(c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

bridget riley loss

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.

jessica snow 320 dots

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.


  1. I immigrated to the States several decades ago. As a college student I had the opportunity to meet quite a few Middle-Eastern students. With no exception, they made it clear to me their government were supporting them. They were using the American educational system to then practically “fight” the States, though not necessarily in violent way.

    Their hatred against American and everything for which it stands was palpable. They were very outspoken about it. They refused to celebrate any American holidays such as Thanksgiving. They would have nothing to do with the 4th of July celebrations.

    As time went on, I had a chance to meet Middle Easter families. The same thing happened. They hated America, despite the fact that at least two of their sons made a lot of money working for powerful American companies. One of their sons fell in love with an American woman. The parents refused permission for the marriage until the woman agreed to raise her children Muslim.

    Those families had U.S.-born children. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that birth in America gives people American citizenship but doesn’t make them Americans. As a Hispanic, I also met a lot of Hispanic families. I observed the same thing happening with those families. I was present when the parents would forbid their children to speak English at home.

    It didn’t surprise me about eight years ago Hispanic people started rallies on May 1st demanding that the U. S. government issue them green cards. Though they seemed to express their wish to live in the States, during those rallies people didn’t carry the American flag, but the flag of their native countries.

    As an immigrant myself, I am very aware of the lack of freedom in developing countries. People, including myself, would not dare complain to government officials. However, as soon as we got off the plane, we had no qualms about demanding respect for our rights on American soil. Of course, such demands were made while we remained loyal to our native countries. Many had — and still do — no intention of assimilating into American culture, despite the fact that we had seen how detrimental that was for children born and raised in the States.

    It didn’t surprise me that three men that allegedly perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo were born in France. Again, in this case their birth gave them French citizenship but they proved to the end their beliefs and convictions had nothing to do with French culture and traditions. Their allegiance remained to the end to convictions foreign to their birth place.

    I chose to immigrate to the States. No one forced me to do it. I prepared myself for such a transition. I learned English before I moved to the States. I learned to love America before I moved there. As soon as I met the requirements, I became an American citizen. I didn’t look at America as only a land of opportunities. It became my new country. Thus, I made it easy on myself to function in both America and my native country, though for the most part I endeavored to become part of my adopted country.

    Though I enjoyed spending time with other Hispanic people, I got tired of the constant bitching and complaining about life in America. I did tell some people they should go back to their native country if they were so unhappy in America. Their reply? There were no jobs in their native country. In other words, the only reason for their being in America was the opportunities America had to offer. They were willing to take as much as possible, but were voluntarily unwilling not to give anything back to the land that had given them the opportunity to have a future free of poverty and persecution.

  2. Immigrants complaining about America is one of the oldest of American traditions.

    Every ethnic group has basically been the same in US history. Most of them hold onto their ethnic identities, sometimes for generations. Germans were still teaching in the German language in public schools in German majority communities here in the US well into the 20th century. But give ethnic Americans long enough and they all eventually assimilate.

    The one thing the US has always been able to do is assimilate people, even if it takes a while. Many people don’t know American history and they somehow think recent immigrants are different, and yet there is no evidence that they won’t assimilate like every other population of immigrants. For some ethnic Americans like the Scots-Irish, they still haven’t fully assimilated. Nonetheless, even the proud Scot-Irish are slowly but surely assimilating. No ethnic group yet has resisted assimilation, except the groups that isolate themselves or are isolated such as the Amish and Native Americans.

    America is an immigrant nation. The balance of multiculturalism and assimilation is messy, but it is better than the alternatives. We have less terrorism than many European countries. For one, we don’t tend to isolate immigrant groups, although we don’t have any policies either that keep immigrants from choosing to isolate themselves if they so desire. The only groups that have been forcibly isolated are Native Americans and African Americans, and neither were immigrant groups, instead a conquered people and an enslaved people.

    I don’t see immigrants complaining about America as a problem. Heck, complaining about America simply proves how American a person is. If Americans didn’t complain about their country, they’d have nothing else to bond over. We aren’t a country with an ancient history and a unified culture.

  3. Jason Preater

    This is a very interesting post. I am English so I have been brought up in the multi-cultural ethos that you are opposed to. As a student in Edinburgh I had a lot of Pakistani friends. The fact that I can call them Pakistani when they are as British as I am- well, Scottish actually- shows up the problems, doesn’t it?

    Bashir, for example, was born in Glasgow and had a broad Glasgow accent. He didn’t like going to visit relatives in Pakistan because he got stomach trouble and missed the Scottish climate. Many of the waiters who worked in his restaurant were pulling away from the traditional Muslim upbringing they had at home. They hated being identified with their hardworking but, as they saw it, culturally inferior parents and even mocked them for running corner shops.

    I now live in the north of Spain. I did not come here to join some ex-pat community and gripe about the country and its culture, but because I fell in love with a woman. That makes me an integrationist. But I recognise that I will always be English. In the village where I live even my neighbour who married his wife and moved here from a few miles away is an outsider, and he is Spanish. I don’t particularly like this sense that the land belongs more to the people who have their roots in it it, but there is a strong emotional bond people have with it.

    There is a low level discrimination against anyone who is not Spanish here. It is irritating and gives me a deep sympathy for the victims of racism and intolerance. For example, non-Spaniards have a poor quality identity document instead of the id card that everyone else has. This separation of Spanish and other comes from the state.

    I feel that you cannot trust the state to work towards harmony and tolerance. The fact that nearly 70% of French people distrust their politicians is not a reason for despair but for celebration: they are right. And if politicians are bad, bureaucrats are worse.

    But there is communication across cultures and amongst peoples. Tolerance and understanding come from people not from governments. I don’t know what the right policy is or should be, but less state involvement certainly seems a good option to me.

  4. Katherine Woo

    I don’t know what it is like to be non-white in Europe. I do know what it is like to be non-white and the child of immigrants in America. Of course I have experienced stereotyping and ignorance, but it mostly just annoys me and then I go on with my life. Only the anti-Korean sentiment whipped up as part of black racial politics in the late 80’s and early 90’s is something I would describe as ‘racial hatred’ per se. I frankly laugh at people like Ta-Nehisi Coates gravely referring to a on-going “white supremacy” as self-serving racial demagogues. I also don”t think self-selection is a sufficient explanation for Asian-American success. Ironically the same leftists who dismiss Asian success as an anomaly on that sole basis will turn around and tell you how racism simply pervades every institution in American society and is thus inescapable. So Asians should fail or at least not under any circumstances be able to outperform white people if the deck is so thoroughly stacked against us.

    Thus when I try to extrapolate my home-grown analysis to European issues, I immediately don’t buy that the matter is as simple as Arabs/North Africans becoming secular and their failure being thus attributable to indigenous French racism or alternative forms of ‘otherization’. I definitely see the tensions of absorbing people into a culture rooted in one ethnic group.

    Still I question what unique experiences various non-white groups have Europe. Do Korean or Sikh immigrants in France end up wallowing in the banlieues, torching cars and falling backward into religious conservatism? How do Christian Arab experiences differ? I can’t help but look at the floundering and/or retrograde state of Arab society as a whole without questioning how their pervasive culture of victimhood harms them, even if they ostensibly shed themselves of Islam’s strictures. Korea was a war-ravaged, post-colonial state in 1953 with decades of dictatorship and U.S. military ‘occupation’ in its future (still on-going to use the Greenwaldian left’s ‘logic’), yet has that stopped its rise in the world? Koreans do not sit around viewing themselves as victims (except as you may recall from last July when we want to make some angry point about Japanese fascism).

    Also given that you are the father of a daughter, I am a bit disappointed to see you focus on the burqa ban and not the much much weightier issue of religious garb on school children. Islam’s most long-standing and deep-deeded problem is not terrorism, but misogyny. Misogyny has manifest as viciously and normalized as modern racism throughout human history. The problem is the only people who tend to articulate this are radical feminists who bring other ideological baggage that drowns out the message. Post-1960’s scholarship has routinely favored racism as ‘the one prejudice to rule them all’, largely in my view because comprehensively addressing misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. will necessarily involve white people judging non-white cultures. With racism as the mortal sin of postmodernity, that is a non-starter. This creates an incomplete passion for other areas of social justice which creates the pusillanimity we see in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and even the abandonment of some issues, like women’s rights in the muslim world, to voices on the center or right.

    • Noor

      What misogyny? Burkas? You think men are walking around half-naked while women are completely covered up?

    • Katherine Woo, you oughta blog. (You oughta blogga.) I love how you point to racism as the “one prejudice to rule them all” and offer criticisms of how a focus on one -ism can make it difficult to address other -isms. And you do this without reverting to a shrill denial that any of these -isms exist and shape us. I liked other things you said, but this was particularly enlightening.

  5. damon

    I’m confused about this recent ICM poll that said that 16% of French people had a favourable view of Isis. That can not be right. It was said to be even higher amongst young people.
    Being in France last year, I couldn’t get over the feeling of otherness that many young Muslim men projected. They were nearly always only in each other’s company, and even in some small industrial town on the Rhone, in the early evening while still light, while the whole town was closed and dead, there would be an Arabic cafe or two still open with lots of customers, which almost made it look like ”they owned” the town in the evening when all the white French people were inside their houses.
    I wondered if there was any issue in the social life of the town being divided like that.
    I thought there could be. Something about it didn’t look right.

    • Jørgen Laursen

      Extremely interesting field observations. What a creepy atmosphere! I shudder at the future if a lot of French towns are like that.

      Are they?

      • damon

        You could look at it several ways. People of Arab origin like to sit in cafes and just spend time in each others company in a way that’s different to many French people. Immigrant communities will often congregate socially. The Irish in Britain used to frequent Irish pubs.
        Many French cafes and restaurants can be rather middle class places, so working class Arab men would rather go to places that were less commercially driven perhaps and be able to spend time just over coffee or tea, smoking and playing cards with their friends. Into the evening when most French people have gone home. It doesn’t have to be creepy. Although some of the young men are a bit immature and do not come across as the most friendly and cheerful people you’ve ever seen. If you are not from their social group and are an outsider.
        It’s very unscientific, but so many times I got the idea that the young guys were a bit insecure, so made up for that by being a bit aloof and macho. Always dressed very sharply, even if it was just a tracksuit it would be an expensive looking one. Very well groomed hair styles,and lots of aftershave. It seemed to be the look of the young Arab men.
        The older guys were a lot more relaxed and easy going it seemed.
        They were the ones playing cards.

        • Thanks, damon.

          I used to live in France myself, but that’s more than twenty years ago now and things change. However, I do remember walking around the quartier arabe of Perpignan with a French friend of mine after dusk and feeling less than safe. Somehow, there is something intimidating about bands of young men who stop in the middle of the street to stare at you, impassively scrutinizing you as you walk by them while seemingly weighing their options. No wonder that, once darkness fell, the Arab quarter became almost exclusively monoethnic.

          Having said that, I’m sure you are right that part of such behaviour is probably cultural, and that historically immigrant communities have always congregated socially. Still, the feeling of menace was palpable, and I remember wondering at the existence of what, to my innocent Scandinavian eyes, seemed almost a state of Apartheid in an otherwise laid-back provincial town.

          And that was more than twenty years ago. Sometimes I wonder how they get along today.

        • Hmm, did a bit of fact-checking on Perpignan. Seems that things haven’t grown any less tense since the early nineties when I lived there, although the combattants are perhaps surprising:

          Dans les vieux quartiers de Perpignan, les commerçants se sont barricadés. «De jeunes Maghrébins approchent par groupes d’une dizaine environ», témoignait dans la soirée Nicolas, habitant du quartier de Saint-Mathieu. «Ils sont très mobiles, armés de manches de pioche et de pelles, et éclatent les vitrines des magasins», racontait-il au téléphone dans un concert d’alarmes. La préfecture a demandé hier soir des renforts à Marseille, Toulouse et Bordeaux pour appuyer les trois compagnies de 80 CRS qui assurent le maintien de l’ordre depuis plusieurs jours. Dans la nuit, des voitures brûlaient dans plusieurs quartiers de la ville. Toute la semaine passée, des bandes de jeunes Maghrébins s’en étaient déjà pris, nuit après nuit, à l’exception de celle de samedi à dimanche, aux forces de police, saccageant des vitrines et incendiant des véhicules. (Read the rest here)

  6. Noor

    There’s definitely a trend where immigrants, attempting to ‘preserve’ their culture, end up overcompensating and being more conservative than the people back home, since immigrants are more worried about losing their culture.

  7. A very wonderful post. Lots to think about.
    I do have to wonder about the sources of some of your statements about how French people feel. You write:

    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.

    I’ve seen that tendency during the past few days in the English language press but not in the French language press. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I haven’t seen it. A few years ago, I traveled to France with my then-boyfriend, who was from the northern Paris suburbs where riots had taken place. We stayed in several different towns always with friends of his. His friends were all French, but they weren’t all of European ancestry. They all seemed to consider themselves French. Of course, I didn’t ask how they truly felt about it. I know how my boyfriend felt and he wouldn’t accept any identity other than French. He thought that the American habit of hyphenated identities was weird.

    Of course, my own experiences with French people reflect that fact that I’m an artist and a programmer and the people I’ve met tend to be educated and involved in either the arts or technology. I’ve always had the distinct impression in French social situations any mention of race or ethnicity was entirely taboo. Sometimes, for me, that’s a relief. I get sick of being asked about my ethnic background in the U.S. It’s not a short, one word answer. I get told I look “exotic.” Amusingly, I was mistaken a couple of times for Nadia El Fani in London last October. Once, at the end of a party in France, as I was exchanging addresses with some people I had just met, a woman looked at the paper I had handed to her and exclaimed, “Your name is more French than mine.” I started to explain that my Father’s family had left France in the sixteenth century and she started waving her hands as if to stop me and apologized for mentioning it. I got the distinct impression that she felt that she had committed a little social faux pas in bringing it up.

    On the other hand, at dinner with a group of French people a couple of months ago, one man expressed a longing to return to the island of Reunion. He said it was the only place he ever lived where it didn’t matter if you were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. He, and another Jewish man, expressed some slight discomfort about being Jews in France.

    I agree with you that the French tendency to “refuse to see color”, as Stephen Colbert would have it, makes it difficult to address the prejudices which inevitably exist. Whenever the French bring up the subject of the U.S. policy of “affirmative action,” which they call “positive discrimination,” the seem horrified by the idea. I admit that it’s a highly imperfect solution, but “not seeing color” too often becomes a screen for not seeing discrimination.

    As an example of how complicated this subject can be, the U.S. has been fairly successful in integrating multiple waves of immigrants, yet African Americans, more specifically the descendents of slaves, still have not been fully integrated and discrimination of very serious sorts still clearly exists.

    Going back to your comments about the threat to French identity and values – I think it’s important to understand that all cultures exist in a state of constant change. The full integration, and I’m intentionally using the word integration rather than assimilation, of a group inherently means a change in the other group. They say that the New York accent show signs of the different immigrant groups that have come to this city, groups to which I have no genetic connection but with whom I share some speech patterns. A new element can not be fully incorporated into the society without changing its nature.

    A funny note, that French boyfriend I mention had a British roommate. One day the British roommate loaned him a DVD of the movie “La Petite Jerusalem” telling him that he would love it. When it was over, my boyfriend was mad at his roommate. “Why does he think I want to watch that garbage. I grew up with that shit!” I couldn’t help seeing the British and French attitudes towards multiculturalism and assimilation in that.

    It’s hard understanding another culture. I take all these comments and episodes and I’m not entirely sure what sort of picture it makes.

    • Nobody

      “[T]he U.S. has been fairly successful in integrating multiple waves of immigrants”. What makes me wonder how successful is that to me (born and living in a frozen corner of Europe) USians in general come across as obsessed with race as any white South-African during the apartheid era. And the US-inspired anti-racists over here are even more obsessed with labelling people with race than the local racists and xenophobes (neo-nazis, Breivik-wannabes, and others). How are we supposed to get along if we’re supposed to first and foremost see each other as members of ethnic/racial/religious/… groups?

      • Last night, I got an email from an Englishman telling me that Je suis Charlie is racist. I am officially burned out. I think I agree with you, but the far left has finally succeeded in driving me out of politics. I actually just came on the internet to put up a post to that effect. I woke up this morning crying and feeling despondent. It’s over. The moderate left, the liberals have lost. The far left will lose in the long run, too. I don’t even know what I wrote last week and after a week of being told I’m an evil racist, I don’t even care to look at it. I feel brain dead and very alone. I can’t even think anymore. I think I’m going to stop blogging.

  8. Noor

    Since I’ve mentioned these issues in comments on a couple of other posts, I’ll note that granting women equal rights to divorce is only half the story. Abolishing the traditional feminine privileges (mahr, under Islamic law) must be done alongside that. Granting women equal rights in divorce without simultaneously doing away with these traditional feminine privileges means a woman can marry a man and divorce him anytime while still remaining entitled to his income and assets.

    Also, something seems a bit off there. How is it that 44% are not opposed to cohabitation but 31% are not opposed to premarital sex? It’s not that much of a gap, but it still stands out for me.

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