I am French,” was the indignant response that I got to my prelude, “Are you from India?” for seeking directions to Boulevard de la Madeleine from Gard du Nord, the central rail station in Paris. It is entirely the subject matter of a different column that it was impossible for anyone hailing from India to taxonomically categorize this gentleman as French!
But what was telling in that statement was the intense homogeneity that French society seeks to reinforce time and again. London and New York are widely regarded as cosmopolitan, with every race alighting there having maintained its identity. This brings to fore the vastly different integration model that France has sought to adopt and implement ferociously. Many call it a one-way approach to integration where immigrants must assimilate headlong into French culture and leave their origins behind.
Some of the pebbles on this proverbial one-way street probably began with the classical French republican notions of the nation, which resolutely rejects empathy with any entity other than the nation itself—be it an ethnic group, geographical area or religion. This was exacerbated in the post-revolutionary era when France was seen as a dangerously divided nation, with even its language babelized into various dialects such as Basque and Breton, which impelled the revolutionary government towards the ambitious project of integration. As a result of these efforts by the time of the Third Republic in the 19th century, peasants had turned into Frenchmen. The jury is still out on whether these events did indeed do the French society a favour, although it is pertinent to note that a major historiographical debate about the latter years of the Third Republic largely concerns the concept of La decadence!
In recent times, France made headlines for its plan to ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools and public places. While the ban could be read to be in tune with the secularization sentiment dominant in much of Europe, what is disturbing is that this ban appears to be an attempt to enforce cultural assimilation. It in many ways screams out to the migrants: Out of the turban or out of the country!
While surveying the buffet breakfast at the Café De La Paix, against better judgement, I picked up a bowl of mangoes— which, to this day, I regret! The mangoes seemed to tell the tale of the fiercely assimilationist policies of the French state—picked up from the tropics and forcibly integrated into an otherwise excellent French breakfast. Funnily enough, at about the same time Sarkozy was screaming his lungs out on how France would be the first country to apply in 2009 for its cuisine to be included in a listing of world heritage at Unesco.
Whether such measures, headscarves and mangoes alike, would prop up a nation constantly seeking to assert a unidimensional national identity is difficult to predict. But if the French do want to avoid going back to the days of the Third Republic, pegging assimilationist tendencies down a peg or four might help! The right balance between the French model of assimilation and the British model of multiculturalism could be one such exit on the one-way assimilation street built assiduously over the years.
Saionton Basu is an advocate in the Supreme Court. Comment at email@example.com