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Vol. 8 No. 3 · 20 February 1986

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France under threat

SIR: In his grim and detailed portrait of French official racism in the pre-election period, R.W. Johnson (LRB, 23 January) may unwittingly leave the impression with your readers that two centuries of Enlightened thought have just curled up and died. By taking part in the squalid trade in anti-immigrant threats, the Socialist government and most of the press have indeed come to mimic the worst prejudices of the traditional Right and the Front National. But Johnson overlooks those pockets of political life where resistance continues to this shameful betrayal of the Arab and African communities who, quite literally, rebuilt France after the war.

On a wet and freezing Saturday shortly before Christmas, the non-party association SOS Racisme managed to gather around sixty thousand demonstrators in Paris to mark the end of a kind of anti-racist Tour de France undertaken over the previous month by groups of mostly Arab youths on scooters. Last summer, an SOS-sponsored concert in the Place de la Concorde attracted a quarter of a million supporters. Kept at arm’s length by Socialist ministers and lacking any patronage from other notables, SOS Racisme has created a powerful presence in little over a year, despite the usual problems of tiny budgets, tatty offices and erratic publicity.

The organisation has few friends at court, and media backing has come only from a mixed bunch of sympathisers that includes the gratingly trendy paper Libération (hardly a recommendation for many people) and the noisiest of the not so very Nouveaux Philosophes, Bernard-Henri Lévy (ditto). SOS’s relations with other immigrants’ rights groups have not always been happy – especially with those of an overtly Islamic slant – but it has become a conspicuous example of political pluralism in defence of strict republican principles, drawing attention to physical or ideological attacks on non-Europeans, and lobbying on cases and issues at a national level. It has both Jewish and Arab officers and activists, while its president is a 26-year old Frenchman of West Indian origin called Harlem Désir – his real name, amazingly enough.

Unlike the British Anti-Nazi League of the late Seventies, SOS has avoided hijack by the Trotskyists. Many of its militants are very young-lycéens rather than students – and appear to have no other political axe to grind. They include a large number of young Arab women, one of whom told me sadly that she felt she had to fight against her parents’ generation before achieving the independence to be able to fight for them. Compared to the great pikes of the mass parties whose sinister movements Johnson traces, a campaign like SOS Racisme is clearly, still a minnow. It does seem strange and depressing that such a precarious and informal body should have to bear the weight of defending the simplest of liberal values in France. Whatever happens to Le Pen’s increasingly smooth bigots and their imitators after 16 March, the task that SOS has set itself looks likely to grow alarmingly over the next few years.

Boyd Tonkin
London N1

SIR: R.W. Johnson’s recent discussion of the current election campaign in France gives too much weight to Le Pen and the National Front, to the press baron Robert Hersant and to immigration and the ‘racist mood’ as the main factors in the likely victory, next March, of the Liberals and Centrists of the UDF allied with the ‘Barrists’ and the populist RPR. The following quotations sum up his argument: ‘In any case, once the present racist mood has produced a right-wing government, it will have largely served its purpose.’ And: ‘The French example suggests that if you introduce PR to a country which has two million plus coloured immigrants, high unemployment and a muscular, nationalist Right, things can quite easily spin out of control.’ Proportional Representation will not have the disastrous effects Mr Johnson predicts for France, nor for Britain if it ever crosses the Channel.

A clear victory of the UDF-RPR, if it happens next March, will be due to the failures of the Left since it came to power in 1981 to fulfil its utopian promises of La Force Tranquille and to Changer la Vie – which amounted to ineffective and ruinous nationalisations, rising unemployment and foreign debt, a brutal austerity turnabout in 1983, an absurd attempt to put an end to la liberié scolaire and, to crown it all, the shameful Greenpeace affair. This covert attack – in a friendly democratic country – on a small protest organisation mattered to the French, even though Mr Mitterrand and Mr Fabius survived the scandal and French opinion, given its national interest in the Pacific, seemed not to take it too seriously. The key issues in the next election are democratic and serious ones: Libéralisme, Anti-Étatisme, Régionalisation, Privatisation, Autonomie etc. There is also an anti-racist mood personified by Mr Harlem Désir, Mr Stasi, Mr Raymond Barre, Mrs Simone Veil and movements like Touche pas à mon pote or SOS Racisme which transcend the traditional divide between Left and Right.

As for Proportional Representation, which has its definite fairness, more than ‘the revenge of the Third and Fourth Republics on the Fifth’, it was a cunning move by Mr Mitterrand to save what could be saved of the Socialist Party in the next Assembly and Regional Councils after the likely March debacle. The scrutin majoritaire à deux tours, if it had been kept, would have reduced the PS to a particroupion. Unfortunately the price to pay will, in my view, be a small number (not ‘several dozen’) of Front National members in the National Assembly. In effect, their election, for the first time, will confine ‘racism’ to a handful of extremists in the Assembly and ensure their final discredit. France simply needs a good immigration law – say, on the Canadian model – and it will get it in the new legislature.

Concerning the co-existence of chauvinism and racism with a growing acceptance of cultural pluralism and of immigrants playing leading roles in all walks of life in France, Mr Johnson is not wrong, but Michel Poniatowski is not a good example of a mere ‘Polish count’ becoming Giscard’s Interior Minister. After giving a king to Poland in the 18th century, the family of the Princes Poniatowski has belonged to the French ‘ruling class’ and high society since the early 19th century when the ancestor of Michel Poniatowski, a ‘hero’ of Napoleon’s Army, held the rank of Maréchal d’Empire. Michel Poniatowski himself is an énarque, like Giscard, with whom he was a leading figure in the Républicains Indépendants and, in 1976, a founder of the Parti Républicain. It is thus difficult to consider him as an example of a successful immigrant of ‘recent’ assimilation like Henri Krasucki, Yves Mont-and or Yannick Noah, whose mother is actually French, all of whom are mentioned by Mr Johnson.

To sum up, the likely victory next March of the liberal and democratic opposition should not be equated with a racist right-wing victory for Messrs Le Pen and Hersant. Proportional representation will not bring about a catastrophe for French democracy but will simply save the Socialist Party from a too humiliating defeat.

Jacques Beauroy
Collège de France, Paris

SIR: In his otherwise lucid and illuminating article, ‘Proportional Representation casts a shadow over France’ R.W. Johnson says that we in Britain ‘have over two million coloured immigrants’. Approximately half of Britain’s present black population were born here. How can somebody be an immigrant in the country of his or her birth?

Peter Fryer
London N6

Literary Theory

SIR: Professor Hough talks in his review of Criticism in the University (LRB, 17 October 1985) of the appalling state into which we have all driven ourselves, and the impatient young. W(h)ither academic criticism, indeed! There is, I think, a cure, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would suggest that it lies in the organisation of university studies rather than in further ramifications of theory and method. Relevant considerations can be summarised as follows: 1. There are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist. 2. The active presence in society, none the less, of people who share the same inherited humane culture is certain to be beneficial in countless unpredictable ways. The alternative is barbarism. 3. There is a limit to what can go on being said by even the most intelligent reader about the books he has read.

If these are truths, the present undergrduate and postgraduate degree structure in the Humanities in the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent North America) ignores them. What would be far better is an indefinitely extendable degree course consisting of two-year units like those of the Cambridge Tripos, to which students, after taking two of them, and graduating as BA, could return at later stages in their career, adding degree qualifications in subjects they had previously been unable to study. This would not mean scrapping postgraduate research when that research was justified by the interest of the topic. However, a candidate for a lectureship in English would be considered qualified not necessarily because he had undertaken such research but because he had a degree in, say, English, Russian and English History and was planning to take leave of absence later on to do a course in Sociology or Latin or Greek or Italian. We would return to the practice of recruiting as teachers of the humanities learned men and women. Grants for postgraduate study would be made available, for the first time, accordingly. Plenty of interesting critical reflections are likely to arise spontaneously from the discovery by the individual of new areas of learning and of a fund of literature which, even within the accepted canon, can seem endless. Life is too short for lamentations on the state of academic criticism. Far better to go off and read Don Quixote.

Geoffrey Strickland
Department of French Studies, University of Reading

SIR: Surely Professor Jochum’s students (Letters, 19 December 1985) have already been exposed to some bad language, even in Bamberg? I don’t know if Shakespeare, for example, is heavily expurgated in German, but then Shakespeare in German doesn’t bear too much thinking about. I was a foreign graduate student in Britain myself, and would offer Professor Jochum some gratuitous advice. If he is going to continue sending his students to British universities, ‘to improve their minds and their English’, he should be careful not to send them anywhere where the professors are known to make a cottage-industry of rejecting all things foreign out of hand. That is no place for young Bavarians. He should send those Bavarians somewhere where the professors, even if they are given to uttering the occasional oath, are known to be open-minded, informed, generous, and tolerant of strong accents as well as new ones. In other words: go with Cardiff.

lmre Salusinszky
Department of English, Yale University

Oliver Sacks

SIR: It was sad and maybe inevitable that Colin McGinn would find Oliver Sacks’s The man who mistook his wife for a hat to be a ‘coffee-table book for the scientifically shy to dip into and amaze themselves and their friends’ (LRB, 23 January). The inevitability was a result of the frustration, for a philosopher of the mind, of a book alluding to and yet circumnavigating the major issues of the mind-brain relationship. In his demolition of Sacks’s work McGinn fails to perceive the sympathy of a neurologist who observes with wonder the mysteries of the mind being revealed to him by his patients. To worry about the philosophical consequences of these cases is at a tangent to the real issue, which is how to understand a patient’s illness and so make life more comfortable for him. Sacks shows, with sensitivity and respect for his patients, how in treating them his understanding of neurology was broadened.

J. Sussman

Lion Art

SIR: Not being British myself, I do not presume to assess the reactions of the British public on reading the Poet Laureate’s second official poem, written for the Queen Mother’s 85th birthday (Observer, 29 December 1985). Being, however, an Associate Professor of English Literature, I couldn’t help reading ‘The Dream of the Lion’ with a professional eye, and found it positively embarrassing, to say the least. Hughes’s tedious obsession with animals is well-known and has already produced a number of rather unfortunate poems. This seems to me an entirely superfluous poem, though certainly touching in its loyalty to the Queen Mother.

Why perpetuate a tradition that has conferred a dubious distinction on poets of widely varying talent – a tradition, moreover, that induced even a great poet like Wordsworth to write a (very bad) poem on some princess’s puppy, if I remember correctly? There must be some malignant influence at work when such honours are conferred. One cannot help wondering why we should have Poets Laureate today, if all they can do – perhaps they can do no more – is inflict on us and posterity such a mediocre poem as ‘The Dream of the Lion’ (and no doubt many more to come in the same strain). For poetry’s sake, I must say I feel rather thankful I belong to a young republic, though a very old nation. Just fancy anybody writing a fulsome poem on President Cossiga’s birthday (when is it, anyway?): unthinkable, thank goodness.

Gabriella Micks
Pescara, Italy

Ladies Land League

SIR: I am preparing a history of Anna Parnell and the Ladies Land League. The League, which made an important contribution to the movement for land reform in Ireland from 1881-82, had several branches in England and Scotland as well as in Canada, the United States and Australia. I would be very glad to receive letters, diaries, family papers, recollections etc. concerning the League or its members.

Jane Côté
75 Jessell House, Judd Street, London WC1

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