Immigration & the Legacy of Colonial Attitudes in Britain and France

In the wake of the results of the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the unexpected result of the U.S. presidential election in November, France’s Front National, a nationalist political party, seems to be riding the populist wave surging through the West. The leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen emerged from the first round of polling for the French presidential election as the favorite over former President Nicolas Sarkozy. While she still remains behind Alain Juppe, of Sarkozy’s Les Republicains party, as French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy puts it, “if Trump is possible, everything is possible.”

The rise of these nationalist movements in Europe reveal a mounting sense of public opposition to the European Union. In a 2015 poll, over 62% of French respondents believed that France should reject the terms of the EU constitution, which had failed to ratify in 2005. This, along with the victory of Brexit further shows that the tide of public opinion seems to be flowing towards anti-EU sentiment. One of the main criticisms, along with other factors, is a growing opposition to the EU principle of free movement of labor and people. This often culminates in opposition to immigration that they perceive as threatening not just the jobs of native workers, but the very fabric of their societies.

By extension, this results in opposition to the concept of multiculturalism. Marine Le Pen has said, “do we want a multicultural society following the model of the English-speaking world, where fundamental Islam is progressing, where we see major religious claim….” At first this may appear as a simple talking point, but her specific reference of multiculturalism as an English institution does more than invoke the Anglo-French rivalry of yore. It evokes the French notion of assimilationism and echoes the concern that France is becoming overrun by Arab Islamic migrants, and the terrorism associated with them as a result of what she characterizes as an English concept of multiculturalism. In essence, such sentiment suggests that the problems that immigration in France has resulted in are partially a result of adherence to a non-French doctrine. Regardless, as shown by the ‘Burkini’ ban and the ban on religious symbols in schools (part of the French secular tradition of laïcité), the French government appears committed to assimilation. To the Front National, Islamism and anti-French extremism occur when assimilation fails or never takes place to begin with.

Understanding the French emphasis on assimilation and the British emphasis on multiculturalism merits a bit of historical background. Before the first immigrants from India or the Maghreb arrived on European shores, European explorers, migrants, missionaries, and capitalists were traversing the world and settling in new lands. By 1914, the United Kingdom and France had carved out massive empires for themselves. The Crown Jewel of the British Empire, the Raj, contained modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma. France’s colonial empire in Africa cut from the coast of Algeria all the way down to the Ivory Coast. The relationship between the colonizers and their new subjects varied in British and French holdings.

While the British did take some steps to end certain practices of the native populations that had been colonized, such as the Hindu practice of sati which required a widow to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her late husband or the practice of slavery in any region that came under British rule (particularly in Africa), overall they were more willing to enculturate and maintain significant aspects of the local system and culture in order to preserve colonial order, as seen in the Raj with the use of the Indian caste system already in place by the time that the British arrived. The Indian princely states such as the Hyderabad State and the Kingdom of Travancore were used by the British as a way to control large swaths of India through proxy actors. Overall, they were subservient to the British East India Company and later directly to the Crown, but they did act with a certain degree of autonomy not seen in French Algeria.

When much of Europe fell to the thundering musket volleys of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, French rule and Napoleonic client states were typically more liberal regimes than their predecessors. As the French began to colonize, they took this concept of spreading French liberalism to their new subjects more seriously with the ‘Civilizing Mission.’ The mission reflected an attitude that it was necessary to spread the French language and culture as well as the French Revolution’s values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity to the colonized populations. In Algeria, the French went so far as to try and teach the Berbers that they had Gallic ancestry despite their ethnically Semitic roots in an attempt to assimilate them to French culture. In Senegal, those who adopted French customs and became generally more Europeanized would form the elite of the local society. In 1852, Napoleon III granted the colony of Senegal the opportunity to elect a Deputy to the French Parliament. The civilizing mission was characterized by a belief that by teaching French culture, language, and customs to the colonial subjects, those subjects could become French in everything but race.

Knowing this, it can be easier to understand why the French and British act the way they do today with regards to how they attempt to integrate foreigners into their societies. With increased immigration to the United Kingdom, British integration doctrine eventually became that of multiculturalism, a policy later embraced by much of the European Union as well. The policy is based on the idea that it is right to embrace the differences between peoples and allow for people to embrace their heritage. Multiculturalist theory lies in the belief that when the government allows for immigrants to retain their culture and their heritage, they remain satisfied and are integrated into the new society rather than marginalized. Seeing as how in the past the British realized that they could use native customs to maintain colonial rule, it is not too far of a stretch to assume that a similar attitude may be present in the belief that if one can retain their culture, they become satisfied under a foreign government.

French assimilationist doctrine lies in the belief that when there are differences, there is conflict. Assimilationist theory believes that if everyone is French first, then there is no prioritization of other identities, such as the Muslim identity, over dedication to the nation. During France’s colonial adventures, the goal of ‘frenchifying’ the local population was to decrease discontent among colonial subjects. It is possible that this legacy impacts assimilationist thinking in France today. To the assimilationists in France, divisions only cause tension and that through embracing French culture, full integration can be achieved. Immigrants coming to France are thus expected to assimilate and to act French, a similar goal to the attempts to ‘frenchify’ colonial subjects in order to integrate them better into French society.

The radically different approaches to integration reveal a fundamental difference in national character between the British and the French. Whether in the context of the Front National, colonialism, Anglo-French relations, or even the EU, understanding these attitudes can lead to improved diplomacy and cooperation.


Author: Dana Cahoon