For all that I promote and actively seek out non-violent resolutions, I can still recognise when violence lurks close beneath an obscuring skin of nominal syncretic secularism, an assumed melting pot of liberté, égalité, fraternité. "Nominal", I say: because the only real contact most non pieds-noirs had with freshly-Parisienned cultures shaped outside the Revolution and Napoléon had been with those who had successfully managed to conceal or altogether erode their differences: Muslims who drank wine, Jews who carefully left their yarmulkes at their homes or their private schools. If my only contact with the diverse ethnicities of France -- and for that matter Europe (for, as with the results of the German election earlier, the hidden tensions again suggest the underlying, waiting rift, in microcosm) -- were through those who had fully and willingly assimilated -- surrendered -- into the dominant culture, I too might have been tempted to name the latest Republic of France a melting pot success.
That assimilation might perhaps not have been as complete as has been held by the prevailing mythology required only a pair of catalytic deaths to illustrate, on a canvas of shattered glass.
Yet to reduce what is erupting out now to a simple question of religion, of anti-Muslim or anti-Jew or anti-anything else that is not pur laine françoise is, again, to avoid the core of the matter: to abrogate any personal responsibility within one's own country by saying yet again, "We are a secular country, it is obviously a religious thing, let them sort it out (and because it is between them, it cannot involve us)." Yet now, for the first time openly (but after many, many incidents buried quietly on the back pages of newspapers, when they were reported at all): it does involve us. The initial symptoms, always, selectively culturally repressive laws, selective heavy unemployment; the initial targets of backlash, when violence of this nature finally erupts into the open, always begin with property and the symbols of authority. Appropriate use of law enforcement personnel and/or military -- which has not yet happened, every person in a position of appropriate responsibility reluctant and borderline terrified to venture into this disturbed hornet's nest -- will certainly resolve the immediate violence. At the very least it will involve arrests. Yet arrests by themselves won't neutralise the lurking violence but will only drive it underground: and the next time, it will be worse.
Mixing pot indeed. Culture, religion, economic marginalisation: held perpetually on the fringes of a system structured over decades, lifetimes, to force away from public view all that is different and thus perceived as potential threat. But this is only one manifestation of what is lurking throughout Europe, what (for the peace!) must keep the crack of a door open to Turkish European Union membership while firmly resisting the actuality: fear of a plentitude of cheap labour all too willing to embrace economic opportunities -- but on their own terms, preserving those elements of personal culture which are perceived as core to personal identity: and that must be unacceptable in a mixing pot society which has already confirmed for itself, through revolution and empire and two world wars, the appropriate appearance of the proper alloy and which fears the change which hovers on its doorstep.
The response of every relatively well-to-do western society in such circumstances has always been to shut its borders officially, but to leave them porous to the half-world of permanently non-citizen residents needed for the labour to maintain its standard of living. If an immigrant is to succeed in such a society, he or she must abandon everything that has been deemed unsuitable, other than equal -- less than equal, against the French measuring rod -- and if what must be abandoned is identity itself, tant pis. Thus tolerance, yes, but only on sufferance: retain any true differences of identity and that tolerance will evaporate the moment it is truly tested. Economic differentials, inviegled with culture and religion and a built-in useful second cultural other that is gradually being forced into a new diaspora, as it gradually becomes apparent that a façade of national tolerance and acceptance does not translate into any national desire for this second ethnic minority to be any less of a target for others, by way of keeping that simmering violence away from us.
France, and the European Union as a whole (and it waits for every other western country as well), is hovering at a crossroads. The choice is clear: preserve what you are at whatever human cost, or accept the hovering tidal wave of change. But make no mistake: either path will destroy something dear to the hearts of some.
Happy Eid al-Fitr.