America claims to celebrate diversity. France was to be French. Who’s right?
As the immigration reform debate heats up in the United States ahead of the 2024 election, a binary caricature can be expected: One side wants to build a wall; the other loves diversity, without limit or question. So we must turn to France for brave discourse on the real issue: Should immigrants assimilate?
That question has exploded in back-to-school season across the pond, as Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced a new ban in state schools on girls wearing abayas — the long, flowing dress that is a symbol of Muslim garb. You might expect Attal to be a scowling French version of Ron DeSantis. Instead he is a youthful liberal from the centrist Renaissance Party, an assemblage that even Donald Trump would consider some very nice people.
To understand how all this could be, we need to put aside American notions about what is appropriate or acceptable or desirable. It can be a fascinating foray into a disorienting hall of mirrors.
France, as many will recognize, attaches to the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood,” which came out of the 1789 revolution against the monarchy and whose impact was so planetary as to spark a slave rebellion in Haiti. But even more than these three principles, France today is perhaps most attached to the concept of “laicite” (pronounced lay-see-TAY) — which is the vehement insistence on separation of religious institutions from the state and public affairs.
It may seem odd that this has happened in a place chock-full of fine cathedrals, but there are a series of historical reasons, mainly perhaps to do with those cathedrals. Laicite emerged as a response to centuries of religious conflicts, mostly between the state and the Catholic Church, which had a track record of influence on political matters.
That grew increasingly untenable as France carved out a central role in Europe’s exit from centuries of feudalism and backwardness, beginning with its very own Enlightenment, a 17th century revival of the kind of introspection last seen in ancient Greece and Rome.
Since then French thinkers have accounted for great strides and even distinct schools in what passes for Western thought. Rene Descartes gave us “I think, therefore I am,” a foundational element of philosophy. Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasized reason, individualism, tolerance, and freedom of speech. More recently, Jean-Paul Sartre argued there is no predetermined purpose to life, only what we each develop from our existence and experiences.
The turning point may have been the aforementioned revolution, which was as much against the Catholic Church as it was against the king. Waves of anti-clerical sentiment followed as governments sought to limit the influence of the Church by secularizing education, reducing clerical privileges, and imposing a secular public space.
As one might imagine, this does not sit very well with the recent Muslim arrivals, mainly from North Africa, much of which was once French colonial territory. The arrivals come from countries that are not especially liberal, and certainly not especially secular.
The ban on overt religious symbols worn by students in schools is already several decades old — applying not only to Muslim garb but crosses and yarmulkes.
Some defend laicite on the grounds that it aims to protect all religions from one or another becoming dominant, but this convinces few of the Muslims. Inevitable, laicite is today mainly perceived as directed against them. And as being more about suppressing their conservative culture — for example, in the attitudes toward women and gays — than the specifics of any religion. Incidents such as this summer’s riots in the predominately Muslim suburbs against police, as well as terrorist attacks against caricaturists who mock the Prophet Muhammad certainly don’t help.
Critics will, of course, charge racism. But that may be dishonest. The French are so insistent on color-blindness that they refuse to classify people or tally up the population of races in their census. Who, then, is more racist — the French who insist on treating everyone the same (at least formally), or the Americans who won’t stop talking about race and insist on asking you which race you “identify” as on every job application?
Are Americans so very different? Like the French, they are not racially homogeneous. And like the French, many of them feel more comfortable when immigrants adopt English, NFL football and Budweiser beer. But far more than in France, political correctness compels them to pretend otherwise.
For what is undeniable is that many French want cultural assimilation: We do not care about your race, they insist, as long as you act French.
This is rather easy to mock. First off, what does it mean to act French, other than feigning disdain of the Brits and the Yanks? Second, do cultures, including the French, not evolve all the time, precisely because different types of people mix? Thirdly, how can you force someone to think a certain way? Something tells me Descartes himself would not approve; he never said “I think, therefore you are like me.”
And yet in my experience, differences between people — much though they may be supposedly celebrated in the United States today — do not always lead to great results. Anyone confused on the point should consult the history of ethnically heterogeneous countries that have descended into civil war, like Lebanon and Yugoslavia.
It is simply a fact of life that most people want to be around people that are roughly like them — certainly as regards language.
That’s one reason why most countries try to at least limit immigration. That itself can be difficult to defend ethically, because most immigrants are not travelling because they are curious. We are living in an era of great migrations because parts of the world are rich and peaceful and parts are poor and dangerous, with not much in between.
And the parts that are richer got that way for many reasons, including a native industriousness, better weather, and natural resources — but also because in many cases they dominated and plundered what are now the poorer countries. Some would argue we have a duty to open the door.
The French have more or less done that. Almost 15% of the population is foreign-born, and obviously the children of immigrants would push that figure much higher. Most are from far-poorer countries, and probably a strong majority is Muslim (we’d know more clearly if the French stooped to keeping clearer records).
What they ask is that the immigrants become French — whatever that might mean.
In a recent TV debate on this, I squared off against Jean Messiha, a prominent media and political figure associated with the nationalist far-right.
I said I had some sympathy for laicite, and respected the right of the French state to try to promote liberalism and secularism in state schools. But I also suggested that the move against the abayas might be a ban too far. Unlike the niqab, which obscures the face and thus has security implications, the abaya is just a dress.
Messiha was having none of it.
“All the veils (are) not part of our national identity!” he asserted. “When you have a community that is (so large and) that are not belonging to the historical national identity of France, the historical people refuses (and) considers it a kind of aggression.”
I noted that I see a paradox for French people like Messiha. The culture they are trying to preserve can be summed up as liberalism — the values of Rousseau and Voltaire — but defending it from those perceived to be illiberal and intolerant, they become themselves illiberal and intolerant.
Messiha proceeded to depart from Voltaire once more. “You have now many territories that when you go inside, you are not in France,” he said, seemingly genuinely pained. “You believe you are in an Arabic country where applies the Sharia, where applies the dress code of Saudi Arabia. This is not France and you cannot tolerate that under the line of liberty and individual freedom.”
You can call him a racist if you want, but a small biographical fact would cloud that picture: Messiha was born in Egypt, not as “Jean” but as “Hossam Boutros.” He arrived in France as a child, speaking no French. But he assimilated — oh did he ever — and he is clearly at peace with that.
It is not so offensive to me; I am the son of immigrants myself. Things are not always what they seem.