Commentary: French assimilation vs. British multiculturalism – what integration model for Europe?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Trevor Philllips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in the UK, contrasts the different integration models in France and the UK in an interview with Le Monde of 12 November.

In his attempt to uncover the underlying reasons for rioting in the French suburbs, Trevor Phillips observes that the heart of French identity is “rigid and crushing”.  To him, the headscarf affair which ended in a ban for girls wanting to wear it in schools illustrated this. “Making a piece of cloth an issue of national loyalty is to me ridiculous and oppressive,” he told Le Monde

Phillips says that France has a one-way approach to integration where immigrants have to assimilate French culture and leave their origins behind. In contrast, the UK lives a form of two-way integration where immigrants are given some space and flexibility to adapt and where the host culture takes on board some elements of the immigrant’s culture (food, clothing, words, etc.). He suggests the French could take on board some of this British pragmatism.

However, he says the British have gone too far in allowing immigrants to express the “historic identities of ethnic minorities”. France, he says, has succeeded in asserting a national identity that everyone can more or less refer to. In contrast, Phillips says that Britain, by encouraging ethnic minorities to live in their own communities in the name of multiculturalism, is slowly evolving towards a segregationist society. 

According to Phillips, it is crucial to mix children of different backgrounds in schools to achieve a better community spirit. This is something that Britain failed to do in Birmingham where tensions broke out in October.

The CRE chairman indicates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there are obvious racial problems in Europe. He urges Europe to find a way for all citizens, regardless of their background, to live together. In order to build a real community, Trevor Phillips sees it as essential “to underline the importance of sharing some major common values such as democracy, freedom of speech and electoral participation”. 

The right balance between the French integration model of assimilation and the British model of multiculturalism needs to be struck, he argues. 

Please click here to read the full article published in Le Monde (may require subscription)

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