To become ‘French,’ abandon who you are
The assimilation required by France’s integration policies is at odds with the liberty that its citizens championed in the streets of Paris on Sunday.
French policies — and the French elites who sustain them — mistakenly assume that there can be no unity in diversity, no liberty in their fraternity.
France today is an amalgam of peoples from more than 100 countries. They all chanted “Je suis Charlie” — but in very different accents. One of every five French babies born today, according to French demographers, has at least one foreign-born parent. French Muslims, largely immigrants from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal, make up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the population — roughly 5 million people. Yet French integration policies do not acknowledge this demographic shift.
To bind together this diverse population, France continues to demand a degree of assimilation that expressly seeks to homogenize all immigrants into a shared mold of “Frenchness.” This is one key meaning of French fraternité — a brotherhood that erases all differences to create the “French people.”
This brand of assimilation is far different from that in the United States, for example. U.S. assimilation evolved over the 20th century to acknowledge, accommodate and even celebrate immigrants’ native lands. As a historic refuge for religious minorities, the United States protects personal and public displays of ethnic or religious differences, while prohibiting the government from establishing any national religion.
The French government, however, prohibits people from any “ostentatious” display of religion. Religiously symbolic clothes or demonstrations are banned in public places, such as schools and government offices.
This is because the French Constitution, born from the French Revolution, recognizes individuals rather than groups. The government acknowledges no specific religious or ethnic identity—only a person’s civic identity.
If everyone is equally French, goes the logic, why would the government need to accommodate any ethnic or religious group? French laws frown on affirmative action and second-language instruction in schools. They prohibit state funding for any organization with ties to a religious body and refuse to collect census data about citizens’ faith. The country only recently expanded anti-discrimination laws.
The pursuit of this nationwide equality, however, has led to an aggressive suppression of diversity. A 2004 law banning headscarves, implicitly directed at Muslim women, opened a heated national debate about the place of religion in public life. This debate grew more charged after France passed a 2011 law explicitly banning face veils from all public spaces.
It is clear that other religions are not treated the same way. Christians, for example, are officially permitted to wear crosses — because they are deemed to be less “ostentatious.” Though Jews may be officially banned from wearing yarmulkes, this law is rarely enforced or even discussed.
The flames have been also been fanned by the Islamophobic rhetoric of the National Front. High levels of casual discrimination and low levels of social mobility prevent France’s Muslims — 40 percent of whom live in Paris –from leaving ghettoized suburbs after multiple generations.
The result is a Muslim population that feels as if it does not possess the same freedom that so many Parisians have touted and defended in the past week. Many Muslims feel like they are not free to be Muslim in French society out of a fear of social rejection and economic penalty.
This policy has noble intentions. It is intended to ensure that France is not divided and no particular group is favored. That all are equal before the law. But France’s embrace of French equality should not entail a rejection of those who claim differences.
In this light, recent events in France plug into a wider debate that all diversifying societies must have about the recognition and accommodation of difference.
Sweden, Germany, Holland, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom all share France’s dilemma. Radical-right and center-right political parties are building strength and momentum from a backlash against demographic trends that are irreversible.
The choice is not whether countries that have taken in large numbers of immigrants can undo the changes that have taken place, but rather how they can forge new forms of fraternity.