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Discrimination in France: What to do with cultural differences?

19 October 2021, Michel Wieviorka
Discrimination in France: What to do with cultural differences?

Régis Debray is the first; it seems to me, to be so clearly aware that a question has been asked and to say that a choice must be made. Taking up the categories of American political life, he explains: either we are Republicans for whom the Republic is one and indivisible and for whom in public space there can only be individuals who are free and equal in law; or we are Democrats, favorable to the affirmation of cultural identities which can go as far as claiming cultural rights.

This debate will take a sharp turn with the first case of the headscarf in 1989, which raises the question: what to do with cultural differences? Four main positions arise. The “Assimilationist” position, which is very much in the minority (it will be defended by Emmanuel Todd), states that particular identities must not exist in either public or private life. The second position, “Communitarian,” is not defended as such, but is implicit in the concerns of many. It consists in saying that each minority or community must be recognized and obtains rights, and the public space must be organized taking into account all these communities.

There remain two positions, less extreme. The most classic, that of tolerance, embodied in particular by Dominique Schnapper, believes that cultural differences can exist in private space, but also in public space as long as they do not create major disturbances or disorder. Their place in the public space is subordinate to our universal values. The second position, very much in the minority, which I defended with Alain Touraine and a few others, is a position of recognition; I use the expression in reference to the philosopher Charles Taylor. It consists in saying that it is not enough to tolerate, it is necessary to recognize and therefore grant cultural rights to the established cultural differences. These must not be subordinate, but articulated with universal values - which is the furthest from “Communitarianism.”

You say that the work of empirical sociology brought down some received ideas about identities...

We can no longer think of culture in terms of reproduction. Cultural identities are much more a matter of production than of reproduction, including when they have the appearance of the most immutable tradition. See Rouan Le Coadic's book on “Breton identity:” we can see how the latter is constantly reinvented, which does not in any way prevent her from being Breton. Likewise, the Islam of France is transforming, we see it every day, depending on the public debate, the interventions of political actors, intellectuals, social transformations ... Nevertheless it is still Islam.

In addition, we must break with the opposition between analyzing society in terms of the “rise of individualism” or the “resurgence of cultural affiliations.” It is necessary to articulate these two modes of thought. The push of the individual and his desire for “Subjectivation,” the desire of each to constitute himself as an actor of his own existence is not only not incompatible with the development of collective identities but even feeds it. If we want to understand today what Islam is for a large number of young people in France, all you have to do is ask them the question, they will answer you in one way or another: my choice, my decision. In other words: I am not a Muslim to reproduce the identity of my parents, but because I make this choice, out of fidelity or by converting myself. Personal subjectivity feeds collective identities, it considerably activates their production. And except “Sectarianization” or complete closure of the group on itself, the desire for “Subjectification” does not die out the day we enter into one collective identity or another: people engage, but also emerge from identities.

Do you dispute the idea that globalization is a rolling mill of identities?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, attention focused, especially in France, on the question of the impact of globalization on culture. A first thesis appeared very quickly: globalization is cultural homogenization, under American hegemony. It is the “McDonaldisation” of society, to use the title of George Ritzer's book - which has been misread because he spoke of the methods of work organization. The idea was that we were drinking Coca-Cola everywhere, that the world was Americanizing. In France, a country very sensitive to its national identity, to being a “cultural exception”, this idea touched many people. Second idea, which says almost the opposite: globalization is cultural fragmentation. Hence the logic of community withdrawal, identity closure, withdrawal of nations and cultures on themselves.

But let's separate things. Certainly there is an extension of American culture, but no monopoly for all that. There is fragmentation (it suffices to see the growth of nationalism throughout the world) but also the circulation of cultural identities, globalization “from below,” as Alain Tarrius said about the “ants” he studies ( migrants who, all around the Mediterranean basin, come and go between their host country and their country of origin) and whose action has strong cultural dimensions.

Globalization is circulation and inventiveness, mixing and crossbreeding, and not just the withdrawal or dissolution of cultures. There are other creative centers in the world than the United States; we simply refuse to see them: Brazil for television, France, India, Egypt for cinema...

The virtue of discussions about globalization has forced us to think again about the fact that identities are not limited, enshrined once and for all within the framework of the nation-state. They calmed the debate on multiculturalism, which finds itself somewhat overwhelmed by these identities that come and go, and are part of diasporic, transnational networks.

Did it make a difference?

Developments have taken place, the first being the relative success of measures taken to recognize on the one hand the structural inequalities suffered by women (parity) and on the other the possibility, for those who have a lifestyle that is not that of the classic family, to access certain rights and protections (the PACS). These measures, carried mainly by particular groups, were presented as universal measures; they were not opposed to the universal. On the other hand, the same government has passed, at the request of the Armenian communities in France, a law recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915. Our country is therefore capable of hearing the demands of certain groups.

On the other hand, our country is beginning to realize the need to engage in politics to redress social injustices. Politics cannot be limited to mechanically applying a certain conception of republican equality, and we admit more than yesterday that we must be proactive and consider, for example, policies of equity (or positive discrimination). This is a social issue, not a cultural one. The problem was poorly posed, because it was said to be a form of recognition of cultural particularities, and because we opposed equity and equality, positive discrimination and republican treatment. The right formulation is to say: we must put equity at the service of equality. Equality is the horizon, the goal; equity is the tool, the means to achieve it.
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