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French Unity and American Multiculturalism: Contested Grounds of Identity

In defiance of what the founders of the nation feared, factionalism has become an American norm.   But official France still gravitates toward the idea of a defined culture that immigrants must embrace. 

French government leaders and cultural affairs officials frequently express intense interest in preserving their culture, usually noting with alarm the rise of tribal identifications now common in American life. Both sides of the Atlantic now have activists working under the banner of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and new revelations exposing historic figures who condoned slaveholding and colonialism.

Although there are clear exceptions, French advocates asking for more social justice can face stiff winds of resistance from high profile protectors of the nation’s identity. Many, such as President  Emmanuel Macron, are vocal in affirming the core principles of the Republic over the particular claims of identity groups. For example, it was not long ago that the actress Catherine Deneuve and other influential French women signed a letter claiming that #MeToo was a “puritanical overreaction.”

According to reliable news reports, behind some of this wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be French is a fear of American cultural hegemony.  There is a broad concern that the young in “immigrant communities” have taken a page from American politics and are insufficiently grateful for their French citizenship.

Political currents especially on the American left now run in the opposite direction, favoring recognition for the separateness of various identity groups. But official France still aspires to be a single great society. Nationalists often see threats against “unity” in dire terms, feeding off memories of domestic terrorist attacks in and around Paris over the last decade.

In France, official secularism is a national virtue.

Even the broad political center in the Fifth Republic gravitates toward the ideal of a single great culture that all must embrace. For example, the National Assembly just completed debate on legislation that would oblige all organizations, including religious groups, to adhere to key secular values, specifically, the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and respect of human dignity.” Though not stated, the primary goal of the legislation is to combat Muslim “separatism,” especially where religious practices veer into the public sector. For example, hijabs (head coverings) for Muslim women are banned in French schools. By contrast, North Americans are more likely to see the denial of the right to wear a head covering as an infringement on a person’s religious freedom.

Defining and embracing national identity is a tricky game of perceptions. Many in the United States now think that the once simple invocation of the “national interest” is now bridge too far, as the hardening of political differences in the last election so clearly demonstrated. In defiance of what the founders feared, factionalism is becoming an American norm. And with it, interest in identity has shifted to communities that want to define their own practices and preferences, including having a say about what others may appropriate as their own. It is now more routine for Americans to ponder whether a straight actor should portray a gay character in a play or film, or whether a special condition such as autism can be suitably represented by non-autistic actors. These samples are representative of groups asserting authority over the use of what they see as their unique community property, whether it is particular experiences, cultural products, names or sensibilities. Who should wear tribal clothing or jewelry?  Can a sports team use an anglicized version of a name for an indigenous group?  In short, who gets to tell a specific community’s story?  These are now frequent American questions, where the pronoun “our” is tribal as much as it is nationalistic. That’s a different emphasis than is common in French thinking, where the pronoun is more or less meant to cover the entire culture: a nation of 67 million souls set apart from the rest of the world.

It is an irony that one of the guiding forces shaping the American experience was France’s commitment to its ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” But to many in Europe, America’s twin embrace of right-wing politics as well as progressive multiculturalism looks like a descent into destructive separatism.  When exported, these impulses seem like unwelcome intrusions imported as newer forms of American cultural imperialism.