Refugee crisis highlights differences of French and Dutch integration models

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Halal butcher advert, Paris. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

With the refugee crisis, the French are testing the limits of assimilation as a model of integration, while the Netherlands is grappling with a growing distance between Dutch identity and ‘Dutch tolerance’, writes Eline Chivot.

Eline Chivot is a Strategic Analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) in the Netherlands.

Just as many others living in The Hague, I recently received a letter from the municipality informing me that 600 refugees would soon be moving to my neighborhood. This raised concerns among the local population: is this uprooted, jobless and openly religious population from another continent and culture able to fit in our community?

Surely this novelty was going to disturb local peace many think. Those who were once so willing to give clothes away to Syrian newcomers, now seemed less enthusiastic about sharing and caring. By now it is awkwardly clear that in Europe, we are not yet comfortable with social diversity. The complexity it generates keeps on generating tensions. The question is whether diversity and integration are compatible and can be reconciled. Our paradoxes inherited from the past may have become more difficult to manage: does the secular separation of private and public identities reflected in the French laïcité still make sense? To what extent can European societies include more diversity, and transform their integration models?

Ten years after the French suburban riots, this remains a burning issue. In the face of our ‘migration crisis’, perhaps we should be more self-confident Europeans, and be reminded that the presence of a new group does not necessarily create a problem of cultural insecurity. One could consider that France has managed to come up with a solution: my country has a clear definition of what it means to be French, steering integration efforts in a single direction. However, as a French person living in The Netherlands, I would rather see the advantage of distilling some of the Dutch tolerance into the French model.

The French approach

Undeniably, integration à la française is straightforward when it comes to identity. This is well illustrated by the historical separation of state and religion. Laïcité and cohésion nationale remain sacred pillars of Republican unity. It is the state, not the individual, that guarantees security. Cohesion involves the necessity to rally the nation through a shared vision of the country’s destiny, and through values that are common, rather than emanating from private individual identities. Integrating those values as your own – politically (those of the French Republic) but also culturally (such as the French language) – conditions the sense of belonging and “vivre ensemble” that are essential to societal security.

France continues to perceive communitarism as a liability, as well as an inherent, dominant feature of Islam, the Muslim population and its identity. As such, religion appears incompatible with the French idea of a national secular culture whose principles would become less sustainable. However, whether the French like it or not, the world is changing. Communities today are more assertive in demanding the recognition of their ethnic, gender, religious, or sexual specificities. The boundaries between private and public identities are becoming thinner as a result. Not acknowledging this new reality could exacerbate feelings of exclusion which, according to our history textbooks, is not exactly a driver of peace and stability.

The Dutch paradox

Some countries have long seemed resilient to concerns and fears arising from an increase in diversity. The Netherlands has promoted tolerance as a way to showcase its acceptance of differences. It does not have firmly developed principles of national identity, but rather defends the coexistence of identities. The country has, if you will, become a filled salad bowl: according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the Netherlands was home to about 1.2 million people with at least one other nationality in 2012 – which is forty thousand more than in 2010. The city of Rotterdam alone gathers more than 170 different nationalities. This could suggest that the Netherlands is used to dealing with diversity, and has learned to embrace it over time.

Although tolerance may be considered a core Dutch value, it is a paradox at the same time. The increasing mix of cultures is also seen as a factor of frustrations and social divide. While there is little to suggest a direct emphasis on national unity as a source of security in the Netherlands, diversity is not referred to as such either. The country is no exception to the rise of the ‘us against them’ feeling in Europe, as evidenced by the rise of anti-immigration political parties. In the 2009 European elections, the Freedom Party (PVV) led by Geert Wilders had received the second-largest share of the votes of all Dutch parties. And according to the 2015 OECD report Settling In, the share of foreign-born people who feel discriminated against is higher in the Netherlands than in France. The degree of tolerance towards this population, seen as less tolerant and insufficiently integrated, has started to decrease.

Both models of integration have their virtues and vices. The French are starting to test the limits of assimilation as a model of integration: ‘Frenchness’ tends to be a straitjacket that hinders the integration of minorities, thus inadvertently giving rise to sharper divides. The Netherlands is grappling with a growing dilemma between ‘defining a Dutch identity’ and ‘preserving the Dutch tolerance’ with, in response, a need to define and impose ‘Dutchness’.

The ‘inclusive capacity’ of a nation shrinks as new migration flows bring diversity and transcend borders. The definition of the nation may then require revision, rather than for migrants themselves to be ‘revised’ so as to fit with the original blueprint. One way to emulate an alternative model to be emulated elsewhere in Europe could be to provide guidance to people’s national identities, while leaving space for the expression of religious beliefs. We must find ways to get immigration ‘right’. The problem is, questioning our societal models does not always feel that way.

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