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.
The so-called “affaire du digicode” recounted by Guitton reflects the tragi-comic aspect to these trends. Since the 1990s, Paris apartment buildings have been equipped with electronic keys: numeric pads on which you type a code in order to gain access. While this was a victory for common security, it posed a conundrum for observant Jews living in these buildings. Jewish occupants could not use the electronic key on the Sabbath, of course, but these same Jewish residents also insisted that everyone, gentiles included, assume the cost for installing a manual key for their use. When the gentile neighbors refused, a rash of digicode vandalism broke out: The pads were pulverized, allowing entry to one and all.
Guitton also casts a long and lucid gaze on the extremists in the French Muslim community. Do we need to be reminded? The horrifying murders committed last year by Mohamed Merah are still fresh in our memory. But perhaps we do need to recall the full horror. Guitton, who is merciless in his account of France’s Salafist movement, recalls that Merah had gravitated to this dark matter within Islam. This explains not only his cold-blooded murder of the Jewish teacher and three children, but also his killing of three French soldiers. Believing that all three were Muslim, Merah “executed” them because, serving in an infidel army, they were apostates.
We need, moreover, to recall not just Merah’s motivations, but also the Ministry of the Interior’s estimate that among the more than 5 million Muslims in France, between 1,000 and 2,000 are radicalized fundamentalists. Guitton asks us to recall that the vast majority of French Muslims identify with the French Republic. A study published last year by the statistical agency INSEE polled men and women who were born in France and have at least one parent born elsewhere. The vast majority of respondents were from North and West Africa, regions where Islam predominates. And yet, the researchers found that 90% of their interlocutors accept the Republic’s values and consider themselves fully French.
At the end of his tour de France, Guitton leaves us with a paradox that is both reassuring and troubling: Extremists have more in common with one another than with the communities they pretend to represent. The minority of fundamentalists found within the French Muslim community defend a vision of Islam that is as exclusionary and reactionary as the interpretations that fundamentalist Jews and Christians give to their respective faiths. Herein lies the tragedy: France’s republican model is founded on the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and — last but far from least — fraternity. Implicit in this model is the existence of a secular space, of a common life, where all citizens meet as equals. As this space becomes ever more besieged, it is difficult to argue with Guitton’s conclusion that religion is too important a matter to be left solely in the hands of clerics and theologians.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).