Politics & Policy

What an Off-Putting French Novel Can Tell Us about Immigration

It eerily prefigures our current immigration mess.

I have not been much involved with the debate over immigration, mainly because there are so many others who know so much more about the topic than I. But the most recent affair involving the massive influx of unaccompanied children into the United States put me in mind of a novel I read long ago, one that seems to have been forgotten but needs to be reread: The Camp of the Saints, by the French writer Jean Raspail. William F. Buckley Jr. praised the book in 2004, but as far as I know, the only person to reference this book in connection with the current situation on the southern border of the United States has been Scott Johnson at the Power Line blog.

Originally published in 1973 as Le Camp des saints, the book was translated into English in 1975 and distributed by Scribner. The theme of the book is based on a moral quandary: What steps will a liberal society take to preserve its way of life? Is liberal society too humane and compassionate to protect itself from those who would undermine and destroy it?

The story begins with a compassionate step taken by the Belgian government, which announces that, to mitigate Indian overpopulation, it will adopt Indian babies and have them raised in Belgium. But the consulate is overwhelmed by poverty-stricken parents, and Belgium rescinds the policy.

But then, almost spontaneously, nearly a million starving, disease-ridden boat people — men, women, and children — board an armada of old freighters and other vessels and set sail from the Ganges delta for Europe. The ships reach the French Riviera on Easter Sunday. Raspail makes it clear that this horde has no desire to assimilate into French culture. Instead, they seek the plentiful material goods that Europeans have produced and Indians have not.

In Raspail’s telling, the confidence of the West — which was once called Christendom — has been undermined by multiculturalism and the like. Accordingly, hardly anyone is willing to say that this flotilla must be stopped. Instead, liberals and Christians foolishly embrace the idea that the onslaught of migrants should be welcomed into the wealth and comfort of Europe. Indeed, the French military is directed to attack those who seek to resist the horde.

The book is full of historical allusions. The title of the novel comes from the Book of Revelation. A character who opposes the armada — portrayed in the French press as a villain — bears the name of the last Byzantine emperor.

Raspail was ahead of his time in demonstrating that Western civilization had lost its sense of purpose and history — its “exceptionalism.” If the loss of self-confidence on the part of Western liberal society was apparent in 1973, it is much more so today. The pious nonsense spouted in the novel by apologists for the overwhelming onslaught against France merely adumbrates what has become mainstream today.

Of course, Raspail was denounced as a racist, and his emphasis on the white race can indeed be off-putting. But the central issue of the novel is not race but culture and political principles. The United States has always welcomed immigrants, but until recently, it has expected them to assimilate — in other words, to become “Americans.” The traditional focus of American society has been the individual. Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.

And that is the real danger today — that the American political system will be swamped by people who seek material goods but who disdain the American achievement in creating a government that protects the individual rights of all, without regard to membership in a favored group.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and editor of Orbis.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


The Latest