France is still right about race integration

02 November 2006



Despite the violent riots, the French opposition to British-style multiculturalism is still the correct way to go, argues Peter Riddell

There has been much discussion of the causes of France’s worst social unrest for more than a generation. Last Friday, the leading French Roman Catholic newspaper, La Croix, published the results of a telephone survey, in which 1007 adults were asked to identify the causes of the riots. The vast majority pointed to parental neglect and social deprivation "which could express itself only in violence".

Such perceptions are conditioned by media reports. A lengthy article in the same issue of La Croix focused on social disadvantage among immigrant communities, identifying the rioters as "urban youth", and making no reference to the fact that the majority were Muslim.

Similarly, the Church Times report ( News, 11 November), citing statements from Anglican clergy in France, did not use the words "Islam" or "Muslim" once. Other Christian publications took a similar angle, referring to the fact that unemployment was as high as 30 per cent among some French immigrant communities, compared with a national average of ten per cent.

After such analyses, commentators have been asking questions of France’s policy of integration. For decades, the French authorities have refused to adopt a British-style multicultural policy, preferring to stress that all citizens are equal, and that all are, first and foremost, French. Hence the institutions of multiculturalism, which serve to reinforce ethnic sub-group identity in Britain, are largely absent across the Channel.

The British policy on multiculturalism derives from the Race Relations Acts (1965, 1968 and 1976), which set up the powerful Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as a watchdog over inter-ethnic relations. This in turn encourages local inter-community bodies, including interfaith councils.

According to one line of argument, immigrant groups finally exploded after seeing through the sham in which they were told they were equal citizens, but could see from economic and social statistics that they were not. The conclusion is that the French integration model has failed, so now the French need to take on board aspects of the British model.

Such commentators have short memories. The riots in Bradford, Burnley, Oldham, and elsewhere in 1995 and 2001 are not so long ago, and raised serious questions about British multicultural policies. In community terms, such policies affirmed the fragment at the expense of the whole, and have not sufficiently emphasised togetherness. This has been argued recently by Trevor Phillips, head of the CRE ( Comment, 28 October).

I believe that the French policy, which has refused to structuralise community difference, is the right way to go. It is wise to define all citizens as, first and foremost, French or British, with institutional structures affirming that understanding.

The implementation of the French policy has been imperfect. The French will need to scrutinise structures to see how they can more effectively facilitate integration. They will also need to ask questions of the majority white Roman Catholic society to determine why some immigrant groups feel excluded.

But tough questions also need to be asked of certain immigrant groups, which bear a measure of entrenched hostility to the majority society, and which refuse to integrate. This particularly applies to Muslim communities, which are the least integrative of all minorities in European societies.

One must take care not to equate the French riots with worldwide Islamist militancy. And it is important to recognise Muslim efforts to quell the riots. For example, on 6 November, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France published a fatwa, in which it called for calm, and forbade Muslim youth from using violence in their quest for "divine grace". Such statements were much more candid in identifying the rioters as Muslims than were those issued by non-Muslim commentators.

So why were Muslim youths at the heart of the problems? The answer lies in a recognition of the incompatibility between the Islamic faith, which sees itself as applying in all areas of life and society, and the secular states of Europe, which are founded on the notion that religious faith belongs to the private domain.

This dysfunction has increasingly produced conflict in various settings, including educational institutions. Muslim male students in France have reportedly refused to participate in oral examinations with female academic staff, and some have insisted on laying out their prayer mats during examinations.

Such reports point to a mindset of separation. They also easily translate into hostility to the expectations of the majority society, a hostility that can be exacerbated by anti-Western sermons at mosques.

The French certainly need to engage in soul-searching. But they should not take their cue from Britain, where several decades of telling minorities that they don’t need to integrate could easily lead to eruptions similar to those in France.

When it happens, which is the most likely community to erupt? According to Omar Bakri Mohammed, head of the radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, now based in Lebanon after being refused re-entry to Britain: "Too much pressure [on Muslims] became a revolution in France. This could spread to Britain unless they stop pressuring people."

Any discussion of these issues should acknowledge that there are many French and British Muslims who do integrate well. But many do not. It is in the interests of both majority British society and the British Muslim minority for the latter to be better integrated. For that to happen, it may even be necessary to monitor Muslim immigration until such time as the existing minority community is more effectively interwoven into the fabric of British society, and is more accepting of majority values.

Professor Peter G. Riddell is Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at the London School of Theology.

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