Thursday, December 10, 2015

Memories of Xenophobia: What I Learned About Christians, Jews & Muslims in Provence

by Francesca Rheannon

The Jews

“McDO, that's a Jewish business,” my host Michel said contemptuously. I was staying with him and his wife, the lovely Marie-Jo in Apt, an ancient Gallic-Roman city in the south of France. The year was 2002 and I was in Provence to gather research on a book. 

The couple had generously opened their home to me, someone they barely knew, and we had quickly become fast friends. Michel was a private chef; his wife was a nurse who was taking leave from her job to care for her elderly invalid mother who lived next door.

Michel had not always been a chef. He was a man of many sides and a checkered past. He didn’t fit easily into any categories. For one, he had spent close to a decade in prison during his youth. The details were never really forthcoming, but it had something to do with underworld gangs in Marseilles. He would have looked the part, too, with his street tough’s body, all barreled and bandy-legged, were it not for his warmth and ebullient nature.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard him place the adjective “Jewish” next to a subject of opprobrium. Over the past two days, he had excoriated the “Juifs” in Israel and noted that someone who had charged him too much money for a service was a Jew. Now this. 

Michel is a man of contradictions; he can cleave tenaciously to odious ideas — ideas that go utterly counter to his generosity of spirit. The moment had come to challenge them.

How is that?” I asked. “Monsieur Kroc, he’s a Jew,” he answered, as if informing me of the obvious.  

Was this true? I wondered briefly to myself. Then I remembered with a Homer Simpson dope slap that it didn’t matter. “You know, most big corporations are headed by Christians, but nobody accuses them of being ‘Christian businesses’,” I said mildly, and walked out of the room, too rattled to pursue the subject. But I resolved to pick up the issue at a later time, soon.  

That evening, as we basked in post-dinner bonhomie, mellowed by a good rouge from a local vineyard, I thought the time might be ripe. I took up the question of Israel, since I knew it was one on which Michel and I had some agreement. 

“You know, ‘Israel’ and the ‘Jews’ is not necessarily the same thing,” I began. “There are many Jews, both inside and outside of Israel, who are against Israeli policy and the occupation. It’s not a simple issue, and there’s right and wrong, and terrorism, on both sides. Israel has a right to exist — and its creation was a response to the extermination of the Jews in Europe.” 

Michel pulled on his Gaulois thoughtfully for a moment.  “You're right,” he said. We’d made it to first base, but he wasn’t off the hook. 

“Why does there seem to be so much anti-Semitism in Europe?” I pressed on. I waited through another silence. Michel sighed. 

“I think it is because we feel guilty,” he responded quietly. “We feel guilty for the Holocaust. There were many here in France who did nothing, who let the Jews be taken away to the gas chambers. The Vichy government gave the Nazis a cadeau, a gift: the list of all the Jews registered in France. And we all share in that shame.”   

Jews In Provence: Early Times

The history of the Jews in France is complex. On the one hand, expulsions beginning in the twelfth century, pogroms, and show trials like the Dreyfuss Affair attest to a long history of persecution that ranged from the horrific to the merely shameful. 

On the other hand, the French Revolution established the equality of Jews as citizens under French law, abolishing forever their separation from the rest of society (except for the years 1940 –1945, under the German Occupation and Vichy). The new republic was the first European government to do so.

In Provence, the story is even more contradictory, with welcome (or at least tolerance) and rejection playing out over different areas and times. Jews first came to Provence, then part of the Roman province of Gaul, sometime in the first century C.E. Two cataclysmic events propelled them from the Holy Land: the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the fall of Masada. 

Julius Caesar had guaranteed Jews their liberty, so those who came to settle in Gaul had the status of Roman citizens. Many set down roots in Provence, often coming in through the port of Marseille. Archeological evidence of their immigration at that time exists—an oil lamp tentatively dated to that time was found near Orgon and resides today in the Jewish Museum in Cavaillon. 

The region again became a refuge when English Jews fled to Provence in the thirteenth century. And over the next hundred years, conditions deteriorated for France’s Jews, culminating in their expulsion in 1394. At that time, Provence was not French but part of the larger region where the “Langue d’Oc” was spoken. The Papacy took over a portion of the region in 1305 when the Pope moved to Avignon. 

Jews settled in various cities of the region: first of all in Carpentras, where the Pope sent them, then spreading south and east to Salon de Provence (where Nostradamus, a converted Jew, lived) and the towns bordering the Calavon River: Cavaillon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and Apt (where Michel lives.) 

They practiced a wide variety of trades, particularly wine growing along the banks of the Rhone. They were farmers and diplomats, scribes and translators, as well as traders and moneylenders. But the Black Death decimated their communities, as it did all Provence. The general social crisis brought on by the plague led to attacks on many Jewish communities, especially those in Haute Provence, including Manosque, Digne, and Forcalquier.

Jews In Provence: The Middle Ages

In the fourteenth century, Jews from northern Spain (Catalonia) found refuge in Arles and Tarascon, but in the fifteenth they were brutally expelled from those cities. In 1348, Pope Clement VI invited them to settle around his palace in Avignon and in the Comtat Venaissin, that area of Provence that was under the papal jurisdiction and today makes up part of the Vaucluse. 

They had the right to practice their religion and live in peace, but they paid for that right in the coin of heavy taxes to the Pope’s treasury. And they were marked: required to wear a badge, or “rouelle”, that identified them as Jews. 

Jewish immigrants to southern France brought a wealth of literature and knowledge with them, stemming from the lively cross-fertilization of Hebrew, Christian and Muslim thinking and discovery. A tradition of Jewish/Arab learning existed in Provence at least since the twelfth century and possibly before that. 

Preserving Europe’s Classical Heritage 

From the fall of Rome until the Crusades, the focal point of civilization had lain eastward at Byzantium and Baghdad (the latter was the largest city in the world by 800 AD, with two million inhabitants), while, other than Muslim Spain, Western Europe muddled along as a barbarian backwater. 

Had it not been for its Jews and Arabs, Europe may well have remained an underdeveloped hinterland down to the present time, mired in poverty and subject to a foreign overlord from some more advanced realm. The Arabs preserved the wisdom of Europe’s own ancients and the Jews subsequently re-introduced it to the continent. In al-Andalus, as the Arabs called their Spanish territory, Muslim, Christian and Jew were engaged in lively mercantile and intellectual congress. 

There, Christians could read Arabic translations of works held in Baghdad’s great libraries: Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac manuscripts, without which the progress of Western science and philosophy would have been greatly retarded — if not impossible. 

And it was above all the Jews who rendered those and other ancient manuscripts from Arabic into Hebrew and Latin, making them accessible to the churchmen and sages of medieval and Renaissance Europe. During the high Middle Ages, Provençal Jews translated philosophical, mathematical, medical and scientific texts of Muslim sages such as Avicenna and Averroes into Hebrew. In this, they were in some sense intermediaries between the two great opponents, Christians and Muslims. 

Provence was also a center of Kabbalistic philosophy; the first compilation of Kabbalist thought, the Book of Brightness, was brought together there in the last decades of the twelfth century. A picture emerges of a thriving and vital Jewish community in Provence until the early decades of the sixteenth century.


In 1524, the long period of relative refuge began to erode. Driven out of the rest of Provence, the Jews of the Comtat Venaissin were confined within a ghetto, their houses restricted to one street, the carreiro, running between gates at both ends that were locked each night, sealing in the inhabitants. Medicine and wine production, two trades at which the Jews of Provence had excelled, were closed to them. 

Indeed, they were banned from all professions except moneylending and selling used clothes and furniture. They were forced to wear a prominent yellow marker identifying them as Jews—yellow hats for the men, scraps of yellow cloth for the women. 

In 1484, Provence was annexed by France and the pace of persecution stepped up. Relations with Christians deteriorated as the social isolation and stigmatization of the Jews grew. The Jewish community was besieged by poverty, forcible attempts at conversion, overcrowding, and violence. 

A pogrom in Marseilles resulted in a wholesale exodus of Jews from that city; others occurred in Manosque, Digne, and Salon de Provence. In 1624, Jews were restricted to the four towns of Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Many Jews left the region entirely, emigrating to Italy, northern Africa and the Balkans.


The tide began to turn again in the eighteenth century. Jewish communities experienced a revival of fortunes that accelerated when they won civil equality under the French Revolution. But two centuries later, the Jews of Provence lost their civil rights once again, thanks to the collaborationist regime established by Marshall Petain in the south of France during World War II.

On October 3, 1940, independently of any German pressure, Vichy issued a “Jewish Statute” that was even more draconian than anti-Jewish laws established by Germany at that time in occupied France to the north. It defined Jews according to ethnic, as opposed to simply religious, characteristics and expelled them from public office, journalism and the theater. 

The noose continued to tighten. Jews were driven from positions in trade, industry and teaching. Concentration camps were set up and filled, first with foreign Jews and eventually, when they became deportation camps, by French Jews as well. 

By 1942, Vichy was no more; Provence was absorbed by the German occupation of France. But Petain continued to collaborate with plans for the Final Solution in a France now unified under Nazi rule. His enthusiasm for making southern France “free of Jews” resulted in more of them being rounded up for deportation to the death camps than the Germans themselves had called for. This was the “cadeau” to which Michel had alluded — Petain’s gift to Hitler.

Although France as a whole is home to the largest population of Jews in Europe (some 650,000), the presence of Jews in Provence is much diminished from its earlier heyday, at least outside of large cities like Marseilles and Avignon. In the “four holy cities” given to the Jews by the Pope in 1348 — Carpentras, Cavaillon, L’Isle-sur-le-Sorgue, and Avignon — the community is a dim echo of its former glory in all but the last. There are no Jewish families in L’Isle-sur-le-Sorgue and only ten in Cavaillon. 

I Go To Carpentras

I went looking for the traces of Jewish Provence in Carpentras, which had once been its heart. The oldest synagogue in France is there, still in use, and at one time, in the eighteenth century, Carpentras’ some one thousand Jews comprised a quarter of the town’s population. If I could go the place of its origins, perhaps I might find someone who could tell me what had happened to the Jews of Provence.

I arrived in Carpentras with two goals in mind: to see its synagogue and to pay a visit to the Jewish cemetery. Leaving my car next to a small park, I asked an old gentleman sitting on a bench under the broad shade of a plane tree if he could direct me to the synagogue. 

He reeled out directions to me in a Provençal accent thick as saucisson, an “ah” attached to the end of nearly each word.  “Cross two streets, go straight, then take a right, then thirty meters later, take a left, then”—the thunder of a passing motorbike drowned out a crucial piece here—“a hundred meters later, go straight, then you see city hall with a flag. The synagogue (he pronounced it, “synagog-a”) is right behind it.” I was lost already.

“Ah, bon.” I answered. “Merci.” When I had gone discretely out of sight, I collared the next passer-by. 

“You have to find city hall,” he told me. I already knew that. “It’s just twenty meters from there,” he added, in an attempt at clarification. I was suddenly struck by an uncomfortable thought. Things always seemed to be closed in France when I wanted to visit them: shops, museums, libraries. Today was a holiday: did that mean it was a good day to go to a museum — or a bad one? There’d be no point in trying to get directions if the place was closed.  “Do you think it will be open?” I asked him. 

A shadow of uncertainty passed over my informant’s brow. I had the feeling he didn’t want to disappoint me. He answered hesitatingly in the affirmative. “I think it’s open. It’s possible, yes.” Pause. “I’m not sure, but I think, yes, that it’s open, oui.” I took a chance and walked in the direction of his pointing finger. 

Mounting a set of broad stone steps, I passed through what looked like an ancient gateway into the old part of the city and found myself in a maze of narrow streets bordered by houses in picturesque stages of dilapidation. Their red, orange and ochre walls were scabbed with peeling paint, creating an Impressionist effect. They seemed uninhabited, but I had the feeling that my progress was being watched from behind curtained windows. 

My footsteps echoed on the empty street. Sounds came from afar, as if in a dream; the distant shouts of children and something else, like a hiss. I walked on, driven more by instinct than plan. The hiss resolved into the rushing sound of water as I broke out of a narrow defile into a small plaza, in the center of which a fountain spouted merrily. Place de la Marché aux Oiseaux. “Bird Market Square,” I translated the street sign to myself.

A muscle car rounded the plaza, its stereo blasting Arabic music; four young men with lean, dark faces stared out at me with curiosity as the car passed. An old man in a djellaba emerged from the other direction. He, too, examined me, somewhat more critically, his eyes peering sharply at me over his hoary white beard. 

I thought I might disarm his stare by asking for directions. He answered he had no idea where the synagogue was, but he could tell me how to get to city hall. A few short blocks later, I saw the French flag protruding from the side of a building, and right beyond it, a nondescript structure with a massive, low door. 

Over the door was an inscribed lintel. I knew I had arrived at my destination when I saw the Hebrew lettering. An inscription below furnished the French translation: “C’est ici la porte qui conduite vers l’éternelle. Les justes la franchiront”. “Here is the gate that leads toward the eternal. The just will pass through.” 

An unmistakably Jewish sentiment. Justice and those who practice it are thematic to Jewish tradition and legend (or at least they were until the Israeli occupation of Palestine began to erode its premises.) The plaque to the side of the door informed me that this “house of prayer” was first built in 1367. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1741, when Carpentras enjoyed its period of greatest prosperity. And it was closed today. Naturellement.

I walked back through what I now realized had been the old Jewish quarter, currently home to a new wave of Semitic immigrants, only this time of the Muslim faith. I passed a knot of boisterous children playing in the street. An older man spoke sharply to them in Arabic; they answered him perfunctorily in French and continued unabated with their play. 

I had an overwhelming sensation of dropping through the ghostly layers of the palimpsest of time. Behind the old men’s djellabas could be discerned the cloaks and robes of medieval Jews; the beards were the same and the language wasn’t all that different from that used in the Talmudic schools of Carpentras during the time of the Avignon Popes. 

Neither was the social marginalization and prejudice they suffered. The Jews had come seeking a better life than the one possible in their lands of emigration. So had the Arabs. The Jews had found distrust — even hatred — and discrimination, yet they had managed to thrive for a time in spite of all that. The Arabic community in France faces all the same obstacles, yet it endures.

The Jewish Cemetery

Taking the car, I set off in search of my second objective, the Jewish cemetery. I passed a small sign with an arrow, “Cimetière Israelite,” but could see nothing resembling a cemetery. I followed the heavily trafficked road past a Roman aqueduct and found myself back where I had started, in front of the gate to the old city. 

I set off again to look for the cemetery and ended up in front of the aqueduct. So I tried again. After several more rounds of this, I decided to give up and just go ogle the aqueduct. I parked in its shadow and gaped up in awe at its sweeping arches. 

Then my gaze fell on a strip of land lying between the aqueduct and the road. It was enclosed by high stone walls, over which arched branches of large, stately trees. I darted across the traffic for a closer look. And voilá. It was the elusive Jewish cemetery. Set on a long, narrow wedge of ground,  it was squeezed between the monumental past and the harried present like flotsam on the shoreline of history. 

An iron gate leading into the graveyard was padlocked. On it hung a plaque reading “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER. PRIVATE ROAD.” On a column to the left of the gate was another plaque, its words nearly erased—whether by time or human hand, I couldn’t tell. It read, “The day of man passes like the grass. He is like the lilies of the field, which bloom for just a little time. Psalm 103.”  On the other side of the gate, Hebrew lettering, perhaps of the same verse.

I peered through the stern black bars of the gate into the gloom beyond. Headstones leaned toward the earth as if yearning to reunite with the bones lying within. The Hebrew letters on their faces were stained and softened with age. Weeds choked the pathways and spaces between the markers, while the trees wove a thick tangle of branches like a solemn cloak of mourning over all. Arpeggios of birdsong cascaded from green heights in counterpoint to the din of traffic. 

The cemetery seemed caught in an alternate dimension of time and space: outside was the bright burning air of Provence; inside the light had fled, leaving the gravestones shaded and somber under their arboreal canopy. Outside, concrete reigned. Inside, weeds and grass had grown riot under the absence of man. Outside streamed the busy roar of cars containing people with places to go and things to do. Inside reposed the cool silent gloam of the house of the dead, watched over only by the mute witness of the aqueduct. 

Here slumbered spirits forgotten even by their children and their children’s children. 

It was only later that I learned why the gate was padlocked. In May of 1990, skinheads broke into the cemetery, dug up the body of Felix Germon, a recently deceased Jewish rug merchant, and impaled it. They scrawled Nazi slogans on the headstones. The attack caused a firestorm of outrage among Jews and non-Jews alike. Mitterand and Chirac offered condolences and solidarity with the French Jewish community, the national press published articles condemning the act and large demonstrations took place in Paris, Marseilles, Lyons and many other cities. 

Ironically, the desecration of the cemetery (one of many that year) and the declarations of solidarity that followed it may have undermined an important pact between French society and French Jews that had existed since the Edict of Tolerance granting Jews civil rights in 1789. The Edict recognized Jews as French citizens, with the same rights as all others. The ghettos were dissolved and Jews were free to live wherever they wanted. 

In return, they gave up their special identity as a group apart, with its own cultural and religious imperatives. But, according to the French political scientist Pierre Birnbaum, the anti-Jewish attacks of 1990 once more marked Jews off in French society, whether as objects of scorn or sympathy, and the Jewish community also began to see itself as something separate, as a community first of Jews, rather than first a part of the larger French society.

Later, I learned that Carpentras is still home to a small population of practicing Jews. But as I stood in front of the locked gates of the abandoned cemetery, it felt as if the town’s Jewish population had fled elsewhere. The synagogue had been closed; the cemetery road was “private”. Like the inscription on the gate, the Jewish community of Carpentras — a town once known as the “Jerusalem of Provence” — had bloomed like a flower in a field and then was gone.

The Arabs

Provence has ever been one beach on a virtually unbroken shoreline spanning two continents, Europe and Africa (actually, with Turkey, three). Peoples have surged back and forth over the waters that both divide and unite these two continents, whether they be coming from the northern or the southern shore. 

Often they have been the same peoples, different version, as now, in Carpentras: Sephardic Jews made up the majority of Carpentras’ early Jewish community. They have been succeeded by their Islamic brethren, and even most of the Jews who immigrated to Provence in the post-war period come from the lands of the Maghreb, or north Africa. 

Arab Invasion of France

The history of Arabic Muslims in France is no less complicated than that of the Jews and played a much greater role in the identity of the nation. The historian Norman Davies has written that European culture was early on defined by what it was not: not Jewish, not Muslim, not Asian, not African. Europe’s very conception of itself, Davies says, was principally forged in its struggle against the Arabs during the early Middle Ages. Prompted by the Islamic expansion onto the European continent, it affected Spain and France the most. 

In 711 AD, the advance forces of the Umayyad Empire crossed the Strait of Gibralter and swept up the Iberian peninsula. The Empire colonized Spain, and within a few decades had projected its influence into Provence like a tentacle, seizing Avignon in 734. A watchtower built by Arab invaders still stands there today, its stones wreathed in the fumes of passing cars.

In the year 732 AD, advance parties of the armies of Islam penetrated to their furthest reach into Europe. They ransacked their way up to the Loire, plundering the riches of church and countryside alike and sowing general panic along the way. Their northern incursion was finally halted at Tours by Charles Martel, whose valorous knights vanquished the Infidel against terrific odds. 

At least, that’s the official story. The reality is more nuanced. For one, the Muslim invaders were vulnerable. One version of the story says they had taken on quite a bit of loot as they pillaged their way northward and were, if not sitting ducks, slow moving ones. 

By the time they engaged Martel’s army, they were so heavily encumbered they could barely move. Torn between glory and greed, they panicked and abandoned both on the field. 

Other historians say the Arab and Berber troops fought fiercely, throwing themselves against the massed forces of the Franks in assault after assault, only to melt away in the night after the great battle to the mystification of the Franks. These, for their part, lost no time in scooping up the spoils — any eagerness to pursue the Saracens on their southward retreat abruptly ceded to the counting of their new-found riches. 

When Martel finally made it down to Provence in 736, his troops didn’t behave much better than the Moors. They conquered Arles and Marseilles and pillaged the countryside. 

Provence and the Caliphate

Some of the local Provençal nobles made common cause with the Saracens against the Frankish invader. In retaliation, Martel slaughtered the inhabitants of Avignon, thereby demonstrating that one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist. 

Finally, Martel’s younger son, King Pepin III, brought Frankish forces to bear against the Moors in 759, wresting Narbonne from their control and expelling them from the region. He also subjugated the independent dukes of Provence.

But Provence continued friendly relations with the Caliphate, to their mutual profit. The train of commerce stretched from Scandinavia to Baghdad and beyond, including the traffic in slaves. Marseilles was a major port where captives from the Germanic lands were exchanged for the goods of Africa and Asia Minor. 

Nevertheless, the territories along the Mediterranean’s northern coast continued to be threatened by Arab predations on Christian settlements well into the tenth century. Arabic sailors harassed the Mediterranean coast, capturing hapless men, women and children for the slave trade. (They were not the only predators: Greeks and Normans also practiced piracy and slave trading in the region during this time.) 

From 888 to 972, a Saracen colony existed at what is today La Garde-Freinet, from which forays were mounted further into Provence and the Ligurian Alps. Fréjus also fell under Arab control until Count Guillaume of Provence routed the invaders in 972. 

By the end of the tenth century, Islamic Europe had retreated behind the barrier of the Pyrenees, except for Sicily, which was ruled over by the Kalbid dynasty. Still, the Arabs’ fearsome reputation continued to exercise a power out of proportion to the actual threat they posed. Their initial forays into France had justifiably sown terror amongst the populace; less justifiably, the terror they inspired in the bowels of the Christians remained long after the Moors were gone. 

Christians Expel Arabs and Jews

But eventually, Arabs would have reason to fear Christians as much as Christians dreaded “the Moor.” The direction of invasion was reversed during the Crusades, when Christians did the invading, murdering and pillaging deep into the Levant. During the Crusades, Jewish communities in Provence, as elsewhere in Europe, also came under brutal attack. 

Many Jews lost their lives, burned at the stake for the so-called “blood libel” (accused of using the blood of Christian children to make unleavened bread, or matzah, for ritual use), and expelled from their homes and land. 

For centuries the fortunes of Jews and Arabs rose and fell together. When Arabs were dominant on the Iberian peninsula, Jews lived in security and freedom. When Arabs were attacked by Christians in the Holy Land, Jews in Europe also suffered. And the Spanish Inquisition that erased the Moorish hegemony in Spain also targeted Jews for expropriation, torture and death. 

The expulsion of the Arabs from their last bastion in Spain brought to an end the last era in Europe when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony under relatively egalitarian conditions. In Mediterranean France, terror of the Moor receded. But not forever. 

Islamophobia Returns After 9/11

After a long dormancy, fear of Islam arose anew against a backdrop of young, angry, male, unemployed Muslim immigrants and has only been exacerbated by 9/11 and its aftermath (most lately, as of this update, the horrific attacks in Paris in November 2015.) 

I heard the same litany of lament from ethnic French wherever I went: the immigrants were responsible for the increase in crime, Arab schoolboys were so disruptive in the classrooms that teachers could no longer teach, the strange-looking women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, were alien to French values.

Xenophobia spread its poisonous miasma across the political spectrum, and the same people who passionately defended the right of Palestinians to have an independent homeland complained grimly about Arabic immigrants in their own homeland. 

When a flyer of mysterious provenance swearing “death to the whites” was posted all over the small city of Apt soon after September 11th, it struck fear into the hearts of les blancs, no matter what their views on Arabs abroad. 

My friends were no exception. Michel, whose indignation over Israeli expropriations of Palestinian olive groves to construct the “fence of separation” knew no bounds, would have liked nothing better than to throw all Arab immigrants out of France, with the Gypsies thrown in for good measure. 

My friends took the flyer at face value, without questioning how representative it was of the views of Apt’s Arab residents. Nor did it occur to them to wonder if it might be the work of an agent provocateur for the anti-immigrant Right.

A Young Muslim Joins Me On A Walk

One problem, of course, is that none of them actually knew any Arabs, despite the fact that Apt has a sizable Arabic population living in the heart of the downtown area. Arab vendors dominate a large frontal section of the weekly market, offering their wares at bargain prices. Mounds of perfect, glistening peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and fruits of all kinds face stalls sheltering enormous burlap sacks placed on the ground and filled to the brim with aromatic spices in all shades of red, yellow, green and brown. 

Yet whites largely walk right past those stands to patronize the native French-owned stalls further on. Unencumbered by nationalist prejudice, I scooped up the bargains in the Arab part of the market.

I had an opportunity to get one young Arab’s opinion when I took a long walk one morning into the hills above Apt. As I trudged up the steep slope of the Luberon, he came up from behind and fell into step beside me. 

My heart fluttered uneasily at the intrusion but it turned out that all he wanted to do was talk. His face was lean and a little homely, his clothes a bit shabby. But he spoke with a friendly enthusiasm that disarmed me. He was pleased as punch that I was from America. 

“America,” he exclaimed with rapture. “I love America!” What did he love about America, I wondered. 

“Everything!” he told me. He waxed rhapsodic: he loved the movies, he loved the cars, he loved MacDonald’s, he loved the people. I didn’t ask him if he loved President Bush. But he did tell me he didn’t love the French. Why was that, I asked him. 

He answered that the French discriminated against the Arabs, that he couldn’t get a job, and he had no hope that anything would change. 

He wanted to come to America.

The Rise of Le Pen's National Front

September 11th pushed French xenophobia against its North African immigrants to the center of the domestic political map. From my vantage point in Provence, it looked like the preoccupation with immigration was raising political temperatures and eroding France’s famous post-war liberalism. Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s perennial far-right candidate, stampeded onto center stage from the political margins in the post 9/11 national elections. 

He won seventeen percent of the national vote and closer to thirty percent in Provence. Well-known for his racist (and anti-Semitic) views, Le Pen ran on an anti-immigrant platform — which in France primarily means North Africans — and much of his support reflected that. (As of this writing in December 2015, his daughter Marine, who took over the reins of the National Front from her father, has led the party to a first-place win in the initial round of regional elections.)

But such hostility had already been a long-standing feature of the underbelly of French consciousness. I encountered a reminder of this at the time of my autumn visit to Paris, when I read about an exhibition commemorating the 1961 massacre of more than two hundred Algerians in that city, attacked by police during a demonstration to protest a curfew that had been selectively imposed on them. 

Many of the demonstrators died in police custody. Others were shot in the streets and their bodies thrown into the Seine. The news of the massacre had only recently emerged from decades of official silence. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Paris police chief at the time was Nazi collaborator, Maurice Papon, who was found guilty in 1998 of crimes against humanity for sending thousands of French Jews to the Nazi death camps. He was never charged in the deaths of the Algerian demonstrators.  

Islam and Traditional French Values

If Norman Davies is correct that Europe’s identity was forged principally on the anvil of contrast to Arab Islam, then things haven’t changed much in a thousand years. Today, there are many French who think Arab immigration will undermine French values. By banning Muslim girls from wearing the headscarf in school, the French government has given expression to the concerns of many French that Islam threatens an assault on republican values. 

Others fear an assault on Christian hegemony: Jean-Marie Le Pen said in an interview that only church spires should be seen on the French horizon, not the minarets of mosques. A French poll in 2002 showed that thirty percent of respondents supported Le Pen’s defense of “traditional values” — in 2014, that increased to 46% in a similar survey of attitudes — and nearly as many agreed with him that immigrants should give up their cultures of origin for the culture and language of France.  

Many white, ethnic Europeans shudder at the thought that their own mores, traditions, cultures and languages might be overwhelmed by the Islamic Other. In the light of Muslim fundamentalist extremism, that’s comprehensible. But is it realistic? 

Consumerism may pose greater threats to European values than Muslim immigrants, who can’t help but absorb some socialization by the dominant cultures of their adopted lands, if only through their children. In fact, Islamists have some important things to say about how rampant consumerism is corrupting spiritual values. 

Perhaps if westerners listened more closely to this point, they might defend some of their own traditions better. It might also help them to make common cause with progressive Muslims against attacks on human rights coming from fundamentalists of all faiths (including Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and Jewish fundamentalists in Israel.) 

They might even find they are enriched by deeper contributions of Arab immigrants to European culture than kebab and couscous.

Economic self-interest alone is a strong argument in favor of immigration. In a country whose labor force is threatened by a declining birth rate, you would think that immigrants would be welcome. Or at least you would think so if people were rational. 

Not All Le Pen Supporters Are White

The irrationality of human beings was brought home to me one day as I waited for a bus in Nice around the time of the Spring elections. The bus was late and the press of waiting people grew. My patience waned as my boredom waxed. 

The young woman standing next to me caught my eye with a smile of wry frustration. More to pass the time than anything else, I struck up a conversation with her. She was a native of Madagascar, working as a nanny for a rich French couple in Nice. 

How did she like living here, I asked. She complained that the French were terribly racist, that she could not walk into a store without becoming an object of suspicion. “C’est le racisme, pure et simple!” she exclaimed. 

I assumed she opposed the candidacy of Le Pen, and asked her who she was supporting in the race for prime minister. “Oh, I really love Le Pen,” she answered. “We have such a problem with those North Africans; they’re all criminals. Le Pen will do what is necessary to control immigration.”

Self-interest and Blow-back

Fears of Islamic terrorism are real, but Europe has long had to deal with home-grown terrorists of other persuasions, from Sinn Fein to the Basque ETA. Those attacks were dealt with as police matters, not met with military force.

Moreover, trying to turn back the tide of immigration is not only foolhardy but dangerous. If xenophobia evolved as a protective mechanism, as the sociobiologists say, then in the Global Village it is one no longer. We are all members of the same tribe on this shrinking planet. 

Aside from ethical considerations, hatred of immigrants doesn’t make Europe any safer, since hatred only gives rise to equal and opposite resentment, as was seen in the 2005 riots in several French cities by Arab youth protesting police brutality and the latest attacks in Paris. 

And, as we have witnessed in the U.S., fear and loathing of the Other leads to erosion of the civil protections of all citizens. As a result, all our lives are made less free. 

Preserving Tradition

One of the greatest gifts the French have given to humankind was the philosophy of the French Enlightenment: the most fundamental precept of which was the equality of the rights of man. 

If the French want to retain their traditional values, they should remember that these values don’t discriminate: they apply to all, no matter how different we are. (We Americans are as much heirs to the French Enlightenment as the French are; its creed is what our Republic was founded upon.) 

If the French Republican ideal of the equality of all citizens is joined by respect for all cultural traditions, then maybe France will meet its twenty first century challenges in a way that preserves liberté, egalité — and fraternité. If not, it will be the French themselves, not Muslim immigrants, who will destroy their “traditional values.”