French citizenship and the multiculturalism problem

On Wednesday morning, we met with Olivier Ruchet, a professor at Sciences Po, to discuss the idea of French citizenship and the problems with cultural diversity it brings up. This is a big issue (especially in the upcoming elections) considering how France has among the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe.

There appears to be a very nationalistic sentiment in that the French want to reduce the number of foreigners as well as the naturalization rate. We learned that the “modèle républicain” is quite distinct from the USA. The French believe that in a unified nation, all citizens have the EXACT same rights and are interchangeable with any other citizen. No one should be discriminated against, nor should they receive any special benefits. Cultural groups should be dissolved in order to assimilate into French culture. On the other hand, Americans believe that diversity should be embraced and integrated into the American culture. I can certainly understand the French desire to reduce competition between different groups. I do wonder though, what defines “French culture”? I imagine culture as a constantly changing entity reflecting trends in society (popular music, fashion, etc…. ). Americans are known for their hamburgers and hotdogs, but Taco Bell and Chinese takeout have become a visible part of American culture. Isn’t culture defined by its people, not by the government? The French seem to be too focused on the past.

The French theory of citizenship is quite fascinating. Anyone can become a citizen, even President, regardless of the country of origin. The problem is that it is difficult to implement in reality. Discrimination remains a big problem. Monsieur Ruchet discussed the following points regarding the issue:

      1. The separate of church and state, specifically the debate over banning religious symbols (e.g. veils) in public.
      2. French censorship and bias when recounting the history of its colonies.
      3. The urban riots of 2005, which appeared to be a statement against social and racial discrimination.
      4. The lack of data for fighting discrimination, since it is illegal to ask about ethnicity in a census. It is considered a major faux pas to call attention to someone’s race. Monsieur Rochet said this law was enacted because people were afraid of the data being used against them, such as with the Jews during WWI. I wonder if this is still the case. Can’t they can’t ask the question but make it optional? I know that in America, there have been studies on the so-called stereotype effect, where asking students their race before an exam resulted in a decrease in performance for colored students only. However, I do not see how a census would have any negative effects.
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