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French culture, core values under threat!

Entire Western Europe face challenges in integrating refugees & immigrants that are mostly Muslims, forging diverse & united society

Rahul Pawa

In the wake of tragic police shooting of Nahel M., a seventeen-year-old teenager of Algerian-Moroccan heritage in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, French Republic finds itself engulfed in a tempestuous storm of violent protests, as impassioned demonstrations, riots, and looting cascade through its streets.


Against backdrop of persistent allegations of entrenched discrimination, this surge of violent events has cast a stark light on disconcerting societal fissures that run deep within French Republic. More-so, the untimely demise of teen delivery driver Nahel during a routine traffic stop, serves as a poignant reminder of the profoundly intricate and multifaceted predicament that now grips the nation.

Evoking disquieting parallels to haunting events of three-week-long 2005 French riots, during which police actions resulted in the tragic deaths of two immigrant teenagers who sought refuge in an electrical substation, tensions surged again. Discrimination and police harassment in impoverished immigrant residential areas resurfaced as pressing concerns, casting a shadow over societal harmony.

Meanwhile, President Emanuel Macron\’s sudden departure from critical discussions within European Union (EU) regarding Russia -Ukraine conflict, coupled with his government\’s contemplation of a potential declaration of emergency, leaves France teetering on the precipice of uncertainty.

Gravity of the situation cannot be overstated: France, along with several other Western European nations, is facing an ongoing crisis in terms of integrating immigrants and refugees. This crisis is exacerbated by a significant loss of trust within society, intensifying an already unstable situation and sparking tensions with far-reaching consequences.

Recent discourse on demise of the teen delivery driver Nahel has centered around French immigration and refugee protection and return elucidating a wide spectrum of perspectives on crucial themes of discrimination, integration and cohabitation. France, renowned for its opulent cultural heritage spanning the realms of art, literature, music, fashion, cuisine, and philosophy, occupies an eminent position on the global cultural stage.

Nevertheless, the nation has faced challenges in effectively assimilating diverse populations and nurturing a sense of unity. A study commissioned by France\’s national statistics agency, INSEE, has revealed that immigrants comprised approximately 10.3% of the population in 2021, amounting to nearly seven million individuals. This figure signifies an increase when compared to 6.5% of foreign-born residents in 1968. Migration has played momentous role in shaping the multifaceted tapestry of the country with approximately a third of the citizenry having a connection to immigration across three generations.

In recent years, immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia have constituted a significant contingent within the immigrant community. Significantly, a substantial portion of immigrants in France hail from Algeria, accounting for over 12% of the immigrant population. Similarly, around 12% of immigrants come from Morocco, while approximately 4% originate from Tunisia. Additionally, there is a notable influx of immigrants from Portugal, comprising over 8% of the total, followed by Italy at 4%, Turkey at more than 3%, and Spain at approximately 3%.

Interestingly, women make up the majority of these immigrant communities. It is worth noting that many immigrants have chosen to settle in major urban centres including capital Paris, where nearly one-fifth of the population embraces their immigrant heritage. Despite this significant presence, it is intriguing that France\’s immigration rates remain lower than the European average, lagging behind countries like Germany and Spain.

The rise in immigration can also be attributed to challenges faced by the European Union (EU) during the refugee crisis that began in 2015. As part of the EU\’s collective response to the crisis, member states, including France, agreed to accept a specific number of refugees based on a quota system. These quotas are determined collectively, considering factors such as the country\’s population size, GDP, and capacity to integrate and support refugees. Based on available data and estimates, it is reported that as of December 31, 2020, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) identified 455,295 refugees and individuals under other forms of international protection in France.

The complexities surrounding immigrant integration extend beyond mere numbers and require a concerted effort to foster inclusivity, provide adequate support systems, and ensure equal opportunities for all members of society. Although France has made progress in addressing these challenges, there is still much work to be done to bridge the gaps and create a cohesive society that embraces diversity while upholding the principles and values that define French culture.

Within this landscape, divergent viewpoints emerge, with some advocating for strict assimilation, emphasizing French national identity and values, while others champion a more pluralistic approach, extolling the worth of cultural diversity and the recognition of different identities. These contrasting perspectives reflect broader conversations about finding equilibrium between preserving French cultural heritage and embracing the multicultural reality of a globalised world. The concept of \”coexistence\” remains nuanced and ever-evolving within French society, requiring sustained dialogue, understanding, and efforts to bridge divisions and foster an inclusive and harmonious environment for all.

Nevertheless, France has faced a multitude of contentious issues throughout its recent history, encompassing critical matters such as cultural identity, religious expression, and social integration. These conflicts arise from cultural disparities and conflicting ideologies. Samuel Huntington\’s theory of a \’clash of civilisations\’  suggests that divergent cultural and religious beliefs among civilisation\’s could lead to strife and disharmony. In the French context, this clash has taken various forms, particularly concerning the integration of Muslim immigrants.

Over the years, the French society has been subject to intense debates regarding religious practices, secularism, democracy and the role of Islam within French society. One key point of contention revolves around the delicate balance between the Islamic way of life and French liberal ethos. Incidents of alleged discriminatory practices targeting racial and religious minorities, including unjust arrests, harassment, and excessive use of force, have eroded trust among immigrant communities and perpetuated a perception of discrimination and inequality in French society.

While French legislation, such as the 2004 law prohibiting religious symbols in educational institutions and the 2010 law banning face-covering veils in public spaces, demonstrated the country\’s unwavering commitment to secularism and the principle of laïcité, immigrant communities argued that these laws unfairly singled out and stigmatised Muslim communities.

These contentions intertwined with instances that deserved the strongest condemnation, such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, the 2015 Paris attacks, the 2016 Nice Truck Attack, and frequent acts of violent extremism that regularly manifested in the form of knife attacks and, in extreme cases, attempted beheadings. Such incidents posed significant challenges and undermined trust, further hindering societal cohesion and unity.

The Charlie Hebdo attack by French muslim immigrants, which targeted the satirical magazine for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, raised profound questions about the delicate balance between freedom of expression, blasphemy and religious extremism. The coordinated 2015 Paris attacks, orchestrated by French and Belgian immigrants affiliated with the global terrorist organization ISIS, intensified the existing challenges France faced in terms of coexistence and integration.

The 2016 Nice truck attack, carried out by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, an immigrant from Tunisia, further highlighted the persistent threat of terrorism and the challenges faced by the French population in terms of internal security. Similarly, the tragic case of Samuel Patty, a teacher beheaded by an 18-year-old Russian Muslim refugee in 2020, exposed the alarming rise of extremist violence and the clash between radical ideologies and the values of tolerance and education.

The tragic instances highlighted above serve as poignant reflections that fuel discord, uplift mistrust, and vividly showcase the multifaceted challenges that France confronts in terms of coexistence, cultural clashes, terrorism, extremism, social tensions, and freedom of expression. These occurrences underscore the utmost importance of upholding cherished French principles such as freedom, secularism, democracy, and equality.

They serve as timely reminders that the task of fostering a harmonious society transcends the sole responsibility of the French Republic; it necessitates collective engagement and participation from the entire French society, including those who have recently embraced the principles outlined in the French constitution. Addressing this profound conundrum calls for sincere introspection and unwavering collective efforts, demanding a delicate equilibrium between embracing the richness of cultural diversity and safeguarding the values that define French culture and heritage. The resolution of these intricate issues calls for a nuanced understanding, open and meaningful dialogue, and concerted endeavour\’s aimed at cultivating a society that genuinely embraces diversity, advocates for tolerance, and ensures the safety and well-being of every citizen while upholding the cherished principles and revered traditions of French culture.

By embracing a shared vision of unity, respect, and inclusivity, France has the potential to deftly navigate the complexities of coexistence, foster enduring social harmony, and lay the solid groundwork for a future that is truly inclusive and prosperous.

(Author is Research Director at non-partisan think tank, Centre for Integrated & Holistic Studies based in New Delhi)

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