Studying questions of integration and identity

It is often observed that the French model of integration differs greatly from the U.S. idea of multiculturalism, in both theory and practice. When the term “multiculturalism” even comes up in France, it is without fail with negative undertones, referring to a segregated American society where people are grouped according to their differences. In this view, multiculturalism = communautarisme, where allegiance to ethnic or religious communities comes before the nation. French republican universalism is different. But how?

I find that American students — and even those from abroad living in the U.S. — have difficulty approaching questions of identity without using the analytical categories founded on the American model.

It really wasn’t until I took a graduate seminar with Patrick Weil (lawyer, professor, member of Chirac’s commission on secularism, author) that I was able to crystalize the opposition of the state’s role in integration: the American model favors protecting the individual’s right to join intermediary groups that lie between her/him and the state. The French state, on the other hand, protects the individual’s right to be independent of any influence exerted by these groups. Republican universalism means that the relationship between the state and citizen is direct, that the state will recognize no membership or allegiance to any group but the republic itself. Does that make sense? The idea of liberty is at the core of each approach, but the role of the state is what changes.

Recognizing or refusing to recognize the individual’s membership to ethnic or religious groups means directly opposing laws about the collection of ethnic data, the presence of religious symbols or ideas in public education, affirmative action or discrimination positive, etc. With the hijab debate so often in the news, this is an issue that my students find fascinating and are eager to discuss.

Below are a few sources I’ve used with my civilization students in the study of integration, republican universalism, and identity in France. Feel free to let me know of others and I’ll add them to the list.


Avis du Haut Conseil à l’Intégration (April 2011): “La France sait-elle encore intégrer les immigrés?”

Entretien avec Gérard Noiriel à propos de son essai À quoi sert l’identité nationale? (Libération du 09.02.10)

Patrick Weil, “Why French Laïcité is Liberal” Cardozo Law Review, June 2009, Vol. 20, Number 6, 2699-2714 (Original Source)



John Richard Bowen, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (2008)

Gérard Noiriel, À quoi sert l’identité nationale? (2007) – rappel: Noiriel stepped down from the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (along with 7 other historians) in protest of Sarkozy’s creating a Ministère de l’immigration et de l’identité nationale

Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (2007) – this works especially well with Weil’s article, as he cites Scott and responds to some of her claims.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.