France Should Look to Canadian Multiculturalism to Address Religious and Racial Tensions Aggravated by Strict Secularism

Celine Caira

As I climb into my Uber on the narrow streets of Paris, I can already deduce from the driver’s accent and name that he is an Arab-North African, likely from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. Striking up a conversation with him in French, he explains how he moved to Paris with his wife four years ago, but that “life here has been tough.” Like many young working class immigrants in France, he has turned to the ride-sharing app as a source of stable income, working shifts as long as 12 hours per day.

“You see, France aims to assimilate us rather than accept us.”

“My wife has a PhD from a top university, but she will never be able to teach. She wears the veil,” he remarks. Probing further, I ask him why the French principle of secularism – aimed at promoting freedom of thought and religion – has so negatively shaped their experiences as French immigrants. “You see, France aims to assimilate us rather than accept us,” he explains. “I have a cousin in Montreal and we are now trying to emigrate there.” As for the reason why, he claims that “Canada is much more welcoming to newcomers. You have multiculturalism over there.”

The degree to which immigrants, such as the Uber driver, are successfully integrated into the social and economic fabric of a host country is highly dependent on that country’s immigrant integration policies. The Canadian and French approaches to immigrant integration offer contrasting policy frameworks that touch on contentious policy issues related to religious accommodation. In France, the shortfall of policy towards integrating immigrants, especially Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, is painfully salient in everyday life, especially as November 13 marks the one-year anniversary of the Paris terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim-French nationals. Indeed, it would appear that France’s constitutionally embedded policy of strict secularism, or laïcité, has served to agitate both religious and racial tensions.

The rising influence of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front party illustrates how secularism has galvanized an anti-immigrant sentiment through the use of divisive fear rhetoric, and has even incited racial hatred against Muslims. This has produced complex policy problems in areas of national security, economic productivity, and civic cohesion, causing many working class families to turn to countries such as Canada to raise their families. For example, survey results from January 2016 show that French civic cohesion is threatened by an “identity disconnection which persists, or even deepens” with successive generations. The results find that “Frenchness is not attributed on the basis of nationality or cultural codes such as language, but visually, to the degree that they look French.” Viewing French immigrants as perpetually foreign ultimately serves to compromise their ability to make social and economic contributions in France.

That being said, tensions appear when the discussion focuses on the question of whether religious accommodations are to be tolerated at the government level. Unlike Canada, France has explicit laws that enshrine the separation of church and state within its constitution. In France, the law of 1905 guarantees freedom of religion in the spirit of the 1789 French Revolution by marking the end of the struggle between the Republic and the Catholic Church. In contrast, Canada does not have a formal legal vehicle separating the church from the state. The closest form of this is embedded in Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which sets out provincial and federal anti-discrimination laws including freedom of religion and Quebec’s “accommodement raisonnable.”

Policy models that promote the integration of immigrants tend to accommodate religious values with the expectation that the greater the accommodation, the more successful integration will be.

In these national policies separating church and state, there is an implicit assumption of a correlation between religious accommodation and immigrant integration. That is, policy models that promote the integration of immigrants tend to accommodate religious values with the expectation that the greater the accommodation, the more successful integration will be. However, a problem arises when certain religious groups are de facto given different treatment under the same religious accommodation laws. Despite the stark difference between French and Canadian policy approaches to immigrant integration, this implicit discrimination is seen in practice in both countries.

French secularism can be selective with regards to Muslim integration, which is sometimes referred to as “laïcité à la carte.” For instance, research conducted last year by the Montaigne Institute found that practicing Muslim males were four times less likely to get a job interview in France than a Catholic counterpart. Similarly in Canada, the debate over religious accommodation of headscarves for Muslim women was staunchly present in the 2015 federal election, and continues to be a point of contention.

Although multiculturalism as a policy may be far from perfect, and is often accused of promoting cultural and ethnic silos, it has been a Canadian success story in terms of integration policy. Multiculturalism has promoted a shared sense of tolerance and national pride among what is, at its core, a country of immigrants. Immigrants who settle in Canada experience far greater social and economic integration than in Europe, and are better able to build opportunities for their children through their economic and educational achievements. The fact that Muslim female Mounties are allowed to proudly wear the hijab as part of the official federal police uniform sends a strong message to newcomers about what it means to be Canadian.

As immigration is projected to rise in France, multiculturalism could promote more widespread tolerance, and even celebration, of the unavoidable cultural, religious, and racial differences that exist between modern-day French citizens.

In its purest form, Canada’s multiculturalism policy may not work in the French context, since secularism is deeply ingrained within French social and legislative culture. However, France could learn from Canada’s success, and consider allowing for more religious tolerance at the state level. Doing so could help to avoid the use of secularism as a means to mask and aggravate religious and cultural differences between French nationals. As immigration is projected to rise in France, multiculturalism could promote more widespread tolerance, and even celebration, of the unavoidable cultural, religious, and racial differences that exist between modern-day French citizens. This would facilitate equality of opportunity for those who move in search of a better life, such as the Uber driver and his family.

Celine Caira is a Masters Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Celine is currently participating in an inter-University exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, France. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Honours Political Science, Minor Economics and French Language and Literature from McGill University. Celine is also a Senior Producer for the current affairs radio program Beyond the Headlines. Her academic and career oriented interests include immigration and free movement, intergovernmental relations, municipal affairs, and housing and transit policy.

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One response to “France Should Look to Canadian Multiculturalism to Address Religious and Racial Tensions Aggravated by Strict Secularism

  1. Pingback: PPGR Morning Briefing – November 17, 2016 | The Public Policy & Governance Review·

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