Old Transatlantic Friendship Given a Workout over Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1990s, when the debate over multiculturalism reached a pitch in this country, French commentators and intellectuals watched with rapt attention as the United States struggled to accommodate the demands of minority groups and others who claimed for themselves a larger place on the American stage. Many of these French onlookers reacted with horror and, it is fair to say, a touch of glee at the spectacle of a strong nation giving in to its sectarian forces. In their view, the United States was ceding to individualism and tolerance at the expense of unity, perhaps even of nationhood.

Recriminations were also cast in the other direction for the straits in which the United States found itself over the multiculturalist issue. The writings of French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan have long been singled out for having a corrosive effect on the quality of American scholarship.

Their work has been blamed for fostering a relativist mindset that derided all things American and laid the groundwork for the "culture wars" that have been fought in humanities departments across the country.

These and other mutual suspicions are examined in Jean-Philippe Mathy's "French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars." Mr. Mathy, an associate professor of French, comparative literature, criticism and interpretive theory at the University of Illinois, has chosen a compelling subject, but his writing style is dense and academic, and he tends to delve into esoterica at the expense of drawing larger conclusions.

Mr. Mathy relies on a heavy dose of secondary sources to show patterns of transatlantic tension over the past 10-15 years. His book questions why France and America seem ever more divided - their respective intellectual sectors patently hostile toward each other - even as their cultures become increasingly homogenized.

To answer this, the author looks back to the philosophical and political roots of both societies. The French model of government, called republicanism, began with the First Republic in 1792 and was instituted without interruption after 1871. France's unitary government structure - in which power comes from Paris alone -stands in contrast to the federalist model of the United States.

The French attachment to a "one and indivisible nation" gives a distinct tint to their concept of national identity. It has implications in the realm of immigration, assimilation and group rights that are quite different from the looser American "melting pot" method. Multiculturalism, far from being an antidote to racism or disenfranchisement, is seen by many Frenchmen as the unfortunate result of a boundless pluralism. As Mr. Mathy states, "multiculturalism was denounced as a consequence of the hardening of tolerance into an absolutist cult of difference for its own sake."

Yet one incident in particular tested France's resolve and assurance in the face of ethnic challenge. Called "l`affaire du foulard," this 1989 controversy garnered much more publicity around the then-minister of education, Lionel Jospin, than he would have wished. In opposite camps were three female Muslim middle-school students who had worn religious veils in the classroom and their principal, who made the decision to expel them based on a long-standing tradition of forbidding religious dress or symbols in public schools.

The Socialist Party was hamstrung between a commitment to secularism in the schools on the one hand and cultural tolerance on the other. Leading intellectuals feared the Left was on the verge of allowing reactionary forces to undermine the school system. They wrote in a leading newspaper: "The French version of democracy is called Republic. It is not a mosaic of ghettoes where the rule of the strongest can be dressed up as freedom for all. …