“If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French and you don't try and change a way of life that has been ours for so many years.”
Those are the words of presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, uttered, it must be said, during his election campaign to retake the Elysée Palace.
But it’s not just Sarkozy saying that, France has had a longstanding tradition of demanding immigrants assimilate, dating back to the 19th century when it was used as a policy towards its Jewish population and then towards colonized countries.
But with repeated terror attacks exposing the deep insecurity around “l’identité nationale” demands for foreigners to assimilate, rather than just integrate into the French way of life and culture, have resurfaced with a vengeance.
The likes of Sarkozy are of course not referring to American, British or German immigrants but mainly to the country’s four to five million strong community whose origins are North African and Muslim.
''Demanding assimilation fragments a society'
But Thomas Lacroix a specialist in North African immigration from the University of Poitiers says the “the long troubled” French tradition of aggressively demanding foreigners drop their own identities and cultures and start looking, talking, eating, drinking and thinking like a native French person is unrealistic at best and at worst, it will have the opposite effect to the one desired.
“Demanding assimilation is damaging because it fragments society and it has an impact on the integration process and in the context of the terror attacks it causes even more problems,” Lacroix told The Local.
“There’s lots of evidence to show that the more a community is discriminated against the more it tends to be closed to the rest of society,” he said.
“So for example people tend to speak the Arabic language at home much more often, which then causes problems for children at school because their French suffers and then that’s a problem for integration.”
“Assimilation is a natural process that takes place day by day. It’s not something the state can force. It’s a natural process over generations and it’s unrealistic to think it will happen straight away,” said Lacroix.
The difference with Anglo-Saxon countries is that in the public sphere the identities of immigrants and their differences to the culture in their adopted countries are protected and even celebrated.
Different religious festivals are often celebrated in state schools compared to France where displaying signs of religion in schools was banned back in 2004.
In France Lacroix says there is growing pressure that immigrants, in particular Muslims, show no sign of their foreign culture or religion, hence the recent row over the wearing of burkinis.
Recent examples of French authorities cracking down on identities could be seen when the right-wing former mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi banned noisy weddings (notably foreign ones) because of loud traditional music and then during the last World Cup he banned locals from waving Algerian Flags after the team’s victories.
There have been other rows around halal food, speaking Arabic in mosques and even Muslim footballers barred from praying before a match on the side of football pitches. There is also constant talk of a crackdown on religion at work at at universities.
We should not be surprised if new laws may be put forward in future.
For Lacroix, France’s demands for assimilation are “basically a denial of the fact that France is a multi-cultural country with immigrants.”
“Demands for assimilation are rooted in the colonial past and the idea that Islam is simply not compatible with the French Republic," he said.
'Assimilation is happening little by little'
But the idea that Islam is not compatible with the French Republic was partly refuted in a recent poll of French Muslims, that found that the vast majority of them accepted France’s strict secular laws.
The survey also found 28 percent of French Muslims rejected Republican values and followed an ultra-conservative form of Islam "as a way of asserting themselves on the margins of French society". Perhaps, some would argue, due to France's efforts over the years to restrict their Muslims identities in public.
“In fact little by little the North African population has assimilated and integrated into French society, especially a growing middle class of who have a Muslim background who have become lawyers, doctors or journalists. It’s moving forward,” said Lacroix. But he says the process is slowed down by discrimination.
He argues that rather than demanding immigrants assimilate, politicians like Sarkozy should stop harking on about identity and concentrate on creating the conditions where integration and assimilation will eventually happen naturally.
In other words what French politicians need to do to help integration is not demand assimilation, but to make sure North Africans do not suffer from discrimination when it comes to finding jobs or somewhere to live – especially the working classes. And to make sure new arrivals have access to language classes – which, along with qualifications, are the most important factors in aiding integration.
And the reality is that if the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy ever lived abroad, he would probably detest the idea of assimilation as many French who live abroad, whether in Africa or London, would be loathe to give up their identity and rightly so.
“There are thousands of French living in Morocco and they are not asked to only eat halal meat,” said Lacroix.
The view from the street
And out on the streets of the 19th arrondissement of Paris locals were just as critical but more positive about the idea of multi-cultural France.