Bryan Caplan  

Reflections on the Evolution in France

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I'm back from Europe. Though I'm still playing catch up, here are a couple of observations from my travels:

1. I've often heard people claim that "You can become American, but you can't become French." All my experience in France contradicted this - everywhere I looked I saw extremely assimilated Africans, Asians, and yes - Arabs.

2. Predictions that France is going to be taken over by Islam look largely fanciful. Admittedly, I didn't hang out in ethno-religious enclaves. But I haven't been to France in seven years, and it didn't seem any more Islamic than the last time I was there. Frankly, it's easier to notice the Islamization of Fairfax, Virginia than Paris, France.

3. Seeing a bunch of French cathedrals makes me even more skeptical of the claim (made by Larry Iannaccone and others) that people weren't more religious in earlier centuries. If people weren't far more religious in the Middle Ages, why did they pour such a high fraction of their surplus wealth into century-long religious architectural projects? You could say "It was primarily rulers, not donors, who allocated the funds," but that just pushes the question back a step. Were rulers vastly more religious than the masses? That's hard to believe. Were rulers trying to impress the masses by building churches? Well, why would churches impress the masses unless they were highly religious?

4. Religious architecture and art were to medieval feudalism what advertising and commercialism are to modern capitalism: A rather effective way to build support for the status quo using aesthetics instead of argument. My claim, in short, is that Notre Dame played the same role during the Middle Ages that fashion magazines play today. Notre Dame was not an argument for feudalism, and Elle is not an argument for capitalism. But both are powerful ways to make regular people buy into the system.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
homais writes:

This makes me wonder - how do you reconcile points 3 and 4?

Steve Roth writes:

>My claim, in short, is that Notre Dame played the same role during the Middle Ages that fashion magazines play today.

Naked and semi-naked bodies are awfully convincing...

Fazal Majid writes:

I am French, and also a Muslim (admittedly of Indian origin, not North African Arab). I always found ludicrous (and quite patronizing) the idea that French Muslims would be less secular and less attached than Catholics or Jews to the Republic's strict separation of Church and State. "In God we trust" or swearing in of oaths of office on the Bible would not fly here.

French culture is extremely strong, deep-rooted and resilient, not to mention attractive, just as American culture is for your own non Judeo-Christian immigrants. While first and second generation immigrants from the Maghreb have been shabbily treated and poorly assimilated, they are making the culture theirs, just as couscous has become a part of French culture. In fact, the recent suburban youths' riots show just how assimilated they have become - taking to the streets is a well-established habit of French farmers and sundry other special interests.

R. Pointer writes:

I think Gellner in Nations and Nationalism tries to explain this point. Religious organizations had an interest in homogenizing cultural norms to increase their reach in some societies.

Additionally, the narrative of Christianity and King fed off of one other to validate each. You can see this better in Eastern Europe where conversion of the masses was not the method of Christianization but rather conversion of the King was the first step in both political and cultural alliance between pagan and Christian kingdoms. Take for example Vladimir of Kievan Rus', he converted in 988 but Russians probably still practiced pagan rituals for centuries onward.

Lastly, one must consider what a Latin mass with the priest faced away from the congregation meant for the average person. The didn't understand anything; the spectacle wasn't aimed at convincing them that they had a personal relationship with any higher being; they probably came for the free food and drink; they probably didn't pay much mind to the stuff happening so far up the aisle because they couldn't hear, understand or see what was happening. Religion has certainly changed. It is way more consumer orientated now.

I personally would have loved a mass where I wasn't required to focus on the priest. I would have enjoyed having mystical experiences much better.

TGGP writes:

For data showing how overblown the Eurabia prediction is check out God's Continent.

Fazal Majid, I don't think Islam/Muslims are completely sui generis but I think a reasonable argument can be made that it differs (or has differed in certain contexts) to a significant degree from Judaism and Catholicism in its "digestibility" as one Muslim leader quoted by Samuel Huntington put it.

Horatio writes:

All my experience in France contradicted this - everywhere I looked I saw extremely assimilated Africans, Asians, and yes - Arabs.

How could you tell they were assimilated? You would need to know French language and culture pretty well to accurately judge assimilation. You would also need to understand the cultures of different age groups. My parents probably think young Japanese dress the same as Americans in my generation, but Americans my age can spot the difference immediately.

Danto argues that arts IS rhetoric, so you may be on to something with number 4 (which is also my motivation behind starting The Emerson Institute for Freedom and Culture, btw).

dearieme writes:

Look at the wills of late medieval merchants, and such. They kept leaving some of their money to aspects of the church. Persuasive?

mjh writes:

Glad you're back!

Well, if you're talking about the city center of Paris, yes, you're going to see more assimilated people. If you want to go to the suburbs, that's another story.

I just returned from Paris myself, last week, and I found it notable who the beggers are: older Muslim women with children.

Sharper writes:

In your analysis of wealth for church building you should also factor in that the church back then also had a much greater share of secular power.

A bishop or archbishop was the equivalent of nobility in terms of secular power wielded. The church was an extra-territorial power that needed to be appeased with wealth and cathedrals, among other things.

michael gordon writes:


1) Let's start with the US side of Muslim immigrants (1st, 2nd, 3rd generations): the total Muslim population in the US seems to be somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 million --- including black Muslim groups. That figures was established by two good academic studies in 2001.

62% have bachelor degrees
Nearly 45% earn more than $50,000
50% are in professional occupations
They are diverse religiously, and only about 31% visit a mosque regularly
They are highly integrated into US society. 89% vote regularly. 86% celebrate the 4th of July. 63% regularly fly an American flag
And 43% participate in voluntary associations.

In short, they are well educated generally, are patriotic, are largley middle-class, are overwhelmingly married 78%, are largely of an age between 23 and 54.


2) Now France
First, pinning down the exact number of Muslim immigrants is hard for a variety of reasons, not just because of illegals (sans papiers), but because many don't associate with Mosques. But most studies put the population around 5 million plus, roughly 8% of the total French population.

Second, all the signs show that the percentage will triple in France (and all over most of W Europe) within 20-25 years, what with the higher level of births among Muslim immigrant populations compared to the low birth rates of all the EU countries (East and West): not a one at reproduction level for the native Europeans. (In the US, American-born women have births at approximately the reproduction level 2.1 or 2.2 children per woman.

3) The Pew Research center found that in all 21 countries of Europe where surveys were carried out in late 2007, there was an "overwhelming majority" (majorite ecrasante) in favor of stopping all immigration from Muslim countries. France was no exception.

4) And it is true as the French Indian/Muslim citizen noted in an earlier post here, upwards of 60-70% of French Muslims say they hope to integrate into French life and respect its values.

5) Now the disquieting news:
Unemployment among Muslim immigrants is 30-35% among adult males (much higher among adult women)
Youth unemployment (under 24) is close to 40-50% in recent years.
The income average is far below the French average.
The educational accomplishments are even lower than the French average.
Well over 50% of prisoners in French jails are of Muslim origin (the exact figure is hard to pin down, given the French government's reluctance to break down the statistics by ethnic/racial categories; but several studies have estimate the % as being over 50%. In the urban areas, it is as high as 70% in the "projects" --- shabby, high-rise public-run tenements, found on the edges of all French big cities.

6) More disquieting: in the urban riots of the Fall 2005, over 10,000 cars were burned. The nightly average since then seems to be about 100 a night (never reported in the media, but estimated by observers).

In the late fall 2007, in a slum surburb of France called Villers-le-bel, several days of rioting led to well over 100 French riot police being injured.

Street crime, drug-dealing, delinquency, gangs are rampant in those HLM projets (Habitation de Loyer Municipale).

School violence is a huge problem in France (as it is in parts of the US, mainly in our inner cities).


In short, these differences between France's and the US's Muslim populations are real and easily validated by a variety of studies, including survey polls. If there are problems of data, they are on the French (and EU) side, where governments have been fearful of breaking down criminal statistics and income distribution (and in some instances educational performance) by ethnic/racial categories.


Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

Jay McCarthy writes:

Why did Europeans support the churches?

Devon Whittle writes:

While of course there is value in examining extra-spiritual causes for things like building cathedrals, fighting crusades, etc. I think that something that secular academics constantly miss when analysing religion is that it is a spiritual endeavour.

That is, for the people practicing religion, they actually do believe in a higher power and act accordingly. Thus I wouldn't be too quick to merely attribute cathedral building only to some political/social agenda devoid of any spiritual backing. I'm sure the beliefs of the people also informed their building of the cathedrals.

Yockel writes:

I like your observation about religious aesthetics, Bryan.

Participation is the difference between Notre Dame and Elle. Elle may teach you how to participate. Churches and cathedrals staged rituals that involved every member of a community.

Medieval and renaissance mass were Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial every day, except that everyone got to play a role during the performance rendering the distinction between performer and audience meaningless.

Ovid writes:

Asking whether people in the Middle Ages (presumably, for the purposes of this discussion, the eleventh to fifteenth centuries) were more religious is pointless unless you've first defined what you mean by 'religion'.

The best recent discussion of medieval religiosity is John Arnold's Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005). As a medieval historian myself, I highly recommend it.

fundamentalist writes:

A lot of cathedrals were built with money from newly rich merchants. Those merchants were held in low esteem by society and the church taught for centuries that most of them were going to hell for their sins committed as merchants. Plunder from warfare and kidnapping for ransom were held in much higher esteem as means to great wealth. As a result, many wealthy merchants would contribute to a new cathedral for several reasons: 1) to earn respect in the community 2) to cover sins committed as merchants and gain favor with God 3) to buy a position in the church for a relative because the church had political power that could protect merchants from seizure of their wealth by the nobility.

Matt writes:

Answering to Michael Gordon (the buggy professor).

It's not that "governments have been fearful of breaking down criminal statistics and income distribution by ethnic/racial categories", it's that this practice is strictly forbidden by law.

Officially, there is no way anyone including governmental organization can use ethnic/racial categories in their statistics. It is viewed as unethical and (by most) irrelevant.

The usual argument against employing or even gathering such data is that this could be used to persecute people of a given race or religious belief (think Vichy police during ww2).

Now, you guys hve to understand that "Eurabia" is a fantasy used by nationalists, in EU to provoke fear and get elected, and in the US to discredit Europe, especially when it comes to foreign policies, with focus on the middle east.

The youngsters rioting are people without any respect for the society and with a will to demonstrate that. That has nothing to do with religion. The rioters originating mainly from sub-saharian african ex-colonies, most of their families are originally christian.

If you consider regions like Marseille where the population with north african origins is about to be numerically dominant, you'll see that they (the regions) harbour no more social tension than anywhere else in the country. Integration is a problem, though, but it is a matter of economy, more than religion.

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