I think the border dates for Europe are a disingenuous in places, such as the Czech Republic’s 1459 border with Germany (neither of these two countries existed then) and the borders of the Balkan states (Yugoslavia?). Other than a few discrepancies here and there, it’s a pretty cool map. (h/t Bill Easterly)
That’s the subject of my latest over at RealClearHistory. Peep game:
The refusal of the colonies to pay for the war they initiated also led to the flare up of a simmering tension between elites on both sides of the British Atlantic: representation. The colonists wanted to send representatives to London and have them participate as full members of the body politic. The elite on the islands, however, were openly disdainful of American elites and probably did not want to disperse their power even more thinly by admitting new seats. Adam Smith was especially prescient on this matter, actually arguing that London could avoid most of its trouble by simply admitting American representatives to parliament.
Please, read the whole thing.
I recently engaged in a discussion (a twittercussion) with Leah Boustan of Princeton over the “popularity” of economic history within economics (depicted below). As one can see from the purple section, it is as popular as those hard candies that grandparents give out on Halloween (to be fair, I like those candies just like I do economic history). More importantly, the share seems to be smaller than at the peak of 1980s. It also seems like the Nobel prize going to Fogel and North had literally no effects on the subfield’s popularity. Yet, I keep hearing that “economic history is back”. After all, the Bates Clark medal went to Donaldson of Stanford this year which should confirm that economic history is a big deal. How can this be reconciled with the figure depicted below?
As I explained in my twittercussion with Leah, I think that there is a popularity for using historical data. Economists have realized that if some time is spent in archives to collect historical data, great datasets can be assembled. However, they do not necessarily consider themselves “economic historians” and as such they do not use the JEL code associated with history. This is an improvement over a field where Arthur Burns (former Fed Chair) supposedly said during the 1970s that we needed to look at history to better shape monetary policy. And by history, he meant the 1950s. However, while there are advantages, there is an important danger which is left aside.
The creation of a good dataset has several advantages. The main one is that it increases time coverage. By increasing the time coverage, you can “tackle” the big questions and go for the “big answers” through the generation of stylized facts. Another advantage (and this is the one that summarizes my whole approach) is that historical episodes can provide neat testing grounds that give us a window to important economic issues. My favorite example of that is the work of Petra Moser at NYU-Stern. Without going into too much details (because her work was my big discovery of 2017), she used a few historical examples which she painstakingly detailed in order to analyze the effect of copyright laws. Her results have important ramifications to debates regarding “science as a public good” and “science as a contribution good” (see the debates between Paul David and Terence Kealey on this in Research Policy for this point).
But these two advantages must be weighted against an important disadvantage which Robert Margo has warned against in a recent piece in Cliometrica. When one studies economic history, one must keep in mind that two things must be accomplished simultaneously: to explain history through theory and bring theory to life through history (this is not my phrase, but rather that of Douglass North). To do so, one must study a painstaking amount of details to ascertain the quality of the sources used and their reliability. In considering so many details, one can easily get lost or even fall prey to his own prior (i.e. I expect to see one thing and upon seeing it I ask no question). To avoid this trap, there must be a “northern star” to act as a guide. That star, as I explained in an earlier piece, is a strong and general understanding of theory (or a strong intuition for economics). To create that star and give attention to details is an incredibly hard task and which is why I argued in the past that “great” economic historians (Douglass North, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Fogel, Nathan Rosenberg, Joel Mokyr, Ronald Coase (because of the lighthouse piece), Stephen Broadberry, Gregory Clark etc.) take a longer time to mature. In other words, good economic historians are projects that have have a long “time to build problem” (sorry, bad economics joke). However, the downside is that when this is not the case, there are risks of ending up with invalid results that are costly and hard to contest.
Just think about the debate between Daron Acemoglu and David Albouy on the colonial origins of development. It took more than five years to Albouy to get his results that threw doubts on Acemoglu’s 1999 paper. Albouy clearly expended valuable resources to get the “details” behind the variables. There was miscoding of Niger and Nigeria, and misunderstandings of what type of mortalities were used. This was hard work and it was probably only deemed a valuable undertaking because Acemoglu’s paper was such a big deal (i.e. the net gains were pretty big if they paid off). Yet, to this day, many people are entirely unaware of the Albouy rebuttal. This can be very well seen in the image below regarding the number of cites of the Acemoglu-Johnson-Robinson paper on an annual basis. There seems to be no effect from the massive rebuttal (disclaimer: Albouy convinced me that he was right) from the Albouy piece.
And it really does come down to small details like those underlined by Albouy. Let me give you another example taken from my work. Within Canada, the French minority is significantly poorer than the rest of Canada. From my cliometric work, we now know that there were poorer than the rest of Canada and North America as far as the colonial era. This is a stylized fact underlying a crucial question today (i.e. Why are French-Canadians relatively poor). That stylized fact requires an explanation. Obviously, institutions are a great place to look. One of the institution that is most interesting is seigneurial tenure which was basically a “lite” version of feudalism in North America that was present only in the French settled colonies. Some historians and economic historians argued that there were no effects of the institutions on variables like farm efficiency. However, some historians noticed that in censuses the French reported different units that the English settlers within the colony of Quebec. To correct for this metrological problem, historians made county-level corrections. With those corrections, the aforementioned has no statistically significant effect on yields or output per farm. However, as I note in this piece that got a revise and resubmit from Social Science Quarterly (revised version not yet online), county-level corrections mask the fact that the French were more willing to move to predominantly English areas than the English were willing to predominantly French areas. In short, there was a skewed distribution. However, once you correct the data on an ethnic composition basis rather than on the county-level (i.e. the same correction for the whole county), you end with a statistically significant negative effect on both output per farm and yields per acre. In short, we were “measuring away” the effect of institutions. All from a very small detail about distributions. Yet, that small detail has supported a stylized fact that the institution did not matter.
This is the risk that Margo speaks about illustrated in two examples. Economists who use history merely as a tool may end up making dramatic mistakes that will lead to incorrect conclusions. I take this “juicy” quote from Margo (which Pseudoerasmus) highlighted for me:
[EH] could become subsumed entirely into other fields… the demand for specialists in economic history might dry up, to the point where obscure but critical knowledge becomes difficult to access or is even lost. In this case, it becomes harder to ‘get the history right’
- oil and Kurdistan
- after Raqqa, Iraq’s army turns on Kurdistan
- “There has been a common and unfortunate tendency among many analysts and policy makers to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism”
- separatist movements in Europe don’t actually want independence
- GREAT topic, but poor methodology, poor theory, poor use of data, and bad faith
- meh (try this book review instead)
- Law without the State [pdf]
- My country, your colony | why the Holocaust in Europe?
- compliance and defiance to national integration in Africa [pdf] | on doing economic history
- ethnonationalism and nation-building in Siberia [pdf] | cosmopolitanism and nationalism
- political centralization and government accountability [pdf] | decentralization in military command
- unified China and divided Europe [pdf] | unilateralism is not isolationism
This is a meandering essay; although it’s about history, it’s a bit personalized, for effect. In other words, it’s far from straightforwardly scholarly history but I think it’s all or mostly true. Be patient, at one point it will become about the former French African colonial empire and socio-cultural strata it deposited in France, and there to this day.
Often, in my dotage, I sneak a look at TV5, the French language cable channel. Often too, I fall asleep on the couch while watching its usually – but not always – insipid programs. One day, a short documentary catches my attention. It’s about sexual harassment of French women on the public way. It catches my attention because it’s not obvious to me what would pass for sexual harassment in France, I mean, this side of grabbing and such. So, it turns out that the makers of the documentary had placed a man with a hidden camera near a cafe on a street with a bad reputation. The street is near to one of the main railroad stations in Paris, guaranteeing a two-way flow of commuters, including women, of course.
In the course of twenty minutes, the documentary displays about thirty episodes of “sexual harassment.” I am only a man, of course, and thus limited, and a skeptic, but the worst harassment I witness takes the form of annoying mouth noises that I am not talented enough to reproduce with words. Mostly, there are gauche invitations to have a cup of coffee. The documentary ends with the expected boring, trite lamentations, blah, blah. There is zero mention of a striking fact: All the harassers without exception sport a thick North African accent.
I say a “thick” accent to signify recent arrival in France. The accent normally erodes in a few years or months. I imagine the harassers were young immigrants from small villages in Algeria and Morocco trying artlessly to deal with the knowledge that they were now in a society where sex could theoretically be had outside of marriage and outside of prostitution. Some may have been merely lonely and naively hoping to make a French friend. Political correctness clashes with political correctness: Harassing women, even if only verbally, is terrible but mentioning that the harassers all proceed from Muslim countries is terrible too. So, make the documentary and shut up about the obvious!
This is not a very interesting story, of course; I know this. Would anyone expect probably poorly educated rural young men from sex-segregated societies to learn to be cool with women as they are stepping off the boat? It will take quite a while, at best. For some, it will never happen; they will remain uncool forever. Then, they will marry an immigrant woman from their area of origin. Again, it would be absurd to expect anything else. In the same vein, would it be reasonable to imagine that all those immigrants would quickly come to appreciate the importance of the separation of religion from governance (of “church and state”) when it’s anathema in Islam?
Is it possible that a few will never appreciate at all the beauty of such separation? Is it possible that their ignorance, or their hostility, will be passively transmitted to their offspring, together with pork avoidance, for example? Will (would) that transmission have a cumulative effect on French society? France contributed more than its share of apprentice terrorists to ISIS, even would-be war brides, even young women ready for the sexual jihad. The one thing may have little to do with the other. And, it’s true that a startling number of the above are converts from Christianity or, more likely, from atheism.
French people who are not racist, or even “Islamophobic” in any mechanistic sense, carry this sort of question on their minds all the time. Some French people who have been in France for a long time but have Muslim names become themselves attached to secularism (la laïcité). They also discreetly worry about the very same issue. Those who will actually talk about it appear more worried than their fellow citizens with names like mine, or like “Pierre Dupont.” This is all impressionistic, of course. There is no survey. For one thing, it’s illegal in France to gather data about ethnicity.
How did it come to this, you might wonder. Why are these guys in France at all, the ones acting uncool in every conceivable meaning of the word?
In 1962, the French Republic and the Algerian nationalists of the Front de Libération Nationale (“FLN”) came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war, including war against civilians, from both sides. The colonization had been in depth, with hundreds of thousands of French settlers convincing themselves that Algeria was a kind of second France, resembling the original in every way. Except, that is, for the inconvenient prior presence of numerous exotically dressed people who were neither Christians nor free-thinkers. Except for the fact that many of the French settlers were newly minted poor immigrants from Spain and Italy.
At Independence, I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. I mean “French French.” By that time and belatedly, the presumably Muslim population had been granted citizenship. Too little, too late. Probably in an an effort to divide to conquer, the numerous (Arabic speaking) Algerian Jews had all been granted citizenship in the 1880s. In the days of evacuation, the number of (old) French who wanted to leave was much greater than French authorities had planned for. An aircraft carrier – emptied of its planes – had to be used. It was a pathetic show, complete with broken, uncomprehending old grandmothers who had probably never set foot in France. There were no deluxe suitcases in sight but there were used mattresses. Some factions within the FLN were threatening the French with death if they did not go immediately; others would have liked to keep them, or some of them. The death threats prevailed.
It was too bad that the French left in such large numbers. It made the transition to independence technically more difficult than it could have been. It gave the upper hand in Algeria to those who had the best guns rather than to those who could govern, or to the people. It was a pity for all concerned. The French refugees faced an uncertain and harsh future in France, for the most part. For the Algerians, many positions were left for a while without competent personnel, including a budding oil industry in the Sahara. There was a shortage of medical doctors for many years.
Make a mental note of this fact: The French French were not the only ones fleeing. They were accompanied by tens of thousands of families with Muslim names and whose native language was other than French. They were Algerians who had chosen the wrong side in the war of independence and who feared to be massacred in the new Algeria (correctly so, it turned out). Those joined the other hundreds of thousands who had been living in France for economic reasons beginning with WWI.
I think of those events as a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were definitely not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me at the time, moderate, democratic leftists. In fact, I once spent a moving three hours drinking coffee with a convalescing FLN soldier my age, in a third country. He and I had most things in common, including the French language. (More needs to be said about communities of language.)
The true Algerian revolutionaries were soon replaced in power in Algiers however by the professional soldiers of an army that had never really fought because it had been formed outside Algeria while partisan-style forces battled the French army. The military is still in power, fifty-five years later. I think of their regime as a classical but fairly moderate kind of fascism. It has bloodily fought Islamism to a standstill on Algerian soil so, everyone pretends to like them.
The Poor Politics of Colonialism
I went back to Algeria – as a tourist, a spear fisherman, believe it or not- six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. They felt like cousins, the sort of cousins you played with in childhood but have not seen in adulthood. I think now, as I thought in 1962, that the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened if someone had been more reasonable. Even such a short time after the events, events I had lived through as an adult, it was difficult to comprehend what had gone wrong. It was difficult to find any trace of hatred for the French. A young man I wanted to thank for a favor done asked me to take him to a restaurant where he could eat Brie, made expensive by a tariff. (Do I have the talent to make up this anecdote?)
I blame the astonishing incompetence of a French political class that failed in the course of 130 years to invent a form of citizenship that would have accommodated a large and fast growing Muslim population. At the time, it was widely argued that the Muslims insisted on being ruled by a mild form of Sharia insofar as their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce, were concerned. Such an arrangement was incompatible with the strictly secular laws of the French Republic, of course, they were told. The Muslim numerical majority thus had to remain subjects, with only individual access to citizenship, more or less like any Finn or any Bulgarian. I don’t know if this was a genuine obstacle or an excuse for a simple case of yielding to the local French population who did not wish to live under Muslim rule, even if only for local affairs. In spite of their well publicized humanitarian and liberal values, French parties of the left played a prominent part in colonization and in the attendant repression of native populations. The late Socialist Pres. Mitterand, for example, was vigorously policing Algeria when he was a young politician (who had had one foot in the Resistance and one foot in Vichy, earlier, another story, of course).
A brief history of imperialism
After completing the military conquest of Algeria in 1847, which had been arduous, France soon developed a vague appetite for easy territorial gains overseas. The age-old British rival’s imperialism probably inspired the French. By WWI, France had placed under its control, Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (the latter, split with Spain), and the present countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Congo (the small one, next to the Belgian Congo). During World War I, France also took Togo, and the southern half of Cameroon from Germany. We must add Djibouti on the Red Sea and the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Most – but not all – of the population in the colonies was Muslim. Possibly close to half were native speakers of Arabic dialects. However in North Africa, large minorities knew no Arabic but were speakers of several varieties of Tamazigh (“Berber”). French colonial power did not fail to utilize this linguistic dichotomy, as you might expect. Be it as it may, at the close of WWII, you could travel straight south from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Pointe Noire, (across the river Congo from Kinshasa in the larger and better known Belgian Congo) without ever leaving French control.
The possession of a colonial empire seems to have generated monopolistic profits for a few French people, the extraction of which were accompanied by routine atrocities in some parts. The horrors of French rule in the equatorial colonies where hevea -rubber trees – grew, was documented by the great writer André Gide in his travel narrative Un Voyage au Congo. National possession of the empire gave the average French person much psychic income, I think. At least, it facilitated fantasizing – under the gray French skies – about palm trees and warm seas. And adventurous but skill-less young Frenchmen could always find jobs easily in the southern colonies, overseeing native (black) labor just for being white, French, and knowing the common language (French) well.
All the sub-Saharan African countries achieved independence peacefully in the late fifties or early sixties. Morocco and Tunisia had preceded them in 1956. Before that, in Sétif, Algeria, a peaceful demonstration against the French government was put down in 1945 in a massacre where thousands perished. In 1947, an attempted insurrection against French colonial power in faraway Madagascar was ended with another bloodbath. One concrete objection to colonialism is that it regularly places mediocre men in charge of the destinies of many others, some of whom are not mediocre. Those who gave the order to shoot in both Sétif and Madagascar where low level public servants.
There is an intuitive tendency to view colonialism largely or completely in terms of the culture of the colonial power. This is probably wrong. What matters is the circumstances of the colonial acquisition and the use to which it was put. The contrasting cases of Algeria and Senegal are instructive in this respect.
Algeria was conquered militarily between 1830 and 1847 in a thoroughly ravaging war. Note that 1830 was only 18 years after the Waterloo defeat. The Napoleonic era’s stupendous French military victories (excepting Waterloo) were fresh in the collective consciousness. Plus, the political entity centered in Algiers had been far from a bucolic and peaceful place before the French conquest. Its economy relied heavily on piracy and various forms of slaving. It made a likely prey. No one or almost no one was going to miss it. (It’s a mystery why Thomas Jefferson ran out of breath before he got to that Barbary state.) Algeria always mattered because it seemed a likely colony of settlement. It became one, a good one, in spite of the existence of a large native population.
The balance of France’s African colonies – with the exception of Tunisia that was wrested from nominal Ottoman rule by a brief military invasion – was acquired without much purposefulness and with little fighting. A large swath of land near the Equator was taken without a fight by an Italian adventurer, a naturalized Navy officer, a contemporary of Stanley. Brazza was usually accompanied only by a handful of native troops. Wherever he went, he cheekily raised the French flag and abolished slavery. The capital of the Congo bears his name to this day (indicating that he left a pretty good memory).
The smallish country of Senegal in western Africa is a special case of French colonization. French political presence there dates back to the 17th century, first in the form of slave trading posts. Later, the four main cities of Senegal were re-formed as French political municipalities. This, in the absence of a significant local French population. The inhabitants of those cities obtained French citizenship in 1792, that is, earlier than many inhabitants of France. They were eligible to vote and to be elected. French power over the countryside extended slowly from those four towns meeting little resistance.
This special case matters because the assimilationist current in Senegal was strong before independence in 1960 and it continued after independence. Today, it’s difficult to find a Senegalese who does not speak good to excellent French. The unknown percentage who can write do it in French. Interestingly, the casual racism guiding the interaction with the natives of the few French administrators and military personnel, plus a handful of businessmen, was largely suspended when they dealt with the Senegalese. (Personally, I think labels matter, “citizen,” for example. Obviously, that’s another story.)
The narrative of the colonization of Senegal is fairly important because it shows one case where a Muslim country (95%) is explicitly friendly toward the West and well informed about it (via the French language). It is also politically stable and democratic although it is poor (GDP/capita of only about $2,600 around 2015). It’s a case of successful intellectual colonization. I have even personally heard English-speaking Africans accuse Senegalese intellectuals of the same sins of arrogance and obstinacy that usually stick to Paris Left Bank intellectuals. Something went right in Senegal.
By the time of WWII, much of public opinion – including the still-large officer class – was enamored with the notion of France as a great Muslim power.
Colonial strata within France
Every new acquisition of territory in Africa generated a new wave of emigrants to France: students, low-level civil servants climbing the bureaucratic ladder, and some laborers. Public school teachers of native extraction – a large number – would go to France for training through what was intended as a revolving door. There, some would find true love, marry and stay. Every loss of a colony did the same as every acquisition because – as I have mentioned – not everyone knows how to choose the right side in a conflict. Every war also brought Africans to France, as soldiers and as laborers both. Many won French citizenship and remained too. Over the twentieth century that African-originated population grew inside France because immigrants, mostly from rural areas, usually multiply faster than the more urban host population. All immigrants and all their children and all their grandchildren attended the Republic’s schools, or, more rarely, the few Catholic schools.
There was comparatively little true racism, racism by color. (Read the subtle observations of the black American writer Richard Wright, for example.) The existence on the soil of Metropolitan France of a long assimilated black West Indian population may have contributed to deny conventional racism much traction. Despised cultural traits and a condition of economic inferiority on the one hand, and skin color on the other, just did not coincide well enough.
The relative rarity of color sentiment and its shallowness, does not mean that the French were or are free of prejudice, of course. For more than one century, the worst jobs in the country were occupied by immigrants from North Africa, mostly Algeria. Those were people from deeply rural, primitive regions, literate in no language. For most of that period, they lived in ghettos, while their wives and children remained behind in a Maghreb that was always fairly near.
Those people were subject to systematically poor treatment. It was made much worse by the Algerian war of independence that was fought partly in France, with numerous acts of terrorism. French French people never knew enough about Islam until recently and they were too religiously indifferent to call that prejudice “Islamophobic,” I think. What is now the largest political party in France, the Front National, used to be overtly anti-Muslim. Under new leadership, it has cleaned up its act in this respect, avowedly because that stance was doing it more electoral harm than good. It’s now against all immigration. In the current (2017) presidential campaign, some people with Muslims names have said publicly that they would vote for the Front. (They remain a curiosity, I am guessing.)
I am trying to be fair and descriptive here. Two relevant stories. When I was a teenager, I worked part time in an expensive hotel in Paris. Luxury hotels are like theaters; they have a public stage and a backstage. There was a middle aged guy who was the fix-everything man. He was knowledgeable and he had all the tools of most trades. His name was “Ahmed” backstage but it became magically “Jean” when he was in the public area. The great and luminous French movie star Isabelle Adjani (b. 1955) kept her half Algerian origins in the closet for half of her career. To be fair, when she disclosed that she was the daughter of an Algerian Amazigh (a Muslim) a consensus quickly formed that her secrecy had been silly. It’s also possible that she feared the nude scenes in her movies would meet with dangerous disapproval from her father’s group of origin.
In the end, there is a large sub-population in France today that traces its ancestry to various parts of Africa, north, west, and central. By American standards, some are black, some are white. Many or most are citizens. Many are not but have a legal right to live in France by virtue of some international post-colonial agreement or other. Some almost have that right. Many – and still coming – don’t have any such right at all but their cousin lives there. Their children all attend school. They all arrive knowing some French from the schooling in their countries of origin. Given the comparatively effective (comparatively) French school system, and given the unsmiling, generalized French contempt for multilingualism, they all end up “French” in some sense, knowing the French language well, familiar with the fundamentals of civics, well versed in basic French history.
The only trait that consistently differentiates some, or probably most people of African origin from the rest of the French population, is their presumed Muslim identity. (Notably, you almost never hear of people of African descent who are Christian, or even nothing at all.) Islam matters as a cultural fact, even irrespective of genuine religious sentiment, because it prevents mixing to a large extent, and especially, intermarriage. Previous immigrants, from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and more recently, Portugal all tended to marry French. Even more so did their daughters. Muslims from Africa mostly don’t except that a few men marry non-Muslim women.
I say “presumed” Muslim identity because there is no rigorous way to estimate the current Muslim population in France. That too, is forbidden. Going by names – which is often done – is sure to give bad results. It’s likely that most French people with a Muslim name are like the bulk of other French people, religiously indifferent. Hence name counting inflates the number of Muslims in any meaningful sense. Still, there are many mosques in France and many recriminations about their being in insufficient number. There is a large, monumental, highly visible mosque near central Paris. It shelters the headquarters of the official national organization that represents the interests of French Muslims with the government. I don’t know how representative that representative organization currently is, of course.
People with Muslim first names and last names are everywhere in France, over the latitude and longitude of the territory but also from the bottom – sweeping the streets of Paris – to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. (A while ago, I was half in love with a French woman named Rachida Dati. She was a minister in Pres. Sarkozy’s cabinet. It did not work out!) The first French soldier to die in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named El Hadji. The Paris cop terrorists killed outside of Charlie Hebdo also had a Muslim name.
There are many other markers of long-term African presence in France. Here are some, pell-mell: Best couscous in the world. The North African Arabic word for “fast” is commonly used in French, including by people with 32 ancestors born in France. One of the many vocables for the male appendage in French, also one of the most commonly used, is straight from Arabic. (Don’t count on me to satisfy you salacious curiosity; do your own research.) Paris is the world center for the promotion and recording of rich West African music. Same for most fiction and poetry in French, including a significant production from Africa. The strange, often baffling intellectual movement “la négritude“(“negroeness,” I think) developed in France. The largest or second largest collection (after that of the British Museum, maybe) of black African art in the world is in a Paris museum, etc.
Those who know me, in person or through Notes On Liberty, or Liberty Unbound, those who spend even a little time on my blog (factsmatter.worldpress.com), or on my FB page will have heard me lamenting loudly the sterility of contemporary French culture. I cry torrents, especially over the impoverishment and the muddiness of the current French public French language, I mean, as spoken in France, specifically.* For the past fifty years, the French have had precious little to show by way of visual arts, or music and much of their contemporary literature projects the very cold of the grave. Aided by endless government subsidies, the French make many mediocre movies whose slowness and technical imperfection passes for intellectual depth, especially among a certain category of Americans. (On this topic of government help to the French movie industry, you might read Delacroix and Bornon: “Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic’s Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies.” [pdf])
French public figures talk like teenagers and they generally don’t know how to finish a sentence. If a member of the French intelligentsia speaks to you about Iraq, for example, say a journalist at prestigious Le Monde, you know no more about Iraq when he is finished than you did when he begun; you may know less. It was not always like this. (And, I will not insist that the decline of French culture and language are due to my emigration to the US at age 21 but the dates coincide pretty well.) Incidentally, the museums are still good; actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached. But I digress. This is all to let you know of a certain critical pessimistic state of mind of mine.
Still, there are French cultural phenomena that continue to interest me. One is a “culture” TV show with a strong political component that’s tougher on politicians than anything we do in the US. (It’s called, “On nest pas couchés.“) Another is a pure political show, also hard on the politicians interviewed there. (It’s called simply, “L’ Emission politique.“)
So, another time, I am watching French TV intently because there is a retrospective show on the anarchizing singer/composer George Brassens who died in 1981. Brassens is the closest thing France has – except for Edith Piaf – to a secular modern saint. He wrote elegant poems addressed to ordinary people that the intellectual elite also admired. He also put to music Victor Hugo and even the medieval poet François Villon. He sang all with a distinctive stage presence.
That night several current stars of French popular song have been gathered in one setting to each sing one or more of Brassens’s songs. A man named “Slimane” takes one of the three or four most popular, most familiar of Brassens’ pieces and sings it in a deliberately Arabized manner. When he is finished, the eyes of several women singers sparkle. I am strongly moved myself. Slimane has given new life to a classic. No one will ever forget his hybrid rendition of the song.
This is yet another time, I am dozing on the couch (again) after a good French political show I mentioned elsewhere. The TV is still on, of course. Something stops me from falling right asleep; something drags me back to consciousness. This has never happened to me before. What’s waking me is the clarity of the language used by a youngish man being interviewed for one of those culture/literature shows that abound on French television.** The man to whom the voice belongs enunciates precisely; his words are well chosen without being precious; his grammar is impeccable; he finishes every one of the sentences he begins; he does not stutter. He speaks like a man who has thought of what he is speaking about.
Soon, I am alert enough to realize that the fine speaker of French is on the show to flog his newly published book. The book is about conversations he has had in his mind with the writer/philosopher Albert Camus. Now, Camus died in 1960, by the look of it, before the current writer on Camus was born. Camus has a special place in the minds and hearts of several generations of a certain category of French men that used to include me. He is one of the fathers of popular “existentialism.” (I have to use the qualifier and the quote marks to avoid the predictable correction by pedants who will push quotes in German into my email to prove that Camus is in no way a real existentialist. WTF!) Camus received the Nobel in literature in 1957 but that’s not why we care about him. I cannot describe here in detail the particular category of French men who revere him but here is a pointer: Early on in his fame Camus broke up very publicly with his good buddy, the better known Jean-Paul Sartre because Sartre would not denounce Stalinism.
The young writer on TV is black. I am told he is a well-known rapper in France. His name is Abd el Malik. Anecdotal evidence about nothing, some will say. Will it influence me in the future in spite of my good social science training? You bet. How can I avoid it? How can millions of French people ignore this kind of episode irrespective of their views on immigration? That man’s short presentation was like a ray of sunshine in a uniformly dark forest. Why should they not let it impress them?
The story does not end here, Camus himself was a Frenchman from Algeria, obviously not a Muslim. He was born to a widowed, half-deaf and illiterate Spanish immigrant woman who cleaned houses to support herself and Albert. The French are not so much confused about the legacies of their former colonial Empire as they are faced with a confounding reality.
* French is well spoken in various places, in Senegal, first, in much of urban Morocco and Tunisia, and among the Haitian elite, of all places. Romanians and Lebanese also tend to speak a very classical French as a second language.
**I say this with a little bitterness because, as someone who is still practicing being a commercially unsuccessful American writer, I regret strongly that we don’t have a plethora of such shows in the US of A.