Republican values

October 24, 1997

IN HER article (THES, October 17) Stella Hughes highlights the split among French academics over the question of immigration without giving a fair picture of the "republicanists'" position.

A summary of this position is in fact offered by quoting one of its adversaries, Farhad Khosrokhavar, who claims that on the questions of immigration, assimilation and national identity the "Republicanists" differ little from the right and the far right.

Given the anti-racist credentials of the academics cited, this view is, to say the least, a misrepresentation. The "republicanists" oppose continued large-scale immigration on the grounds that it has the effect of increasing the number of voters and supporters of the Front National.

It is true that this view has also been voiced by certain politicians of the right, notably former interior minister Charles Pasqua.

But, as Ms Hughes hinted, the "republicanists" see a more equitable worldwide distribution of wealth as the long-term strategy to alleviate poverty in the southern countries rather than immigration from the poor countries to the rich.

This strategy is not motivated purely by a concern for the situation of the French, which is the sole preoccupation of the far right, but also by a belief in the universal application of human rights, including the principle of equality.

Assimilation for the "republicanists" entails the acceptance of the principles underpinning the constitution and the declaration of rights, including the respect of laicite - ensuring that religious observance does not interfere with other beliefs, nor with the laws of the republic.

This primacy of the state over religion - a legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution - is supposed to apply equally to Catholics and Protestants as well as Jews and Muslims. The far right, in its majority, sees French identity rooted in the Catholic tradition and the values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are an anathema to it.

One of the crucial points omitted by Stella Hughes is that national identity is not seen by the "republicanists" in racial or religious terms, as it is by the far right, but in terms of adhesion to the values mentioned above. A person's ethnic origin does not therefore have a bearing on being French.

"Republicanists" have not, however, had a sufficient influence for their principles to be fully implemented and while the discrepancy between successive governments' republican rhetoric and theirpolicies was most blatant during the colonial era, it has also been evident during the period of immigration since the second world war.

If it is fair to argue that the "republicanist" academics should be more tolerant of the cultural traditions of citizens originating from France's former colonies and if they may be criticised for understating the failings in the implementation of the republican model, they should certainly not be confused with the opponents of the republican tradition itself.

John Whitworth Part-time French studies lecturer University of East London

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