Book examines French efforts to force assimilation

BOWLING GREEN, O.—France is notoriously protective of its culture. It has sometimes been viewed humorously by the rest of the world for what is seen as its overzealous attempts to fend off the encroachment of English words into la belle langue and American foods into its cuisine.

In the area of cultural assimilation, however, France’s attempt to impose “Frenchness” on all its people—particularly its Muslims—is no laughing matter. It has had serious, negative social consequences, according to Dr. Stephen Croucher, an assistant professor of interpersonal communication at Bowling Green State University. Croucher has written a book called “Looking beyond the Hijab,” in which he demonstrates that the effort to create, through legislation, a homogenous culture among all groups—native and immigrant—has been a dismal failure.

Part of Hampton Press’s Communication, Comparative Cultures and Civilizations series, the book is based upon face-to-face interviews Croucher conducted over several years with Muslim and French citizens of all ages and socioeconomic groups in all regions of the country. Written for both a scholarly and a lay audience, “Looking beyond the Hijab” contains theory and interview excerpts as it explains the aspects of planned assimilation and how it affects populations.

The portrait that emerges is of a country more polarized than ever.

Croucher took as the impetus for his study a 2004 law banning the wearing or display of religious symbols in public schools or government buildings. These can include large crosses, yarmulkes and, in the case of Muslim women, the head scarf, or hijab.

The Muslims Croucher interviewed tended to feel particularly singled out by the law and suspicious of the social engineering motives behind it. According to one woman, a 43-year-old Algerian, “France, the government and the people, want to remove Islam and they want to teach our children Christianity. If our children forget Islam, if the children of Islam forget Islam, what have they?”

The law, which was passed almost unanimously by the National Assembly, was the boldest step taken following several years of incidents, beginning with the internationally publicized “veil affair” in 1989, in which suburban Muslim girls were suspended from school for refusing not to wear their scarves. At that time, the non-Muslim community rallied in support of the girls and the courts became involved, saying the display of religious clothing was consistent with the fundamental French policy of läicité, or separation of church and state. But other laws and decrees confused the issue, and the disagreements went on, culminating in 2004 with the ban.

Based in cultural adaptation theory, which says that minority groups will naturally assimilate and take on the characteristics of the dominant culture, the 2004 law’s impact is perhaps felt most strongly in the schools, which are “at the forefront of change,” Croucher said. By forcing children to abandon the hijab, the law thus “forces them to look like the rest of the population. It tells them: ‘Be French in school, not Muslim,’” he said. “Assimilation means you give up who you are. It’s a form of social Darwinism.”

Despite the fact that it makes laws attempting to unify French culture, it is perhaps revealing about France that it does not actually track religion or ethnicity among the population, in keeping with its “we’re all French” stance. Estimates of Muslim immigrants in the country range from 4 percent to 8 percent and even as high as 10 percent in some areas, Croucher said, adding that the number is significant. Around Paris, the great majority of North Africans live in dismal suburbs of crumbling housing developments.

Croucher interviewed 500-600 people in his study of immigrant and minority-group adaptation, asking them what their immigrant experience had been and their experience as Muslims in France. He also interviewed a range of French people for their views of the immigrant issue.

Interestingly, the majority of Muslims immediately referred to the 2004 ban and how it made them feel. For the Muslims, who are predominantly from North Africa, ethnicity and religion were inseparable, and they feared and resented losing their identity.

For those who did want to assimilate, however, the road was not easy, either. Many reported being made fun of for their accent or appearance, even when they try to speak French and wear Western clothing. They also receive condemnation from their Muslim community for “pretending to be French,” and felt they could never win.

In his interviews of non-Muslim French citizens, Croucher reported finding more fear than hatred toward the Muslims. “People are very protective of French culture and very afraid of cultural change. They want to decide what it means to be French.”

In preparation for writing the book, Croucher translated and transcribed all the interviews from French and Arabic into English. “The strength and variety of opinions surprised me,” he recalled. However, it was generally agreed that the climate is getting worse, he said.

Croucher is a resident of Bowling Green.

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(Posted April 14, 2009 )