The "hop-off-you-frogs" prize for the silliest headline about France in the British press - generally a much-contested honour - can be awarded early this year. "Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?" inquired the main headline on the comment page of The Daily Telegraph. The headline stood above a bizarre contribution to the debate about Muslim headscarves in French state schools. The writer was Barbara Amiel, the novelist, columnist and wife of The Telegraph's outgoing proprietor, Lord Black of Crossharbour.
She made the following assertions: "Many demographers" estimate that as much as 20-30 per cent of the French population under 25 is Muslim. And given current birth rates it is "not impossible" that in 25 years France will have a Muslim majority.
Both statements are absurdly wrong. They amount to the kind of inflammatory piffle you read in pamphlets produced by Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic National Front. In truth, not even the National Front would make such lurid claims.
I put Ms Amiel's figures to Michèle Tribalat, who is the acknowledged expert on immigration at the French demographic institute INED (and, incidentally, a conservative with a small "c" like Ms Amiel, and no apologist for Islam). Mme Tribalat described the figures as "une sottise" (a piece of foolishness). "One wonders," she said, "where such figures come from and why."
Yes, there is a problem about the integration of France's Muslim minority. Yes, there is a worrying tendency for a tiny minority of this minority - often the most educated and middle class among them - to follow the more extreme Islamist teachings. (The same problem exists in Britain). No, the argument should not just be about numbers. It should be about mutual respect and mutual tolerance and equal opportunities. But since Ms Amiel has raised the question of numbers, let's look at the numbers.
France refuses to keep ethnic population statistics, on the high-minded, Republican principle that all French people are equally and indivisibly French. High-minded principles can have perverse consequences.
The ban on headscarves, and other religious symbols, in state schools is based on another abstract principle: that French citizens are, first and foremost, lay citizens of a lay state. In their spare time, they can worship whatever religion they choose. When they attend a state institution, such as a school, they must leave "ostensible" signs of their religious allegiances at the school gate.
The principle, and the proposed new law, may be well intentioned, but they have generated unforeseen problems for Sikhs and bearded schoolchildren, and wonderful opportunities for both Islamist and far-right demagogues.
Much the same is true of the ban on ethnic statistics. In the absence of official numbers, speculation thrives. The Muslim population of France has sometimes been put in the French press as high as six million (out of 60 million). The National Front talks of eight million, or even 10 million. Ms Amiel's article implies that by 2029, it will be somewhere near 35 million.
To try to clear up the confusion, the French state half-swallowed its principles a couple of years ago and allowed a sample poll on ethnic backgrounds as part of a national census. A report was published last year based on this poll. It was written by Mme Tribalat. She estimates that the true "Muslim population" of France is 3.7 million or 6 per cent. The percentage of Muslims in the French population under 18 is indeed higher, she told me - around 10 per cent. The percentage in the population under 25 is not "25-30 per cent", as Ms Amiel mystifyingly claims, but around 8 or 9 per cent.
France has a buoyant birth rate, higher than that of most other EU countries, but it extends (rather surprisingly) across all social and ethnic groups. There is no particular Muslim baby-boom, as Ms Amiel implies. The big immigration flows into France - both legal and illegal - are now from China, Africa and Eastern Europe, not from North Africa. In other words, the Muslim share of the French population will grow a little in the next few years. In the longer run, it is likely to stablise and may even fall.
As Mme Tribalat says, one wonders where Ms Amiel's figures come from - and why.
Down and out on the Champs Elysées
My son Charles, almost 14, and his friend Pierre, spent 90 minutes on the Champs Elysées rattling a collecting tin for an ancient French charity that fights leprosy. At the end of that time, they had collected nothing. Rien. Eventually a down-and-out approached them. "Here," he said, dropping 50 cents (35 pence) into their tin. "This is all that I got this morning." Charles was rather moved. "It was like something out of the Bible," he said.
For all their talk of fraternity and solidarity, the French are not a very charitable people. Like other countries with a tradition of an overbearing state, they seem to assume that charity should be a state monopoly. A recent international survey concluded that the Americans were, individually, the most generous people on earth, giving on average €270 (£185) a year each to good causes. Britons - €100 (£68) each - were reasonably giving. The French - €70 (£48) each - were relatively miserly. The ex-Communist East European countries were the meanest of all.
The French are especially allergic to street collections, it seems. Only one in seven say that they put money in collecting tins, compared to one in three in Britain.
A bad year for monkeys
President Jacques Chirac may be less than pleased by the horoscope he received for the Chinese new year. In Chinese astrological terms, M. Chirac is a "water monkey". The new year is that of the "forest monkey". Often a disastrous combination, apparently. Some monkey business surely lies ahead.
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