Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
As an innocent abroad hitchhiking through France and Switzerland in the early ’70s, I kept seeing pro and con billboards about foreign guest workers and felt like an eavesdropper to an argument Europe was having with itself over the continent’s ambivalence toward its foreign workers.
America has its own love-hate thing between natives and noncitizens, or between inhabitants with papers and inhabitants without papers. But it would be a mistake to think the drama is similar in any but a superficial way. The French put no such value on religion as we do, being children of Robespierre and not John Witherspoon. If they ended up encouraging the spread of Islam in their country, which they did, it was not originally from love of their guests’ rights to worship but from the motive of keeping their travailleurs étrangers from becoming permanent residents.
That is, France thought its North African labor force should go home—back to Algeria and Morocco and Tunisia—after their usefulness had been served, and they thought themselves decent enough hosts in the meantime to prepare to send them packing with their religious customs still intact. Thus the allowance and even encouragement of Muslim prayer places would evolve from that.
France’s need for foreign labor waxed and waned with the vicissitudes of history, war, and economy. In the late 19th and the 20th centuries, the low-birthrate nation put out the doormat for Italians, Belgians, and Poles, their first preference. Whereas voices in America complain about immigrants smuggling whole families in, French employers welcomed family migration, reasoning that it would curb the baser instincts of men alone in a foreign land.
When European guests began unionizing and demanding better pay, Lady France sent suitors to her North African colonies, actively recruiting after World War I. But being loath to actually intermarry with the North African workers, they built them “workers villages” and “garden cities,” or bionvilles—shantytowns. These were isolated housing in which linguistic, cultural, social, and religious practices would be maintained, as in a hothouse. Eventually, great complexes of low-cost social housing were erected. What could go wrong?
This too is the irony, that a nation like France that cares nothing for religion should foster the most virulent religion on Earth.
Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 coincided with a marked expansion of the French economy, for which laborers were sought. From the ’60s to the ’70s (where I come in, backpack in tow) the number of foyers (in hostels) had mushroomed, and now it was not only France fostering the maintaining of cultural and national identity but the North African nations as the biggest advocates. A demand for accommodation to Muslim religion arose. The seminal mosque was a prayer room in a hostel, overseen by a “worker imam.”
William Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg / Which hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous; / And kill him in the shell.” But do we ever see the menace of what will be in the harmless sleeping embryo?
Even as France was trying to divest itself of now unneeded foreign labor in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and economic recession, and even as the climate in the country was cooling toward foreign workers, Under-Secretary of State for Migrant Workers Paul Dijoud proposed proceeding full speed ahead with maintaining separate cultural identities, including special language classes for the children of migrants, the ELCO (Enseignement des Langues et Cultures d’Origine).
This is the irony of the French Muslim situation, that programs implemented to keep foreigners and their religion separate—to let Algerians be Algerians and Moroccans be Moroccans—the better to return to sender with good speed, became virtual laboratories of cancerous forces that would ultimately engulf the nation. This too is the irony, that a nation like France that cares nothing for religion should foster the most virulent religion on Earth.
Roughly 1,900 years before Christ, a band of 70-plus Israelites from famine-stricken Canaan showed up for help in Egypt. By the time they walked out under Moses after four centuries of incubation, they were over a million strong. In that particular case, they were not the serpent but the serpent-slayer. What is in the future is not always recognizable through the opaque membrane of the tiny egg.