Andreas Whittam Smith: The French fear of 'the other'

The right-wing polemicist Maurice Barres said Jews and Protestants were incarnations of cosmopolitanism and therefore rootless parasites
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In France the fear of "the other" has flared up again. The list of groups that have been given this status at one time or another in French history is quite long. On this occasion the "others" are the Les Roms, that is the Roma or, as we prefer to describe them, Gypsies or travelers. As in Britain, they suddenly arrive, put up their camps and immediately engender local opposition and even fear. President Sarkozy has decreed that they should be removed and sent back to their countries of origin, generally Romania and Bulgaria.

To the extent that individual Roma people have behaved illegally, then President Sarkozy's actions, although aggressive, would be within the rules that govern the free movements of people within the European Union, of which both Romania and Bulgaria are recent members. However in a circular dated 5 August sent by the Ministry of the Interior to officials around the country, the Roma are singled out. Of the 300 illegal camps that should be removed, the phrase is added "en priorité ceux des Roms." As can be seen, this little phrase turns the emphasis from illegality to race.

Which in turn puts France in breach of European rules. Hence the stern words of Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner. She called French actions a disgrace and said that she would propose that the European Commission takes legal proceedings against France. All the time protesting its innocence, the Ministry quietly rewrote the offending circular so that now it refers to the removal of illegal camps "whoever the occupants might be".

Jews have often headed the list of "others". For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, France has sometimes exhibited a virulent strain of anti-semitism. The anti-Jewish policy of the French wartime government headed by Marshall Pétain has been excused as unavoidable given that the country was under German occupation. But the French decrees were in some respects stricter than the Nazi, particularly in assessing Jewish ancestry. As Pétain's private secretary, Du Moulin de Labarthète affirms in his memoires: "This legislation was, if I dare say, spontaneous, purely native" .

Freemasons and Protestants also played the role of the "other" at least until the end of the Second World War. Freemasons were thought by many Catholics to want to destroy family values and to deny religion. Maurice Barres, a right wing polemicist said that Jews and Protestants were incarnations of cosmopolitanism, and therefore rootless parasites. They loved universal rights such as the right to life, to freedom, to own property "because it masked their foreignness."

One of the most striking actions against the "other" in French history was the public degradation in 1895 at the Ecole Militaire in Paris of Captain Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted of spying for Germany on charges cooked up by the Army High Command. At a formal ceremony, the poor Captain was stripped of his buttons, braids, epaulettes and red trouser stripes and his sword was broken before he was led away in rags to begin a long prison sentence.

How can one explain these fears? President De Gaulle wrote that the antique serenity of a peasant people, assured of making a living, albeit mediocre, from the land, had been superceded by the "muffled anguish of the uprooted". But could it also be that the French Revolution was such a sharp break with the past, that French people felt for long afterwards that they had somehow lost their bearings?

In both these respects Britain is different from France – I hasten to emphasise different not better. We have no memories of a peasant culture as the French have to this day. They still regularly celebrate the peasant virtues. We retain our monarchy and our established Church and our bishops in the House of Lords. We often think that in these respects and many others we are absurdly old fashioned. Yet these continuities seem to provide us with a self-confidence that foreign visitors read as tolerance. How often am I told : "You British are so tolerant."

In the French mind, however, only the French army provided a link with France' s glorious history before the Revolution, hence the viciousness of the pursuit of Dreyfus, supposed traitor to a sacred cause. Hence also the decision to ask the victorious German forces for an armistice in 1940 so that the French army need not suffer the humiliation of actual surrender. Yet this same French army had experienced a string of defeats since the battle of Waterloo in 1815 that ended the Napoleonic wars. As a result the French became haunted by the notion of the enemy within. This fear lingers on, attaching itself now to the Roma people. France's Muslim population is also a prime candidate for being classified as the "other".

De Gaulle gave the classic retort to such fears when he dealt with an example concerning his staff in London during the summer of 1940. There had arrived in London Georges Boris, a former magazine editor and close advisor of Léon Blum, the Jewish prime minister and leader of the Popular Front, a coalition of centre and left wing parties that came to power in 1935. Boris was also Jewish. When the war began, he was 52 years old. Nonetheless he signed up as an ordinary soldier and became attached to a British artilley regiment in a liaison capacity. He was evacuated from Dunkirk and came to London. He applied to join De Gaulle' s staff. He was turned down on account of his background – socialist, friend of Blum and a Jew.

When De Gaulle heard of this he issued this magisterial rebuke. "M. Boris is perhaps Jewish, partisan of Leon Blum and many other things besides. But I see only one thing. He is a Frenchman who signed up to fight at the age of 52. He has campaigned in Flanders and now wishes to join us to continue to the struggle for France. That is enough for me. I don' t recognize any difference of race or of opinions between us. I know only two categories of Frenchmen: those who do their duty and those who do not." M. Sarkozy is a Gaullist, but he is not De Gaulle.