What is Happening in France?

10 mars 2015,

February 20, 2015

©Edwin Matthews[1]

 Recent horror in Paris has displayed burning dysfunctions in French society. This violence has brought millions to the streets arm in arm in solidarity with the victims and in defense of France, reigniting the continuing fear of terrorism.

But where does this violence come from? What has happened to this ordered and peaceful country for such senseless horror to occur? Are there lessons to learn from America?

France has entered this century with a large immigrant population, largely French nationals of African or Arab descent who have not found it easy to become French. If you are not raised with the manners, education, and family life of this very specific and proud culture, it’s often hard to find a place there. Many immigrants to France have not found theirs.

As an American, my own broad experience in France began years ago. I served in a U.S. Army hospital in France, studied French literature at a French university, worked on the assembly line at Renault, married a French girl, reared French children, started a secondary school in Paris, founded with a Frenchman, Alain Hervé, an NGO, Les Amis de la Terre, in France, published books there, rebuilt a seventeenth-century house in the French Alps, and for fifteen years was a lawyer in Paris with a largely French law firm.

Although an immigrant, I found I was welcome and grew to deeply love the country. In part this was because I benefited from the wide-ranging French affinity, or at least respect, for things American. It was also because I had skills that were in demand. But, perhaps more than all that, I was accepted because I was eager to be French in all ways possible.

I learned to speak French more or less correctly, respecting the stringent rules of grammar and vocabulary drummed into every French child. I learned the dozen ways to address and close a letter depending on my relationship to the addressee. I learned how to speak to others, varying verbs depending on whether they were my superiors in status or friends or not. I learned to shake hands every morning on greeting and repeatedly punctuate my movements with appropriate excuses. I even learned to kiss the hand of an elder woman, a relic of politeness certainly not natural for a young fellow from the American West. I came to appreciate that these many French rules permit others to know who you are and to rely on your behavior. To the French they are reassuring. They are learned from an early age from elders. Their violation is found discomforting and may send a strong signal, not only that you are not French, but that you are disrespectful.

As the years have passed, French society has changed, rules of behavior have relaxed, but these ordered cultural norms still guide French expectations. In France, everyone, including its diverse minorities, is expected to be French and to espouse not only rules of social behavior, but also traditional French cultural and political principles, such as secularism. Respect for French norms remains a prerequisite for sharing in the many fruits of French society, the key to economic and other opportunity for everyone.

In its history, France has had trouble accepting diversity. Anti-Semitism in France, which is long-standing and persistent, has been a painful example. French Jews are still thought by some in France not to be French. The made-up conviction and punishment of Captain Dreyfus at the turn of the last century and the French collaboration with Nazi deportations and killing of one hundred thousand French Jews during World War II have torn France apart and are still not sufficiently acknowledged.

The current separation of church and state in France dates from the passage in 1905 of a law granting religious freedom, but also providing that the State will not recognize, compensate, or subsidize any religion. This became established in France as secularism (laïcité) which goes well beyond what we know from our own First Amendment. Laïcité means that religion is to be kept out of all civil and political life, including schools and other public institutions. Following the last war, in an attempt to eliminate discrimination, France eliminated all religious and ethnic identification of its citizens. Religious and ethnic affiliations are no longer even recorded. No political candidate in France would ever invoke God. In 2003 France banned all visible signs of religious affiliation in schools. Head scarves, turbans, and even crosses are not allowed to be worn by students. The ban on head scarves is especially offensive to Muslims; French secularism has come to be seen by some as an instrument of aggression against minorities.

The French educational system also reflects traditional French culture and secular values. Its standardized curriculum is applied more or less uniformly with prescribed textbooks throughout France to all schools regardless of the composition of the student body. French education has paid scant attention to the history and values of the immigrant population and, of course, has not allowed religious teachings. Immigrants have been expected to leave their traditional values at home, adopt French culture as their own, become French, and assimilate.

But many immigrants, who amount to about eight percent of the French population, have not assimilated and have retained values that are often in conflict with traditional French teachings. A 2004 study of French schools found a disturbing appearance of “counter cultures” and signs of religious identification among students.[2] Regrettably, the study recommended the renewed enforcement of French secular constraints, not the opening up of curricula to include the study of the diverse cultures that make up the country.

Although hardly comparable, my own experience as a French immigrant allows me some appreciation for the plight of the current immigrants in France, especially those of North African descent who often do not embrace the traditional French rules and affinities to which I paid such assiduous attention. If one does not respect basic precepts of French society, it is difficult to be French. I understand how immigrants could remain separate from the society where they live.

Following World War II and to our time, France has developed massive, multi-story public housing projects outside of existing cities and towns to provide housing for its growing population. These suburban developments are often isolated, barren of facilities, and run-down. Today they house about a tenth of the French population, including most of its immigrant population. Officially, but descriptively, they are called Sensitive Urban Zones (Zones Urbaines Sensibles).

As compared with French living elsewhere, the residents of these Sensitive Zones are largely of foreign descent, but nearly all are French citizens.  They are also unemployed and poor without economic opportunity, living off of government subsidies, younger, uneducated, and without skills. France’s stagnant economy, the burdens of which have fallen most on its weakest members, has offered little hope to its suburban immigrants of an exit to better times. In recent years, this disparity with the rest of France has been growing threateningly. The French prime minister has recently spoken of the predicament of immigrants in these Zones as “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid.”

The French population of Arab descent has generally remained geographically separate, but also culturally distinct. Although legally they have French nationality and many have been born in France, nearly half of French immigrants believe they are not perceived as French and feel rejected. Many have been subject to discrimination based on their skin color or national origin.[3] Their alienation is economic—perhaps half are unemployed—but it is also broadly cultural. Guided often by Muslim traditions, many refuse to accept that religion is not part of civil life. Some have fallen prey to extremism. Some are angry and the most extreme, inspired by Middle Eastern jihad ideology, have resorted to the absurd violence that we have witnessed. The killers at Charlie Hebdo, at the Hyper Cacher Kosher Market, and of the police were French citizens who grew up in this French Arab culture.

Although not openly acknowledged, many traditional French also feel uncomfortable with, or even offended or threatened by, the presence of Arabs and other immigrants. Daily intercourse repeatedly reveals the Arab separateness, their differences, their economic disadvantage, their lack of education, and their nonconformity to French cultural norms. This discomfort leads to xenophobic calls to exclude foreigners and prohibit immigration, which can be no solution at all since these immigrants are French citizens and have as much right to remain in France as any French national.

It is understandable that France expects its immigrants to accept the basic tenets of French society, especially such cherished values as secularism, freedom of expression, equal rights of women, and peaceful dissent. To this extent, France is no more likely to change to accommodate its Arab population than its Arab population is likely in any reasonable time to become wholly French. If assimilation and integration are unlikely in our lifetime, how in France can peace be found?

In their insightful book, Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds, Shareen Brysac and Karl Meyer explore multicultural societies in our world that have been peaceful. In France, they studied Marseille that, like the rest of the country, has had problems with its immigrants, but that has also had some success in encouraging the peaceful coexistence of minorities by celebrating and including diversity. Remarkably, the authors found their most inspiring example in Queens, New York, where 128 different nationalities have coexisted in peace for many years. They found that Queens practices inclusion: the schools, libraries, political organizations, and public and private institutions incorporate all its different cultures. The teachings of both Queens and Marseille are that it is the respect for, and the value given to, diversity that enables diverse cultures peacefully to coexist and that this is possible.

America is fortunate that diversity has been our creed. We are still young enough as a nation to remember that our founders came here from other places. And since then, tens of millions of Germans, Irish, Hispanics, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Africans, and other diverse groups have also come to America. They have largely become a welcome part of America’s polyglot culture and open economy and, in so doing, many have also been able proudly to retain their national identity. It may have taken the suffering of hundreds of years and a great civil war, but our most spectacular example is that African slaves have become “African Americans,” just as other immigrants have become “Irish Americans” or “Asian Americans.” In our country, these compound labels are not self-contradictory but complementary.

Although the integration of immigrants to America has never been perfect, their diversity has slowly become an integral part of the culture and the values of the country while, at the same time, they have been free proudly to retain their national characteristics That is why the peace of Queens, New York is inspiring.

If peace will not come from assimilation, is not the only peaceful course for France to find multiple ways to incorporate, even honor, its diversity? Mere tolerance of differences, however essential, is not enough. As in Queens, peace will come from providing an honored place in French society for diversity, for all who are not the same, especially Arab French citizens who are so alienated.

This must begin urgently: by opening French education, public discourse, and media to represent and celebrate the history and values of all minorities. Sensitive Urban Zones must no longer be separate enclaves, culturally or economically. Ways must be found quickly to offer economic opportunity to the unemployed young from immigrant families. French secularism must be more flexible and find some room for Muslim traditions, such as religious dress. Along with continuing to preserve French traditions, France can also celebrate its diversity; this will not require France to abandon its core values.

            There is no time for full assimilation of France’s immigrant population, because that will take generations. The challenge France faces is immediate and two-sided. On the one hand, France must find ways to honor its Arab diversity that will not require sacrificing its central cultural and political values. On the other, French immigrants, especially the Arab French, must learn to accept French core values, which does not mean that they must abandon their own peaceful traditions. As shown elsewhere, all this is achievable. Until this bilateral challenge is met squarely, however, France will remain vulnerable to its own alienated citizenry—which for all who love the country can be heartbreaking.


[1]Edwin Matthews lives in Washington, CT and Haute Savoie, France.

[2] “Les Signes et Manifestations d’Appartenance Religieuse dans les Etablissements Scolaires,” Rapport au Ministre d’Education Nationale,  Juin 2004.

[3] This information is drawn from the 2011 French government report on Sensitive Urbain Zones entitled, “Observatoire national des zones urbaines sensibles” by the Secrétariat général du Comité interministériel des Villes, Saint Denis.