On the night of the gay pride parade in Paris, S. and crossed the river to meet our friend David for drinks. We walked across the place de la Bastille, which we later discovered contained 600,000 revelers. On the way we saw a man beating on two drag queens. The crowd followed the assault back and forth across the square with the kind of unpredictable ebb and flow of which only a mob is capable. S. plunged into the clot of 600 observers to pull the drag queens away from their victimizer. Panicked, I plunged in to pull S. away from the mob.
This was only the first of four brutal assaults we saw that night. A common element of every fight was the participation of northern African immigrant youth. I am mentioning this not to indict Muslim immigrants as congenitally criminal, but to point out what has become the defining issue for 21st century France, for Paris in particular, and for Europe in general: immigration.
France, a country of fifty-nine million, nine of whom live in Paris, has an non-native population of six million. Most of this immigration has happened since the Second World War. It is not there was no immigration prior to that, but decrease in European populations due to war, and the need for post-war rebuilding, made it desirable to import workers. Afterward, especially as the European powers gave up their colonies, commonwealth agreements made it possible for the formerly colonized to immigrate to the lands of the colonizers.
Although the Seventies saw a clampdown in the generous immigration rules in Europe, the immigration itself did not slow, especially immigration from non-E.U. countries. Among other things, family members joined immigrants in their adopted countries. For another thing, most countries make exceptions for “asylum seekers,” people fleeing “persecution” in one form or another. It is this asylum exception that may account for the increase in non-E.U. immigration in the last twenty years. Certainly the Europe I first visited in the early eighties was not nearly so ethnically diverse as the one from which I have just returned. The city of Frankfurt, for example, one of Europe’s financial centers and not a traditionally diverse city, now has a foreign-born population of 30%.
For France in particular, two issues have made this latest wave of immigration very difficult to deal with: cultural dissonance and the lack of a technology of assimilation.
Most immigrants to the wealthier European countries, such as the UK, Germany and France, used to be southern Europeans; Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards mainly. There was a shared culture in that all peoples were citizens of Europe. But today’s immigrants, especially to France, come mostly from Islamic countries, from the Maghreb, the Levant, from Mali and so on. So the culture of the immigrants and the culture of France are frequently at variance.
There is one important way in which the European countries differ from a country like the United States, whose national consciousness has been built, however imperfectly, by immigration. The notion of being French, or German, or English, is based on ideas and structures that were created long before today’s immigration became a reality. How can one be a Frenchman when one speaks Berber? When one wears a hijab? In the case of France, the notion of a “minority” is not even legally recognized. Everyone is simply French. The census does not break down citizens using any criteria of ethnicity or national origin.
The French government set up their immigrants with everything they need – subsidized rents, food, utilities, medical care, child care, education – everything except the one thing that can make them real citizens: inclusion. The overwhelming majority of immigrants that settle in the Ile de France are housed not in Paris, but around it, in public housing apartment blocks. In this respect Paris is similar to most other large cities of France, where the suburbs, not the inner cities, are the “ghettos.” Police frequently refuse to go in to these cités, as they are called, as do firemen and ambulance drivers, since all three are routinely attacked by the inhabitants. These suburbs are underserved, sometimes completely unserved, by public transportation. Work, one element of social life that forces people from different backgrounds together, is hard to find for immigrants in a country that is both paternalistic and has a 9.5% unemployment rate.
Considering the difficulty European immigrants face in becoming an integral part of the societies they find themselves in, it is small wonder that they make up a disproportionate population of European prisons. Over 29% of French prisoners are immigrants and over 50% are Muslim. When Muslim clergy exhort their parishioners to outbreed their hosts, when they maintain their host countries are immoral and therefore legitimate targets of violence – one popular imam in Amsterdam issued a fatwah against Dutch homosexuals encouraging his parisioners to throw them down into the streets from the rooftops – we can object, but we cannot credibly pretend to be shocked.
All of my prior knowledge about Paris came from books and most of those books were written fifty to eighty years ago. When I ordered wine I ordered Sancerre, because I had read it. When I ordered an aperitif I ordered a kir, because I had seen it in a book. And the thing is, Paris is every book you’ve ever read. It has an amazing ability to absorb, to contradict and to harmonize. Paris is bigger than anything that happens to it. Standing on the balcony of our little hotel on the rue de l’Abbe de l’Eppe between the church of St.-Jacques and Guy Lessac, I looked out over Paris, first toward the Pantheon, then toward the Luxembourg Garden. To look at Paris, to walk through it, is as the writer Adam Gropnik said, to move constantly from the monumental to the intimate. But it is also to move from time to time, from the death of Danton to the life of Abelard, from the studio of Modigliani to the penthouse of Catherine Deneuve, from the Deux Magots of Hemmingway to the Montmartre of Berthe Morisot. The question for the future of Paris is: will the City of Light be able to absorb the cités of immigration? Perhaps that question is not for Paris alone. Perhaps that is the question for Europe.