Au nom de l’identite/In the Name of Identity

March 21, 2012

The latest update out of Toulouse, France, where a rabbi,  his two kids, and another child were killed by a gunman firing at a Jewish school is that the shooter is a 24-year-old Algerian-Frenchman.  A stand-off ensued after this man was identified as the suspect, with him claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda as French SWAT teams surround his house.

The background to this horrific event — the failure of the French state and society to fully integrate North African migrants into the national fabric — seems to have gotten lost in the anxiety over the financial crisis and cohesion at the EU level.   “Frenchness” has always been very narrowly defined.  After all, a thousand years ago the Frankish kingdom of Charlemange and Pippin coalesced into arguably continental Europe’s first nation state, one based then and now on two things, the twin markers of classic ethnic identity: common language and common religion.  Race — such a comparatively modern construction!–never entered the formula as such.  If French was your native tongue and Roman Catholicism your religion, well, what else could you be but white in the shade of a Parisian?

At least, this was the ideological line of French nationalism — France has never been as homogeneous as the rest of Europe or eventually the world was led to believe.  Linguistically: Bretons, the Basque, and Corsicans.  Religiously, Hueguenots and Jews, many Sephardic, descendents of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

The tolerance of liberte, equalite, fraternite has papered over that diversity for centuries.  France has been like Kemalist Turkey in that regard: there is one national identity, one way to be a Turkish national or a French national.   Speak Breton or Kurdish? You’re doing it wrong.  Observe Christianity or Islam or (heavens!) something else too passionately or overtly for  the careful civic secularism of the state?  You’re doing it wrong.

So besides the violent and obviously criminal nature of this shooting, it’s crossing several red lines for the French: ethnic Algerian young man (we’ll see how good his French is when they finally get him)  claiming allegiance to an organization whose goal is an Islamic caliphate, targeting an institution of the group he’s been radicalized to despise yet has been able under French nationalist ideology to make something of a place for itself.   These sorts of sectarian-based hatreds are supposed to be beyond the French.  Allegedly.  All that has led to, however, are Algerian-majority slums whose existence is ignored and whose youth are easily radicalized.  To Israel making noises about the handling of the whole thing.  To a France whose hypocrisy on the European and world stages is increasingly grating.

It’s not the wisest way to manage the aftermath of empire.  Or to manage identity in the 21st century.


Hat tip to Amin Maalouf.