Immigrants in France


Dec 10, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on December 10, 2004.

The United States and France face the parallel problem of assimilating large groups of culturally different immigrants: Hispanics in the United States, North Africans in France. History suggests the United States will incorporate the new entrants more or less smoothly while the French are likely to fail.

The first immigrants to enter the United States in large numbers were the Irish in 1845. Italians and East European Jews followed, starting 40 years later. The key to their assimilation has been that U.S. culture has changed even as it “Americanized” the newcomers. In spite of current alarms, the Hispanic wave looks little different.

France remains the European nation most open to immigrants, assimilating individuals into traditional French culture. The North Africans constitute the first massive wave. Many want to retain elements of their own culture and the other French are resisting mightily.

Until 1845, the United States could be characterized as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant society; although black slaves modified the culture from the start. Catholicism was tolerated but mistrusted. Germans constituted a small node.

The Irish potato famine forced emigration so rapid that by 1850, 10 percent of the U.S. population was Irish. They were different. Anti-Catholicism burgeoned and employers refused to hire the Irish, forcing them to depend on their own economy. Communal clashes were common. They gradually found public jobs, many as policemen. They forced their way into politics — in 1884, Hugh O’Brien was elected the first Irish Catholic mayor of Boston.

The Irish were absorbed into a culture that simultaneously absorbed Irish elements. The Irish cop became traditional. Catholic universities were well-respected. Warm-hearted Catholic priests were central characters in popular movies. In 1960, Kennedy was elected president.

Jews and Italians began large-scale immigration in the 1880s. They did not speak English. East European Judaism was considered exotic. Italian Catholicism differed from Irish. Like the Irish, the newcomers began in their own communities.

Many Jews moved out through clothing and other businesses (and the associated unions). Many Italians did the same as laborers and then contractors. In and after World War II, assimilation became almost complete, with both groups represented at the highest private and public levels. In achieving this, American culture absorbed many Jewish and Italian elements, from bagels and pizza to Hollywood and higher culture.

As one measure of assimilation, by the 1990s the U.S. Senate had about 25 Jewish and 10 Italian members even though neither ethnic group constitutes a majority of the population in any state in the union.

Some Americans fear “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples,” as Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington put it. The fears are misplaced. Immigration has been rapid since the 1970s, and people of Mexican origin constitute 9 percent of the population, but that is less than the Irish at the peak. Successor generations are Americanizing as fast as their predecessors.

One fear is that U.S. culture will become “Hispanicized.” And so it will, faster perhaps than it changed in response to past immigrations. But U.S. culture is always adapting: today the taco has joined the bagel and pizza, salsa music is melding with jazz (hardly Anglo-Saxon in its own origins), and high and low Hispanic culture is spreading.

For many people in the United States this means revitalization. More important, the newcomers are entering U.S. democratic institutions. Colorado has just elected Mexican-American Democrat Ken Salazar and Florida has elected Cuban-American Republican Mel Martinez to the U.S. Senate.

France transforms individual immigrants into good Frenchmen, but that is not working for the wave of North Africans who, like Hispanics in the United States now constitute about 10 percent of the population.

The new immigrants are Muslims, many of them religious, entering a France that combines a millennium of Catholicism with a century of secularism. The wave began with Algerians who had supported the losing French side in the revolution. The strong post-war French economy accelerated the inflow. Then a counterproductive French attempt to close the doors in the mid-1970s motivated Algerians already in France to bring their families.

The new immigrants were unprepared-still religiously Muslim, culturally Arab, and economically primitive-and the French were unprepared for them. A vigorous economy could have eased the transition, but growth slowed in the 1980s. Lacking jobs, the immigrants remained in urban/suburban ghettoes where poverty and crime grew. The French made few efforts to build bridges, and the North Africans intensified their traditions.

The conflict over prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in schools is a symptom. Deep principles are invoked-secularism, intimidation of women, religious freedom — but the fundamental question is whether France can assimilate large numbers of different people.

Changed policies — for example, enforcing existing laws against gender discrimination instead of passing new laws directed at the immigrants — could help; but such changes seem unlikely. With an undigested minority of 6 million, French stability and democracy are threatened.

© United Press International

Robert Levine is a senior economic consultant with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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