Liberté, égalité, fraternité

When I was informed that this issue’s focus is on migration, I recalled the captivating piece “The Other France” by George Packer that I read in an issue of the New Yorker. In the article, Packer attempts to investigate the link between socio-economical divergence and terrorism. Visiting an ethnic enclave in a banlieue (French term for suburb of a large city, but in recent years largely used as a pejorative for migrant dominated slums), he sought to illustrate what life is like for residents and if the myriad of unfortunate circumstances served as an incubator for radicalism and terrorism.

Initially, I intended to steer away from discussing migration in Europe, as I feel very much like an outsider to the issue (and I still do), being an international student here. I felt that there was little I could bring to the table and the thoughts I harboured are mostly amalgamations of opinions gleaned from articles I read, untested by personal experience and lacking individual input.

However, as I watched the horrific events unfold in Paris on the night of November the 13th, I thought it would be useful to shed some light on the convergence of social, economic and political factors in France that could have contributed to the underlying instability and tension in the country. Getting to know these facets of French society better, albeit only through a very brief introduction on my part, may in turn aid in promoting tolerance, openness, empathy and awareness. I will also attempt to posit an opinion on the idea of equality – exemplifying how being overly caught up with an ideal may in turn, ironically, hinder its realization.

The Void

France encountered multiple waves of immigration throughout the 19th and 20th century. Many immigrants came from Europe, Africa and Asia, some drawn by opportunities, others displaced by conflict. The Algerian War generated significant North African immigration, so great in numbers that it induced much hostility within the French population. Rising tensions culminated in the Paris Massacre of October 17, 1961, when the French National Police attacked a demonstration of Algerians. French of Maghrebi origin (cluster of North African countries) now form the largest group after French of European origin.
In the 1960s to 1970s, France adopted a migrant policy of assimilation, whereupon immigrants were expected to learn and adopt French traditions, values and culture. This had very limited success when many immigrants refused to adhere to the required values and did not seek to return to their country after conflicts were resolved. Sensing that a shift in policy could be needed, France then pursued integration during the mid-1980s, allocating government resources to reaffirm the importance of law and order to the migrant population, while embracing diversity and encouraging them to retain their cultural differences.

Subsequently, the increasingly noticeable ethnic and cultural differences within the migrant population allowed for right-wing political leaders to rouse negative public sentiments, blaming issues such as increased crime on the migrant population. As public perceptions gradually shifted, France decided to revert to the initial policy of assimilation in 2003, once more directing resources toward language training, culture courses and value instructional workshops; and working to conceal, if not eliminate, cultural differences.

The switch in policies generated much confusion among descendants of immigrants in developing their identity. On one hand they were French, but on the other, their parents and grandparents adopted very different lifestyles and values to the one they were taught and had immersed in. The silent implication that citizens of migrant descent are not fully French further exacerbates this problem. As mentioned in Packer’s article, white French citizens are often identified with the term François de souche – “French from the roots”, suggesting that there are different categories of French citizens.

Alienated by the French and living amongst their parents and grandparents who still hold on to the ethnic past, this generation of immigrant descendants face much difficulty in formulating their identity, in turn affecting their perception of life, purpose and ambition. As such, they actively seek to dispel the confusion and fill the void by searching for a purpose or identity that promises conviction and significance. In some way, this serves to illustrate their vulnerability to extremist ideology, which allows them to be a part of a greater cause, a higher calling.

The Chasm

The deep-seated assimilation issue also manifests itself in more menacing ways – unequal treatment and opportunities, which greatly limits social mobility for the immigrants. In Michael Cosgrove’s article “In France, all immigrants are not equal”, he highlights the discriminatory French police treatment of Maghrebi immigrants, often subjecting them to identification checks in the downtown area. There is also discrimination observed in hiring of Maghrebis and Africans for higher-paid more prestigious jobs.
Observable discriminatory practices bring to surface the underlying social tensions, an exposition of the way the French society handles the migrant situation. Left unaddressed, the rift between the migrant population and the French society widens, further isolating the migrant population. The effects of this gap trickle down to the children and grandchildren of the migrants. The limited opportunities meant that descendants of migrant may not have access to many resources while growing up. As public perceptions fail to alter, they inevitably still end up on the wrong end of the gap themselves, facing difficulty in obtaining higher education and employment.
Isolation is a terrible thing – it breeds hostility as negativity reinforces yet more negativity. Widespread dissatisfaction was brought to a boiling point during the Paris Riots of 2005, when children of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa took to the streets. The outbreak of violence is a symptom of youth unemployment and discrimination, a trend still present today. As unhappiness continues to rise and the youths persist in their search for identity while expressing their anger, more violence could erupt if left unmanaged.

The Paradox

It is vital to note that a central tenet of French society is the idea of equality, as put forward in its national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. With a strict interpretation of secularity and equality, France prohibits the inclusion of ethnic and racial information in the collection of data. This makes it immensely troublesome to monitor minority abuse, workplace racism, housing market exclusion and the demographic of the prison population. Without such vital data, it is almost impossible to structure policies to tackle these problems.
Perhaps the intention is to indeed to disregard and ignore the issues. It is a colossal irony when equality, a prime attribute of French society, is used to prohibit any discussion of racism, allowing the government to conveniently sweep all inequality under the carpet.

Many countries with a population of diverse ethnicities face similar issues of integration and discrimination, and there are many ways of approaching the subject. Coming from Singapore, I grew up celebrating Racial Harmony Day annually and am familiar with the idea of racial quotas in public housing settlements (a part of the Ethnic Integration Policy to promote racial integration, ensuring a mix of ethnic communities in housing estates and preventing enclaves from forming). There is also the touchy policy of “affirmative action” in various countries, with employment and education policies favouring members of a disadvantaged group, to improve social mobility. While seemingly discriminatory towards non-beneficiaries, it serves to address and correct some degree of systemic discrimination. The myriad of policies is imposed to differing levels of tangible and intangible success, which are hard to measure. Nonetheless, it does promote tolerance at the very least, and ensure that the population is comfortable living and working alongside people of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

While many agree that equality is an ideal to strive towards in today’s world, it is a tricky issue to broach. There can be various interpretations of the term in society. Does it mean treating everyone equally regardless of their present situation? Or should inherent inequality be accounted for and thus unequal treatment dished out? I do not have an answer but I think it should be applied to each situation independently. While seemingly paradoxical, positive discrimination may perhaps be a probable solution for achieving equality in many instances.
It is a delicate manoeuver to structure policies that are popular with the public, while reflecting and promoting equality. The first step is definitely to accept that inequality and discrimination exists, something the French society has to do openly.


Xiang Peng is a final year Economics student at the University of Warwick. He loves reading and watching films, and is a big fan of Wes Anderson for his eclectic blend of whimsy, American pop culture, wonder and quirkiness. Peng hopes that he can create such magical and vivid worlds as a medium for storytelling someday. He also have a collection of typewriters, with his favourite being a Smith Corona Calypso in mint condition.