More than America, France expects immigrants, no matter their color or creed, to assimilate — to become French. America, which calls itself a melting pot, is really a soup; its immigrant groups have generally retained some of their original culture and affected their new homeland as much as they were affected by it.

Not so in France. In schools, the standard history curriculum begins with the words, “Nos ancêstres, les Gaulois” (“Our ancestors, the Gauls,” the pre-national tribe) — no matter that many of the students’ ancestors come from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

“The attitude is that the people are French before they are anything else,” says Nicolas de Boisgrollier, a Frenchman and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

This helps explain why affirmative action — a policy prescription that could help move France’s immigrants and their descendants into mainstream society — is even more controversial in France than in the USA: It cuts against the notion that France already embodies its ideal — a nation of legally indistinguishable individuals. ~USA Today

This USA Today article is more useful for what it can tell us about American assumptions and prejudices about our own immigration myths and problems than it is for telling us about anything going on in France. The claim that our immigrant groups have affected American culture as much as they have been affected by it is simply an ideological statement. The effect most immigrant groups have had on American culture is, one sense, quite minimal. Aside from adding to the variety of restaurants, most ethnic groups here have either largely dissolved (if they are European in origin) or embraced the watered-down civic identity that has defined being American for roughly a century. Historically, most American immigrants retain little of their ancestral heritage–language usually fades out by the third generation, and customs tend to drop out soon thereafter. If there is a strong communal commitment to a particular church or religious institution, this may help prolong the process of dissolution, but it occurs all the same.

What is different about post-1965 immigration, and the reason why immigration has become a crisis for this country, is that the new waves of immigrants now actively and consciously maintain and preserve their cultural traditions, partly because of the myth Americans tell themselves about how their ancestors were likewise able to maintain dual identities. In fact, our ancestors largely did not do this. Some ethnic groups maintained closer, sentimental connections with their old country longer, but between social pressure to assimilate and the immigrants’ own desire to become American these attachments soon weakened and frayed. There is actually much to be lamented in this, not least the homogenous, vacuous sense of American identity held by many people now, but that is not what concerns us here today.

I suspect that the French have had some trouble handling the problems of cultural integration because it seems to me that they have approached the matter very juridically and in accordance with false liberal assumptions about man and society. Culture is not the external trappings and dress of a man, but something that has the capacity to pervade and define him. It is not something that can be swapped out or changed over voluntarily, as someone who imagines society to be a contract among equal individuals might think. It seems that the French have come to think that if everyone becomes a citoyen, everyone will adopt the habits of other citoyens, but they have the process the wrong way round.

The French have officially retained a sense of ethnicity defined, as it must be, by common descent from the Gauls (and here the article is at least accurate), but they have made no attempt to account for how the immigrants are supposed to be adopted into this Gallic lineage or whether it is really desirable that they be adopted. Indifferent to a substantial cultural or national identity of their own defined by anything other than juridical and political claims, I submit that the French have become incapable of coping with the dynamics of relations between cultures.

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