Since the 1980s France has undergone a number of changes that have triggered a major identity crisis. On the one hand, unemployment and the inability of the state to deal with it; on the other, the irruption of alternative legitimacies beyond the realm of the state (the common market) or below it (the regions and their autonomy) put into question the role of the state and its centrality within French political culture.
At the same time, to the majority of French people, the state seems to be the only actor capable of solving the economic and cultural problems within society. That is why racism in France against immigrants of North African origin and their descendants is easily politicised whereas in other countries such as Britain and Germany it has not taken on a political shape or given birth to violence in day-to-day relations. In France it has found a massive political expression with about 15 per cent of the population voting for the Front National, the political party of the extreme right with anti-Semitic, xenophobic, racist and anti-immigrant attitudes.
Of course there are differences in appreciation between the left, the right and the extreme right towards foreigners and, particularly, immigrants. But there seems to be a tacit consensus between the parties in favour of a limitation of the number of foreigners imposed by the state, and even, within Europe, where massive unemployment is developing in different countries.
However, specific to the French situation is the "republican ideology" and its crisis. The majority of intellectuals, mainly those who feel a vocation to preserve the "French republican identity", adopt a policy of strong integration of foreigners within society. These intellectuals identify any kind of compromise with immigrant culture (or their descendants) as treason to the essence of "Frenchness": they should not learn the language of their parents; they should not identify themselves as "French Muslims" or "French Jews" or "French homosexuals" publicly and so on, but be exclusively French in the public sphere.
That is why, to these intellectuals, young girls wearing Islamic dress in public schools are either manipulated by fundamentalists or by their parents, or they are simply not likely to be French at all. From the point of view of these intellectuals, immigrants and their children are supposed to accept assimilation within society, losing their former identity, forgetting their native language, behaving in an individualistic way like fully fledged French citizens.
But in concrete terms, the means of realising this ideal of French citizenship are increasingly disappearing. How can the children of immigrants become French when the schools where they study are abandoned by the children of French people? How can they lose every tie with their parents' past when there is nothing to replace it and the trauma of Algerian independence is still vivid. How can they afford to become responsible citizens, devoted to the French ideal of political citizenship when entire groups of youngsters are jobless and their parents also unemployed? The third generation believes that it has no chance within French society.
Many of these youngsters are denied the concrete right to citizenship by the hard facts of the economy, by the high rate of unemployment, which strikes them much more than others; because, first of all, they are less professional; second, because racism stigmatises them and they cannot claim the same rights as the Francais de souche (French by blood ties) in their day-to-day relations, even though the law guarantees this in an abstract way.
Certain forms of racism prohibited in England and Germany are almost trivialised by the extreme right parties and their sympathisers. And, because these views are shared by many people, they are difficult to fight through legal channels. After all, it is difficult to investigate every firm where immigrants are denied jobs because they are supposedly disliked by the French.
The administrative system is not free of this wave of daily racism - the youth of immigrant origins are sometimes treated as second-class citizens.
The point of view of the "republican intellectuals" is more and more disconnected from daily reality. This, in turn, gives birth to a kind of phobia against any divergence from mainstream cultural trends of French society.
Whoever thinks differently is supposed to be the protagonist of "un-French multiculturalism" that intends to destroy French identity by "Americanising" French society.
The paradox in France is that this country has one of the most "generous" systems of immigrants' integration in ideological terms through the notion of "universalism" and at the same time, one of the harshest through the stringent compulsion of "sameness", of giving up one's particular identity in order to resemble other citizens in a situation where the poor and excluded cannot be like the others, precisely because they are denied this possibility in concrete terms.
Farhad Khosrokhavar is an associate professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
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