France’s Multicultural Challenge
French identity is so deeply linked to its colonial past that there is a fear of a reversal, where there is a perception that France would transform into a “colony” by a foreign cultural invasion, an argument often made by populist groups. The French mode of secularism is also central to French identity, which has increasingly become challenging for Muslim immigrants, or anyone, who wants to openly express and practice their faith. The reality is that many immigrants may feel French but are not treated French.
To change this, French internal policies must change to help forge a new multicultural France, where immigrants can celebrate their heritage, practice the religion of their choosing and still be French. French society often wants to assimilate immigrant populations, instead of integrate them. True integration entails a dual process where immigrants both embrace and become invested in their new home and immigrants are accepted as equals by their new country. Assimilation, on the other hand, often loses that reciprocal element, and the immigrants’ inability to assimilate into local customs and attitudes, instead retaining their social differences, sets them apart from mainstream society. At the heart of France’s immigration struggle is discrimination and lack of integration of its Muslim immigrants, who are often from former French North African colonies, such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
In September 2018, six decades after the end of the Algerian war of independence, French President Emmanuel Macron officially acknowledged for the first time France’s widespread use of torture in Algeria while visiting the widow of Maurice Audin, a young French-born antiwar intellectual whom Macron recognized was tortured and killed by the French Army.
This was not his first statement on Algeria. During Macron’s election campaign, he declared that France’s colonization of Algeria was itself a “crime against humanity,” though he later backtracked on the statement. Immigrants from Algeria make up one of the largest immigrant communities in France.
Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian of Algeria, told the Washington Post that Macron’s acknowledgment represented a move away from France’s silence regarding its colonial past and “permits us to advance,” he said, “to exit from denial and to advance in the service of truth.”
In order to make sure this acknowledgment is a real advancement, France should use it as an opening to repair internal relations with France’s own North African immigrants. Acknowledging sins of the past will help heal old wounds, but the children of North African immigrants in France today need employment opportunities that will help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
With France’s struggles integrating its North African and Muslim immigrants and controversial counterterrorism laws that some have claimed disproportionately target Muslims, France must work to repair these relationships, not only outside but also from within its borders. Macron must also continue his drive of reconciliation with real economic policies that will positively affect immigrants.
For Muslim minorities isolation is not only emotional but also physical. These minorities often live in impoverished areas of France, suburbs known as banlieues, which is a derogatory term for slums dominated by immigrants. These suburbs are badly deteriorating and where violence, drugs and unemployment rates are high. For minorities to break this cycle of poverty, employment opportunities are needed. France must also continue its work to revamp social housing and increase educational, leadership and job opportunities, such as Jean-Louis Borloo‘s idea for residents of France’s banlieues to have better access to French civil service positions.
Many Muslim immigrants seek integration but face discrimination. As a result, they remain more closely attached to their home country than host country. Most notably discrimination can be felt in the job market, where studies have shown that Muslim applicants are much less likely to be called back for job interviews than other religious background. The French are so attached to the idea of equality before law that collecting statistics about ethnic minorities, even to counter discrimination, is forbidden.
Despite this taboo, France Strategie, the French government’s economic strategy component, examined French census data on national origin and found that youth unemployment of French-born citizens of North African immigrants is 32 percent, twice as high as those with no immigrant background. Discrimination continues the cycle of poverty and makes it increasingly difficult for immigrants with ethnic sounding names to acquires middle class jobs to move out of the banlieues and past their deteriorating economic situation. This is an area where positive change can be made. Employment changes must be made to make hiring processes fair for all.
A necessary step forward for France must include a shift in paradigm from a homogenous France to a multicultural France. Macron’s acknowledgment of French crimes in Algeria is a needed step forward in healing wounds and repairing relationships but much more must be done, including giving minority cultures a place in French culture and breaking down barriers for minorities to join the middle class. Let’s hope that Macron’s statement on Algeria is not only a great historical step but also a future step in repairing relationships within France.