Few articles of france's republican creed are more sacrosanct than the principle that all citizens are equal and indistinguishable in their relation to the unitary state. Be their origins Algerian, Senegalese, Corsican or Alsatian, French citizens are deemed identical in their Frenchness. Unlike the U.S. or Britain, where diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups enjoy rights and recognition based on their minority status, the idea of such distinctions is anathema to France's traditional dogma. "In France, once you're French, you're French and that's it," says Michèle Tribalat, an immigration specialist at France's National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED).
So much for the theory. In reality, France is becoming a multicultural society in all but name. The melting pot of integration, which turned generations of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese into Frenchmen — and taught their children to recite history lessons about "our ancestors the Gauls" — is proving far less efficient at assimilating the postwar waves of immigrants from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and other non-European cultures. "Today integration is a total failure," says Gaullist deputy Jean-François Cope, mayor of Meaux, 54 km north-east of Paris, which counts 29 different ethnic groups among its 50,000 residents. "We are seeing a fractured culture in which everyone does his own thing."
For purely ideological reasons, the French state keeps few immigration statistics beyond the numbers of foreign-born migrants legally resident in France, or who have acquired French nationality (some 4 million). There is no official figure for the total number of French residents of foreign background, nor any breakdown of where they come from. But Tribalat estimates that 14 million French citizens — nearly a quarter of the French population — have at least an immigrant parent or grandparent.
A large share of the postwar immigrants and their offspring hail from Algeria and other former French colonies in North Africa. While the first generation of guest-workers expected to return to their homeland, their children lived in a sort of cultural no-man's-land between the host nation that didn't fully accept them and the homeland that many of them had never seen. "Their parents didn't want to integrate," says sociologist Jean Viard of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). "But their children were born here, they learned French, they've never known anything else. They were caught between two desires." But now, as full-fledged citizens and potential voters, many second- and even third-generation kids are out to claim their rightful place and the equal opportunity owed them under the republic.
Much of this population is concentrated in suburbs and urban centers, like Marseilles and Lyons, that have generated ghetto-like enclaves. Large migrations and high birthrates have made Islam France's second-largest religion. The immigrant-dominated working-class banlieues, or suburbs, that ring most French cities have generated a unique culture in which the bad news — unemployment, poverty, crime and drugs — coexists with the good news — a creative energy that has produced a rash of popular hip-hop, rai and rap artists, some talented filmmakers and an in-your-face style of dress and speech that has influenced French youth across class lines.
Along with with the innovative techno D.J.s who have made the "French touch" one of the country's hottest cultural exports, these banlieue-based artists have stirred up a pop-cultural renaissance and generated a multimillion dollar alternative music industry. "In the culture of the new generations," says publisher Olivier Nora, "there is an impregnation of music, language, phrasing from elsewhere. It throws into question the model of white-bread, patrician French culture. It is an extraordinary source of vitality. This colorful youth has come into our old Parisian museum and shaken up the coconut trees."
All this is part of the new, multicultural France — a sociological shift symbolized by those young athletes from French, African and Arab backgrounds who joined forces on the World Cup-winning French national soccer team in 1998.
Even as these immigrant groups are bringing their special style to the new France, indigenous regional cultures have seen a resurgence of their own, formerly suppressed, identities. This revival is marked by the proliferation of Basque and Breton-language schools, the rising popularity of Celtic music, the boom of regional tourism, the cult of local cuisines and the spread of provincial festivals that borrow as much from global trends as they do from ancestral traditions. The downside, in areas like Corsica and Brittany, is the persistence of a militant separatism that occasionally flares into violence.
Many French observers look with trepidation at the rise of multiculturalism. "The centralizing French state created one French citizen," says Socialist author and entrepreneur Jacques Attali. "It killed the local languages. It created equality between French citizens. It avoided the danger of different, competing communities. There is a risk of that now, because of decentralization and the weakening of the state." Zaïr Kedadouche, president of Integration France and a son of Algerian immigrants, is equally adamant. "France is enriched by its differences and its cultures," he says, "but in the end, the only culture is the one that revolves around republican values and a unitary civic state."
Yet not all communities see France as an equal opportunity melting pot. Studies indicate that, despite a significant number of mixed marriages, groups like the North Africans are being excluded from socio-economic integration. Reports have shown that unemployment was 40% among young kids of north African background aged 20 to 29, compared with 11% for youths of French origin. And though North Africans and black Africans have made a niche for themselves in music and sports, they are almost totally absent from the social and economic mainstream. "What bothers me," says Patrick Weil, a professor of history at the Sorbonne, "is that people say immigration is good because it gives us athletes and artists. I'd like to see business people, lawyers, teachers, intellectuals, men and women policymakers. We're not seeing that." Even for motivated university graduates like Kamel Hamza, 30, a Franco-Algerian who is trying to launch a computer and software business, the hurdles are higher for those of foreign background. "Our problem," says Hamza, " is that even if we have an education and ideas, we're up against little François and little Claude, whose parents can help them get jobs. We don't have this network."
Fears of the "mongrelization" of French society by unassimilated immigrants have long been the stock-in-trade of the xenophobic National Front party, which once commanded some 15% of the vote in French elections. But the Front has lost much of its clout these days because of party infighting and the fall in unemployment. The real battle, in any case, will not only be electoral; it will be over the shaping and defining of a new French social model."The next 10 years," predicts sociologist Bernard Cathelat, "will be a phase of multicommunitarianism. We don't have the mental reflexes or institutions to be a multiregional, multicultural society. It's not just a problem of immigration, but one of regional societies: the Corsicans, the Basques. We will pay heavily for all those centuries of centralization. There is a big danger for French society: the implosion into social microgroups."
Not everyone agrees. "I think the long-term strength of this country is going to lie in its polycultural character, deeply engrained and united around a common destiny," argues Yazid Sabeg, CEO of Communication & Systèmes and one of the rare executives of North African background to head a major company. "I'm convinced it can achieve the best. This is a country which is capable of making real leaps."
The demographic trends indicate that immigration can only go up. France, like Germany and other European countries, will have to import tens of thousands of foreigners if it is to make up a projected labor shortage and counter the growing imbalance between retired and active workers. The prospect has old-fashioned nationalists wringing their hands and warning of impending doom. But economist and author Alain Minc, for one, believes that globalization and Europeanization will eventually solve the problem. "In 20 or 30 years, there will be no more French society but a European society. It will be close to the U.S. model with some differences. We will retain our language, culture, literature and wine, but as a people we will be European." If that prediction comes true, 21st century France may finally free itself of its xenophobic demons.
With reporting by Tala Skari/Paris