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Assimilation or/and exclusion of the migrant populations

Being located on at the very western edge of the Eurasian continent and completely open on its eastern side, France as we know it today has for centuries, and probably for millenia, absorbed a flux of immigrants. Following the setting sun and maybe looking for better pastures or richer crops, peoples have flocked from far away to this kind of swallow-hole that is now called France.

The basic frame of the question raised by the migration fact is a permanently mingling population. Unlike Spain, England, Germany or Russia, France cannot claim a stable relationship between its territory and its population. Reading Braudel confirms the idea that, at least for the past two millenia, successive layers of population coming from different parts of the Eurasian land mass have adopted, along with the territory, France’s cultural habits and specific languages. We should stress out that they have adopted such customs and languages in the way they could. Thus the age-old question of how to deal with newcomers and how to consider them. On this issue, the best and the worst of attitudes and policies have been in unending competition. France has produced the worst types of racism and the brightest openmindedness. Setting aside brutal rejection, basically two types of policy have been implemented for adopting newcomers : one is assimilation, the other integration.

Assimilation considers that anybody coming within the borders of this « landsend country » at the very edge of the continent should adopt its habits and willy-nilly, become French. The concept of assimilation is based on a methaphor of digestion. Anybody willing to become a citizen has first to adopt all those cultural traits involved in being French. That means not only language but also religion, food, historical fantasies and the like. The methaphor is based on the belief that a stable French model can be duplicated or cloned indefinitely. On this pattern, for instance, immigrant Jews in the thirties were invited to change their family names and sometimes to embrace other religious beliefs.

Integration offers more consideration to the newcomers. The concept comes from mathematics and suggests that the whole being the sum of its parts, parts can be integrated into a whole. It therefore admits that the cultures of immigrants do not disappear in the transformation process but are part of the very dynamics of that process. However astute and sometimes efficient such policies may have been, neither now fit the times.

Both assimilation and integration belong to a political logic induced by the domination of the issue by nation-states. This domination no longer exists. For the past half century, the nation-state has been progressively supplanted by various geopolitical forces that have disqualified it for the main role in cultural processes. As an insight into this issue, let me mention two such forces that determine the cultural process. One is the building up of huge diasporas all over the world. Gujaratis in Dubaï,

Turkmens in Russia, Pakistanis in Britain, Malians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the US, all these massive population movements disrupt the relation between culture and territory. They invite people to admit that they no longer belong to a single cultural environment, but to two of them (« halfies ») or to several. And that adopting different cultural patterns, depending on circumstances and situations, creates new patterns which are totally disterritorialised ; they no longer closely refer to any geographic territory. The relationship between Islam as a culture, Al-Kaida as a political actor, a revamped Moslem mythology and the various migrating populations of Europe provides a good example of a huge cultural dynamic that surfs atop many territories without being attached ot any one in particular.

Another example can be found in the power of NGOs in some poor countries of Asia or Africa. As a fact, some countries are now ruled and organised by a combination of military power, the flow of finance, human skills and political decisions that are dis- located and managed by NGOs. This means dispersed over a vast area thus « unlocated ». I mean here that political decisions are dispersed over a wide area ; unlocated, so to speak.

We therefore have to adopt different ways of dealing with the migration factor, different ways of thinking the relationship between cultures on the various sides of the process. In order to answer the question raised by this symposium and to envisage the present time transformation, I suggest we adopt the very simple idea of cross-consideration. The hypothesis I base my suggestion on is also intellectually very simple. It is grounded in the work of anthropologists like Franz Boas(1) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Levi-Strauss (2) in the second part of the 20th. It reckons that all cultures are of equal value in terms of worth and potential. This principle of equality, allied to the globalisation factor that dislocates cultures, leads us to a critical view of present politics through the prism of cross-consideration. The actors involved in such cross consideration are many.

On the one side, we find the perpetrators of main stream culture. I mean what we call in France Français de souche i.e. French born and bred or French of old stock. In the British Isles, this reality inheres in an enduring Englishness (or Welshness or Scottishness) that no immigrant will ever achieve. But we know that in France, England or even Switzerland, the cultural make-up of this so-called old stock is extremely composite. It includes sub-cultures, fierce opposition between groups and continuous movement.

On the other side, the variation is, of course, even wider. It includes all the assorted cutural groups and communities that are involved in the globalisation process. I mean : Jews who consider Israel as a potential refuge, Sicilians who have family in New York, Morocans working in Andalusian green-houses, Gujaratis washing dishes in Dubaï, etc.. And within the same country, all the various groups or sub-groups who in most developed countries contribute to fashioning a patchwork of what is called cultures or sometimes ethnies. In more political language, I could call the patchwork of migrating people, popular culture ; and the long-time established cultures, dominant or main stream culture.

Facing each other off these two entities (which cannot be considered as totally distinct) need to appraise the mutual consideration they expect of each other and, indeed, sometimes receive. It is just such an appraisal I propose undertaking here and now.

1. Recognition of mainstream culture by the ordinary population

Two aspects seem to be at issue in this matter. The first is the ability of immigrant families and individuals to understand the codes and mythologies, to decipher the symbols and to play the games prevailing in the host country. The second is what, it is generally thought, should be the willingness of these same people to embrace such codes, symbols, myths and the like. On further reflection, however, it seems clear in this respect that, with the notable exception of the very political fringe of immigrant groups, willingness and capacity are very closely linked. Whoever is capable of embracing the dominant cultural traits of the county s/he now lives in wants to enjoy the relief of belonging here and now. Thus, the big issue is that of access. Can immigrant groups access mainstream culture ? Is their access easy, free, pleasurable or is it hindered, expensive and painful ? Are there any helpers, mediators, translators ? Or is everyone obliged to rely on his/her own resources to adopt and recognise the defining traits of main-stream culture ? In assessing the French case, we shall focus on four cultural sets which are thought to be among the basic (although not the only) pathways to embracing French values and behaviours. In some places, we would have observed religious rituals or family exchanges. In contemporary France, these cultural sets are school, democracy, cultural institutions and social practices.


In the French republican tradition as instituted by what we call the 3rd Republic that ran from the Commune of Paris (1871) to WW2, state schools were, with compulsory military service, the mainstay in the process of integrating outsiders. At that time, such outsiders included Bretons, Auvergnats, Alsacians or Provençals, later Polish, East European Jews and Italians. Some people openly asserted, even among the left, that Italians, for instance, were so different from the French that they were totally « unassimilable » (ie unfit for pleasant digestion). But the country was in desperate need of a workforce, so the schools were assigned the role of turning all those near- barbarians into real French. It may have half-worked for a couple of decades. It doesn’t any more. What is the picture today ?

Acces to primary school for immigrant children is easy. The main reason is probably that a combination of childhood and the goodwill of schoolteachers makes for flexible learning of reading, counting and speaking, thus providing a smooth access. But two major obstacles hinder the way to better understanding and an easy recognition. The first is that school is not only assigned the role of teaching knowledge and skills but, also, of inculcating the rules of decent behavior. Above all, school in the French suburbs is expected to socialise children whose parents or grandparents, coming from elsewhere, behave differently.

Moreover, the same school is supposed to take over the role of so-called disfunctioning families and teach the logic of rule, right, authority and infringement. So, instead of inculcating social values indirectly, school too often assumes the negative duties of the law enforcer. This role, accepted with conflicting feelings by most teachers, turns school into the bad guy in the children’s mindset.

But the second obstacle is much worse. For about ten years, a far right immigration policy conducted by the present government has turned school from being a neutral place into the very focal point for chasing illegal immigrants. Far too often police officers have been found waiting for illegal immigrant parents at the school gates. Parents and grandparents coming to fetch their kids are brutally manhandled by the police in front of other children. In the long run, it burdens schools with an aura of heavy suspicion. Recurrent incidents have disqualified schools as a framework for peaceful citizenship. And citizenship is another matter.


Democracy is supposed to be the great pride of the western world. At least this is the cast-iron belief of many westerners. It is a matter of pride for them and should, therefore, be a matter of shame for others elsewhere. Thus, it seems obvious to the proud westerners that the rules of democracy are carved in the genome of normal humanity, discovered by Aristotle and Solon in Athens in the 5th century BC. Majority vote, assemblies and chairmanship, public speech and the art of rhetoric, the games of party politics and so on are supposed to be the best, indeed, the only way to manage any institution and territory. Here again, two obstacles lay in the way of access to those codes. The first is that the symbols and, above all, the silent rituals of formal democracy are not easy to understand. The meaning behind the acts and the real power behind the meaning are tricky to master. Only old sailors can sail in such turbulent waters, greenhorns are dashed against the rocks at the first squall. There is no mercy for the dubious or the naïve. Democracy in the European way, whether enshrined in a Parliament or used as an associative technique, is not an easy journey for the newcomers. And thus, for this reason of obscurity and as an historical heritage from the French revolution, democracy has a very important integration role to play.

Alain Ehrenberg, a French anthropologist, suggests in one of his writings that democracy in the West plays the same part that family arrangments play in many regions of Africa. Participation in this game is a proof and a guarantee of Frenchhood or of Germanship etc.. Playing with the symbols of democracy -like making reference to the revolutions or quoting great personalities, citing a parent involved in the resistance against Nazism or openly belonging to a club, party, union or political association are manifestations of the probability of being French.

Against this tense background, however, many families coming from elsewhere are barred from participating in the major democratic rituals on the grounds that they are not real French. They are not allowed the ritual of the ballot, they do not take part in the official debates, they are the « leftovers » of the Republic. From the early nineties and with more obstacles emerging as each year goes by, it has become more difficult to become French and, thus, to take part in the game of democracy in France. People who have lived in the country for five or fifteen years, working peacefully and raising children in loving fashion, can be handcuffed overnight like gangsters then thrown into a plane and tied down for transportation to a destination that they sometimes do not even know. These two facts, on their turn, disqualify democracy from being recognised by the newcomers as a set of moral values that deserve esteem and invite adoption.

Cultural institutions

The access to institutional art is strictly codified. Behaviour in a theatre, a concert hall or museum follows implicit and strict rules. Therein lies a first obstacle to the access to art as celebrated by the mainstream. Faced with this first difficulty, many involved in mainstream culture life have adopted devices to help, encourage, sustain the access of ordinary people to cultural institutions : fair prices, cleverly guided visits, introductions by school teachers to help children to understand the strange world they will encounter. When it comes to adults, it is more difficult to facilitate such access despite the thirst for arts that shyness does not eliminate. As John Berger (3) underlined in his famous Ways of Seeing, as Pierre Bourdieu (4) develops in his analysis of « distinction » and as an author like Doris Lessing illustrates in The Golden Notebook, art is a powerful social discriminant. More than membership of a political party it is rather on the attitude towards art and langage that one recognises who belongs or does not belong to the social elite. And the social elite is keen to maintain the subtlety and the tightness of its access codes. Art in the western world is altogether a financial asset, a flexible commodity, an aesthetic langage, a way to express the momentum of a civilisation, a sensual pleasure and, for the combination of these reasons, a golden opportunity to keep control over cultural reproduction.

Many exceptions can balance such a statement. For the past half century, the democratization process has produced a discipline of interpretation of elite art codes for the so-called popular masses. Many directors of cultural institutions know how to introduce children of immigrant background to the mysteries of deciphering art and they consider it is a part of their job to do so . But there is a long way to go and even the most progressive of those responsible sometimes opt for the easy way out : investment in a classical display of the institutional shapes and langages.

Social practices

Access to mainstream social practices is trickier than it looks. Concerning sports for instance, it seems obvious that France is open to multi-racial training and competition. It is absolutely true about foot-ball and boxing, a little less true about rugby or athletics ; and totally untrue when it comes to tennis, skiing or golf. At the present time, many sportspeople from the suburbs complain about being trapped in a football ghetto. And as long as the multicolored teams win, the population doesn’t see the color of the players, but in others cases, even so-called philosophers like Finkielkraut, accuse an opportunism for being responsible for what they see as a mascarade.

Access to the medical system is widely open in France where the leftist governments have organised an easily-accessed and free service of the best quality. In spite of this efficient technical system, the less-integrated families have a hard time understanding the obscure paths of normal behaviour with a doctor, nurse, or social worker ; and they have another hard time understanding what is accepted as a normal behaviour concerning breast-feeding, drug taking, workrelated illnesses or child care. But the most obsure codes are those of food and sex.

The difficulty of understanding what French people consider a meal, good food and the social function of both is an invisible but huge obstacle. Coming from a rural background should provide an easy access to the French ways of feeding oneself. But to the poor, the only food available is the hyper-processed packaged food displayed by the supermarkets, not the food carefully chosen on the open-air markets. And the rituals of a normal French family meal can be so complex that it discourages the bravest observer. The result in many families and neighbourhoods is the progresive but definite disapearance of any such thing as a family meal. Sometimes, a mother confined in her kitchen still feeds her boys and girls when they come home, but this is getting rare. The results are an exponential increase in obesity, dental cavities, mental stress and diabetes. These illnesses cannot be considered as socially widespread on medical grounds, but they definitely tend to thrive in ordinary families.

The sexuality gap is still wider. Most young people of immigrant origins have only a faint idea of what is locally considered decent sexual behaviour. As Didier Lapeyronnie (5) recently stressed, many young French of recent immigrant origins have not the faintest idea of what love is. Many of them are sexually educated by porn cassettes pinched from their parents or friends and watched in the secret of damp basements at the age of ten or eleven. Furthermore, they also denigrate what they see as the rules of normal good sexual behaviour, they often hate homosexuality and cannot begin to imagine what tenderness means. This, without taking into account the use of girls as an appraisal criterion to measure the respectability of non- undersandable behaviour. The result is disastrous tension and mutual contempt between genders which is one of the big cultural obstacles in the dialogue between groups and categories of various origins.

2. Recognition of the cultural traits of ordinary immigrants by the host country

An Indian anthropologist, Appadurai (6), notes that, if culture can hardly be definined as a substantive, it is specially meaningful as an adjective (cultural). « If culture as a noun seems to carry association with some sort of substance in a way that appears to conceal more than it reveals, cultural, the adjective, moves one into a realm of differences, contrasts and comparisons that is more helpful. » Those differences, comparisons and contrasts emphasise the contribution of a range of involved groups, among whom are the communities or sub-communities that now make up the patchwork of all western societies. When talking about contribution, we accept that each single piece of the mosaïc is, equally with the others, a contributor to the general design. One piece missing and the whole mosaïc is disqualified. The contribution of each different community is not expected only from its narrow specificity, it is expected on all issues and all dynamics. West Africans in France are not only good footballers, gypsies are not only good musicians, homosexuals are not only gifted artists. This is why it is so important to widen the scope of recognition to all cultural features and on this basis, assess the real determination of a nation to move into the process of cross-recognition.


French as the official language of France has been institutionalised and almost « judiciarised » as far back as 1539. From that time on, all regional languages have been considered mere dialects, improper to normal speech, text or conversation. Slang or popular language had to wait for Céline and the mid-twentieth century to be considered a suitable language for literature. Today, if the European Union protects regional langages, literary institutions like editors, universities, TV or politicians are far from giving recognition to modern slang called verlan. But this recognition has been establised in and by popular discourse.

As a matter of fact, verlan, the contemporary slang spoken in the lower-class (for want of a better term) suburbs of France is probably by far one of the more dynamic segments of the French language, considered as a large and complex linguistic family. A spoken language rather than a written one, verlan develops a sense of methaphor and vividness unknown in French speech since Rabelais and only matched by French as spoken in the Caribbean and in Africa. Taking an opposite perspective than academic French, verlan is a secret, flexible, unstable, blurred way of talking. It borrows from Arabic, English, old regional slangs, it invents or reinvents words and expressions every day and every minute. It is different from region to region, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and from staircase to staircase. Only very recently has it been printed by renowned publishers but the lucky authors of verlan-written novels are still basically considered by the French intelligentsia as cheap literary flash-in-the-pans flirting with the rifraf.

Nevertheless, verlan is gaining ground every day. Among the young generation, even of middle or upper class origin, verlan has a chic image for its evocative power and, also, for its bold transgression of one of the most oppressive and preposterous although subtle of French social dominations : proper language.

Social practices

As we have seen, on gender relations, healthcare, food and meals, maternity, child education and other day-to-day practices, cultures from elsewhere have a low profile. They are not considered acceptable contributions to the common pot. However, some noticable exceptions deserve our attention. As in most developed countries, in French cities, many successful restaurants serve ethnic food, which is sometimes reknowned as special cuisine and very often as ordinary fast but satisfactory eating.

Also, in spite of a distrust toward the rules of gender relations in current practice in the social housing of mixed cultures, inter-racial sexual experiences and even marriages are commonplace in France. Although statistics on this topic are impossible, it is likely that France is one the best havens for intercultural sexual experience. Or rather extra-cultural sexual engagements. If it becomes more difficult to openly marry someone of alien origins in one’s own neighbourhood, many young teenagers develop clever strategies to find a match of their own choice when they want to.

As for fashion -considered a very French art (both as fine art and as an everyday topic)-, the patterns have followed whimsical itineraries but the ethnic style in haute couture has been for many years an obstinate and recurrent feature.

Economic practices

Most foreign people, and especially men, have come to Europe to work and make a living for their families. Hence they have had to accept the rules of wages, schedules and ordinary work-place racism, taking the dirty, dangerous and low-paid jobs. But some groups have developed their specific skills. Two groups in particular have made their way in the economic process. The first are the Kabyles from Algeria who, with domestic habits very close to those of the French, have been successful in running cafés and restaurants. In some city centres and in most suburban areas, the good hospitable café is run by a Kabyle family. Only recently has the Chinese family come to compete with the Kabyles, but they are far less successful with the basic relaxed way of the French. The same can be said about the Portugese. By far the biggest group in France for several decades, the Portugese have established their skills in small building companies. Whether electricians, plumbers or bricklayers, they have earned a reputation for quality and reliability that has cemented their place within the economic framework and process.

Although possessing talents which would be highly profitable to the French industry, like the sense of entrepreneurship and an astute business acumen, many groups coming from either West Africa or Asia have not yet found the way to carve out their place in the economic process. As a matter of fact, enterprise as a spirit is not highly valued in a country that rather highlights the virtues of civil service and military management. The East Asian communities, especially the Vietnamese and the Chinese, struggle to make their way in the economy, with big investment and forced silence. But the ordinary immigrants of many African, North African, Asian or Latin American origins, however skilled and brave they are, have no legal way to invest their entrepreneurial energy in a stiffly regulated and highly protected economic system. Hence, they develop hustling in the black market, sometimes including drug dealing and worse. The waste of skills matches the desperation produced by absurd regulations only implemented to protect established companies. The free market is only free for those who are already in command and in power. For the little man, there is no free entreprise in France, and even less for the lowly immigrant from afar.

Artistic practices

Immigrant families have little receptiveness to the pleasures of art. But the main question arises elsewhere : it lies in the conflict of values that opposes mainstream art practices and those of popular art. Art is not a privilege of the dominant classes.

Engaging in artistic activity seems to be a way of belonging to mankind. We don’t exactly know what art stands for and we don’t know exactly how to assess its worth, but we know for sure that in the popular layers of society, art is being performed and enjoyed as much as in other social strata. But not in the same way. The set of rules diverges and, maybe, the understanding of what deserves to be called art also diverges. Institutional art happens in the official cultural institutions such as museums, theatres, galleries, concert halls, all those places dedicated to culture considered as a refined entertainment for the upper middle classes. Popular art is displayed where it can be.

Actually, there is nothing such as an exclusively popular art but, in spite of being shared by artists of different backgrounds, some practices have definitely been started in popular neighborhoods, thus are characterised by their popular initiative. We may therefore call them popular arts.

The rules of such popular art are the opposite to those of academic art. Popular art is as free as possible from anything looking like a market, it is seldom personalised and rarely narcissistic, it is displayed in public areas rather than in dedicated spaces ; and, last but not least and sign of the times, it tends to be ephemeral. On these grounds, popular art seeks recognition from the public and the right to allow artists to make a living from it.

On all these grounds, popular art is, at best, accepted as a minor contribution to serious artistic production. Hip-hop or break dancing are regularly introduced as original and temporary features in modern operas, but the artists very rarely develop something looking like a career. Rap is verbally tolerated because it has been adopted by the young generation of all social categories and has been a leitmotiv of demagogic politicians for years. Slam follows the same path. But graffiti, for instance, in spite of the boldness of the artists involved, is still considered a nuisance and a damage. And much contemporary music is accused of being primitive. This without talking of the places this music is performed. All in all, art as a major expression of mankind is held in hostage by the powerful and the dominant.

Conclusion : respect as a social skill

The housing estates of France, like those of most European countries, are places of great cultural variety and intense cultural activity. Patchwork or mosaïcs are words commonly used to describe neighbourhoods where twenty to fifty languages are often spoken. Thus, coming from a distant place, one doesn’t really know who is who and who values what. Who are the real French, for instance ? Or what can be done or said when we meet at the schoolgate, in the supermarket or in the stairwell ? What is the real power of a uniformed person wandering in the street, driving a bus or delivering mail ? When all is said and done, what type of attitude can I expect from the people who seem to belong here ? All those questions and many others entail the expectation of respect.

Respect is the basic value expected on council estates and in welfare housing. This respect is not the stiff attitude of the poor bending down to the rich, the young bending down to the old, the fool bending down to the wise, the untutored bending down to the educated. It is a horizontal or lateral feeling involving the acknowledgement of intrinsic credit and distance between everyone in a given place. Credit is based on the underlying belief that I, coming from a distant land and not really understanding the codes here, deserve the minimum esteem that later will be seen to have been justified and maintained. Distance is the subsequent demand : in the meantime, and since we do not know each other so well, let us keep a respectful distance, let us not deepen our relations too hastily.

Both attitudes of credit and distance are skills needed not only by those living in government housing but, in this time of globalisation, by everyone. Lastly, the French of old stock should be willing to recognise that immigrants have acquired specific skills and capacities developed and refined in the very process of migration. Respect, in the sense defined by contemporary history, is the quality that help foster cohabitation among the multifarious cultures each more widely spread in a globalised world.

(1) Franz BOAS, The mind of primitive man, The Macmillan Company, NY, 1911 and Franz BOAS, Anthropology and modern life, Dover publiction, NY, 1926

(2) Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire, race et culture, Unesco, Paris, 1953

(3) John BERGER, Ways of seing, BBC & Pinguin Books, 1972 (4) Pierre BOURDIEU, La distinction, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1979

5 Didier LAPEYRONNIE, Ghetto urbain, Seuil, Paris, 2008

(6) Arjun APPADURAI, Modernity at large, University of Minnesota press, 1996

Marc Hatzfeld, sociologist, France

Photo Yanni Behrakis

Contribution to the symposium: Assimilation or exclusion in France ? Immigraciò : el capital social i cultural

Barcelona, april 2009 CCCB

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