One of the key debates in European social policy has been that between multiculturalism and assimilationism. French ‘assimilationist’ policies are generally seen as the polar opposite of British-style multiculturalism. French politicians pride themselves in having rejected the divisive consequences of multiculturalism. Unlike in the rest of Europe, they insist, in France every individual is treated as a citizen, not as a member of a particular racial or cultural group.
The question of French social policy, and of social divisions, has come sharply into focus in the wake of the recent tragic events in Paris. Assimilationists have long held multiculturalists policies responsible for nurturing ‘homegrown’ jihadists in Britain. Now, they are forced to answer why such terrorism has been nurtured in assimilationist France, too.
I have long been a critic of British multiculturalism. This is not because I am opposed to diversity or mass immigration – far from it – but because I think it important to distinguish between diversity as lived experience and multiculturalism as a political process:
The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
The conflation of lived experience and political policy has, in my view, proved highly invidious:
On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.
But if I am critical of British multicultural policies, I am no more enamoured of French assimilationism. The two outlooks are far more similar than might be imagined, and the consequences equally damaging.
There are, it is often claimed, some 5 million Muslims in France, making it the largest Muslim community. In fact those of North African origin in France have never constituted a single community, still less a ‘Muslim’ community. Migrants from North African have been broadly secular, indeed often hostile to religion. A 2006 report by the Pew Research Center showed that the majority of those defined as Muslims identified themselves rather as ‘French citizens’. A growing number have, in recent years, become attracted to Islam. But even today, according to a 2011 study by the l’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (Ifop), only 40 per cent call themselves ‘observant Muslims’ – and only 25 per cent attend Friday prayers.
Those of North African origin in France are also often described as ‘immigrants’. In fact, the majority are second generation, born in France and as French as any Front National voter. The use of ‘Muslim’ or ‘immigrant’ as labels for French citizens of North African origin is not, however, accidental. It is part of the process whereby such citizens are cast as the ‘Other’ and as not really part of the French nation.
As in Britain, first generation postwar immigrants to France faced considerable racism. As in Britain, the second generation was far less willing than their parents had been to accept passively social discrimination and police brutality. They organized, largely through secular movements, and took to the streets, often in violent protest. The riots that swept through French cities in the autumn of 2005 exposed the fractures in French society as clearly as had those that had engulfed British cities two decades earlier.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the French authorities had taken a relatively laid-back stance on multiculturalism, generally tolerating cultural and religious differences, at a time when few within minority communities expressed their identity in cultural or religious terms. François Mitterrand even coined the slogan, ‘droit à la differénce’.
As tensions within North African communities became more open, and as the Front National emerged as a political force, so the ‘droit à la differénce’ was abandoned for a more hardline assimilationist approach, while the problems of North African communities were presented in terms of their ‘difference’. The 2005 riots, and the disaffection they expressed, became presented less as a response to racism than as an expression of a growing threat to France – that of Islam. In principle, the French authorities rejected the multiculturalist approach that Britain had adopted. In practice, however, they treated North African migrants and their descendents, in a very ‘multicultural’ way – as a single community, and primarily as a ‘Muslim’ community. Islam became symbolic of the anxieties about values and identity that now beset France.
A much-discussed 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos and the Centre for Political Studies Sciences Po (Cevipof) found that 50 per cent of the population believed ‘the decline of France’, both economic and cultural, to be ‘inevitable’. Fewer than third thought that democracy worked well, while 62 per cent considered ‘most politicians’ to be ‘corrupt’. The report described a ‘fractured France’, divided into tribal groups, alientated from mainstream politics, distrustful of their leaders, and resentful of Muslims. The main sentiment driving French society, the report concluded was ‘fear’.
In Britain, multicultural policies were both an acknowledgement of a more fractured society and helped create a society more fractured. In France, policies of assimilation have, paradoxically, had the same result. Faced with a distrustful and disengaged public, politicians have attempted to reassert the notion of a common French identity. But unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, they have done so primarily by creating hostility against symbols of ‘alienness’, the most visible of which is Islam.
The 2010 ban on the burqa should be seen in this context. The number of women in France wearing the burqa is tiny. Out of the North African population of around 5 million, the French government estimates that fewer than 2000 wear the burqa or niqab. Yet, the issue has become symbolic of an existential threat to French identity and values. ‘This is not about the burqa’, claimed the philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy. ‘It’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms.’
Lévy is right. The issue is not about the burqa. It is about notions of identity and values. That the entire weight of the Enlightenment tradition should seemingly rest on banning a piece of cloth worn by a couple of thousand women speaks much to the anxieties felt by the French elite.
The irony is that not only is France’s North African population predominantly secular, but even practising Muslims are relatively liberal in their views. According to the Ifop poll, 68 per cent of observant women never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. Eighty-one per cent accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44 per cent have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38 per cent support the right to abortion, and 31 per cent approve of sex before marriage. Only on homosexuality is there a deeply conservative stance: 77 per cent of practising Muslims disapprove. It is debatable as to which poses a greater threat to the identity and values of the French Republic – Lévy’s illiberalism or that of France’s Muslim communities.
Far from including North Africans as full citizens, French policy has tended to ignore the racism and discrimination they have faced, and institutionalized their marginalization. Many in France look upon its citizens of North African origins not as French but as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’. But the second generation within North African communities are often as estranged from their parents’ cultures and mores, and from mainstream Islam, as they are from wider French society.
Consider, for instance, the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. They were raised in Gennevilliers, a northern suburb of Paris, home to around 10,000 people of North African origin. Cherif Kouachi, who appeared to mastermind the operation, only rarely attended mosque, and appeared not to be particularly religious, but was driven by a sense of social estrangement. He was, according to Mohammed Benali, president of the local mosque, of a ‘generation that felt excluded, discriminated against, and most of all, humiliated. They spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.’ According to Benali, Kouachi was most affronted by the imam’s insistence on the importance of political engagement. ‘When the imam told everyone to enrol on the register of electors so they could take part in elections, and play their part in society, he refused. He said he wasn’t a French citizen and wanted nothing to do with the democratic process. He then walked out of the mosque.’
Kouachi’s story is not that different to that of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombings in London. They are of a milieu caught not between two cultures, as it is often claimed, but between no cultures. As a consequence, some of them have turned to Islamism, and a few have expressed their inchoate rage through jihadi-style violence.
At the same time, French assimilationist policy has also made worse the sense of disengagement felt by traditional working class communities. The social geographer Christophe Guilluy has coined the phrase ‘peripheral France’ to describe people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centers’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision-making centers in a state of social and cultural non-integration’ and have come to ‘feel excluded’. Peripheral France has become peripheralised primarily as a result of economic and political developments; but, like many sections of North African communities, they have come to see their marginalization through the lens of cultural and ethnic identity. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and to Islam, and the attraction of groups such as the Front National. The 2013 Ipsos poll suggested that 7 out of 10 people thought that there were ‘too many foreigners in France’; and 75 per cent considered Islam to be ‘incompatible with French society’. The mainstream policy of presenting Muslims as a threat to French values has not only strengthened the notion that the problems of economic dislocation and political voicelessness faced by the working class are really issues of cultural loss, but has also sharpened the sense of disengagement with mainstream politics.
In the past disaffection, whether within North African or white working class communities, would have expressed itself through political organization and campaigning. Today it is expressed through the politics of identity. Racist populism and Islamism are both in their different ways expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics.
Multiculturalism and assimilationism are both policy responses to the fracturing of society. And both have made society more fractured and tribal. To get beyond the increasingly sterile debate between multiculturalism and assimilationism, we need to make three kinds of distinctions.
First we need to separate the idea of diversity as lived experience from that of multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society made diverse by mass immigration is to be welcomed. The political project of institutionalising such diversity through the public recognition of cultural differences should be resisted.
Second, we need to distinguish between colour blindness and racism blindness. The assimilationist resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is valuable. But the insistence that individuals should not be treated differently because of their racial and cultural identities does not mean that discrimination against particular groups should be ignored. Citizenship has no meaning if different classes of citizens are treated differently, whether through multicultural policies or through racism.
Third, we need to distinguish between peoples and values. Multiculturalists often argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples erodes the possibility of common values. Assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally, and to some ethnically, homogenous society. Both look upon minority communities as homogenous wholes, attached to a particular set of cultures, faiths, beliefs and values.
The real debate is not between multiculturalism and assimilationism. It is between two distinct conceptions of multiculturalism and two distinct conceptions of assimilation. If I were to construct an ideal policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice European nations have adopted the very opposite set of policies. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of a common identity created by institutionalizing the differences of groups deemed not to belong.
To rethink both multiculturalism and assimilationism requires us to rediscover the progressive sense of universal values, a perspective that European liberals and the left have abandoned in two distinct ways. On the one hand, there is a section of the left that has embraced relativism and multiculturalism, that argues that the very notion of universal values is in some sense racist. On the other there are those, exemplified by a figure like Bernard-Henry Lévy, who insist that they still uphold traditional Enlightenment values, but do so in a tribal fashion; the Enlightenment, in their hands, has become a weapon in a supposed clash of civilizations rather than in the battle to define the values and attitudes necessary to advance political rights and social justice. Challenging both is a necessary first step in taking us beyond both multiculturalism and assimilationism.
We need also to challenge the assumption that has guided much policy in both Britain and France that immigration and integration must be managed through state policies and institutions. Real integration, whether of immigrants or of indigenous groups, is rarely brought about by the actions of the state; it is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests. It is the erosion of such bonds and institutions that has proved so problematic – that links assimilationist policy failures to multicultural ones and that explains why social disengagement is a feature not simply of immigrant communities but of the wider society, too. To repair the damage caused by disengagement, and to revive a progressive universalism, we need in both countries not so much new state policies as a renewal of civil society.
The paintings are, from top down, Grace Gardner, ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s heart‘; Bridget Riley, ‘Loss’; Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow’; and Jessica Snow’s ‘320 Dots’. The cover image is a detail from a Hans Hartung lithograph.