The terrible events in Paris in early January 2015 have inspired all sorts of questions. What are the limits of “free speech”? Why did the security services fail to discern the threat? Perhaps most importantly, why do some French Muslims become radicalized?
During the 19th Century French population grew at a pace (40 percent) much below that of the rest of Europe (100+ percent). This population gap began to have an effect on the supply of workers. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the French began to make up the difference by encouraging immigration from countries like Italy, Poland, and Spain. By the eve of the Great Depression, immigrants had increased from 1 percent of the population to 3 percent. The Depression caused the French to seek to reduce the number of immigrants in the country. In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, France turned to encouraging the immigration of guest workers from its colonial empire as a national policy. The collapse of the French position in Algeria in the early Sixties then brought a flood of refugees (both Algerians of European descent and Algerian Muslims who had been loyal to France in the Algerian war). This population movement totaled well over a million people in the space of a few years.
From this point onward the question of immigration became politicized and tense. For one thing, there the “pied noir” immigrants from Algeria and the “harkis” competed for the same jobs at the bottom of the French economy, spawning a bitter hostility. For another thing, the great economic slump of the Seventies intensified the competition for jobs. France put a stop to immigration in 1974, but the immigrants in the country put down roots rather than going “home.” They sent for their families before French laws could prohibit this. Consequently, the immigrant population actually increased in size at a time when France sought to limit it. For a third thing, the French accepted the sociological theory of a “threshold of tolerance,” beyond which the number of unassimilated immigrants worked to disintegrate society. This latter theory had a particular resonance because of the “French social model.”
That model holds that there is a single French national culture and everyone has to assimilate to it to be French. Anyone who is not French is “foreign” (etranger). Formally, “etranger” refers to anyone without French citizenship, but informally it includes anyone who refused to become “French.” The French reject the Anglo-American model of multi-culturalism. The French carry this to the point of refusing to gather statistical data on the ethnic or national origins of French citizens. Rough estimates, done on the basis of the number of “etrangers” and their descendants living in France, put the number of non-French within the hexagon at 14 million or 25 percent of the population. Of these, it has been estimated that 5-6 million are Muslims.
It is open to question whether the Muslim immigrants have assimilated to French culture. On the one hand, they undoubtedly have: they eat pork, smoke, drink, and have premarital sex, just like ordinary “French” people of their generation. On the other hand, they are walled off in ethnic ghettoes on the outskirts of the major cities (especially Paris). These areas are marked by very high unemployment (40-50 percent), crime, and drug-use. At the same time, one can wonder whether the French have made much of an effort to assimilate the immigrants. The inhabitants of these ghettoes are often third generation residents of France with little knowledge of or interest in their “homelands,” there is a good deal of evidence that French employers prefer to hire people with lighter skins and French-sounding names, and former President Nicholas Sarkozy may have been expressing a common sentiment when he referred to the rioters at the end of 2005 as “racaille” (scum). See: The Week, 2 December 2005, p. 15.