PARIS — It is difficult to go more than a day in
France without hearing someone express the conviction that the greatest problem in the country is its ethnic minorities, that the presence of immigrants compromises the identity of France itself. This conviction is typically expressed without any acknowledgment of the country’s historical responsibility as a colonial power for the presence of former colonial subjects in metropolitan France, nor with any willingness to recognize that France will be ethnically diverse from here on out, and that it’s the responsibility of the French as much as of the immigrants to make this work.
When equality is invoked, it is understood that this is equality among equals.
In the past year I have witnessed incessant stop-and-frisk of young black men in the Gare du Nord; in contrast with New York, here in Paris this practice is scarcely debated. I was told by a taxi driver as we passed through a black neighborhood: “I hope you got your shots. You don’t need to go to Africa anymore to get a tropical disease.” On numerous occasions, French strangers have offered up the observation to me, in reference to ethnic minorities going about their lives in the capital: “This is no longer France. France is over.” There is a constant, droning presupposition in virtually all social interactions that a clear and meaningful division can be made between the people who make up the real France and the impostors.
I arrived here in 2012 — an American recently teaching in a Canadian university — to take a position at a French university in Paris. I had long been a moderately interested observer of French history, culture, and politics, but had never lived here for any length of time, and had on previous stays never grown attuned to the deep rifts that mark so much of daily life here.
When I am addressed by strangers anxious about the fate of their country, I try to reply patiently. They hear my American accent, but this in itself does not dissuade them, for I belong to a different category of foreigner. I am not read as an “immigrant,” but rather as an “expatriate,” here for voluntary and probably frivolous reasons, rather than out of economic necessity or fear for my own survival or freedom. This division is not just a street-level prejudice: it is also written into the procedure at French immigration offices, where all foreigners must go to obtain their residence permits, but where the Malians and Congolese are taken into one room, and Americans and Swedes into another. For the former, the procedure has an air of quarantine, and the attitude of the officials is something resembling that of prison guards; for the latter, the visit to the immigration office feels rather more like a welcome ceremony, and everything about our interaction with the officials bespeaks a presumption of equality.
Equality is of course one of the virtues on which the French Republic was founded, yet critics of the Enlightenment philosophy behind the Revolution have long noticed a double standard: when equality is invoked, these critics note, it is understood that this is equality among equals. Political and social inequality is allowed to go on as before, as long as it is presumed that this is rooted in a natural inequality. In the late 18th century, such a presumption informed the reactions of many in the French to the revolution led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, who was himself inspired by the events of 1789 and who took the idea of equality to be one with universal scope.
For most of the history of the French Republic, the boundary between the equal
and the unequal was determined by the dynamics of empire: equality within continental France was in principle absolute, while in the colonies it was something that had to be cultivated: only if a colonial subject could demonstrate full embodiment in his manners and tastes of the French identity was he to be considered truly equal.
With the contraction of the empire and the reorientation of French nationalism from an imperial to a cultural focus, the distinction between equal and unequal contracted from a global to a local scale. Francophones from around the world began to move to metropolitan France in large numbers, but now their status was transformed from that of colonial subjects to that, simply, of foreigners. But of course the fact that these unequal subjects have settled in France has very much to do with the historical legacy of French imperialism; Francophone Africans do not choose to come to France on a whim, but because of a long history of imposed Frenchness at home.
I became a philosopher, like many others, in large part because I imagined that doing so would enable me to rise above the murky swamp of local attachment, of ethnic and provincial loyalty, and to embrace the world as a whole, to be a true cosmopolitan. Yet history shows that many philosophers only grow more attached to their national or ethnic identity as a result of their philosophical education.
This second tendency seems particularly widespread in Europe today, and most of all in France. Many Americans imagine that French philosophy is dominated by mysterians like the late Jacques Derrida, who famously beguiled innocent followers with koan-like proclamations. But a far more dangerous sub-species of French philosopher is the “public intellectual,” whose proclamations, via the French mass media, are perfectly comprehensible, indeed not just simple but downright simplistic, and often completely irresponsible.
Take, for example, the self-styled philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who in his recent popular book “L’identité malheureuse” (“The Unhappy Identity”), proclaims, in effect, that immigration is destroying French cultural identity. He bemoans the “métissage” of France, a term one often sees in the slogans of the far right, which translates roughly as “mongrelization.” The author, whose father was a Polish immigrant and a survivor of Auschwitz, and who has made much throughout his career of what he calls “the duty of memory,” claims to be defending the values of the “français de souche” — the real French. In this way, he is stoking the rising xenophobia in France, a trend that has been exacerbated here, as elsewhere in Europe, by recent economic uncertainty.
Talk of ‘overrunning’ and ‘invasion’ describes much more accurately the motions of European colonialism.
Is there any justification for the two-tiered distinction between expatriates and immigrants, or for the extra impediments members of the latter group face when they try to settle in a new country? Nativist Europeans such as Finkielkraut will often express a concern about being “overrun” by members of ethnic groups from economically disadvantaged states or regions. Most of us can agree that even if there is not an absolute right to preserve one’s culture’s purity, it is at least a genuine good to be able to spend one’s life surrounded by others who share many of the same values and traditions. Something would be lost if, say, massive immigration led to a sudden shift in the demographics of Iceland, so that native Icelanders were now a minority in that once homogeneous island nation — and this would be a loss both for the country itself, as well as for those of us on the outside who value something akin to the cultural equivalent of biodiversity.
But there is nowhere in Europe where anything remotely like a shift on such a scale is taking place, even in the countries that have seen the most immigration, like France and Britain. Alongside the genuine good of a life spent among others who share one’s values and traditions, there is also what the philosopher Michael Dummett describes in his influential work “On Immigration and Refugees” as the right to live one’s life as a first-class citizen. This right, he notes, depends in part on the conduct of a state, and in part on the behavior of its people. Whether or not the right of immigrants to first-class citizenship is set up in conflict with the right of earlier inhabitants to cultural
preservation, has very much to do with both state policy and with popular opinion.
Even if the numbers of immigrants in Europe were much higher, it would be an illusion to suppose that the immigrants are mounting a concerted effort to change the character of the place to which they have come. Talk of “overrunning” and “invasion” is analogical, and in fact describes much more accurately the earlier motion of European states into their former colonies, a motion which, again, is a crucial part of the account of patterns of migration toward Europe today. Immigration in Europe, as in, say, the Southwestern United States or within the former Soviet Union, is determined by deep historical links and patterns of circulation between the immigrants’ countries of origin — in France’s case, particularly North Africa and sub-Saharan Françafrique — and the places of destination.
Europe has enjoyed constant traffic — human, financial, material, and cultural — with the extra-European world since the end of the Renaissance, yet within a few centuries of the great global expansion at the end of the 15th century a myth would set in throughout Europe, that European nations are entirely constituted from within, that their cultures grow up from the soil and belong to a fixed parcel of land as if from time immemorial. It is this conception of the constitution of a nation that has led to the fundamental split that still distinguishes European immigration policies from those of the United States.
Read previous contributions to this series.
The American approach to immigration is plainly rooted in historical exigencies connected to the appropriation of a continent, and it is this same history of appropriation that continues to induce shame in most Euro-Americans who might otherwise be tempted to describe themselves as natives. America has to recognize its hybrid and constructed identity, since the only people who can plausibly lay claim to native status are the very ones this new identity was conjured to displace. But in Europe no similar displacement plays a role in historical memory: Europeans can more easily imagine themselves to be their own natives, and so can imagine any demographic impact on the continent from the extra-European world as the harbinger of an eventual total displacement.
There are values that are not easy to mock or dismiss informing European nativist anxiety. These values are not completely unconnected to the various movements to defend local traditions: the celebration of terroir and of “slow food,” the suspicion of multinational corporations. But like the celebrated tomato and so many other staples of various European cuisines, European cultural identity too is a product of longstanding networks of global exchange. These networks have tended to function for the enrichment of Europe and to the detriment of the rest of the world for the past several centuries, and it is this imbalance that in large part explains current patterns of immigration. Europe has never been self-contained, and its role in the world has both made it rich and left it with a unique legacy of responsibility to the great bulk of the world from which this wealth came.
I witness the present situation from a position of privilege, as a special kind of foreigner: not the kind who is thought to be here to take up resources and to threaten tradition, but rather, it is supposed, to celebrate these traditions and to passively assent to native sentiments. The privilege, for me, is not just that I am not the target of discrimination, but also that I am able to learn quite a bit that would be kept from me if I had a different kind of accent, or darker skin. And while it is disheartening, what I hear in the streets is really only an echo of the rhetoric of politicians and purported intellectuals, who have found it convenient to blame the most powerless members of French society for the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future.
Related from The Stone: Seyla Benhabib, “The Morality of Migration.”
Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7, Denis Diderot. He is the author of “Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life” and the forthcoming “Nature, Human Nature, and
Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy.”