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Islamophobia in France: French Policies towards Multiculturalism Are Based On the Model of 'Integration of Cultural Diversity'

By Muneeb Yousuf

Mar 5 2019

The present state of France is an outcome of number of movements and developments. The struggle that its populace undertook led to the first revolution of its kind towards liberty, equality and fraternity. Since political community, or more specifically modern state, is continuously and consistently grappling with new issues and challenges, dealing with multi religious and multi ethnic societies is a new challenge to be dealt with.

The Treaty of Westphalia is considered to be the decisive moment that led to the separation of church and the state. The French State embraced the approach of secularism involving the formal separation of church and the state in the famous Separation Law of 1905. The law guaranteed freedom of religious worship but banned the placing of any religious sign or emblems on public monuments.

French policies towards multiculturalism are based on the model of 'integration of cultural diversity' although these policies are marked by specifically French characteristics making them different from their counterparts in the Anglo-Saxon world. In general, French concepts and representations regarding multiculturalism have been gradually evolving over decades since immigrants started arriving in the territory of France. These have ranged between traditional republicanism to the contemporary more tolerant conceptions; from 'assimilation' and 'insertion' to the concepts of 'integration'. While as the traditional republic assimilation involved a gradual eradication of important cultural differences so that all be considered equals despite their ethnic and racial differences, insertion aims to keep the migrants in a permanent state of cultural and social segregation. Integration on the other hand differs from both the concept of assimilation and insertion in that it involves including the immigrants in the society of the country to which they have migrated while at the same time their cultural differences are not eradicated. These policies inform of assimilation, insertion and integration have been historically implemented differently in different situations by France. The different responses to immigration issues were determined not only by the cultural and ethnic identities of the immigrants and the historical situations France found itself in but also, and equally importantly, by the different social and political patterns developing within the French society itself. 

Gender has always been at the centre of debates about any particular society and thus lies at the heart of debates about multiculturalism and assimilation of immigrants into the French society as well. One of the main themes of policies towards immigrants in France has been to ask questions about the status of women in French culture in general and the immigrants, particularly Muslim society, in particular. This incessant questioning reflects a militant secular attitude strongly opposed to multiculturalism in France–– a contrasting feature of the French when compared to countries like Britain and the Netherlands. An extension of this militant secularism meant that the French consistently interpreted garment such as head scarves as external signs of religion not to be displayed in the public. This display of garments like head scarves was treated as something that not only went against the French traditions but also as indicative of ways in which multiculturalism would allow girls to wear these head scarves thereby implying a collusion in their supposed oppression.

The question of head scarf first erupted in to a public controversy in October 1989 when three school girls were expelled from their school near Paris for refusing to remove their head scarves. More recently in July 2008, France denied citizenship to a burqa wearing women of Moroccan origin on the grounds that her radical practice of Islam was indicative of her acceptance of inequality between the sexes, something France considered against ethos of gender equality. This case raises a set of questions about multiculturalism in general and particularly about the terms and conditions under which immigrants from the formerly colonized states are assimilated in European societies. These debates about the Muslim society and the status of women within it are taking place in an environment which is increasingly pervaded by a growing Islamophobia. In this kind of environment, the headscarf wearing Muslim women is seen not just opposed to the French tradition but also rejecting French secular ideals and tradition of gender equality. Thus a reaction against this identity assertion in form of wearing a head scarf by Muslim women is viewed as supporting a halting of supposed communalization and fragmentation of French identity.

The formulation of multiculturalist policies and their implementations is a challenge that not just France but most of the European states face nowadays in wake of increasing immigrations from non-European countries, mostly Asia and Africa. In theory, the challenge stems from attempts towards evolution of a society that tries to integrate the cultural and social elements of immigrants while at the same time maintaining the characteristics of public spaces of the countries to which they have migrated.Thus a balance need to be struck between the two: cultural and social elements of the immigrants and those of the country to which they have migrated. However, the difficulty arises while defining the concept of integration itself. This difficulty arises at a point when a question of definition of the culture into which integration is sought is raised. This implies questioning what constitutes, for example Frenchness and its ideas of core national identity and values. That is, what is the entity into which integration is sought. Thus in case of France we see French identity is defined in terms of its own conception of secularism, a version that marks France off from countries like Britain and United States, even though the French concept of secularism has been given different interpretations.

While conceding that there is no single universal model for dealing with the issue of migrants and every model has its limitations, we need to pay attention to the practical challenges the French model has encountered. Despite significant efforts, the fact of social and spatial segregation of immigrants particularly in the French urban societies remains. Also it can be seen that children born in France of foreign parents do face a lot of difficulties in process of learning the French language. One of the problems has also been that countries like France have failed to make significant developments in the sphere of socio economic progress of the immigrant societies leading to a high rate of unemployment among them.For example, in the suburbs of France, Muslim youth have typically two or three times the levels of unemployment as youth from the majorities.

In general, thus what we see is that the western European countries are characterized by high levels of ethnic minority youth unemployment and overall levels of poverty. In the wake of such challenges increasing what we see throughout Europe is a policy and ideological shift taking place in the ways in which solutions to the problems to multiculturalism are sought.

Muneeb Yousuf is associated with MMAJ Academy of International Studies, JMI New Delhi