“In a class in the city centre of my town, 91 percent of the children are Muslims. Obviously, this is a problem. There are limits to tolerance.” Those were the words of Robert Menard, the mayor of a southern town in France called Beziers. Menard was fined 2,000 euros for this statement because of a 1978 law in France that prohibits the collecting of data regarding individuals’ ethnicities, religious preferences, and other information.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Menard’s comment upset me, and most likely upset many of those who read it. I’d like to think that even if I didn’t grow up Muslim, I would still reject his intolerance. He had the audacity to say that Muslim children who emigrated from war-torn countries were a problem. After having to flee their homes to live in a foreign land, these children now had to worry about their own mayor considering their very presence to be a nuisance. Menard later said in his defense that he was only stating facts, and simply commenting on what he saw. Yeah, I didn’t buy it either.
But I had to take a step back. Criticizing Menard for what he said is one thing, but what of the law he broke? I wasn’t angry because he reported that 91 percent of school children were Muslim, but rather because he said that they were a problem. The issue here is that he was charged for the former, not the latter. Like most people, I am a proponent of free speech, so I wouldn’t want Menard to be punished for his comments against Muslims even though I abhor his views. However, I also believe that he was wrongly fined, and that the law France has in place is counterproductive.
The rationale behind the law is easy to understand. It stemmed from France’s desire to distance themselves from Nazi ideology, which valued race above all else. But that justification is simply no longer relevant. I think it’s safe to say that apart from a handful of deranged individuals, humanity at large has long since distanced itself from Nazism. Today, the implications of the law are not good for France, and they wouldn’t be good for any country.
The idea was to place less emphasis on distinguishing qualities like religion and ethnicity in an attempt to unite the country. Unfortunately, when trying to homogenize a large group of people, the inevitable differences between groups become more apparent, and minorities are targeted for not assimilating. When someone speaks, acts, or believes differently, it’s no longer just foreign, it’s non-French.
I’m not an expert on ethnic relationships in France, and I’m not suggesting that the country is an inherently intolerant place. I’m only suggesting that the sentiment the law promotes (though it was well-intended) could potentially degenerate into that of conformity and oppression rather than solidarity and acceptance. I’m also not claiming that the law inadvertently led Menard to say what he did about Muslims. That’s a much more complicated issue that deals with immigration and refugees. That being said, I absolutely believe that it could have been a factor, and that the law can manifest itself in unsavory ways by not acknowledging the differences among people.
Some might wonder how an obscure French law is a topical subject in America and elsewhere. Although the law itself may not exist outside of France, the notion of downplaying cultural differences is a common tactic used by those who wish to undermine the movements of minority groups. The best (or perhaps I should say worst) example of this is the all-too-common phrase used as a rebuttal against the Black Lives Matter movement: “all lives matter.” The argument goes something like this — Black people shouldn’t assert that Black lives matter specifically because all lives matter and they shouldn’t single themselves out. I don’t even consider the argument to be central to a movement, because more often than not it’s only used to poorly refute a legitimate and important cause.
The bottom line is that we cannot be too inclusive or exclusive when it comes to our identities. Ignoring the fact that different ethnicities and religions exist isn’t the answer to a problem; in fact, often times doing so is only thinly veiled bigotry. There is a middle ground, and it consists of embracing, enjoying, and taking part in different cultures, all the while keeping in mind where the boundaries lie.