What is wrong with being an immigrant of Maghrebi (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian) origin in France? The statistics demonstrate an alarming situation: two-thirds of the children that perform poorly in school and are subsequently held back, 66 percent of the incarcerated population, and more than half of the unemployed population in France are of North African origin. These staggering figures shatter what is left of the French Republican myth. Integration of immigrants has failed. Some accuse the “Arabs” of being reluctant to embrace the spirit of French society, while others blame the government for not implementing a sustainable and coherent immigration policy.
Yet, both of these sides ignore the roots of the issue: the cornerstone principles of the French Republic are incapable of coping with the societal realities of modern France.
It all started with the idealistic concepts of the 1789 French Revolution: liberty, equality, and solidarity were to define French citizenship. The Republic was meant to provide a universal framework for these ideals, transcending ethnicity, religion, and gender. In the public sphere, one was not to be thought of as someone with dark skin, a Christian, a woman, or a teenager; one was supposed to be simply a French citizen. Religious symbols, specific cultural references, and foreign languages belonged to the private sphere.
As long as the majority of French people were white and Christian, this model of unity proved to function fairly well. However, as immigrants started to settle in France, the growing heterogeneity of the country began to bring about problems. Too often, those in political power decided to turn a blind eye to their profound inability to integrate these immigrants and their descendants into French society. Was it because France's definition of citizenship was too rigid? Anachronistic? Divorced from reality? Those in power dismissed all these allegations. To them, France was the country of freedom. And its ideals had always been fair, appropriate, and righteous by nature.
Last autumn, the weather was incredibly mild for a November in Paris. It was Friday night, Parisians were listening to music, drinking a glass of wine, having fun with their loved ones. La vie était belle. All of a sudden, terror struck Paris for the second time on November 13, 2015. Parisians heard cries and guns being fired, and saw slaughtered bodies piling up higher and higher on the streets. Beginning at 9:30 pm, three suicide bombers struck the Stade de France. A couple of minutes later, mass shooters attacked three restaurants and two bars filled with young people near République. Simultaneously, more shooters stormed the Bataclan concert hall. 130 people died. 368 were injured. The murderers were French, and the victims were French. The government declared a state of emergency, closed its borders, and proclaimed itself to be at war. Aggressive and belligerent, the state used violence to counter violence, thus exhibiting a profound misunderstanding of the problem—a problem that is rooted in French society, not in the Middle East.
How did France come to face such a dilemma?
“Everything has changed,” the newspapers proclaimed in the aftermath of the November attacks. Yes, everything had changed. But the change had happened a long time ago, in 1962, as the bloody war of Algeria ended and over 800,000 immigrants came to settle in France. Today, immigrants account for 11.6 percent of the French population. The values established in 1789 by a homogeneous group of revolutionaries for the creation of an overwhelmingly uniform population, as universal as they were proclaimed to be, cannot succeed in providing the French people of 2016—which includes 10 million Muslims—with a unifying framework. The assumption that all cultures and customs can be molded into the secular ideals of French citizenship ultimately produces a hypocritical ideology, one which blames "otherness" for the failure of immigrants to assimilate rather than admitting the inadequacy of immigrant integration policies.
It is, however, possible to keep the French cornerstone principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity without betraying their original meaning. But the French political powers have to accept that these ideals must be revisited in order to embrace the changes in French society.
In 2016, “liberty” means that women should be able to wear any type of clothing, so long as it the result of their free and deliberate choice. In 2016, “equality” means that all French citizens should have the same opportunities to climb up the social ladder, regardless of their faith, name, or place of birth. And above all, in 2016, “fraternity” means that French people must remain united and treat each other with respect.
It is only by reframing these essential ideals with a more inclusive perspective that France could begin to reunite its people. When over 10 percent of the population of the country is Muslim, banning the burkini does not improve women’s liberty but curtails it. When France defined la laïcité, (the concept that religion does not have a place in the public sphere), 95 percent of the French people were of the same faith, Christianity, which does not require any visual sign of religious belonging. Maintaining that France’s rigid notion of secularism does not discriminate against Muslims can therefore reveal an appalling inability to empathize or the existence of inherent racism. In either case, the problem is a profound lack of understanding of the Other, stemming from an ignorance of difference. Ignorance promotes fear, and, hence, biased images of the Other pervade the collective perspective. he presidential candidate of the far-right political party comparing Muslims praying on streets of France to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany exemplifies this type of thinking.
To solve this issue, French people must truly become acquainted with each other, because Otherness stops being disturbing once it becomes familiar. Otherness can even be a source of dialogue, respect, and mutual understanding. But for people to be able to get to know each other, they must first be able to meet, and, thus, those who are systematically marginalized must be integrated into French society. It is the responsibility of France’s political institutions to take concrete moves in this direction.
One year after the bloody terrorist attacks of November 2015, it is of utmost importance that the French people and government critically evaluate the present situation before the 2017 presidential election. That election might easily be won by a candidate from a racist, anti-European, extreme-right political party. To prevent this outcome, France must acknowledge the gap between its alleged universal citizenship and the social reality that has produced the current poisonous atmosphere. In other words, integrating the “Français issus de l'immigration” (France's politically-correct term for those who do not match the stereotypical appearance of a French person), is the only solution.