Karl E. Meyer, a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is a co-author of “Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds.”
By KARL E. MEYER
Published: April 11, 2012
THE French language is justly renowned for its clarity and precision. Yet on a seemingly simple matter its speakers stumble into a fog — who or what can be defined as French? The question arose afresh in the wake of the Toulouse killings. No one doubted that the perpetrator was 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, a native son of Algerian descent. But was Mr. Merah French?
Impossible, declared four members of Parliament belonging to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party. In a joint statement, they insisted that Mr. Merah “had nothing French about him but his identity papers.”
Nonsense, retorted the left-wing journal Libération: “Merah is certainly a monster, but he was a French monster.” A childhood friend of Mr. Merah provided a poignant elaboration: “Our passports may say that we are French, but we don’t feel French because we were never accepted here. No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope and nothing to lose. It was not Al Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah. It was France.”
These opposing approaches to what it means to be French — one rooted in an uncompromising ideal of assimilation, the other grounded in the messy realities of multiculturalism — struck a chord with me. While researching a book on the politics of diversity with my wife, Shareen Blair Brysac, I encountered not only the exclusionary attitude prevailing in metropolitan Paris, but also the more tolerant worldview epitomized by the port city of Marseille — a worldview that the rest of France would be well served to embrace. ...
Can and should the Marseillais spirit of civilized tolerance spread northward? My wife and I were reminded that it was a throng of volunteers singing a melody as they marched to Paris from already polyglot Marseille who gave France its national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”