Republican dilemma

April 17, 1998

FARHAD Khosrokhavar highlights a number of problems confronting community relations in France while leaving many questions unanswered ("Far right spreads racism in France", THES, April 3). As to the National Front, the right's fragmented state has enabled this autonomous, reactionary, xenophobic and racist far right to develop and obtain significant electoral success.

In Britain, people of comparable views have either been active in small extremist groups, virtually excluded from representative politics, or compromised and joined a broader-based party where their virulence is diluted.

Khosrokhavar blames "republican intellectuals" for denying immigrants and their descendants a specific identity, while conditions prevent them from becoming fully accepted as French. The means to achieve citizenship through work, decent housing, effective schooling and contact with the indigenous population have become scarcer. But the extreme assimilationist position, while present, is by no means so strongly held by most republicans.

Indeed, a high degree of integration has been achieved by many of the Jewish community, who have themselves embraced the republican tradition while maintaining their religious and cultural identity. Greater prejudice makes such a feat harder for Muslims but France-Plus, an organisation composed mainly of people of North African origin, is aiming in this same direction.

Khosrokhavar condemns the republican intellectuals without explaining what they stand for. They are defenders of the tradition that traces its origins to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment and adheres to the principles in a declaration of human rights, which they hold to be universal.

What this group could be criticised for, now as in the past, is not sufficiently defending the observance of these rights by French governments and institutions, or combating the sources of racism and poverty. As well as addressing these problems, French republicans are also faced with the dilemma that presents itself to all those who believe that Western-style political and civil rights are valid for all people. If they are considered to be universal in character, how are they to be presented to people from other traditions in a way that is not perceived as the imposition of another kind of imperialism?

John Whitworth, Part-time lecturer in French studies, University of East London

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