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The Republic vs religion
If France is facing tremors in its urban structure it is precisely because its inherent secular Republican values were not adhered to



Kia Atri
November 9, 2005

It is not easy to look at the skyline of Paris, adorned as ever with that centenary monument to the bloody French Revolution: the Eiffel Tower, and not feel a sense of Déjà vu. We have been here before. To be sure we saw the Persian answer to the Parisian monument: the Shahyad, in our own incendiary skyline towering over the revolt that was the 79 calamity. Today the real article towers over Islamist provoked disturbance not so much in a Persian as a Parisian setting.

There the similarity ends though and we come back to a post 9/11 world in which Islamism has been instutionalised by the gang of young disaffected immigrants in the burning ghettos of Europe. As the highly venerated Iranian journalist Dr Amir Taheri disturbingly reminds us the ghettos of Paris (on French soil) are known as occupied territory by these young angry Muslims. Occupied by whom I hear you ask? Occupied apparently by the native French and we are told that this is an 'Intifada' against the French (so much for Chirac's cynical appeasement of the Arabs).

There is absolutely no doubt that the French need to address the problems of immigrant disaffection in a country which despite its avowed respect for equality and fraternity and liberty, still treats its immigrants as second class citizens. There is also no doubt that the French model of Multicultural assimilation needs to be reappraised.

As an Iranian married to a French woman and frequently visiting a country which I have come to regard as a home from home (we Iranians have a soft spot for France we have to admit it), I must say the dearth of Arab and Sub-Saharan Black presence on French media and public life is all too palpable (as my wife keeps on reminding me quite rightly). The Anglo-Saxon model for all its faults (one of which is to tolerate me) has provided far more opportunity to the immigrants and been more successful. An act of compassion which was amply reciprocated by three British born Muslims who placed bombs on the London Underground and blew innocent commuters to Kingdom come on 7/7. There is outstanding gratitude for you!

At the time of writing this article Paris and many other cities brace themselves for a thirteenth night of violence (even as Dominique de Villepin was doing his 'I have heard the voice of your revolution' special) there is a certain issue that is being overlooked or rather carelessly treated. The issue of secularity must not be sacrificed at the alter of political expediency. The sounds are mixed and there is some evidence that the French might succumb to that pressure to affect some accommodation. This as I argue below will be disastrous for all concerned.

France has had a particularly chequered past with religion. When she was overrun by the English at the outset of the 100 Years war- pertaining to Edward III of England holding a claim to the French throne - the English used their blood ties and betrothal to French royals to legitimate territorial acquisition. These marital takeovers were consummated by the various clerics in France- drawing on moral authority from the Popes- and sustained the English rule. What rule they legitimated by the occasional recourse to arms as in Agincourt in which the marauding Englishmen under Henry V (much celebrated by Shakespeare) beat the French on their own soil.

I rather like what Machiavelli wrote in 'Prince' when he compared the nature of Persian rule and French rule. He said that France is easy to conquer but difficult to control; while Persia was difficult to conquer but easy to control. This he said was due to the fact that the French Feudal power was decentralised so that no one feudal baron would be loyal to the person of the King. It would take the securing of one of these Frankish chieftains or French Dukes to infiltrate France and divide and conquer. In case of Persia it was different as the local Satraps drew their authority from the King himself and their loyalty was unquestionable.

This is how the English could infiltrate France; secure the loyalty of say the Burgundians (as at the time of Joan of Arc) and use them as allies to attack the central authority. This however would need a moral underpinning; this was secured by the selfish French clergy himself legitimated by the Pope and no doubt persuaded by the force of the English sword. No wonder that when Joan of Arc rose to English tyranny she evoked the image of a poor peasant girl chosen by divine intervention. No wonder too that at the time of her undoing she was to be burnt as a heretic by the clerical establishment.

France has also been the setting of further Religious strife and division in her later history. The religious wars of the 16th century waged against the Huguenots (French protestants) were a case in point. Here was a Catholic country that was perceived rightly or wrongly to be infiltrated by religious heretics who had their loyalty to Protestant England. In the wars that ensued the French Protestants were expelled to England. Many in the British Army to this day (such as General Sir Peter De La Billiere) have French sounding names. These are Englishmen of French extraction.

More precisely the Catholic religion has become synonymous with the French monarchy much the same way as at the time of the Safavids the Shia Twelver sect became synonymous with the Persian monarchy until the rule of Reza Shah the Great.

The Revolution of 1789 seriously dented the authority of the Catholic Church in France but a very strong and authoritarian Catholic block (political faction) formed in France which with successive restorations of the Monarchy (whether in its Bourbon or Bonapartist forms) created the then modern French Right Wing.

The powers of the French Right wing (the Catholic block being its most influential epitome) makes other claims on French history. After the humiliating defeat of the French at the battle of Sedan in which the Prussians marched on Paris and removed Louis Napoleon there started a period of reflection after painful stinging defeat. The new Germany unified by Bismark under Prussian flag and its defeated neighbour France lived an uneasy peace. Captain Dreyfuss (a Jewish army officer accused of spying for the Prussians) was used as an escape goat by the authoritarian right (notably the Catholic establishment) to consolidate its power.

Dreyfuss was wrongly imprisoned on trumped up charges and abused. When Emile Zola wrote his famous ''J'accuse'', he was championing the cause of the good captain. His crusade caught the imagination of the French who saw in this debacle the hands of powerful Catholic oligarchs and their attempt at another restoration of Monarchy. French democracy was now coming of age and it was perceived that powerful authoritarian governments with religious backing can seriously undermine civil society.

Today France is virulently secular. Its Nation-State is imbued with a Civic sense of Nationalism or more precisely Nation-State-(ism). The Unity of a nation which had proved so elusive for centuries was now addressed by this Civic pride and National mission statement if you will. A mission statement based upon the three pillars of Republicanism established at the 1789 Revolution recommending Egalite, Fraternite and Liberte. It is no longer Religion that acts as a bond to gel this nation together but a Humanist, Libertarian instinct which is sustained upon the Rights of Man and respect for the individual.

Any values other than the three pillars of Nation-Statehood are likely to endanger this stability and tranquillity in French politics. Religion would be anathema if it was to usurp the levers of power in any form or shape. As we have seen above religion was divisive precisely because of its regressive and partisan nature. The institutions of power (such as local governments and municipalities) cannot afford to allow a privileged position to any one religious group lest that would encourage a disproportionate claim by other religious groups. For all my objection to French procrastination on other issues I had to fully hail the brave decision by President Chirac to reinforce the Secularism of France by disbarring Head Scarves in public schools and institutions.

I was watching a very interesting debate the other day from French TV; one of the more articulate members of the panel argued that one of the reasons why the immigrant youth in France are so alienated is the failure of Urbanism and Social Engineering of the 60s. He argued that in many of the suburban areas of Paris, let us say, people are huddled together in mass produced, characterless, cheap municipal housing living in cramped, humid surroundings. 'Les Cites' as the French call it are mass urban conurbations that alienate those who live in them. The people are tenants of the State with no Civic pride in the upkeep and renovation of their housing. All incentive has been removed from them by generous State handouts. This was the Stalinist vision of cheap mass housing that reached Urban orthodoxy in the 60s and 70s.

All of this brings me to my next point: I am an Iranian Constitutional Monarchist but even I have to, on this instance, express solidarity with the French Republic. I mean the real French Republic in which the State is ideologically neutral but imbued with real humanist values. The irony in Iran is that Constitutional Monarchy went a long way to distance itself from theocracy. It did not go far enough but if any faction did enough to bring this amicable separation it was the Monarchy under the Pahlavis. This is a far different trajectory from the French experience where the true guardians of secularism were the Republicans.

If France is facing tremors in its urban structure it is precisely because its inherent Republican values were not adhered to the way it ought to have been (or at least they were tampered with, or even worst, ditched). The populist quasi-Socialism of the 60s proved to be an errant diversion from the real development of French republican values.

Where the emphasis had to be Equality (Egalite) of opportunities the new 60s orthodoxy propagated equality of outcomes. Where the emphasis had to be Liberty (Liberte) the new model state removed all incentives to individualism of which the French are the major precursors. Where as the sense of national solidarity represented by Fraternity (Fraternite) in which one has a sense of Civic solidarity with the Citizenry we had the creation of a forced communal living in which people's individual identities were eschewed for the welfare of the mass. In short instead of communities reinforcing individuals we had individuals reinforcing communities.

In the distortion and subsequent diminution of such troika of Humanist values what we have today is a spiritual and civic vacuum which is being filled by Islamism.

I now fear that the populist, expedient and corrupt French political order that the Gallic coalition politics is, will instead of resurrecting and reinforcing that troika of Republican values will go the other way. Doing this it will cause further ethnic fission by allowing the Muslim Communities to fall in on themselves and create sub-urban Islamic communities. These communities will continue to be isolated from the rest, and all of this will be created in the name of a new false ethnic diversity.

And suppose we said that the major problem today is the lack of employment in these areas and economic degradation; is giving a free rein to Islamic schools per se going to solve all of that? I fear not, but this may just be the solution that the weak kneed French polity is going to opt in to.

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