Saturday, November 12, 2005

An Interesting Question

Craig Smith, writing in the NY Times, wonders "What Makes Someone French?"

That, in a nutshell, is what lies at the heart of the unrest that has swept France in the past two weeks: millions of French citizens, whether immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, feel rejected by traditional French society, which has resisted adjusting a vision of itself forged in fires of the French Revolution. The concept of French identity remains rooted deep in the country's centuries-old culture, and a significant portion of the population has yet to accept the increasingly multiethnic makeup of the nation. Put simply, being French, for many people, remains a baguette-and-beret affair.

Though many countries aspire to ensure equality among their citizens and fall short, the case is complicated in France by a secular ideal that refuses to recognize ethnic and religious differences in the public domain. All citizens are French, end of story, the government insists, a lofty position that, nonetheless, has allowed discrimination to thrive.

He is looking at this, obviously, in a very serious vein, despite the almost open invitation for comedic thoughts brought on by the title. Despite speaking French, being born in France, growing up in France and calling France home many are subject to racist and discriminatory efforts to marginalize them as less than French.

There is a problem, obviously, but both of the groups involved share it. The problem is one of willingness to assimilate by one party, and willingness to allow assimilation by the other.

A multicultural model that can survive will require that the immigrant groups, who bring their culture with them, be willing to forfeit enough of that culture and identity to truly embrace their new identity, their new home. They need to take joy and pride in working and thriving in that new environment, much as Italians and Irish and Vietnamese and the myriad of other ingredients in the American melting pot did, and still do, upon their arrival.

Similarly, the nationalist population needs to be willing to allow full incorporation of that group in the life and customs of the nation. If the new group takes pride in being French, puts the needs of France above their homeland, and works to make France a better place for all Frenchmen, then they should have earned the rights, respect and acceptance of their French peers.

In France, obviously, and to a lesser extent in America, there are groups and individuals that continue to set themselves apart, either through their actions, or through their expectations. We see now the large Muslim community in France feeling isolated. Certainly there may be an element that is part of the Islamic terrorist ideal, but many are disenfranchised youth, partly unwilling, partly unaccepted participants in France.

Mr. Smith writes above that part of the problem may be that the public face of France does not acknowledge these separate groups. I think that may be an advantage, in that the face of the government considers all citizens fully French, without distinction. The community reality, unfortunately, is obviously different. Does the nation benefit if the population is balkanized, with different considerations for each different group, in order to then assimilate? I don't know.

What I do know is that that group-think and group identity has not helped the groups that pursue it in America. Race warriors, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have alienated as many or more Americans than they've positively influenced with their constant calls for race -conscious solutions. Considering that such solutions have never been seen by the warriors to be sufficient there is a legitimate question to be asked: What is the endpoint?

In America, as in France, the goal is a population of citizens who takes pride in being American, or French. We want ... no ... need citizens who put their nation first, above their group identity. We need citizens who are willing to work, think, act, live as Americans, or French, first and foremost. We need a population who does not look differently at citizens who make that commitment. And we need a government that recognizes and differentiates not at all based on race, national origin, religion or gender between any citizens. We need a government that leads the people by eschewing excessive consiousness of these differences.

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