How the French left is reimagining multiculturalism

20 October 2023

The French school year began with a surprise announcement: schoolgirls could no longer wear a popular style of dress originating in the Islamic world, the abaya. Not longer after, the government declared that French athletes are not to wear a hijab at next year’s Olympics. All in all a dispiriting start to the year for French Muslims.


There has been little opposition from politicians on the centre-left. The Communist Party gave the abaya measure its full-throated support. Olivier Faure kept a discreet silence. Green deputy Sandrine Rousseau denounced the ban on strictly feminist grounds, as control of women’s bodies. None of this is much of a surprise. The cross-party consensus against public religiosity remains strong, and Muslims have long felt that they are usually in its firing line.


What was more novel was that one party did raise its voice against the abaya ban, not as an attack on women or as an act of state overreach, but as an attack on Muslims. Manuel Bompard, general secretary of La France insoumise, declared that it “will result in discrimination with regard to young women, in particular young women of the Muslim faith”, and accused the government of exploiting the principle of laïcité “to stigmatise one religion in particular”.


It is not the first time that LFI has used unusually bold language in opposition to the state’s religious policies. This tremor of resistance is in fact the latest sign of a truly seismic shift in the French left’s approach to Islam and multiculturalism. LFI is developing a new language of anti-racism in a specifically French register, and in doing so seeking to redefine republicanism itself.


While laîcité itself is a central republican value with a long tradition behind it, the iteration of laîcité that is cited to justify such measures as the abaya ban is a more recent development. It dates back to 2003, when, at the request of then-prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a young right-wing politician, François Baroin, wrote a report entitled For a new laïcité. He argued that laïcité had become an essential part of French republican identity, that it was under threat from multiculturalism, and that the French left, in signing up to multiculturalism, had made the decision to abandon laïcité.


This line has been extremely effective at backing the left into a corner. Defending French ethnic and religious minorities meant risking being branded “non-republican” – a label generally reserved for the far right, and which implicitly rules out co-operation with and from other political parties.


Nonetheless, it is important to note that the left has been happy to embrace this new conception of laîcité. It helps that it has an apparent historical pedigree. The watchword for the ‘republican’ way of understanding ethnicity and social belonging has long been Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous quote, uttered at the height of the debate over Jewish emancipation in 1789: “To the Jews as a nation, nothing; to the Jews as individuals, everything.” In fact, Maurice Samuels has convincingly shown that this was intended as a riposte to those who wanted to force French Jews to “prove” their Frenchness by shedding their Jewishness. The opposing, ‘republican’ view was that Jewish people were already citizens and the state should thus be blind to their particular religious views. Introducing special rules for them to accede to citizenship would mean treating them as a group apart from the nation. Yet today this principle has morphed into the idea that the state should enforce the levelling of French identity against ethnic and religious communities which, it is feared, might otherwise seek to set themselves apart as separate nations within France.


So what has changed? Alongside the intellectual reasons for left-wing Islamophobia, there has also long been a simpler structural explanation: ethnic minorities in general, and Muslims in particular, are still very poorly represented in French public life. And since they are less likely to vote than other communities – 42% of Muslim voters did not vote at the last election, compared with 28% of the nation as a whole – it has made little sense to take their side.


Now, this is starting to shift. After years of marginalisation, ethnic minorities are increasingly making themselves seen and heard in the public sphere. Some are using this growing visibility to turn the prevailing narrative on its head. When asked, younger French people tend to say they feel ethnic communities get along very well. Countering the claim that religious symbols indicate secession from the Republic, they argue that in reality it is laws banning symbols of their religious identity that cleave them from the rest of French society. Conservative laïcité, in this view, is not a vital pillar of republicanism but its negation, a force that is splitting the Republic into isolated communities.


And some on the French left are coming to recognise this as an opportunity. LFI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s response is a new frame of reference for understanding multiculturalism: “creolisation”. The word is not his own; significantly, he borrowed it from Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant. In the latter’s description:

Creolisation is a métissage of arts or of languages that produces the unexpected. It is a way of transforming oneself in a continuous fashion without losing oneself. […] It is the creation of an open and inextricable culture that shakes the uniformisation of the great central powers of media and arts.

For Mélenchon, the key here is the last line. The process of social mixing will always throw up new and unexpected ideas that will defy any attempt at imposing uniformity. The upshot is that the dominant culture in a society cannot establish a universalism based on its own values and behaviours, nor can it expect everyone else to ‘assimilate’ themselves to these mores.


Strategically, the move is astute: it depoliticises multiculturalism by declaring that culture cannot be controlled from the centre. It is not, Mélenchon claims, a project at all, but a natural, spontaneous and unstoppable process that cannot be halted by any political will. As such, the burden of proof is on the advocates of “assimilation” to show that it can work, not on minority communities to show that they can and will assimilate.


Creolisation represents a decisive break with the idea that the role of the state is to enforce a visible standard of Frenchness on the populace. And at its heart is a quiet radicalism that says: whether you like it or not, people find ways of living with one another, mixing with one another, making a life in common.


Mélenchon has also dexterously linked creolisation with his existing programme, especially his demand for a Sixth Republic. Declaring modern France “creolised” gives him a new means of expressing the same theme: the people of 1958 no longer exists, and the people of 2023 needs to give itself a new constitution. His performance in 2022, in which he won over 68% of Muslim voters, suggests that as a strategy this is already paying dividends.


But in itself, creolisation already amounts to an audacious bid to redefine republicanism. It allows the left to present the right-wing version of laïcité, which has been the the linchpin of reactionary republicanism for two decades, as itself an anti-republican principle. Its own vision, by contrast, represents a return to the original principle of Clermont-Tonnerre: state blindness to difference in the name of republican unity.


Which is not to say it is bound to be successful, and this strategy is now becoming a point of contention within the NUPES parliamentary bloc. One of the most recent flashpoints was the start of the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine, during which LFI was accused by the other parties of not condemning Hamas with sufficient vigour. The Socialist Party-affiliated political scientist Rémi Lefebvre blamed this on a desire not to alienate its Muslim voters. This is probably not a fair analysis, and in itself invokes racist tropes about French Muslims: that they are monolithic, anti-Semitic, and fundamentally violent. But what it does show is that the party’s electoral success amongst Muslims is in tension with its broader aim of uniting the left behind its banner.


Whether or not LFI succeeds in redefining the debate in France, there is something to be learnt here for liberals of all countries. The whole western world is agonising, in some way or another, over how different cultures can be “integrated” into the same society. LFI’s argument is that people will find a way of muddling along unless they are given a reason not to. If it succeeds, it could rewrite the political script well beyond France.

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