France Seen in Perspective

Points made in a column by Ross Douthat (The New York Times, January 10):

Since the eighteenth century, France has suffered from anxieties about its decline. France is actually becoming more important and more central to the fate of Europe and the West.

At the heart of the Hebdo nightmare is the question whether European nation-states can successfully integrate Muslim immigrants. France has the largest Muslim population of any major European country. Parts of that population are more assimilated, others are more radicalized than others on the continent. (Sixteen percent of French citizens expressed support for the Islamic State in a poll last summer.)

Muslims are regarded more favourably in France than elsewhere in Western Europe and yet French politics features an increasingly potent far-right movement.

The E.U. is in crisis. The Germans, however economically dominant, cannot hold the European Union together because of the gulf between German interests and the interests of the periphery. It is France that has to bridge the divide between Europe’s north and south. France’s star may rise as Germany’s descends.

Demography has turned in France’s favour. The Germans are rich but aging. The French birthrate has risen sharply. Under some scenarios, the French by 2050 may again have the largest economy and population in Europe, making it either dominant in a more integrated Europe or the most important power on a continent more divided than it is today.

There is an important intellectual possibility: a new ideological conflict or synthesis may emerge first in France, the place where present cultural uncertainties – about Islam, secularism, nationalism, about modernity itself – suggest that new forces may be born.

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