It was a time before social media when the quality of ideas actually mattered, before internet trolls and media lynchings. Some day it will probably be called the golden age of journalism. A time when some people believed, along with the philosopher Allan Bloom, that to experience the higher emotions or express complex ideas you needed well-chosen words and an elegant style.

There were a few in the French-language press at that time who represented this elegance of thought and writing. Notable among them was Jean Daniel, who founded Le Nouvel Observateur (now L’Obs) in 1964. Jean Daniel died on February 19 at the venerable age of 99, and France offered him a national tribute the following week. When asked why he had not become a writer or novelist, Jean Daniel replied with his rebellious look: “Because in journalism, I knew I would be the best!” And he was.

When you are born Jewish in an Islamic country and French in the heart of colonial Algeria, there is no escape from current events. Jean Daniel was a friend and compatriot of Albert Camus, and had close ties to the Socialists. Whenever the truth demanded it, he did not hesitate to go against the tide, sometimes even against his own political family. Thus he belonged to that small minority of the left that never succumbed to the totalitarian ideas of Communism. While he loved his homeland, he also did not hesitate to support de Gaulle and the independence of Algeria – even if it meant falling out with his closest friends.

As a correspondent for L’Express, he “covered” decolonization. This brought him to Quebec, long before de Gaulle’s 1967 “Vive le Québec libre!” speech. He was attracted by the first bombs of the Front de Libération du Québec, which saw itself as part of the same current as the Algerian independence struggle. Throughout a career in which he interviewed Kennedy and Castro and was Mitterrand’s confidant, the publisher of Le Nouvel Observateur exercised a kind of moral magisterium in the French and francophone press, prompting this ironic remark from de Gaulle: “You don’t govern France against Le Nouvel Observateur.”

Quebecers may have forgotten this, but Jean Daniel always had a certain affection for them. He never went as far as his friend Michel Rocard,1 and he was not pro-independence, but he would periodically reaffirm that the “Quebec people” had a right to national recognition. “Quebecers are more than a community, they are a people,” he wrote in 1997, in the midst of the post-referendum backlash.

Throughout his career, Jean Daniel tried as best he could to reconcile his left-wing ideals with a visceral attachment to his French identity. Just as he did not succumb to the sirens of Communism, he did not succumb to those of multiculturalism either. “We thought that progress would make the nation obsolete, but the opposite has happened,” he told me in an interview. He even saw the national idea as “the hard, irreducible core of a form of civilization that refuses to disappear.”

This is why, even in his virulent criticism of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, he always stressed the importance of controlling immigration flows and not exceeding what he – along with his friend the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss – called the thresholds of intolerance. “There should not be any? It doesn’t matter. There are,” he said. He criticized politicians for failing to take these thresholds into account and, in one of those prophetic phrases that became his specialty, he wrote – in 1983! – that “our politicians’ antiracist rhetoric is disarmingly full of humanitarian platitudes and generous do-good-ism.”

In contrast to today’s conventional wisdom, Jean Daniel did not confuse racism, “the justification of an act of violence in the name of the postulated superiority of a race,” with xenophobia, which expresses “a degree of rejection of the foreigner, which may sometimes be motivated only by legitimate concern for one’s own protection.” Himself uprooted from Algeria, he cherished with the philosopher Simone Weil the importance of roots. “I do not believe that the civilization born of the cathedrals and the Revolution can accommodate an inward-looking focus on ethnic communities that I would call ‘differentialist,’” he said. But he was no exception to the rule that no one is a prophet in their own land. Instead of dealing with the problems posed by immigration, “we have hidden our face,” he acknowledged as early as 1992.2

Sensitive to the importance of religions, which he knew had never disappeared, he defined himself as “the most religious of unbelievers.” His self-confidence sometimes spilled over into arrogance, as when he criticized the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his anti-Communism – for which he was reprimanded by Raymond Aron.

The older he got, the more Jean Daniel celebrated the importance of the national bond. It was perhaps his way of paying tribute to his mentor Camus, who observed that “each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.”

Continue reading “Jean Daniel: Remembering a Giant of Journalism”

Do you know what the first victims of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) movement were? When, prompted by a tax on diesel, thousands of men and women emerged from nowhere last November to take over the roundabouts of France, it was a total surprise. Political leaders, journalists, sociologists – no one saw this spontaneous outbreak coming, let alone that the movement would last over two months.

Strangely, the first targets of these postmodern sans-culottes were not corporations, or public agencies, or police. They were – radar speed traps! By the end of November, the Toulouse newspaper La Dépêche du Midi reported that in just ten days more than 600 radar units had been vandalized on the roads. Some were destroyed or burned. Others were covered with paint or a simple tarpaulin. According to specialized agencies, fully two thirds of the radar units in France are currently out of service.

These insurrections on the roundabouts were described as Jacqueries, after the spontaneous and violent medieval peasant revolts which were directed against the nobility, and from which the nascent middle class quickly dissociated itself. Under the Ancien Régime, peasants and yokels were called jacques, in much the same manner as today’s new bourgeoisie 2.0 from gentrified neighbourhoods casts judgement on inhabitants of the outlying suburbs by ridiculing them as beaufs (mononcle is an equivalent term in Quebec).

At the same time, attacks on radar units evoke the distant rebellion of the first workers of the industrial age, who destroyed weaving and carding machines. Marx described these early worker mutinies, such as the Luddite movement in England in the early 19th century, at length. It was an era that, like ours, was undergoing profound changes. Laws protecting craft producers were repealed in favour of what is still called laissez-faire. In 1812, destruction of machines was a capital crime and several Luddites were hanged.

Coincidentally, the hero of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Sérotonine , makes it his duty to destroy smoke detectors wherever he goes. Two centuries separate the Luddites from the Gilets Jaunes, but is it any wonder that a movement as spontaneous and disorganized as its distant ancestor attacks radar units? These “money machines” bring in $6.5 billion to the government each year. And the primary victims are the inhabitants of these regions that have become wastelands, who because of the decline of small towns are slaves to the car.

In England, it took the Chartist movement and then the trade unions to calm the revolt against the machines, humanize work and restore dignity to the workers. Abandoned and even denigrated by the left, ignored by the unions, the Gilets Jaunes are instead reminiscent of the spontaneous, unorganized movements of the past. They are justified in feeling that their protest is a cry in the wilderness.

Some of the very first public interventions in the “great debate” that President Emmanuel Macron just launched were from mayors explaining how their small towns were being abandoned since the post offices, the savings banks and the bakeries had closed. In a country with such a rich tradition of bread, the country of the baguette, the flûte and the bâtard, even the bakery has been replaced in some villages by bread vending machines!

But what we felt above all in these presentations was the infinite sadness of these inhabitants whose living environment is falling apart. Villagers who are offered automated counters as their only consolation prize, symbols of a cold and anonymous administrative machine. It is no coincidence that many have recaptured the friendliness of the corner coffee shop in the fellowship of the roundabouts. In many places, that coffee shop is boarded up – 7,000 coffee shops close each year in France.

It is not chauvinistic to note that France has few rivals in its sophistication in the art of conviviality – of the table, of seduction or of simple conversation. Well beyond the problems of taxation and standard of living, real though they may be, what is illustrated by the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes is that the French will not resign themselves to seeing their human relations, with the letter carrier, the baker or even the police, suppressed or reduced to simple, cold exchanges with machines.

Damaging radar units expresses a feeling of dispossession much more clearly than the media show of the scuffles in the big cities. How can we not see in this gesture a legitimate concern about a society that is becoming dehumanized? The bohemian bourgeois of Paris, the bobos, jostle peaceful passers-by while riding electric scooters on the sidewalks, enclosed in their digital world and listening to robotic music. Meanwhile, the forgotten people of France are launching a warning cry. But how can you hear the outside world with headphones over your ears?

President Emmanuel Macron chose the nave of the Collège des Bernardins, a Gothic masterpiece, as the location for his April 9 speech addressing the Catholics of France. Referring to a range of French Catholic writers – Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, Emmanuel Mounier – he deplored the fact that the link between the church and the state had “collapsed,” and he invited Catholics to participate fully in French political life:

This dialogue is indispensable, and if I had to sum up my point of view I would say that a church professing a lack of interest in temporal questions would not be pursuing all aspects of its vocation, and a president of the Republic professing a lack of interest in the church and in Catholics would not be fulfilling his duty.

For the last week, some have criticized Macron’s high-toned speech while others have praised it. But beyond this normal political discussion, the speech serves as a demonstration that, even in a secular state, religions – and especially the religion that for centuries has contributed to making France what it is – continue to play a large role in the public square.

It is even tempting to say the Macron’s speech is a response to all the unjustified indictments of laïcité, the French form of secularism, in the English-speaking world. In just a few words, Macron answered the detractors of laïcité, and there are many, who maintain that it excludes religions from the public square. Only someone who had never stepped onto the parvis of Notre-Dame de Paris could utter such an egregious misrepresentation. From Catholic groups to a wide variety of Islamic congregations to the strong presence of the Jewish community, religions are no less free in France than elsewhere. Au contraire!

These opponents make it seem that laïcité applies beyond the state and schools, which it does not. It is because of their specific purpose that these institutions are required to be secular. Given that society as a whole is not secular, excluding religions from the state and schools is the best way to guarantee freedom of conscience for everybody. Do you want to think about police officers wearing kippot trying to keep order in France’s banlieues, with their heavy Arab populations? Or a teacher wearing a hijab explaining the Yom Kippur war to a Jewish student? Would a woman want to request an abortion from a doctor who wears a visible sign of his religious convictions?

In addition to being a recipe for civil strife, this supposed freedom that would allow a civil servant to brandish her veil or his turban like a flag would place religious freedom above all other freedoms. This can be seen in Quebec, where visible expressions of civil servants’ religious convictions are permitted, but visible expressions of their political convictions are not. The message to the population is clear: religion takes precedence over all other political or philosophical convictions. Ethics and Religious Culture courses in the schools enshrine this special status for religion by reducing freedom of conscience to religious freedom alone.

The most powerful defence of this special status for religion has come from the communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor who, in his own way, dreams of “reenchanting” the world. That is why he supported Islamic courts in Ontario. On the basis of this same vision of a world centred on ethnic or religious communities, he has criticized Quebec nationalists every time they have tried to build a nation instead of staying within the bounds of their “community.”

This also explains the fragility of the version of laïcité set forth ten years ago by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. It comes as no surprise that, a few years later, Taylor repudiated the few truly secular measures that were in the commission’s report. With hindsight it’s clear how the trick was pulled off – so much so that we might wonder whether Taylor’s alter ego, Gérard Bouchard, was ultimately there to give the exercise some sovereigntist legitimacy. Was he, as people suggested at the time, le canadien français de service, the “useful French Canadian”?

In his speech at the Collège des Bernardins, Macron said that his role was to guarantee that everyone has “the absolute freedom to believe or not to believe,” and that, in return, he was justified in demanding that religions have absolute, uncomproming respect for “all the laws of the Republic.”

Unsurprisingly, since secularism is unknown in all Muslim-majority countries, Islam poses new problems in the West. A recent study carried out among 7,000 young people in the French banlieues found that 35 per cent of young Muslims considered Islam the “only true” religion, while only 10 per cent of Christians held a similar view of Christianity.1 A study in Belgium showed that 29 per cent of Muslims think that religious law should take precedence over the law of the land.

To put it in Catholic terms, we can say that, just as Jesus agreed to share in the suffering of humanity, in agreeing to laïcité religions abandon all privilege in the marketplace of ideas, even at the price of having to face blasphemy: no special status, no privilege relative to other religions or to atheists and agnostics. Contrary to what people say, laïcité is the expression of a new freedom – even for believers.

Continue reading “France: Secular and Free”

Quebec’s new high school history textbooks are inward-looking and devoid of meaning

This article was originally published in French in L’actualité on April 1, 2008. It was translated by Julian Olson.

Maybe you thought the construction and the fall of the Berlin Wall were milestones in the 20th century. At least two out of six new general history textbooks for Grade 7 and 8 students in Quebec don’t even mention these events.

Or maybe you thought Captain Alfred Dreyfus, at the centre of the famous affair that tore France apart in the 19th century, was jailed for espionage because he was a Jew. Well, this detail appears to have been secondary, since there is not a word about it the Grade 7–8 textbook Regards sur les sociétés (published by CEC).

And then there’s François Villon – maybe you knew he was a medieval poet. Not so fast: the new general history textbook D’hier à demain (published by Graficor) cites the author of Laballade des pendus in an anthology of Renaissance artists.

These glaring errors and omissions were gleaned from the pages of new books for Quebec’s Grade 7–8 program in world history from antiquity to today. They should be enough to convince anyone that all is not well with the teaching of history in Quebec.

A revealing letter published recently in Le Devoir, written by a 15-year-old student who attends a school in the Pointe-de-l’Île School Commission in the east end of Montreal Island, makes this point. Jeanne Pilote explains what any attentive observer can see: application of the educational reform to history has turned the courses into “absolutely anything at all” and the students into guinea pigs. “We spend entire periods,” she writes, “questioning ourselves from a historical perspective, which means that we formulate questions about history without even answering them.”

In the spring of 2006, when the Ministry of Education released its plans for the history of Quebec and Canada program in Grades 9 and 10, it caused such an outcry that the minister had to reconsider.1 The authors of the program were accused of liquidating the national memory by remaining silent about events as important as the Conquest and the rebellions of 1837–38.

By contrast, the world history from antiquity to today program went virtually unnoticed when it was introduced two years earlier. However, by examining the six textbooks for this program, we can see that the issue is more far-reaching than it seemed. In other words, the “anything at all” that Jeanne Pilote spoke about is at the very heart of the new approach to teaching history.

Before the educational reform, history’s function was to answer the question “where do we come from?” Its job was to grasp the complex sequence of events that produced us. Its main goal has now become “to enable students to develop their understanding of the present in the light of the past.” Thus, history is no longer a matter of understanding the past – it’s about understanding the present!

The difference is substantial and textbook publishers have got the message. The chapter on ancient Rome in L’Occident en 12 événements (Grand Duc) begins by asking Grade 7 and 8 students to “form hypotheses concerning the influence of the United States on Quebec and Canadian society.” It goes on to dip into Roman history for a few facts, often taken out of context, to show that the United States also constitutes an empire. Twentieth-century history is used to answer questions raised by an article on the Taliban, the history of colonization is pressed into service to speak about globalization today, and Mesopotamian history serves to deal with current problems of illiteracy.

We no longer seek to understand developments in the ancient world or the causes of the French Revolution. Rather, we scour the shelves of the supermarket of history for something we can apply to our debates on global warming or gay marriage.

On the pretext of citizenship education, we now focus entirely on the present. The textbook D’hier à demain (prepared under the supervision of one of the programs’ main architects, educator Christian Laville) ends with a novel chapter – a first in a history book – that asks this question: “Are we satisfied with our present? Would it be better if it were different? Can we change it?”

In the 1990s, French historian Pierre Nora showed that there is an increasing tendency for recent events to become objects of memory in short order. But he could never have imagined how far Quebec textbooks would push this trend. Under the new program, it is no longer the recent past that becomes history, but the near future. Instead of raising questions about the construction of cathedrals or Louis Riel’s astonishing fate, the approach is a continual back-and-forth between the present and the past. This frenetic zapping is more like bad journalism than historical method. And it leads to a fragmented history that can hardly avoid sinking into oversimplification and navel gazing.

“Would you have liked to be a woman living in Athens?” The textbook Regards sur les sociétés asks this naive question. As if there were the slightest historical interest in examining the equality of the sexes in the fifth century BCE! Instead of an inquiry into the conditions for the appearance of democracy and citizenship in Athens, we get this other, convoluted question: “Do you think that democracy, as it exists in Canada, is fairer than Athenian democracy?” Guess what the answer will be.

Fear of ridicule is no deterrent to some authors’ obsession with the present. The textbook L’Occident en 12 événements pushes pretension to the point of placing Quebec’s educational reform among the modern expressions of humanism – right up there with the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

Histoire en action (Modulo) accuses our neolithic ancestors of causing the biggest ecological catastrophe in human history: “From the fourth millennium BCE, the agricultural populations of western Europe began to devastate huge oak forests … Up until our time, this was the greatest damage ever suffered by the soil of this region!” The exclamation point, worthy of tabloid journalism, is in the original; the title, “The Assassinated Forest,” is in the same vein. All this in reference to a time when the whole idea of ecology had no meaning. This ethnocentric reading goes on to emphasize that prehistoric humanity practised an “economy of predation” (L’Occident en 12 événements). Strangely, when it comes time to talk about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the new missionaries suddenly forget all the terrible faults of our neolithic ancestors.

The textbooks are full of peremptory judgements. The authors’ intent is most clearly visible when they deal with the subject of Christianity. “Christianity: believe or die” (D’hier à demain) sets the tone. The Middle Ages are portrayed as a dark, austere era – a black-and-white view inherited from the Enlightenment. One wonders whether the authors have read the great historians Jacques Le Goff, Georges Duby and Régine Pernoud, who long ago broke with this view. Some textbooks further darken the portrait by situating the great witch hunts in the Middle Ages (Réalités, ERPI). The witch hunts were primarily a feature of the Renaissance, but that detail might have contradicted the authors’ sombre description.

You may know that the Spanish Inquisition was unleashed in 1478 by the Catholic Queen Isabella to convert the Jews or expel them from Spain. D’hier à demain has a different view: it served to persecute Muslims, whose territory had been reduced to Granada by this time. The Jews are strangely absent from ancient history. And don’t bother to look for anything about the invasion of Spain by the Muslims in the eighth century: there is virtually nothing to be found. But the textbooks hammer in the point that they were chased out 800 years later. While passing over the raids and slavery that were common among Arabs in silence, the textbooks don’t miss a chance to cite the Thousand and One Nights and the 12th-century Arab philosopher Averroes. On the other hand, Dante, the troubadours, courtly love and the Carolingian renaissance are among the missing. The Arabs have become, in a way, the “noble savages” of the Middle Ages.

Looking at these general history textbooks, you would be unlikely to guess that they are addressed to a francophone society in North America. Not once do they focus on the Gauls, the Franks, the Celts, the Vikings or the Irish – in short, on the civilizations that have influenced Quebec. Molière has no more significance than Shakespeare. Following the multicultural imperative, the textbooks never mention a French author without mentioning an English or Chinese one right afterwards, with the result that France is usually submerged in Europe as a whole. There is little trace of the French kings Francis I and Henry IV, who sent Cartier and Champlain to Canada. The famous Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539), by which Francis I established a civil registry and extended the use of French, is missing.

As for what will always be fundamentally the most “useless” part of history, the history of the arts, it will come as no surprise that it is more or less suppressed in some textbooks. At the end of its chapter on the ancient world, L’Occident en 12 événements offers a few references to “deepen” the subject. Neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey is on the list, which includes Asterix at the Olympic Games and Troy, Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywood epic which, the philosopher Luc Ferry said recently, completely misrepresents the understanding that the ancients had of the Trojan War, because the gods are missing! But how can we blame the authors? The 20 or so literary texts cited in the official program as “cultural references” include neither the masterpieces of Homer nor the Bible. The Qur’an and Tintin and the Blue Lotus, however, are accorded this honour.

Nothing is left at the end of the day but a devastated, moralistic history, its nose glued to the present. Historian Jean Bottéro, who had the nerve to make the case for a “useless science,” appears to have wasted his effort. Bottéro dared to claim that “archeology, philology and history are useless … That is why we are so attached to them.” A specialist in Assyrian history, Bottéro knew that historical figures – Constantine, Jean Jaurès or Chevalier de Lorimier – could become sources of inspiration if students were allowed to become passionate about them. Contrary to the claims of the authors of the history program, no country has so subordinated the teaching of this material to citizenship education or transformed it into such dull moralizing. By subjugating history to what deceptively appears to bring it closer to us, the new educators are only further limiting students’ exposure to anything beyond the issues that are already overemphasized in our media. Are they afraid that, in ceasing to look at history through the dark glasses of the present, these students might discover that early-21st-century Quebec is perhaps not in every respect the most advanced society?

Given that half the high school history teachers have absolutely no training in this field, the importance of textbooks is clear. But the disaster doesn’t appear to be over. Changes being considered for the 20th-century history course, currently optional in Grade 11, are ominous. It will undoubtedly become a required course, but the powerful educators who reign at the ministry are thinking of making it a course centred on the current events of the “contemporary world,” where history will be mixed in with geography, economy, sociology and other aspects of “the social universe” in general.

“When I was young,” said historian Alain Corbin, “a good teacher was one who had the talent to transport us to another world. In the classroom, we were for Sparta or for Athens – and it didn’t matter that we didn’t have a Greek grandfather!”

It is historians in the same mould as Corbin that our schools, and all the Jeanne Pilotes in Quebec, urgently need.

Continue reading “This is History?”

From Saint-Léonard to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission

This article was translated by Julian Olson.

Entre mes quatre murs de glace
Je mets mon temps et mon espace
À préparer le feu la place
Pour les humains de l’horizon
Et les humains sont de ma race.

— Gilles Vigneault, “Mon pays”

Who remembers Saint-Léonard? This former municipality, now just a Montreal borough, was the scene of one of the sorriest events in recent Quebec history. The only real interethnic confrontations in post–Quiet Revolution Quebec occurred in Saint-Léonard. Now, with the tiny municipality of Hérouxville’s humorous expression of its dissatisfaction with Islamic immigration (it adopted a regulation which forbade the stoning of women) and with numerous witnesses at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s public hearings describing the growing tension between the so-called “Québécois de souche” and some immigrant communities, it is important to remember this dramatic episode in Quebec history.

Is Quebec, in a sense, going back to square one? The current situation bears a strange resemblance to the time when Quebec nationalism could easily have given birth to a movement of the right, or even the far right, with immigration as one of its principal targets. We know that this did not happen, and that in spite of real frictions, Quebec nationalism quickly took the form of a liberal centre-left movement which aimed to provide a better welcome for newcomers than most other countries in the world. But this sort of choice is never final, and the testimony heard by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission shows that the question of what attitude to take toward immigration has come back to haunt the Quebec nationalist movement. To understand why this debate is happening now, we must go back in history.

Ethnic riots

On September 3, 1969, a riot broke out in Saint-Léonard between Italian Quebecers who wanted English education for their children and members of the Ligue pour l’Intégration Scolaire (LIS, founded the previous year as the Mouvement pour l’Intégration Scolaire), a group of French-speaking parents and nationalist activists who demanded that the children of immigrants be integrated into the francophone school system. At that time, immigrants to Quebec had the choice of their children’s language of instruction, with the result that the vast majority chose English.

That this conflict would take a really violent turn stretches our imagination. Following a decision of the school commission to impose French courses on children of immigrants who spoke other languages, the members of the Saint-Léonard Italian community refused to send their children to school. A first fracas broke out following an LIS meeting in the Jérôme-Le Royer School Commission building. There were four injured, including LIS president Raymond Lemieux. A week later, a new altercation took place in the streets of Saint-Léonard. It too resulted in several injured. The LIS was denied the right to demonstrate in Saint-Léonard, but Lemieux invited his members to defy the prohibition. A thousand showed up at Le Boulevard shopping centre. This new clash injured 18 people and caused extensive property damage. The riot act was read and more than 500 helmeted police, including 300 from the Sûreté du Québec, intervened with clubs and teargas to separate the belligerents.

Weeks later the National Assembly, unaware of the apprehensions of the francophone population, lit the fuse by passing Bill 63, giving parents free choice of their children’s language of instruction. This provoked some of the biggest demonstrations Quebec had ever known. After numerous twists and turns, these events eventually led to the passing of laws that were more in line with the people’s will and restored a certain linguistic peace: Bill 22 (1974) made French the official language of Quebec and Bill 101 (1977) required immigrants to attend French schools.

As with the current debate over the kirpan in school or the veil in the voting booth, the crisis that erupted in 1969 originated in an “accommodation” of the immigrant population that the francophone majority found unreasonable. The local school commission came to the conclusion that the experiment with bilingual classes had to be ended, to be replaced with classes given in French. The large Italian minority, which preferred to send its children to bilingual schools, denounced this decision.

The liberal and nationalist elites, then as now, didn’t see it coming – it was Jean-Jacques Bertrand’s Union Nationale government that introduced Bill 63. They were so poorly attuned as to side with the immigrant minority against the francophone majority, itself a minority in Canada. The effect of Bill 63 would be to hasten the trend toward making francophones a minority in their own province, since as everyone knows immigrant populations tend to choose the language of the majority in Canada and in North America for their children.

Quebecers are often accused of being suspicious of immigration and thus falling prey to a “minority complex.” However, they have good reason to be prudent. Are they not descendants of the Canadiens, later the French Canadians, reduced to a minority by massive immigration to Canada before and after Confederation? After having been the first to explore North America from the Appalachians to the Rockies, these descendants of the first French settlers saw assimilation continue full force even in the heart of what they considered their last bastion, the province of Quebec. This process even seems to be encouraged by a portion of their nationalist elite.

Looking back at the 1960s allows us to understand how the explosive situation in Quebec at the time held all the ingredients necessary for the development of a right-wing or even far-right nationalist movement, in reaction to immigration. Quebec had all the characteristics required for the appearance of an overtly xenophobic movement like the Vlams Belang in Flanders or the National Front in France. In retrospect, it is surprising that such movements did not develop in Quebec at the time. Credit is due to René Lévesque and the democratic independence movement, including organizations like the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale, which instead of attacking immigrants invited them to participate in the growing Quebec national movement, learn French and take part in a truly pluralist society. The poet Gérald Godin, who became immigration minister in Lévesque’s government, symbolized more than anyone else this openness toward immigrants.

Instead of a xenophobic right-wing nationalist movement like the ones in Flanders, the Netherlands, France, Italy’s Piedmont region and so many other places, an atypical centre-left sovereignty movement, broadly inclusive and open to immigration, flourished in Quebec. The first black member of the National Assembly in Quebec’s history sat for the Parti Québécois. There aren’t many nationalist movements in the world whose cultural spokesperson could say, as did Gilles Vigneault, “Between my four walls of ice/I devote my time and space/To prepare a warm place/For the humans on the horizon/And the humans are my race.”

Forty years later

Today, a large part of francophone Quebec once again seems suspicious of immigration, regarding it as a threat to its survival. How have we come to this situation?

To understand what is happening today, it is necessary to understand the bargain that Quebec sovereigntists proposed to Quebecers and to immigrant populations in the 1970s. The francophone majority would be assured of its survival and fulfilment in a society where it would at last achieve the status of a majority people. In return for such an assurance, francophone Quebecers had every reason to be magnanimous and open to immigration. This guarantee was part of a movement that promised to reconquer Montreal linguistically and truly institutionalize the rights of the francophone minority by making it a majority in a Quebec on the march toward independence, or at least toward greater political autonomy. The leading figures in the Parti Québécois incorporated this idea so thoroughly that they regularly acted as if they already governed an independent country. Thus, the sovereigntist elites themselves were the main promoters of Quebec’s own form of ethnic pluralism, rebaptized “interculturalism.” The concept simply took Canada’s rhetoric of ethnic pluralism and adapted it a bit, notably by recalling the importance of the French language.

However, the promises of the sovereignty movement were not kept, and Quebecers are discovering today that what they believed to be unshakeable protections are much more fragile than they realized. Thus it is no surprise that the bargain made in the seventies no longer holds.

The failure of Bill 101

In the first place, the sovereignty movement lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995. For a large number of nationalists, openness to immigration made sense to the degree that Quebec progressed, perhaps slowly but nonetheless surely, toward independence. This slow progress was brutally interrupted in 1995. Promises of a third referendum have so far convinced no one. Sovereigntists themselves are therefore today tempted by other solutions, such as the right-wing autonomy proposed by Mario Dumont and the ADQ.

Quebecers found that the barriers they had erected against assimilation did only half the job, especially in Montreal. Thirty years after Bill 101 was passed, we know that this legislation has given Quebec a francophone face. We know that it has slowed, but not stopped, the Canadian steamroller. In fact, all studies show that in spite of the law, fewer than half of new arrivals wind up integrating into the francophone majority. Forty years after Saint-Léonard, more than half of immigrants arriving in Quebec eventually choose to join the anglophone minority. The sovereigntists who erected Bill 101 as a symbol of identity still hesitate to recognize what one day will have to be called the failure of Bill 101, at least as concerns the integration of more than half of Quebec immigrants and the linguistic reconquest of Montreal.

A reader of the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir recently recounted the unfolding of annual festivities in Montreal’s Little Italy. Rather than French, or even Italian, the dominant language of the festivities in 2007 was English. And this right in the heart of one of the largest francophone cities in the world.

Certainly, new arrivals generally come out of school bilingual, but for most of them, French remains the language that they use in public whenever they must but still hesitate to adopt at home. When Quebecers braved the prejudices of the English-speaking world and the Canadian Charter of Rights to pass Bill 101, it was not to integrate 45 per cent of immigrants, but rather their fair share, which is to say close to 90 per cent. Neither was it to create a new organically bilingual population, able to answer politely in either language. It could be said that immigrants who choose English often do so to move to an English-speaking province. However, in so doing, they contribute to making Quebecers a minority in the whole of Canada, where they already represent no more than 23 per cent of the population. Recently, in another sign of insecurity about identity, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously opposed reduction of the proportion of Quebec members in the Canadian Parliament – a decline about which Canada couldn’t care less.

The agreement symbolized by Bill 101 implied that, on the one hand, Quebec francophones would be very open to new arrivals, but that on the other these new arrivals would integrate in a generation or two, making French their main language. This agreement was never kept. And today the francophone population is realizing it in a dramatic way. The populations surrounding Montreal, in what has become celebrated as the 450 region, are suddenly discovering, to their stupefaction, that under the impact of globalization and in spite of Bill 101, their metropolis is more and more bilingual. It’s not that francophones are becoming Anglicized, as in the past. Rather, large numbers of them are becoming bilingualized, not to say “Canadianized,” as Montrealers increasingly practise a sort of Catalan-style organic bilingualism. Moreover, hasn’t a segment of the Quebec nationalist movement already proposed a form of “Catalanization” of Quebec political life?

As in 1969, the nationalist political elites, anxious not to be seen as “ethnicist,” seem not to have seen anything coming. Like the Union Nationale at the time, with Bill 63, they were contributing to the feeling of insecurity and loss of linguistic and cultural bearings.

Think back to the outcry last year at the first version of the new high school history program, which said nothing about such important events as the battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Patriote uprisings in 1837 and 1838. Of course the program was revised, but it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Quebecers, who fear above all that Montreal’s cosmopolitan elites will let complete sections of their Quebec identity and national history slip away.

The new ethics and religious culture programs are in the same mould. Since the Quiet Revolution, Quebecers have been among the least churchgoing people in the world. When asked, most continue to say they are Catholic. They practise a “soft” religion which is a matter more of personal identity than public display. Eighty per cent continue to enrol their primary-school children in catechism courses instead of the moral teaching offered in all public schools. At a time of repeated pedagogical revolutions, they often choose this course because they simply wish to give their children an education like the one they had 30 years earlier. But now, following a Supreme Court judgment, some bureaucrats have gotten it into their heads to eliminate catechism courses entirely from schools and to replace them with a British-style secular program, presenting all beliefs from Hinduism to animism on a relatively equal footing. This is a step that has never been taken even in as secular a country as France, where Wednesday afternoon remains free for parents to give their children their choice of religious instruction. “Thus the religion of the majority is going down the drain … We should not be surprised that this causes a stir,” Jean-François Lisée, director of the Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM), quite rightly commented.

Add to this portrait of the causes of linguistic and cultural insecurity the recent judgement of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which struck down Bill 104, designed to close a loophole in Bill 101 that some parents used to send their children to English schools. Before Bill 104 was passed in 2002, it was enough to send a child to a private nonsubsidized English school for a year to make him or her immediately eligible for admission to an English public school. If this judgement is sustained, it will confirm the right of parents who have the means to pay for a year of private nonsubsidized English schooling to circumvent Bill 101.

Let us remember as well that all this debate is taking place in the context of a massive increase in immigration. Since 2002, the number of new arrivals in Quebec has risen by 40 per cent, a staggering increase that would bring on a debate in any country. And many propose increasing the quotas yet again. Clearly, there is no lack of reasons for the revival of Quebecers’ feeling of linguistic and cultural insecurity – reasons that can be traced to the worldwide undertow of globalization, which is arousing strong reactions even in Britain and France, where identity is neither fragile nor threatened.

At the crossroads

Nearly 40 years after the events in Saint-Léonard, Quebec is once again at the crossroads, and the elites seem to be just as unaware. Either the political forces find a way to renew the pact with the francophone majority, guaranteeing them that they may one day act as a true majority in a pluralistic, welcoming Quebec into which immigrants integrate, or we will see an understandable retreat into ethnic identity. The Quebec nationalist movement will then follow the path of similar movements in Flanders or Piedmont. Deprived of the prospect of being “masters in their own house,” conscious of Quebec’s continuing movement toward being a smaller minority in Canada, Quebecers will barricade themselves. This could open the door to xenophobic movements, or more simply to massive and radical opposition to immigration of the kind that exists even in left-wing parties in France and Germany.

Quebec will then have missed a unique chance to show the world that its nationalism can be open to diversity and welcoming to all. It is, however, not completely out of the question that, in the framework of the present constitution, nationalists may find the elements of a program that can give back to the population its confidence in its ability eventually to integrate 80 per cent of the immigrant population. Some have suggested recently that we examine the possibility of insisting that 100 per cent of future immigrants know French, along the lines of similar provisions in Britain and France. Many nationalist activists have also long asked that the requirement that immigrants’ children attend French schools be extended to the CEGEP (junior college) level. It is probably time to examine these proposals seriously, although they will sharpen the conflict between Quebec and Ottawa.

Instead of turning up our noses at what some have disparagingly called the aftertaste left by a number of statements heard at the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, instead of ridiculing Quebecers in the regions who are not in tune with the sophisticated cosmopolitanism of the Montreal elite, the Quebec left would do better to find concrete ways to renew its promise.