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By K.L John


Tuesday, July 1, 2008.


Anglophiles who follow French current affairs, could be forgiven for thinking that France has far bigger immigration issues than Britain. They may also commend the French for being so progressive, with all their fondness for integration in the suburbs.  Such folks however would be somewhat mistaken.  Cutting through the false friends, I will endeavour to explain the plight of our minority ethnic amis in France.


Immigrants, immigration and integration are frequently used terms in French.  They are used far more readily in the public sphere, and although they carry the same whiff of racism, while Brits are desperate to avoid the controversy, the French feel that these things need to be discussed in public (not in private though; that’s terribly rude).


Although the negative connotation attached to the term immigrant is not an exclusively French phenomenon, the labelling of minority ethnic citizens as immigrants is a concept which can seem peculiarly French to the English eye. However France has always rejected the multicultural identity it has long warranted, for fairly simple reasons.


Despite the geographical, political and historical proximity, France is a very different place to the UK, and race relations on that side of La Manche (as the French call the Channel), are a totally different kettle of fish. 


The 1789 French Revolution saw absolute monarchy replaced with a Republic of the people via a combination of popular ideas of Enlightenment, the guillotine, and ten years of political instability. It was a fascinating historical period which changed Europe and France irrevocably.  


The advent of separation of church and state, republicanism, the rights of the French citizen and the tricolor flag have formed the basis of modern French identity to the present day.  It is also this identity, which some argue is now under threat for various reasons.


When London was bombed in July 2005 by British Citizens, one French commentator described it as Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism coming home to roost.  For the French, any ideas from Britain and the US are ‘Anglo-saxon’ and talk of multiculturalism, melting pots and celebrating diversity are our crazy ideas - that is, we can keep them. 


The slogan of the revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité, is at the heart of France.  Central to the idea is that French people have rights, and that they should be united in their Frenchness.  Consequently, other identities, religious, ethnic or cultural, must be superseded by that of the French, the most definitive of them all.  After the bloody excesses of the revolution, it was hoped that a united French people would never again be divided.


Unfortunately, that has not been the case.  In contemporary France, the 2005 winter riots were the most serious civil unrest in a generation.


The French speak of ‘immigration’ when referring to what the British call race relations.  It is a confusing, derogatory, discriminative trend with questionable motives at best.  At less than best, it would appear part of a concerted attempt to make French people from ethnic minorities feel excluded from French society and unwelcome on French soil.  


One would think being born in France would indicate otherwise:  Not so.  One reason why minority ethnic youth can be described as ‘immigrant’ is because until recently, the children of immigrants had to ‘register’ as French at 18.  At that point, they would legally choose to become French, and symbolically reject any sentimental connection to their national origins in favour of citizenship of La République Française.    


While in the UK, some sections of the population complain of the restrictions of political correctness, minority ethnic French people would welcome a little of it.  Home Office Minister, President Sarkozy famously referred to the rioters of 2005 as ‘la racaille’ (scum) and controversially assured the (majority white) French public that the immigrants responsible for the violence would be deported; it was patently obvious that disenchanted French youth were revolting, not ungrateful foreigners. 


A problem of integration was one of the reasons given for the revolts.  Again, Anglophone reader, watch out for the false friend.  Integration in France isn’t simply a matter of everyone getting along together, but assimilation.  The French were particularly keen on their civilising mission and the paternalism it sprang from still lingers.  While in the UK few still consider cultural assimilation as having any real merit (think of the derision of the ‘test of Englishness’), the idea, in France names remains very popular. 


Estimates indicate that as many as 25% of French citizens are the descendants of immigrants.  A walk through the high streets of any of France’s major urban centres will certainly testify to the existence of French citizens of numerous cultural heritages.  So who are France’s most marginalised and dispossessed?  Like in the UK, minority ethnic groups consist largely of the descendants of peoples colonised by the French.  Muslim North Africans, particularly Algerians, are by far the largest ethnic group in France.  


Another significant minority ethnic group is the West African diaspora; Guadeloupeans, Martinicans, Haitians, and the Malians, Senegalese, and Cameroonians.  Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos together formed French Indo-China, a third key part of the French empire.  These groups are the banlieue youth. 


Confusingly for us, the French ‘inner city’ is actually on the outskirts of the city.  So when the French talk about the state of the suburbs, don’t think leafy avenues, think ghetto.  The HLMs (high rise estates) form their own cités outside the main cities, almost in the middle of nowhere and industrial estates surround them. 


Republican Values – that all French people are free, equal and brothers and thus should not be encouraged to recognise themselves as anything other than French – mean that data on the cultural heritage of second and third generation immigrants is not collected.  No equal opportunities forms there.  The absence of such data also prevents the monitoring of discrimination, and complicates discussing issues pertaining to ethnicity in France.


Clearly, things are very different for minority ethnic people en France.  Despite very different societal approaches to community cohesion, in both the UK and France there are large numbers of minority ethnic people who acknowledge the binds of a shared history and culture. Considering their experiences as a minority group is crucial for gaining an appreciation of the variety of black identities in existence internationally, and working out where to party in Paris.


© 2008


K.L John is a South Londoner who is curious about international politics, trade and justice.  She is currently an active member of the Steering Committee for the Fairtrade London Campaign.   


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