Last week, the European Union voted to require members to accept a portion of the migrants who have been coming into Europe over the Mediterranean and through the Balkans. Four states voted no—Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania—and both Hungary and Slovakia say that they will fight the mandate to accept migrants in the EU court system. Even though most states went along with the plan, it is clear that the green light given the migrants by Angela Merkel and others has only made the situation worse, as more and more Middle Easterners and North Africans make the trek to Europe.
Some of what is at stake in this debate was brought home to me last week, when I was in England and France on a brief vacation. I did not see any evidence of the current wave of migrants. But I did see evidence of past waves: London, the great city of England for centuries, was markedly less English than when I visited it last, nearly two decades ago, and vastly less English than it was when Londoners were enduring the Blitz. Paris seems to have retained more of its native character than has London, but as in the British capital, the streets were full of women wearing hijabs and burkas. It is true that the immigration that has transformed London and Paris was, in part, the result of the winding down of the British and French Empires, and some might argue that the British and French have no right to complain about the transformation of their capitals, since they themselves felt no compunction about bringing other lands under their sway. But there are some differences worth noting: the British and French colonizers brought medicine, engineering, science, and law with them, imports from which their former colonial subjects continue to benefit. The post-colonial immigration has brought nothing comparable with it. And the British and French finally left their colonies behind, recognizing that their former subjects had the right to govern themselves. But those former subjects who made their way to London and Paris show no signs of leaving. The regnant philosophy is this: Asia for the Asians, Africa for the Africans, Europe for everyone, and demonization of anyone, from Viktor Orban to Nigel Farage to Marine LePen, who questions the last part of this equation.
But I found myself thinking about this debate when visiting a small town in the Loire Valley. This town was a very patriotic place. The town square featured a large monument to all the men of the town who had died in the First War War. The names of the dead covered both sides of the large monument; the same list was repeated in a different monument in the town church. All the residents of the town I encountered were French, and the streets were filled with Renaults, Peugeots, and Citroens. The town was close to Tours, where Charles Martel turned back the Moors in 732, and a short drive both from great Gothic cathedrals and stunning chateaux. The people who live in that town are the heirs of those who died for France in its many wars, of those who built those cathedrals and chateaux, and of those who turned back the Moors. Part of the loveliness of that town is this obvious continuity, a continuity that would be destroyed if the town’s French majority ever became a minority. A desire to maintain such continuity is part of what motivates Orban and Farage and LePen, and there is nothing wrong with this desire, just as there was nothing wrong with the desire of former subjects of the British and French Empires to rule themselves. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarked in his Nobel address, “The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all peoples were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, they are its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colors, and embodies a particular facet of God’s design.” So, too, do small towns in France.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.