When Bad Collective Memories Influence Public Policy

France does not like the idea of collecting ethnic data because the last time we did it was before we sent the Jews to the concentration camps, going above and beyond the demands of the Nazis. In 1978, the government passed a law prohibiting the collection of ethnic data.

France also does not like the idea of ethnic data because it goes against the myth (because it is a myth) of a unified Republic where all that matters is the national identity. France is not a multicultural country and significant segments of the population (both from the left and right wings of the political spectrum) do not want a multicultural country. They want an assimilationist Republic (that is, one where immigrants make all the efforts to assimilate but nothing is due from the dominant group). The problem is that one of the necessary conditions of assimilation is acceptance of assimilated minorities by the dominant group: that is both cultural and institutional assimilation, which means no discrimination. Many studies have shown this is far from the case and that discrimination, both individual and institutional is widespread.

In this way, France is a very Durkheimian society where the educational system is still very much perceived as the frontline of the Republic (and public school teachers were the main soldiers of the Republicm wrestling young minds from the dreadful clutches of the Church), where children are taught the value of being French and living in a republic and where collective conscience is clearly internalized. Not a big surprise here: Durkheim was very instrumental in the development of the French public system of education.

As a result, France is notoriously hostile to policies such as affirmative action which are perceived as promoting communautarianism and separatism, that is, the slicing and dicing and allocation of rights and benefits along ethnic lines (France already allocates many benefits either universally, such as the health care and educational systems as well as family benefits, or on the basis of income). This deeply-held attitude is the basis for the controversy over the veil in schools and demands for special privileges by some Muslim groups.

There is no doubt that the current economic situation will not provide a calm context for rational discussions of immigration policies and persistent discrimination.

Such nationalist fears of national undermining from within are also accompanied by fears of undermining from above, notably through assimilation into the European Union. As much as mainstream political parties have made France a main engine of the European Union (along with Germany), there has always a clear and vocal anti-EU current in French politics, both on the left and the right reflecting fears of imposition of neo-liberal policies along with fears of the loss of cultural specificity (don’t touch my camembert!).

2 thoughts on “When Bad Collective Memories Influence Public Policy

  1. These issues have been profoundly in play, in similar and very different ways, in the French overseas departments (states) Martinique and Guadeloupe, where the vast majority is black, and where hostility towards whites is systematic and intense, as well as ignored, and usually is also often overcome by an overarching sense of equality and a set of very respectful manners that discounts race differences. Other factors here are the history of colonialism since 1600s, with some few thousands of surviving progeny who draw on their communal and ancestral ties with France, and strong local culture and language (creole which is not understood by most French). France has many proudly quasi-independent nationalities within (Basque, Corsican, Creole, etc.) which seem to coexist and partake of the French polity while continuing strong local traditions. I find that discrimination is encoded very differently here than in the US South, or US Northwest where I’ve lived most. I have been disappointed that here in Martinique, access to learning about local creole culture is starkly absent from the curriculum, and intercultural sharing is challenging if also accelerating by drinking rum together. Cultural traditions dissipate less when closed.

  2. Of course I should have mentioned that there have been dramatic and intense strikes here that have demonstrated the local power of the unions; which also echo and draw strength from French and local cultural traditions of opposition and even more from ethnic politics of solidarity aggravated by ethnic discrimination. The entire economy here was shut down for well over a month (no schools, no gas, no postal service, no supermarkets or stores), until agreement was secured on lowering prices on common food items and on increasing salaries for the lowest paid workers.

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