large -- the younger half -- can be forecast to be neo-French at some point between 2020 and 2030.

While not all neo-French are Muslim (the French polity’s Muslim population amounts to less than 10 million people, and some French Muslims are in fact quite secular), militant Islam -- endowed as it is with a purpose, a will to power, networks, foreign money, and leverage -- is clearly the driving force behind the neo-French project. But what makes Islam irresistible is a tactical alliance with the left. In France, like everywhere, the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy has eroded the left’s largest voting blocks: the working class and the civil service. Immigrants and the so-called minorities are however providing an alternative and potentially more important constituency. Philosophers like Toni Negri, Michael Hardt, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek, as well as "anti-globalist" pamphleteers like Stéphane Hessel (a guru of the Occupy movement), have revamped the old Marxist topoi in order to make the switch palatable. The proletariat is known nowadays as the "Multitude," and the West as the "Empire." Jews, once the chosen people of the revolution, have been recast as Zionists, the spearhead of counter-revolution.

The killings in southern France a few weeks ago were a moment of truth in this respect. As one will remember, a neo-French jihadist of Algerian origin named Mohamed Merah murdered in cold blood three non-Caucasian soldiers (whom he saw as traitors) and then four Jews: a teacher and three children of 7, 5, and 4. For about 36 hours, there was some reason to believe that the killer was in fact a far-right extremist, similar to the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik. The left parties and various Muslim groups started organizing mass rallies against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia throughout France. When the killer’s identity was finally established, and when it appeared that the French Muslim community nurtured ambivalent feelings, if not sympathy, towards him, the whole idea was dropped. Some democratically minded Muslims, led by Hassen Chalghoumi, the mufti of Drancy in northern Paris, set up an anti-racist and anti-terrorist demonstration on April 29, the French national Shoah memorial day. They attracted less than one hundred followers.

In between the two presidential rounds, Nicolas Sarkozy constantly mentioned France’s national identity as one of his priorities. France, he said in Toulouse on April 29, "was twenty centuries old. ... It was the combined produce of Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the anti-Nazi resistance. ... It was the land of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Joan of Arc. ... It was keeping the memory of the Shoah and of the thousands of North African Muslims who had fought in its armies during WW2."

Clearly, he was wooing both Marine Le Pen’s and François Bayrou’s supporters, the key voters in the second round. But his words rang true.

Hollande has also undertaken winning at least some of Le Pen’s votes. During his debate with Sarkozy Wednesday evening, he repeatedly said that he would be as tough as anybody on immigration matters, and would uphold a strict separation between state and religion. He even said that his most controversial and most pro-immigration proposal -- granting electoral franchise to legal foreign residents in local ballots -- was not to be taken seriously, since it implied a complex and unlikely constitutional revision in the first place.

But such cynical short-term tactics cannot change that the long-term future of the left lies with the neo-French only.