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The Shorn Identity

Why the French forgot how to assimilate.

To the smoke rising from the Paris suburbs, the American press has been adding a generous portion of fog. Typical was the front-page story in last Friday's New York Times. A "significant proportion of the population," Craig S. Smith wrote, "has yet to accept the increasingly multiethnic makeup of the nation. Put simply, being French, for many people, remains a baguette-and-beret affair." Put simply, this is distressingly close to nonsense, and not just because berets have been far more scarce on French streets than baseball caps for many years. What Smith and the many American journalists who have repeated such ideas for the last few weeks have not reported is that France has been a multiethnic country for a very long time, and, for decades, it did as well as any other Western country--including the United States--at integrating large numbers of immigrants into its society. The problem that has literally burst into flames this year is not that France has an innate inability to integrate ethnic groups, but rather that its method for integrating them no longer works. 

To see the multiethnic history of modern France, one need look no further than the phone book of any major French city. In addition to the Duponts and the Lebruns, and names of Arab and African origin, there are long columns of Cohens and Kowalskis, of Chungs and Nguyens, of Martinis and Gonzalezes and Oliveiras. It has been estimated that roughly a quarter of French citizens today have at least one foreign-born grandparent. In the years between World War I and 1965, during which the United States radically curtailed immigration, France took in a considerably higher proportion of immigrants than we did. 

Nor did most of these immigrant groups experience more prejudice than their American equivalents. (The Jewish community, mostly descended from nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrants, constituted the glaring exception; the pro-Nazi Vichy regime sent 76,000 Jews to the death camps.) Today, throughout the highest ranks of French society, men and women of immigrant descent are anything but uncommon. Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking interior minister and likely 2007 presidential candidate, is the son of a Hungarian immigrant on one side and the grandson of a Greek Jewish one on the other. Pierre Bérégovoy, a Socialist prime minister in the 1990s, was of recent Ukrainian descent. That great icon of French cinema, Yves Montand, was born in Italy as Ivo Livi. Jacques Derrida, France's most famous philosopher of the late twentieth century, was an Algerian Jew. 

Furthermore, France's ability to accept and integrate new ethnic groups has not entirely ceased to function in recent decades. Just minutes from central Paris, areas like Belleville and Porte d'Ivry are home to hundreds of thousands of French citizens of southeast Asian descent, who have remained almost entirely removed from the recent disturbances. In part thanks to these immigrants, tiny Asian carryouts have become as common as bakeries in many parts of the city in recent years, suggesting that, if "baguettes" remain central to French identity, it may only be because the word also means "chopsticks." In recent years, Asian surnames appear to have become increasingly common among the students admitted to France's elite institutions of higher education, the grandes écoles. For that matter, a steady stream of ethnic North Africans has also been rising into the French middle class, their successes overshadowed by the larger problems of the suburbs. 

Admittedly, until recently, this history of immigration had been relatively invisible. Unlike in the United States, immigrant heritage has never functioned as a source of French national pride. There is no French equivalent to the Ellis Island museum, no French holiday like Saint Patrick's Day. Artists and writers from the older immigrant groups have not, for the most part, injected an ostentatiously ethnic flavor into their works. There is no French-Jewish Philip Roth or Woody Allen. And, for this reason, the French themselves long remained largely ignorant of their own history, to the point that, as late as 1986, one of the country's best and most prominent historians, Pierre Nora (himself, ironically, of Jewish descent) could speak of large-scale immigration as "a novelty of the country's present-day situation." The leading French authority on immigration, Gérard Noiriel, had to struggle long and hard just to have his subject recognized as a legitimate one within French academia. But, since the publication of his path-breaking book Le creuset français (The French Melting Pot) in 1988, there has been an explosion of studies, hobbled only by the stubborn refusal of the French state to compile statistics on the country's racial and ethnic composition. 

This refusal--the official denial that ethnicity can have any legitimate place in public life--reflects the republican ideology that lies behind France's model of immigration. Republicanism resolutely opposes any show of loyalty to an entity other than the nation itself, whether an ethnic group, a geographical area (such as a French province), or a religion. As long ago as 1789, a legislator memorably articulated the key idea in regard to the group that, until very recently, was seen as most different from the French norm, and around which discussions of ethnic difference tended to crystallize: "Everything must be refused to the Jews as a Nation ... and everything granted to the Jews as individuals." In recent years, the most ferocious debates over French identity have not concerned immigrant groups, per se, but Islam, and particularly the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in the public schools, which the French state has banned. To dedicated republicans, the headscarf is precisely the sort of badge of identity that threatens to trump one's identity as a citizen and endanger civic unity. 

To understand why the republican model of integration has begun to fail over the past 40 years or so, a bit of older history is necessary. The model dates all the way back to the French Revolution. Large-scale immigration had not yet begun in the late eighteenth century, but, even so, France was perceived as dangerously divided among its own constituent populations. The diversity of language was most striking. By some estimates, less than one-fifth of the population spoke standard French with any degree of fluency; the rest spoke a congeries of local tongues, including Breton, Basque, the southern French language Occitan, and regional dialects of French itself. It was hardly surprising that the great revolutionary orator Mirabeau referred to France as an "unconstituted aggregate of disunited peoples." 

To create a cohesive political community, the most radical revolutionaries believed that they had to erase these regional differences, and, in the words of Henri Grégoire, take people and "melt them into the national mass." The revolutionary government embraced ambitious projects of integration, focused above all on the educational system. It envisaged sending thousands of instructors into the countryside, much as the Roman Catholic Church had earlier sent thousands of missionaries. But, where the missionaries had worked to forge a united faith, the secular instructors would forge a united nation. 

The revolutionaries did not have the means to put their projects of integration into practice. But, in the nineteenth century, the aggressively secular Third Republic finally began, as the historian Eugen Weber has put it, to make "peasants into Frenchmen." Local dialects and traditions were turned into harmless folklore, while battalions of earnest schoolmasters instructed their charges in proper speech and in the history and customs of the nation as a whole. Aided by powerful social changes that brought country people into the cities--while extending railroads into the countryside--the projects arguably succeeded. Today, despite earnest efforts by regional militants, most of France's traditional regional languages are moribund. 

At the same time, French republicans were expanding their assimilationist ambitions beyond the borders of France itself. In the colonial empire that, by 1900, stretched from Indochina to the Caribbean and covered one-third of the African continent, French administrators, for a time, practiced relatively inclusive policies, providing extensive primary education and even offering citizenship on a limited basis, in keeping with the idea of a French "civilizing mission." Certain parts of the empire were fully annexed to France itself, becoming legally as indistinguishable from the metropole as Hawaii is from the continental United States. These policies consolidated French power over the colonies while also affirming France's position as a center of worldwide culture and civilization. It was a point of pride that so much of the world, in effect, seemed to want to become French. 

In the late nineteenth century, therefore, immigrants began arriving in large numbers in a country that already had a century's experience of assimilating people different from the French cultural norm into the "national mass." To be sure, even immigrants from neighboring Catholic countries like Italy experienced considerable resistance at first--but probably no more so than their equivalents in the United States. And, eventually, resistance and prejudice gave way to widespread acceptance, as long as the immigrant groups themselves willingly accepted a new "French" identity and abandoned their old national one. The Third Republic did see moments of vicious hostility to the Jews (notably in the Dreyfus Affair), but it also saw impressive opposition to anti-Semitism, a broad willingness to accept fully "integrated" Jews into French society, and the selection of a Jew, Léon Blum, as prime minister. All in all, the metaphor of the melting pot actually fits France better than the United States, for, in France, ethnic identities melted away far more thoroughly than on this side of the Atlantic. 

"Can the old republican fervor be summoned from the ashes? Probably not."

But, just as large-scale immigration from Muslim ex-colonies began in the '60s, this model of integration started to break down. Muslims were not the cause of this collapse. Rather, several developments challenged the republican model at once. First, industrialization and urbanization finally brought about the end of the peasantry, depriving French educators of the traditional objects of their missionary efforts. As late as the 1930s, half the population lived in rural settings, where schoolteachers enjoyed considerable status as agents of urban civilization. With mass migration into the cities, the status of the educational system itself, and its role as a force for integration, diminished noticeably. 

Second, decolonization brought the French empire to an end, and it delivered a terrific shock to France's self-image in the process. Large parts of the world, it now appeared, did not want to be French--indeed, they were willing to fight not to be French. Those who fought hardest, employing terrorist violence against French civilians, were Algerian revolutionaries (against whom the French state, in turn, employed torture and murder). It was the achievement of Algerian independence in 1962 that marked the symbolic repudiation of France's "civilizing mission" by its intended beneficiaries, and bitter memories of the war stoked racism against North Africans in France itself. (Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, served in Algeria as a paratrooper.) 

In addition, at precisely this sensitive moment came the massive student unrest, widespread rioting, and paralyzing strikes of May 1968. This episode had many dimensions, but the most important was arguably the revolt against the famed French educational system. Students had led earlier French rebellions, but not against their own teachers. One ramification of the revolt was the near-destruction of the magisterial authority formerly enjoyed by French educators and their overweening confidence that they could, and should, squeeze students into national molds of their own devising. 

It was into this changed and diminished France--stripped of its empire, unnerved by the wars of decolonization, deprived of its traditional peasantry, and shaken in its cultural authority--into which the new immigrants from Africa arrived as cheap labor. Even had they come at an earlier time, their integration would have proved far more difficult than that of Italians, Portuguese, or Jews. The cultural differences were greater, as was the sheer extent of the racial and religious prejudice against them. But, in the context of the '60s, they had hardly any chance. The French state simply no longer had the will to apply the older model of integration fully. Instead, for a time, the state held fast to the fiction that the newcomers were mere "guest workers" who would eventually return home. When it became obvious that large numbers of Arabs, Berbers, and black Africans were in France to stay, the state shunted them into bleak suburban housing projects, effectively segregating them far more radically than earlier waves of immigrants. 

Two generations have now grown up in these depressing settings, having little connection to their parents' or grandparents' homelands but feeling unwelcome and feared in France. Not only has widespread racism and discrimination persisted--with the new immigrant groups bearing the brunt of France's massive unemployment problem--but the French state has not even done them the compliment of trying particularly hard to assimilate them. Their experience in the schools has not resembled that of earlier immigrants. I have known several French teachers who worked in suburban lycées where North African students were the majority. Only one of them saw the assignment as a chance to follow in the footsteps of those teachers who went forth to proselytize for French civilization, and she received precious little institutional support for her beliefs. The others have endured it simply as a purgatory and counted the days until their release. 

Those in France now resisting calls for American-style affirmative action claim that to introduce any sort of special treatment for the "immigrants" would be to violate a basic tenet of French republicanism. Everything to them as individuals, nothing to them as ethnic groups, is the familiar message. But the fact is that the republican model has been broken for close to 40 years. For, in practice, it was never simply about the principle of making everyone equal within the civic sphere. It was also about genuine missionary fervor--about taking little Gascons and Normans, little colonial subjects, little Italian and Jewish immigrants, and converting them, in the full meaning of the word, into French men and women. The absence of that sort of fervor in places like Clichy-sous-Bois or Saint-Denis, where some of the worst rioting has occurred, has contributed powerfully to the alienation that has expressed itself in the recent wave of arson and destruction. The very use of the word "immigrants" for these second- and third-generation French youths is an insulting reminder of just how little attention official France has given them. Nicolas Sarkozy is more of an immigrant than many of them. 

Can the old republican fervor be summoned from the ashes? Probably not. For one thing, since the '60s, ethnic groups in France have begun to express themselves far more vigorously than in the past. In the Jewish community, for instance, there have been widespread calls for broader assertions of "communal" identity, causing consternation among those (mostly older) Jews who accepted the bargain offered them by the Republic, going so far as to label themselves not juifs, but israélites, a term they defined as French citizens of the Jewish faith. Attempts to revive the earlier model of integration with regard to young Arabs and black Africans would now call forth charges of cultural arrogance, Eurocentrism, and racism and meet with widespread resistance. 

Yet the riots of the past weeks have made it all too clear that, if the French Republic cannot return to its past, it desperately needs to find some way to offer the youths of the suburbs a meaningful form of integration into broader society--even if that involves some variety of American-style affirmative action. Well before the riots, the Institut d'études politique, Paris's elite college for government and diplomacy, had instituted a program for disadvantaged youths that defined disadvantage by geographic location, rather than race. Such measures could easily be generalized to the other grandes écoles. The widespread institution of enterprise zones freed from the burdensome French regulatory apparatus that strangles start-up businesses could also help. (Ironically, the very weight of regulation in France could make such zones particularly effective there.) Just as important, France's leading politicians need to go to the suburban areas and declare, forthrightly, that the people who live there are just as French as Sarkozy--or, for that matter, as Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy's cynical order to deport noncitizens arrested in the riots has sent precisely the wrong message by further associating the suburbs with "foreigners." 

Certainly, law and order needs to be reestablished, and the vandals who, after all, preyed mostly on their own communities need to be punished. But the problems of the suburbs call for more inclusive measures, not only for reasons of elementary justice, but also because, in the long run, nihilistic car-burning is hardly the worst threat presented by communities like Clichy-sous-Bois--radical Islamism is. For the moment, Islamist militants have had relatively little success in spreading their own variety of missionary fervor in France. The rioters of the past weeks have shown greater enthusiasm for American "gangsta" rap than for Osama bin Laden. But whether this will remain the case is a different matter. Recent events in the Netherlands--particularly the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist extremist--illustrate how easily Islamist radicalism can gain a foothold in Europe. And it is hard to see better candidates for religious radicalization than the alienated young people of the French suburbs, dismissed as "immigrants" in the land of their own birth.

By David A. Bell