‘Stop telling immigrants to be French and help it happen’

French politicians are once again aggressively demanding immigrants drop their own identities and assimilate into French culture and way of life, but they are mistaken and harming the natural process of integration.

'Stop telling immigrants to be French and help it happen'
Photo: AFP

“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.

Growing pressure

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.

“I don't see how we can expect them to integrate as soon as they arrive, they need some time to adapt,” a musician named Amar told The Local.
Nadia, a Muslim social worker, who says she is against the veil said: “Nothing is really done to help integration anyway, politicians contribute to this climate of fear. 
“France is supposed to be the country of human rights, they're not representing this very well. We should be proud of our multiculturalism, like other countries are. 
“Look, we're standing next to a game of pétanque where there are people of different backgrounds, religion and ages, and everyone has come together and it's going great.”
Seyyid-Ahmed, a musician told The Local: “I don't have a French ID card, but I consider myself French – I live here, I'm proud of this country and love it, just like all immigrants here.
“There's a Mosque just here, a Synagogue over there, and a bar right in front of us – people from all creeds get on well here! The politicians focus too much on the negative.”


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.