Given the current state of things, why is the matter of Qatar's investment in the French suburbs so problematic?
Not because it's Qatar, of course.
Nor, even less, because it's an Arab country, the very nature of whose funds would be less welcome than those of others.
And, indeed, the fact that this Arab country decides today to invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods and no longer just in the purchase of luxury hotels, mansions, football players or race horses is even, in itself, good news.
What is shocking, first of all, is the sum. For if the figures announced are exact, the emirate is granting the ensemble of the French suburbs an endowment (100 million euros) approximately equivalent to the price of one or two hôtels particuliers it has acquired in the last decade, or of half of the Virgin building on the Champs-Elysées, or of a few percentage points of its participation in the capital of French Total alone. It's a godsend for those concerned. It's a humiliation for the recipient country, which appears to be broke, reduced to panhandling. And it is, most of all, a drop of water in the ocean of need of «lost territories» whose reconquest presupposes not 100, not 200, not 1000, but thousands of millions of euros, a manna, a Marshall Plan, the equivalent of what Truman's America spent to help in the reconstruction of France after the war. Otherwise put, the 100 million announced does not constitute an investment. It's a bluff. Or a publicity stunt. It's a cut-rate cash purchase of a certificate of good conduct for a country that is, true, an ally, but whose commitment to democratic values remains to be demonstrated.
For what is also shocking is the political connotation of this money. It is often said that money "has no odor." Not true. For, like it or not, the Qatari money bears the color of a State that deprives its citizens of civil liberties. It has the color of a country where immigrants (Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos) are treated as sub-citizens, if not as sub-humans or slaves. It is not, as some have said, "dirty" money. But (and what's almost worst) it is money earned by autocrats in an undemocratic country whose own suburbs are Villiers-le-Bel* or Trappes* multiplied by ten. Would it be impertinent, then, to demand a few political conditions before validating this investment? Not, of course, the miraculous transformation of Qatar into a democracy which, as everyone knows, cannot be built in a day. But the appearance of signs, at least, indicating that such concern for the neglected areas of our Republic is accompanied by the clear awareness of the quality, the rarity, and even the eminent desirability of the model in which the said Republic finds its origins. And, to prove this clear awareness, submission to a simple political test which would be both a test of good faith and of sound reciprocity: France accepts Qatar's money; in return, Qatar accepts the establishment, by France, of a program of cultural and political cooperation based upon civic values and those of citizenship. You fund my neighborhoods. I create, in your universities, teaching chairs on the history and practice of democracy, which is my own wealth. Should each consent, the agreement would be truly enriching for everyone -- and primarily, for the fine and good dialogue of civilizations and cultures.
And then the problem is, obviously, the suspicion of politico-religious proselytism one cannot avoid harboring concerning a regime that, after all, makes no secret of its support for the most rigid currents of Islam. There, also, is a solution. Unfortunately, it probably does not involve testing in Doha the principles of secularism Qataris are supposed to respect in Saint-Denis*. Any more than (although... ) suggesting that our friends begin by cleaning up their own back yard, practicing at home the principle of non-discrimination regarding religious, ethnic, and geographic origins that they supposedly defend in France. But at least it should entail registering their initiative in a double framework that should create constraints for them. The legal framework, first of all, of a mixed, parapublic, or State organization that will be the sole judge of opportunities of investment. And then the moral framework of a republican charter that will codify the spirit in which arbitration will take place. Support for an enterprise whose activities might even remotely contribute one day to the development of Salafism in France should be rendered impossible. But there is no reason whatsoever that the massive use of Qatari funds in the construction of republican schools, or co-ed swimming pools, or neighborhood media that promote the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity should give rise to mistrust.
I know that the establishment of such a charter will constitute a departure from the principles of free trade. But a new situation requires new rules. Today, Qatar. Yesterday, petro-dictatorial Azerbaijan more or less discreetly financing part of the new pavilion of Islamic arts at the Louvre in Paris. Tomorrow, imperialist China, Russia of Putin and the oligarchs coming to the rescue of this or that sensitive area of old Europe's crisis-fraught economies and obtaining, in exchange, that we refrain from giving them a bad time about this worn-out idea that is the question of human rights. This is where we are. And if we are not careful, there is a real risk of corruption and prostitution of the public spirit.