A couple of months ago, the French media reported on yet another clash between religious extremists and state authorities. Fifty boys from a private religious school near Paris arrived at a public lycée to take their final examination; however, when two women serving as their proctors met them, there was a standoff. The students, citing religious scruples, refused to enter the room. After a few tense minutes, the school authorities blinked first: They agreed to replace the two female proctors with men.
The students, by the way, were wearing yarmulkes.
This latest bulletin from the battered no-man’s land that lies between republican France and its religious radicals came to mind as I read René Guitton’s “La France des Intégristes.” The full title of the book, which was published recently in France, is best translated as “The Fundamentalists of France: The Repudiation of the Republic by Jewish, Christian and Muslim Extremists.” A well-known journalist, Guitton visits a series of fundamentalist religious communities in France, interviewing leaders as well as followers. By the end, he gives new life to the old chestnut that extremes always meet.
The funny thing about the word “intégrisme” — now almost always used to describe Muslim fundamentalists — is that it was first applied to fin-de-siècle French Catholics who had serious issues with modernity. By “modernity,” these Catholics understood the French Republic and its secular values. The Republic, after all, had yanked education from the hands of the church, brought an end to state support of the Catholic clergy, and opened politics and professions to Jews, Protestants and Freemasons. Not surprisingly, the extreme right-wing political thinker Charles Maurras, who saw himself as a defender of the faith, portrayed these same three groups as “les anti-France.”
By 1927, however, even the church had enough of Maurras, excommunicating (though hardly silencing) both him and his movement, Action Française. By then, French Catholics had come to terms with the Republic, finding that they had more in common with moderate republicans than with the wild-eyed and umbrella-swinging followers of Maurras.
And yet, the embers of Catholic fundamentalism still burn, capable of bursting into flames, as they did during the recent protests against France’s same-sex marriage law. Guitton visits a church in Marseille that belongs to the Fraternity of Saint Pius X, founded by the schismatic bishop Marcel Lefebvre. Reciting the Latin mass, the flock chants the phrase pro perfidis Judaeis — “for the perfidious Jews” — the anti-Jewish slander that Vatican II whited out half a century ago. Yet, because the parishioners don’t understand the words, or perhaps because they understand them too well, the phrase hardly causes a ripple along the pews.
As for French Jews, perfidious or otherwise, Guitton observes a similar tendency toward insularity. He quotes the scholar Michel Gurfinkiel, who recalls his childhood in the 1950s, when every other Jew voted for the Communist Party, and fasting on Yom Kippor marked “an instance of intense piety.” As for the rare Hasidic Jews he encountered as a child, “they seemed to have stepped out of a folkloric film.”
Since then, two trends have transformed Gurfinkiel’s Paris: an increasing incidence of intermarriage among Ashkenazi Jews, and the massive arrival of Sephardic Jews from North Africa. As a result, French Jewry has grown more conservative and less tolerant. Paris’s Jewish population, especially the ultra-Orthodox, has moved to the city’s western suburbs from its eastern rim. There the people have in effect built their own ghettoes in order to stave off real and perceived dangers.