WASHINGTON — France has long faced a contentious debate of crucial importance for immigrants and their descendents — defining what it means to “be French,” a debate that flared in its recent presidential election in which a significant percentage of voters supported a platform critical of immigration and its effects on society. Though countries with rich histories of immigration such as the United States and Canada accept “dual belonging” at least in practice, this concept has been criticized and perceived as at odds with a person’s commitment to French identity.
Recent surveys of French immigrants, however, have shown the opposite to be true. These findings demonstrate that multiple allegiances are not an impediment to integration; it is possible to “feel French” and maintain links with one’s country of origin. However, because of external perceptions, native French citizens are far less likely to accept this adoption of French identity.
In French National Identity and Integration: Who Belongs to the National Community, sociodemographer Patrick Simon examines perceptions of national identity and the rejection of plural belongings in French society, which have created conditions for the marginalization of visible minorities. Simon, Director of Research at the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED) and a researcher at the Center for European Studies at Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po), draws from the 2008-09 Trajectories and Origins survey of 22,000 respondents in refuting the notion that the foreign born will weaken social cohesion in France.
While France is increasingly diverse, recent identity debates show little room for inclusion of ethnic minorities. This was again evident in the 2012 presidential elections, with 18 percent of the first round vote going to Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate whose platform espouses an anti-immigration platform, and outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy adopting similar rhetoric in his campaign.
Simon points to the need to create a new framework for equality, which includes updating the French concept of immigrant integration. Such changes remain a challenge, as newly appointed President Francois Hollande has pledged to keep the burqa ban, enforcing the idea that aspects of minority culture are incompatible with being French.
“For a majority of immigrants, embracing one’s ethnicity as part of one’s identity and being invested in and rooted to your host country are not mutually exclusive,” said MPI President Demetrios Papademetriou. “But as we see elsewhere, full integration efforts are hampered when the majority is unwilling to accept immigrants of diverse backgrounds as equal members of society.”
French National Identity and Integration: Who Belongs to the National Community is the latest report produced by MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration that examines the current political and public debates over national identity and social cohesion. The Council is a unique deliberative and advisory body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes across the Atlantic community. A recently released Council statement, Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration, examines the roots of society’s anxiety over immigration and outlines 10 steps for fostering greater cohesiveness.
Today’s report and the Council’s earlier research on this and other topics are available for download here.
The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.