The New French Minority Politics

March 1, 2003

In a series of well-publicized gestures, ministerial decrees and legislative proposals, France’s center-right government has seized the initiative in recognizing the multi-ethnic nature of French society. These actions, taken as a whole, represent a major modification of the classic French model of integration, which had viewed the individual first and foremost as a citizen, not as the member of any ethnic, racial or religious group. Following this model, French governments have traditionally rejected American and British-style minority group politics, even after waves of North African migration following de-colonization transformed France into the home of Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations. Recent events, particularly hate crimes and new evidence of social and professional discrimination and unequal economic outcomes—as well as the challenge of rooting out terrorist networks—have slowly forced the French government to concede that perceptions of communities indeed exist and to grant them the symbolic attention long paid to their Anglo-American cousins.

This trend reflects a new French political consensus about immigrant integration: first, important religious minorities must be granted institutional representation; second, ethnic groups—especially Arabs and Jews—should be protected from discrimination and acts of racism or anti-Semitism; and third, extremists should be isolated. France has thus begun to accept the practical value of ethnic and racial categories. Despite this trend, the French government continues to emphasize that they are not opening the door to state-sanctioned multiculturalism. As Chirac put it in October, French practice can countenance “communautés” but not “communautarisme,” that is to say, recognition of higher profiles for ethnic and religious communities in the public sphere should not be interpreted as approval of an American-style free-for-all among minority group lobbies.

The Road to Ethnicity

Traditional Protestant and Jewish minorities have always made France religiously diverse, while European population movements have meant that France has always been a society with many immigrants. Nonetheless, it was mass labor migration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia beginning in the 1950’s and 1960’s that first created a de facto multicultural society. Through family reunification and settlement, the Muslim population grew to over five million, of whom roughly half are citizens by virtue of their birth in France. More than a third of France’s 500,000 Jews can also trace their roots back to Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian communities.

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