Diversity and discrimation

On the question of how to deal with diversity, France seemingly occupies a unique position. There is little space for ‘diversity’ in its public sphere. Under the banners of républicanisme and laïcité, French politicians suggest that all citizens are politically equal, irrespective of religion, customs, background, etc. (all considered ‘private’ matters). French policy-makers care little about the religious and ethnic backgrounds of citizens; it is with disbelief that they discover that such characteristics are formally registered by the state in other countries.

Many French politicians take pride in their country’s ‘exceptionalism’ and claim that the neutral public sphere (or at least one without ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols) leads to a more harmonious society than the communitarian approach favoured by Anglophone countries. My own country, the Netherlands, is often portrayed as the very opposite of France, as a country that pursues ‘multicultural’ policies that grant public space and recognition to religious and ethnic groups. Quelle horreur !

As a researcher, I must admit that I am often surprised by politicians who focus on discursive differences between countries, as discourse seems so often divorced from what is actually happening on the ground. I don’t mean here that ‘we’ don’t live up to our ideals (although this might be true as well). My claim, rather, is that politicians routinely misunderstand the character of their own ideals. Let me explain.

French scholars have convincingly shown that républicanisme and laïcité do not have singular meanings that remain unchanged over time. For example, within a decade, dominant ideas about the (in)compatibility of the foulard and being a French citizen witnessed a sea change. Nevertheless, politicians continue to suggest that they know exactly what ‘republican principles’ are, as if they were timeless. But they are not, and it is precisely the political struggles over the meanings of recurring tropes in national political discourse that researchers must reveal and examine (instead of taking ‘the republican model’ as an explanans, as some colleagues erroneously do).

A second misunderstanding is that French practice, informed by républicanisme and laïcité, is totally different from what prevails in the Anglophone countries and the Netherlands. But when we look more closely, there are striking similarities in how Western countries deal with ethnic and religious diversity. From a Dutch perspective, certain French practices are surprisingly ‘multicultural’; some would even be unthinkable. Let me give an example that I came across in the work of sociologist Christophe Bertossi. The French army co-organizes the annual pèlerinage for religious soldiers, their families and veterans, not only to Lourdes but to Mecca as well (the Hajj). While Bertossi explains how this practice developed as part of a specific understanding of laïcité (equal treatment of religions), many in the Netherlands would be horrified if such a practice existed in the Dutch army.

There may be practices that are country-specific but the labels attached to them can be misleading. This is due to the ‘power of politics’: in France, politicians are wont to label most everything they esteem as a ‘republican’ practice, whereas their counterparts in Canada do the same using that country’s multicultural ideology. While this dominance of political rhetoric might be understandable from the perspective of politicians (who must suggest that they have coherent worldviews), it does not help us to better understand the differences and similarities among our countries.

Research has shown that countries such as the Netherlands and France have much more in common in how they address diversity and discrimination than one would assume in light of their allegedly divergent ‘models’. In our case, the convergence is partly due to the fact that the Dutch were never truly multiculturalists. More importantly, both countries share the need to find pragmatic solutions to diversity in everyday life – in schools, hospitals, the army, in workplaces and on the dancefloor.

More recently, we see growing similarities between France and the Netherlands, also at the level of political discourse. In both countries, ‘assimilation’ is replacing ‘integration’ as cultural nationalism grows hegemonic. The nation and citizenship are no longer understood in abstract, universalist terms, but accreting ‘Western’ and ‘Judeo-Christian’ content – where especially gender equality has its pride of place. It is in this context that the Conseil d’État has refused French citizenship to a Moroccan woman because of défaut d’assimilation: « Une pratique radicale de sa religion, incompatible avec les valeurs essentielles de la communauté française, et notamment avec le principe d’égalité des sexes ». The ‘Dutchness’ of Muslims in the Netherlands is likewise questioned, based on the same idea of the nation as a cultural community. (As a side note: while ‘Dutchness’ since the 1970s has presupposed practicing gender equality, equal treatment based on sexual preference is now considered the true litmus test, which is not – yet – exactly the case in France).

While I hesitate to take a normative position as a social scientist, I would like to finish by raising a question. I was invited to reflect, among other things, on the question of “l’égalité ou le communautarisme”, which struck me as a quintessentially French question (or more precisely, a question weighed down by the assumptions of the country’s dominant political discourse). However, on further consideration, I think that communitarian practices can indeed harm equality – especially so when the unity of the community is the nation, since a culturally defined nation excludes as much and as many as it includes. So my question would be: isn’t the idea of the nation as a homogeneous ‘value community’ much more dangerous for the equality of its citizens than the mobilization of citizens for equal rights (even when this is motivated by ‘communitarian identities’)?

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