The Cracks in French Unity Are Already Appearing

The rifts are large between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, above which all hovers National Front leader Marine Le Pen.


It’s a great day for the French republic. Anyone who remembers the atmosphere in Israel during Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral can imagine what the French are feeling Sunday.

The list is long: the crowds thronging to the square, the free world’s leaders arriving to express solidarity, the live broadcasts on radio and television, the mobilization of young people, the honors for bodyguards and the men and women in uniform, unprecedented security arrangements, the speeches chilling in their honesty and pain, and above all, the pulsing one-time feeling of unity spawning hope for a return to one nation based on the values the victims embodied.

But the national euphoria — and who knows this as well as we? — will vanish in a very short time. The crowds will disperse, the TV and radio stations will return to their regular schedules, and the foreign leaders will take off for home the very same evening. And when the roar of their jet engines grows fainter in the distance, we’ll be able to hear the cracks in the wall of imaginary unity.

Without a doubt, Sunday is a great day for the French republic — over a million people filling the streets of Paris.

Nicolas Sarkozy will stand beside François Hollande, union chiefs will march beside captains of industry, the members of the Muslim council will sit beside not only the archbishop and the rabbis, but also those responsible for the secular regime in whose shadow they shelter. The speeches will be pained and honest, young people will turn out in great numbers, and the slogans will be brilliant and resounding. The promise will be great.

But the cracks are already starting to appear. Members of online teachers’ forums all over France are talking about the yawning gap between their Muslim students and the show of national solidarity. Many primary-school students refused to stand for a moment of silence in memory of the victims, claiming they could not honor the memories of people who had blasphemed Islam.

High-school teachers were asked why writing that the prophet Mohammed did not exist was permissible while Holocaust denial was a serious felony, why the stand-up comedian Dieudonné, the idol of French-Arab youth, was tried and banned for mocking the Zionists while the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were considered heroes for mocking Muslims.

And above the cracked wall hovers National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is shrewdly playing the duplicitous game played by demagogues everywhere. She is talking about a return to the glory days of the past on the one hand, and a plan to dismantle French democracy on the other.

When Hollande descends from the stage Sunday, enveloped in the love of his people, his rising poll numbers and a pan-European embrace, he’ll have to distance himself from that dream and dive into the problem of France’s pain. Many dark forces are waiting for him to drown.