“Multiculturalism”? As if!

I’m going to barf if one more person writes that “multiculturalism” has somehow contributed to the riots in France. How exactly you square “multiculturalism” with France’s ban on the headscarf – and the fact that French is, officially, about as un-multicultural as you can get – is beyond me.

If you ask me, I’d hazard to say it’s a complete and utter lack of multiculturalism that had created the situation we have now.

(I notice the previous post, by Matt Turner, makes essentially the same point. Sorry for that, but I’m plowing ahead since I’d already begun writing this. By now, regular readers won’t see this as a surprising new take, but it needs to be said loudly and clearly.)

Perhaps the best rebuttal I’ve seen comes from The Times (thanks to Bob in the comments section), which argues that “a colour-blind policy has fed Muslim radicalism.”

Some, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, the iconoclastic Interior Minister who is at the centre of the present crisis, have provoked outrage by saying that France should copy aspects of the Anglo-American model, starting with policies to favour the entry of ethnic minorities into education and jobs. M de Villepin slapped down M Sarkozy last week for promoting dangerous “un-French” ideas that could encourage the Muslim extremism that has recently infected Britain.

Un-French, indeed, but hardly dangerous.

Multiculturalism is an old bogeyman, especially on the American right, where many equate it with military appeasement, the inability to distinguish separate right from wrong, soccer, and sodomy. (All things conveniently associated by the American right with France, as well.)

Surely this isn’t a uniquely American misconception, but as an American myself, I’m sensitive to the idea that somehow that’s the source of all the confusion.

So, if you’re determined to view the riots in France through an American lens, try to imagine an America in which Rosa Parks had quiescently moved to the back of the bus, in which there had been no civil rights movement, no attempt – through affirmative action and yes, through “multiculturalism” – to allow the descendents of slaves to feel and act like they’re as American as the rest of us. Imagine an America where racial tension had simmered for years, unaddressed; where W.E.B. Dubois’s “color line” was as sharp now as it was at the turn of the 20th century.

It’s hard to see how the problem is “multiculturalism,” which is commonly understood to mean an awareness of cultural differences. The problem is France’s failed attempt to efface those differences.

26 thoughts on ““Multiculturalism”? As if!

  1. If I had to hazard a guess I would say that this is a long-term result of France’s colonial policies and a more short term result of their 1950s immigration policies.

    Two weeks ago, we spent the day in St Denis – the Paris suburb at the center of the current riots. After lunch we strolled through the crowded market streets of St Denis, which featured street vendors roasting corn over charcoal stoves and shops selling honey-covered pastries surrounded by swarms of people and (no kidding) bees. During the day, it felt like walking through the mission district of San Francisco – exotic, a bit dirty but safe.

    For more on St Denis&riots, check my blog http://sfinparis.blogspot.comm

  2. I don’t know if you’ve spent a lot of time in France, but I sure do not recognize my country in the description you give, it feels more like South Africa during the apartheid. For the few thousands hooligans who were seen a lot on TV those last few days, they are many more French of foreign origin who have a good job and love their country, though I can’t deny they might have to endure the prejudices of a significant part of the population (same thing in most countries I would suspect). I seem to remember France has a much higher rate of “mixed-race” mariages (oh I hate those terms) than most of the European countries, which would mean things are not so bad indeed. Of course I can’t give any statistics to back that up as those would be illegal in France 🙂

    The point I agree with you is the lack of multiculturalism in France. France has had no such policy so far because it was thought the migrants were not so weak they needed to have their identity protected through affirmative action and similar means, but on the contrary if they had chosen to come to France, they had to embrace the French culture and become French in every aspect. It worked fine for most of the immigrants and today people whose family has been in France for several generations don’t describe themselves as “Polish-French” or “Italian-French” as some seem to enjoy doing in the USA. This way of seeing things seem to have shown its limits with the most recent – african and northern-african – immigration waves, for whatever reason it is (too many migrants in too little time, too different a culture, religion?) but having difficulties is not a sufficient reason to brand a system as a failure. No country can pretend to have found the magic formula for welcoming large numbers of immigrants and at the same time retaining a strong cultural unity.

  3. I get the impression from many British guardianista types that France is the bad boy for not following the multiculturalism of the UK.

    Do we really need to review thw UK’s abject failure to integrate many of its younger population.

    The problem in France stems, not from not enough multiculturalism, but from a complete inability on behalf of the French elite to inspire in its population feelings of belonging and solidarity.

    Multiculturalism cannot deliver this. It emphasises difference, not solidarity. The principles of the French Revolution were correct: an attack on obscurantism and the monarchy. And they are still the values with which to build new identities in Europe.

  4. Hervé, let me clarify: As I wrote in previous posts, I haven’t spent much time in France at all and my “try to imagine” riff wasn’t intended as a accurate description of present-day France, but rather a hypothetical (and yes, hyperbolic) counterpoint, framed in terms that American would understand, to those who evidently think the riots are some sort of blowback for France’s hypersensitivity to cultural differences. (For the record, though, black Americans at the turn of the 20th-century theoretically had the same legal rights as whites, whereas apartheid-era South African blacks did not.)

  5. Scott,

    “multiculturalism,” which is commonly understood to mean an awareness of cultural differences.

    My common understanding is that it means ‘All cultures are equal.’.

    Through affirmative action and yes, through “multiculturalism” – to allow the descendents of slaves to feel and act like they’re as American as the rest of us.
    Now I’m vexed. Explain if you please, how Multiculturalism, either how you or I define it, had anything to do with Rosa Parks or the civil rights movement or getting blacks there fair share in American society. If anything, it was the emphasis of a common American idea, that all men are created equal, that forced America to confront it’s hypocrisy. Furthermore, what were the real cultural differences amongst black and white? Whites in America have always rooted on to black culture, be it music, comedy, sports etc. Blacks and whites shared a common religion which in fact was *the* primary catalyst propelling the civil rights movement forward. Are there any of these similarities in France?

    I don’t see how your argument can be reconciled with either definition of multiculturalism, which is primarily a post 60’s construct. And as beatroot points out, it’s failed in England which practices multi-culti to the nth degree.

    And what does Egypt think of all this?

  6. The problem in France stems, not from not enough multiculturalism, but from a complete inability on behalf of the French elite to inspire in its population feelings of belonging and solidarity.

    Multiculturalism cannot deliver this. It emphasises difference, not solidarity.

    Part of the reason for the problem in the first paragraph is right there in the second. What the French idendity needs is an acknlowledgement of how it can change. You don’t have to call it multiculturalism if you don’t want to, but to try to insist that France is eternal, fixed and unchanging is not only silly, it’s an invitation to more riotous nights.

    There’s a serious point behind DD’s observation: The riots are happening in a very French way; they’ve even burned a McDonald’s. These young people are every bit as French as M. Bové. Unless and until that is widely recognized, progress is impossible.

    Germany is no great shakes in this regard, but it may be better than France. There are MPs of Turkish descent. It’s widely acknowledged that the national dish is döner kebab. There are business leaders, film stars, teachers and professors of Turkish descent. Goodness knows there’s a long way to go, but France could look across the Rhine and learn a thing or to about fraternité.

  7. Goodness knows there’s a long way to go, but France could look across the Rhine and learn a thing or to about fraternité.

    Let me second that. Anybody who has been reading afoe for a while knows that I have serious problems with the essentialist ethnic nationalism that informs the attitudes of too many German towards both Turkey and Germany’s own Turks. And despite the success stories Doug cites, Turkish Germans on the whole still lag behind on many counts. It’s not inconceivable that, if things worsened steadily rather then continuing to improve, Turks in Germany could in some worst-case scenario future come to constitute a violently alienated permanent underclass.

    But as things actually stand today, I don’t believe mass nationwide reactions like those we’ve seen from the North African-descended youth of the French banlieus could occur among Germany’s Turks. Germany is better at this than the French. Doug mentions that there are even Turkish-descended German MPs. That’s true. What’s more, to my knowledge at least one of those MPs has been compelled to resign his position over a petty financial scandal. You can’t get more German than that.

  8. Some choice quotes of the day from Anatole Kaletsky’s column in The [London] Times:

    “The failure of the French police and the French civil service to recruit sufficient numbers of Muslims is perhaps the clearest indication that Nicolas Sarkozy has been right in suggesting that affirmative action of some kind will be needed to overcome the institutionalised racism, whether deliberate or unconscious, of the French State. . . ”

    “strong economic growth offers the most reliable solution to social alienation — and, contrary to the presumptions of most sociologists and politicians, economic growth helps the poor and the marginalised much more than the rich. The people who are marginalised are the first to lose their jobs in times of economic hardship. . . While middle-class professionals may not even detect the difference between a 1 per cent and a 2 per cent growth rate, for an unskilled teenager or an immigrant building labourer, that one percentage point can spell the difference between opportunity and utter despair.”

    “The lesson for France should be clear. The French Government must use every tool it can lay its hands on to produce an economic recovery. The strongest and most reliable of these tools are interest rate reduction and currency devaluation.”

    Of course, currency devaluation means dropping out of the Euro.

  9. France’s attitude towards peoples from the Maghreb etc is something I’m not familiar with, but as a Welshman its attitude towards other languages within the state – Breton, Basque and Catalan are frankly fascistic.

    The new EU member states from the East have to comply with a whole host of edicts about various linguistic rights to minoritites within their borders. However, France with its Jacobin tradition is doing its very best to wipe of the face of its state other indigenous languages. Education and the media within these languages are penalised under the supposed veil of equality (but is in fact no more than colonialism).

    The attitude of the state permiates the ethos of the people – an unemployment office in Brest, Brittiany, recently refused to put up a bilingual (Breton and French) posting for a job. How petty is that?

    I have a great respect for France. Their 50% music policy on French radio was much ridiculed at the time but has lead to a vibrant French-language music scene. The French state understands and talks a lot of the threat of English and Americanisation of their country. But they are totally hypocritical to their own colonial attitudes towards the lingustic and cultural rights of the Bretons, Basques and Catalans.

    I’m no monarchist, but better the English crown than French republicanism.

  10. The right word to be looking at is assimilation. Doug’s comments about acceptance get pretty close to that. And I would look to the Muslim population of the States, not the black, in comparing the American experience with that of France or other European countries.

    In the States the Muslim immigrant population may think of themselves as Muslim- or Arab-American. But naturalized citizens and their kids feel really American, and, more important, the average American sees them that way. It’s no big deal. Many are proud Americans. Most are quietly satisfied with it, even in the post Ashcroft environment where some Muslims have felt harrassed. This phenomenon is what people should be studying. It is the big difference between the experience of immigrants in the US and Europe. The US has been relatively good at assimilating foreigners while European societies have been relatively crap at it.

  11. “the average American sees…”

    The percentage responding that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence nearly doubled, from 25 percent in March 2002 to 46 percent in July 2004 (Pew poll in the US).

  12. “quietly satisfied…”

    Muslim groups have claimed that all of the recent independent studies and surveys have undercounted the Muslim population for a variety of reasons (e.g., with anti-Muslim sentiment high in the US, some Muslims might be wary of responding that they are Muslim in a survey, many Muslims do not attend mosques), and that their own estimates, which put the number of US Muslims at as many as 7 million, are indeed more accurate.(wikipedia, us muslim pop).

  13. next question would be: how many of the US Muslim comunity are of poor northafrican descent and how many of relatively well-to-do Arab descent. Etc.Etc.Etc. ;-))))

  14. Stupid you!
    Multiculturalism means the *very presence* of “them”.
    The solution is to get rid of multiculturalism by shipping “them” all “back to wherever they came from” (which I guess means heaven or something if they were born in France/the US).

  15. The right word to be looking at is assimilation. Doug’s comments about acceptance get pretty close to that.

    That’s part of it, but I wanted to get at something more, too: Explicit recognition that the receiving country is changed by the new arrivals and their descendants, and that this is a good thing. How did chicken tikka masala become Britain’s national dish? How is it that salsa has outsold ketchup in the US for something like a decade now?

    (I avoided the US/UK comparison because the classic Continental rejoinder is that those countries have long traditions of immigrations, whereas the Continental countries supposedly do not. Which is bunkum, as, for instance, a glance at German MPs from Wieczorek to De Maziere will quickly show.)

    When I wrote that the protesting youths are every bit as French as M. Bové, I meant that quite directly. Not only have they absorbed much of the French culture around them, they have influenced it as well; what it means to be French (or German or Danish or Hungarian…) is a moving target. Acknowledging that — in word and in deed — is an important task for leaders of democratic countries. Perhaps it should be taught at ENA.

  16. I think the French riots will act as a catalyst in the European debate on immigration from Africa and the Middle East. I also think that the end result will be more or less the same in most countries:

    1. increasing efforts at integrating the immigrants who are already in Europe, while also taking a harder stance on the need for Islam and Muslims to adapt to the societies they’ve chosen to live in

    2. increasing efforts at limiting new immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps immigration policy will be more like they have in Canada or Australia.

  17. The comparison some like to make to the afroamerican population in the US is completely false. They are descendants of slaves who continued to suffer from de-facto state sanctioned racism. They have the same religion as ‘white’ Americans and the same culture.

    Furthermore, the US is not an ethnically defined nation like west European states but an ideologically defined state. Loyalty to nation and ‘American values’ are the conditions for inclusion and citizenship. Native american refusal to accept this contributed to their ethnic cleansing.

    Examples of other ‘ideological’ states are the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Both were built around an ideology which transcended ethnicity. However, the ethnic groups still constituted the ‘nations’, often with specific group rights, …or punishments.

    This is why I believe that those who say that Europe should learn from the US when it comes to integration and immigration policy have got it wrong. West European states are ‘nation’ states in that they are based on a shared language, culture and ‘ethnicity’. This is one reason why they have managed to build up welfare states, which assume a high level of group solidarity. Minorities within these nation states have always had problems. These have been solved either through assimilation or through some kind of minority rights.

    This makes it difficult to include large muslim immigrant groups. For them to become accepted members of the ‘nation’ it’s not enough for them to simply “pledge aliegence to the flag” like in the US, but they also need to adopt the culture and, by extension, the religion (to the extent that the culture is based on the religion), of their new countries.

    Funilly enough, Republican France is probably the country in Europe which most closely resembles the US in being an ideological nation. In principle, accepting French culture means you’re French.

  18. May I invite some comment on this:

    While cars have been torched in France, in South Africa commuters fed up with delays in public transport have started burning trains. On Tuesday four train carriages were burned in Vereeniging to protest against delays that had apparently been caused by cable theft. Last night angry commuters in Soweto, also fed up with delays, burned four trains at three different stations. A total of 27 carriages were damaged. This will cost Metro Rail over R200 million. Commuters have warned Metro Rail that more coaches will be burnt if the delays aren’t addressed.

  19. France of course is not multiculturalist.
    It’s exactly opposite.
    the purpose of France is to create a society where people mixed I mean have children with French men and women, who don’t want to stay apart.
    Of course French language is very important.
    “In principle, accepting French culture means you’re French. ”
    As French I totally agree with that.
    France is the opposite of an Ethnic nation.

  20. Aspects of this discussion have definitely surprised me. One topic that would come up in our (American) high school classroom discussions was whether American society was really a “melting pot” or whether it was more like a fruit salad.

    The consensus was usually that it actually more like a fruit salad — lots of great tastes that taste great together, mmmm, good.

    I’m surprised I don’t see anybody making the point that this could ever be possible in France. Many are in fact making the opposite point.

    To answer your question, Rupert, I suppose a multiculturalist attitude was not in fact a key component of the civil rights movement, but I think it sure helped.

    To suggest that blacks and whites have somehow blended into one homogenous American culture (or, even more naive, that there was never much difference to being with) suggests we didn’t eat lunch in the same cafeteria.

  21. I notice that both posters and commenters here employ mutually contradictory definitions of the term “multicultural”. Such confusion cannot possibly be conducive to a fruitful discussion. BTW, not only South Africans have been burning trains that weren´t arriving on time: Argentineans did it, too – without having a background of ethnic discord like South Africa has(due to a lack of comparable ethnic divisions, of course).
    I leave the construction of the rest of the argument as an exercise for the reader (though I have an inkling that Edward will resist to take it on, since he has already announced that Eric Cheney´s prescriptions seem “sensitive” – and I have to assume he thinks they´re sensible, too, since “sensitivity” alone obviously wouldn´t distinguish anyone´s response to the occurrences from that of his racist neighbour).
    WRT the minimum wage , I´d like to be offered an explanation why employment in France is negatively impacted by its existence while employment in the U.S. isn´t (and why German unemployment is high although there is no minimum wage in Germany and the number of welfare recipients was reduced by more than 40% as a consequence of Hartz IV). Remember that Walmart´s CEO just suggested raising the minimum wage. I could conceive of a situation where a minimum wage in the private sector might not be necessary, but that´s very different from saying that abolishing the minimum wage would by itself contribute to solving the unemployment problem without also decreasing overall welfare outcomes.

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