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Identity, Culture, and Politics: the other and the self in France

Abstract and Keywords

Ambiguous, yet proliferous, the concept of identity has taken an important place in the analysis of individuals, groups, and nations. The chapter introduces the literature on identify formation and identity politics, and clarifies why French political and sociological tradition has long rejected group identity as a notion that conflicts with the universalist understanding of the state. However, it also shows how recent studies have been influenced by the rich development of the literature on identity politics abroad and how France is now moving beyond the representative case of a universalist state. It discusses how the debate on identity has been shaped, with “national identity” on one hand, and the identity of the Other on the other hand, and how the question of identity has been crystallized on Islam. It demonstrates that French scholarship on identity is increasingly integrated into a larger scholarly community on transnational politics and practices.

Keywords: Identity, group, belonging, ethnicity, nation, universalism, immigration, Islam, laïcité, transnationalism

The social sciences and humanities have surrendered to the word ‘identity’ […]. [T]his has both intellectual and political costs,” wrote Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper (2000: 1). They argued, “identity tends to mean too much (when understood in a strong sense), too little (when understood in a weak sense) or nothing at all (because of its sheer ambiguity).” (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). Ambiguous yet proliferous, the concept of identity has taken an important place in the analysis of individuals, groups, and nations. Individuals assert themselves within a group and/or without, and develop a consciousness of belonging. Groups construct boundaries, build solidarities, and define interest where identity becomes a strategy for action. Nations share historical references to elaborate a narrative that is at the core of the construction of an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1983). Studies on race, ethnicity, gender, communities, nations, and nationalism all focus on identities that are “essentialized,” constructed, institutionalized, and negotiated for political purposes. The arguments are framed within the so-called “identity politics” that has given legitimacy to the recognition and representation of all fragments of identities emerging and engaging a collective action in the public sphere (Taylor, 1992).

In the 1960s and 1970s, American social sciences related the question of identity to race and ethnicity. European social sciences started to use the same terms in the 1980s with regard to the settlement of postcolonial and post-war migrants. The use of the term “identity” has been a source of controversy, sometimes spawning conflicts and sometimes contributing to them. Its evolution has led to comparative sociology and politics, where the content of the concept changes from one society to the other according to expressed ideologies, political traditions, and social realities. French political and sociological tradition, for example, has rejected group identity that is associated with (p. 82) the recognition of ethnic groups as a notion that conflicts with the universalist understanding of the French nation state. The republican principle excludes racial and ethnic definition of citizens; instead the state and its institutions become the locus of analysis of social relations. Inspired by the Durkheimian tradition of “social link”—whether inter-ethnic, inter-racial, or inter-religious—all social relations are analyzed through the prism of state institutions (Durkheim, 1915). Such an approach has privileged issues pertaining to national identity and state formation over particular identities and group mobilizations.

Nevertheless, recent studies in France have been influenced by the rich development of the literature on identity politics abroad and discuss concepts such as minority, community, and ethnicity. It is now obvious that beyond the representative case of a universalist state, France offers a more complex picture of a country with different identities—gender, ethnic, religious, linguistic—expressed in the public sphere and mobilized for recognition before the state. They challenge the unitarian character of the nation, which according to Weber is the only political community born of modernity.

This chapter will focus on how the concept of “identity” has been settled in French social sciences over time and circumstance, and how it has affected the French vocabulary. After a selective review of the general literature on the concept of identity, and the different theoretical and methodological approaches used in comparative perspective, the second section will turn to the French case. It will show how the term “identity” has been associated with the concepts of ethnicity, minority, and community, with reference to culture, religion, and nationality. It will show how the question of identity has been crystallized on Islam, the religion of the majority of postcolonial migrants, and how mobilization of Muslims for public recognition has challenged the established and unquestioned French secularism (laïcité) along lines of citizenship and nationhood. It will also highlight how the rise of the National Front—the French extreme-right party—has contributed to shape the debate on identity, with “national identity” on one hand, and the identity of the “Other” on the other hand. Finally, the third section of this chapter will focus on transnational mobilization forces in Europe and how they impact on the agenda of future studies of identities in France. It will show how this new dynamic has generated new power relations between states and identities beyond borders. Such an evolution raises the question of future studies on identities creating different paradigms in the context of globalization and challenging studies on multiculturalism and “identity politics,” where previous study had been limited to democratic nation states.

The Question of Identity

Disciplinary boundaries (psychology, anthropology, political sciences, and sociology) and methodological approaches compete in the study of identity. Scholars note that in the 1950s the psychologist Erik Erikson set the ground for the study of “identity” in terms of “identity crises,” and referred to individual identification with the social and (p. 83) cultural environment, setting therefore the ground for the understanding of identity in terms of collective identity. This concept was readily adopted by social scientists, for it provides a useful frame with which to analyze the assertion of individual identity in social and political realms. Interpretation varies, however, on how this process of identity formation occurs in different national contexts.

Identity Formation

Almost all studies emphasize the constructivist approach to identity, which, according to Brubaker and Cooper, is “an attempt to soften the term, to acquit it of the charge of ‘essentialism’, by stipulating that identities are constructed, fluid and multiple” (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000: 1). As a matter of fact, while essentialists contend that groups have natural origins and are organized around a common language and a set of customs and beliefs, constructivists relate identity to a strategy that is developed in group formation and collective action. With regard to group identity, Harold R. Isaacs defines “basic group identity” as an identity with “primordial affinities and attachments,” and which consists “of the readymade set of endowments and identifications which every individual shares with others from the moment of birth by the chance of the family into which he is born at that given time in that given place” (Isaacs, 1975: 31). Along with Max Weber’s traditional definition of ethnicity that stresses the idea of a homogeneous group identity based on the belief in shared descent and culture (Weber, 1976), Isaacs asserts that nationality, language, religion, and value system are part of this basic group identity, which he applies to ethnic groups in general (Isaacs, 1975: 32).

Groups (whether ethnic or religious) differentiate themselves from the larger society by their language, culture, religion, or history. Just as nations are historical constructions based on the idea of a common history, or religious groups gather around a common belief, ethnic groups use a primordial vocabulary bound around a common narrative. Such a narrative of identity helps resolve ambiguities and contradictions that can occur with social changes and the transformation of societies (Martin, 2010). As Eric Hobsbawm puts it, “the past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element in ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can be invented. Indeed, in the nature of things, there is usually no suitable past, because the phenomenon these ideologies claim is not ancient or eternal, but historically novel.” This approach gives a pre-eminent role to collective memory and the selection of historical elements that are essential to create a common narrative for a group (Halbwachs, 1992).

Anthropologist Fredrik Barth has introduced the concept of boundaries to analyze differences between cultures and group identities. He argues that boundaries persist despite the mobility of individuals and “changing participation and membership”(Barth, 1969). For him the organization of co-ethnics around a shared identity results from their will to differentiate themselves from others. He laid the emphasis on group relations, and highlighted the selective dimension of identity formation. However, Herbert Gans with the notion of “symbolic ethnicity” (Gans, 1979) or Mary C. Waters who developed (p. 84) the concept of “ethnic options” (Waters, 1990) showed that boundaries are themselves the result of social interactions, practices, and discourses (see e.g. Zolberg and Woon, 1999). They are, therefore, in perpetual formation and transformation.

Recent studies show moreover that group boundaries are also mobile and fluid, and constitute just one element of differentiation among groups’ identities that varies in time and space. Identities that are defined within group boundaries are redefined and affirmed in action and interaction, and change with the cultural, social, and political environment. So the concept of identity is a dynamic one. These identities that confront each other and affirm themselves are negotiated as well; the more so as they are expressed in terms of interest and rights (Kastoryano, 2002). Even nations take account of the expectations of social groups within their national boundaries. They are in competition with other nations and need to anticipate the process of globalization, as well as the new challenges they may face within their borders.

Identity Politics

Identities are also shaped through mobilization and the expression of interest in connection with the changing environment. In particular, the Civil Rights movement in the United States opened new avenues for political strategies. The African-American movement, and subsequently other ethnic movements for which it served as a template, was concerned with an assertion of individual identity that was readily, if facilely, transposed to the group level. Since then, attention to ethnicity in the public space and in politics has affected a large part of populations of every cultural, religious, and racial origin (Glazer, 1983). The abundant literature on the subject emphasizes the link between religion, nationality, race, and class (Banton, 1977; Rex, 1986; Smith, 1986), and some researchers go as far as to define ethnicity as the combination of these elements. Identities in this perspective are a resource for political mobilization. Social demands such as class interest for example have become associated with culture or identity, and have generated new divisions in societies, where ethnicity can replace class interest and membership (May, 2011). Along the same lines, the raising of a common women’s consciousness was instrumental in shaping the 1970s Women’s Liberation movement in the United States and in France. As argued by Mazur, consciousness-raising groups were crucial in creating a unified voice over women’s rights in the French workplace (Mazur, 1995).

This switch from social or class-based to cultural and ethnic demands was the focus of a special issue of Social Research in 1985. Articles questioned the basis for “New Theoretical Paradigms and Contemporary Social Movements” based on the relationship between identity and political strategy for action (Cohen, 1985). At stake were the new cleavages in society as a source of mobilization and claims-making. Claims for equality were expressed in terms of a struggle against racial discrimination and the social deprivation of minorities. Identity can therefore be an “organizing principle” of great “strategic efficacy” (Glazer and Moynihan, 1975: 15); a “political idea” and a “mobilizing principle” to advance social group interests (Glazer and Moynihan, 1975: 20). It is (p. 85) justified by the collective exclusion experienced by marginalized groups who fight for equality (Kastoryano and Schader, 2014).

Research on identity-based mobilization in Europe first concentrated on racism and exclusion (social, cultural, and economic), in the 1980s. Awareness of differences transforms identity into a political act when it is accompanied by demands for state recognition (Kastoryano, 2002). The mobilization of postcolonial minorities and labor migrants on identity issues, however, brought a new direction in social sciences. In a way comparable to the development of the respective discourses in the United States, “race” and “ethnicity” became important categories for the analysis of (post-migration) minority mobilization in Europe.

Discovering Identities in France

Research on identity formation in France emphasizes mainly the social and economic status of individuals and groups. Family, leisure, and the workplace are considered places of socialization and vectors of identity (Dubar, 2000). The quantitative “Life Story” survey (Economie et Statistique, 2006) showed that factors of identification vary over time and across gender, and social class. The younger they are, the more likely French people are to identify with their group of friends; the older they become and the higher professional status they acquire, the more likely they are to cite their job as a major factor of identification (Garner, Méda, and Sénik, 2006). As for gender and family situation, it was shown that women with children are more likely to identify with their situation in their family than either single women or even men with children (Housseaux, 2003). However, quantitative research also demonstrated that respondents who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants are more likely to declare their ethnic origin, rather than their professional or leisure activities, as constitutive of their identity (Simon and Tiberj, 2012).

Marked by the immigration history of the country as well as its dominant national ideology, research focusing on identity and politicization in France flourished in the 1980s with the presence of immigrants and their expression of claims in the public arena. Immigrants and the cultural processes (acculturation, assimilation, and integration) that they are engaged in have been considered a major locus in which to study identity since the 1980s. Some scholars, such as Carmel Camilleri, have adopted an integration frame, in the tradition of the Chicago School (Park and Burgess, 1921), to study the process of acculturation from a qualitative perspective (Camilleri, 1990). Others, such as Abdelmalek Sayad, have followed Bourdieu’s distinction between the dominant and the dominated, and have argued that the process of identity formation among immigrants can only be understood as operating within the logic of domination: immigrants are refused complete access to national identity (Sayad, 2004).

More recent studies have moved beyond such a linear approach, and have benefitted from the research on second-generation immigrants developed in the United (p. 86) States with regards to social mobility and integration (Portes and Rumbaut, 2001). In France, a quantitative approach to identity formation has developed since the 2000s, and surveys have focused on the descendants of immigrants with regard to their identities. Tiberj and Brouard’s research has revealed that descendants of North African and Turkish immigrants identify themselves with values such as democracy and secularism, just like the French youth born of French parents (2011). Moreover, the Trajectory and Origin survey (Enquête Trajectoires et Origines, 2008) demonstrated that French citizens of immigrant descent express their multiple belongings in ways that refer to the “hyphenated identities” developed in the United States. However, the survey shows also that descendants of immigrants feel that the rest of the society does not always see them as French, or that they reject the idea of multiple identities (Simon and Tiberj, 2012). Identity formation in this context is closely linked to the evolution of French society; that is, the politicization of differences in the early 1980s and the subsequent emergence of “otherness” with regard to Islam.

The Politics of Difference

French society at the turn of the 1980s had been redefined as multicultural, multiracial, and multi-confessional. The use of these terms represented an initial acceptance that France was de facto a pluralistic society. This de facto acknowledgment even became a political argument when the Socialist party, after its 1981 election, legitimized a politics of difference. Government measures promoting social integration were joined to discourses about “recognition” of immigrant culture (Escafré-Dublet, 2014). Identity has become the focus of collective interests. Claims were made for institutional representation based on cultural and/or religious particularities. In 1981, the Socialist government gave associations of foreigners the right to organize on the same basis as French associations; that is, via a simple declaration to the Interior Ministry. This led to the massive institutionalization of collective identities through voluntary organizations and constituted a turning point in the study of identity politics in France.

The differentialist parenthesis was controversial and short-lived, however. Faced with the National Front, which campaigned against foreigners, assigning responsibility for “French ills” to immigration and immigrants and presenting them as a threat to society and French identity (Taguieff, 1988), the state’s strategy has been to turn to a “Republican consensus” (Weil, 1992): a universalist discourse focused on the fight against racism. Research has shown that through immigrant-based associations the state has given instructions for handling differences in a republican state: it is necessary to integrate different identities in the ideological and institutional framework (Kastoryano, 2002).

Thus, political measures have added an identity element to traditional practices, leading to a restructuring of society that transforms social demands into cultural or identity demands, bringing Islam, the religion of the large majority of postcolonial migrants, to the core of negotiations for legitimacy and recognition (Kastoryano, 2002).

(p. 87) Islam: The Identity of the “Other”

Even though Islam is defined by immigrants themselves in terms of practice, tradition, and moral values, it is perceived as a core difference in terms of identity, both by immigrants and public authorities.1 This constitutes a step toward the construction and recognition of an ethnic group because it generates an “awareness of belonging.” This awareness found an institutional basis with the liberalization of the law allowing foreigners to create their own voluntary associations mentioned above. Spontaneous gatherings of immigrants based on interpersonal relations in areas of concentrated settlement therefore found an institutional and formal structure through these associations, and, for some of them, have become de facto identity organizations.

Since the formation of these associations, cultural traits have been reinvented and reaffirmed. While in the 1960s or 1970s research on immigrants focused on their interests in terms of class (Sayad, 2004), in the 1980s their mobilization around culture, and/or religion, and/or “origin” led to studies on the politics of recognition (Taylor, 1992). Associations have then become a refuge, sometimes even a sanctuary, where culture, religion, ethnicity, and national origins have been reinterpreted, have developed, and have taken root (Kastoryano, 2002). For activists, identity can be an element structuring their community in order to compete for state resources. For scholars, participation in voluntary organizations has been a topic of research for the empirical evidence that it provides (Hamidi, 2003).

With the proliferation of associations in the 1980s, Islam became an agent in the discourse of action or reaction. Even the so-called secular (laic and cultural) associations integrated into their activities the celebration of Islamic holidays and practices, like Ramadan and animal sacrifice. Although the state officially does not support religious organizations, state funding for public service and community groups that incorporated Islamic identity and culture into their activities indirectly gave greater public value to religious organizations in the eyes of the Muslim population. From comprising only one component of culture in early secular associations, Islam has now come to signify culture in its entirety and has become another way of “reappropriating” identity (Kastoryano, 2002).

Islam as an identity has crystallized around the so-called “headscarf affair” (Rochefort, 2002). The issue first shook French society in November 1989, when the head of a French secondary school decided to exclude three veiled pupils on the ground that they infringed the principle of laïcité (French secularism). The event unleashed a flood of commentary on identity: the identity of immigrants on one hand, and that of the nation on the other. It laid the emphasis on Islam and its purported incompatibility with the secular principles of French society. Moreover, the debate instrumentalized laïcité to illustrate the distance between France and other secular Western states (Pena-Ruiz, 1999). Public opinion and public authorities were torn between defensive republicanism and a pluralistic liberalism. The political class and a number of intellectuals took it upon themselves to remind society of the basic principles of the republic; principles (p. 88) that constitute the “core of a national identity” and the “way of life” for immigrants in a laïc (secular) country.

The reaction to the Muslim headscarf prompted a controversial debate and several attempts to redefine laïcité. Presented as a republican principle, it has undergone several interpretations since November 1989 without reaching any fixed version, except that it has definitely become France’s “official religion” (Kastoryano, 2005). A topic of debates in the National Assembly, it is discussed in formal or informal meetings among anti-racist activists, intellectuals, and shapers of public opinion. The scope of the polemic is similar to that of the church against the secular school established by Jules Ferry. In fact, it fills the role of foil played by Catholicism in the definition of laïcité in the early twentieth century, and of its function and ideology in the School (Deloye, 1996). Today, Islam is at the core of the redefinition of laïcité, and serves as its mirror.

Organizations on one hand, and intellectuals on the other, have mobilized public opinion to reject the political stigmatization of Islam. They have reacted to a succession of political decisions in France targeting Islam through the enforcement of laïcité: the 2004 law banning religious signs in schools, and the 2010 law banning the covering of one’s face in public space. Even though the 2010 law was based on the principle of security in public spaces and not the principle of laïcité, the law aims at preventing the wearing of the full veil (the niqab). Finally, in October 2011, Interior Minister Claude Guéant forbade the practice of praying in the streets, under the justification that it goes against the principle of laïcité. In a dialectical relationship, while the political and media debate attempted to portray Islam as incompatible with republican values, individuals defending Muslims’ rights reasserted Muslims’ commitment to these values and articulated a claim for equality and religious freedom (Kastoryano and Escafré-Dublet, 2012). In doing so, they reaffirm and assert a Muslim identity that is compatible with the French understanding of laïcité.

As some authors have highlighted, the widespread usage of the newly “discovered” categories of “Muslim” and “Islam” may bear the danger of artificially contributing to the creation or transformation of the social field which is to be analyzed—in the worst case ascribing a religious identity to groups and individuals who might not even have considered themselves as Muslims before (Tezcan, 2007). In France those identified as Muslims (although they may not identify themselves as such) are questioned on their understanding of the value of laïcité. The 2006 survey on French people of North African and Turkish descent was conducted in this context and demonstrated that they are more secular than most people who identified as Muslims in Europe (Brouard and Tiberj, 2011). Although the emergence of Islam as a communal identity in the public arena is the result of state politics, public debates, and controversies, official rhetoric still stresses the “indivisibility” of the republic, and that culture, religion, and identity belong to the private sphere (Amselle, 1996). Davidson shows that the relationship between France and Muslims as developed throughout the complicated colonial history continues today. She brings important analysis to the understanding of Islam in France, and of France in dealing with Islam; the paradoxes, ambiguities, and confused boundaries between “race” (culture) and “religion” (Davidson, 2012).

(p. 89) These contradictions between discourse and action, rhetoric, and practice render the study of identity formation particularly complex: the recognition of difference and an ethnicization of politics are explicit in French contemporary public space, contradicting the official collection of data (Chebel d’Appolonia, 2002).

The Census Categories and Identity

Identity serves to differentiate, and an important tool for that is the production of official statistics through censuses. Demographers remind us that, since 1881, the French census has recorded nationality and has classified the whole population according to three categories: French by birth; French by acquisition (naturalized French); and foreigners. Thus, once a foreigner has naturalized, he or she moves into the column of “French by acquisition” (that is, naturalization) and his or her children born on French soil are declared “French by birth.” The interest in census categories—a support for quantitative research—has been imported to French studies on immigration from the United States. In France, unlike in the American census which has tried to highlight ethnic ancestry since 1880, the national and ethnic origin of citizens has not appeared in official documents. Only the category of “French” appears, which reflects the desire not to make a distinction among citizens. Retaining the memory of origins would be equal to a denial of citizenship (Silberman, 1992: 116). Consequently there is no statistical visibility of any ethnic ancestry in the French census, which therefore limits quantitative research on the issue.

In the official census of 1990, however, a new category of “previous nationality” for naturalized French citizens was introduced into the presentation of statistics (INSEE, 1992). Moreover, the census of 1999 distinguished between “immigrant population” and “foreign population.” The “immigrant population” is composed of those foreign born who may or may not have acquired French nationality. Their nationality at birth was indicated, which suggests the persistence of an ethnic identity separate from that of the majority (INSEE, 1999). This creates an “immigrant identity,” whereby the country of birth is a permanent marker. It is an ambiguous category: it takes nationality as the main factor of identification2 while at the same time clearly bypassing the naturalization process, since the immigrant group identified by the census may include individuals who have acquired French nationality. The “former nationality” operates as an ethnic marker. The term “ethnicity” was not adopted by social scientists at the time; instead they talked about the “origin” of the individual to highlight that it relates to the past (Simon, 1998).

The possibility to record information on the origin of the individual stirred up an important debate on the condition to recognize an identity other than the national one; the “immigrant identity.” Demographer Michèle Tribalat conducted a survey that intended to respond to the inadequacy of official censuses in analyzing immigration and integration. According to her, it was necessary to free social sciences from the “taboo of origins” (Tribalat, 1995). In her survey, she referred to children of immigrants as individuals “of foreign origin,” and she added: “if we want to follow the future of immigrants (p. 90) and their children, we should stop referring to nationality” (Tribalat, 1995). She went on to challenge official census categories by including the categories of “ethnic belonging” and “ethnic origin,” based on the mother tongue of immigrants and their children.

Another demographer, Hervé Le Bras, reacted with virulence to Michèle Tribalat in his book entitled “The Evil of Origins” (Le Bras, 1998). According to him, the use of the word “origin” in demographic classification is a source of racial discrimination. He sees in this vocabulary an assessment of the population which consists of a “convergence between the new direction that French demography has taken and the ideology of the extreme Right with regard to immigrant population.” Such a categorization of generations of immigrants creates another category called “Français de souche” (French of French stock), which according to Hervé Le Bras becomes a way to “ethnicize French nationalism by transforming the French population into an ethnic group”(Le Bras, 1998: 194).

To acknowledge or to stigmatize: that is the question. To acknowledge, argues Patrick Simon, another demographer, has become a scientific requirement. According to him, the statistical invisibility of “visible minorities” ends up concealing discriminations, whereas a reference to “origins” helps define a social phenomenon such as the experience of discrimination and the reality of a multicultural society. Moreover, the “ignorance” of the level of discrimination raises the problem of political action (Simon, 2008). In other words, to acknowledge makes action possible.

The debate was revived in 2008 when a survey on first- and second-generation immigrant integration in French society was launched and the possibility to record self-identified skin color was discussed (Sabbagh and Peers, 2008). After pleading their case in front of the Constitutional Court, the investigators were only able to record nationality-based origin, which consolidated the understanding of identity in France in terms of nationality or dual nationality (Beauchemin et al., 2010).

National Identity

The political and media debate on identity in France is mostly dictated by considerations over national identity, and brought the question of nationhood with regard to citizenship laws—more precisely the automatic access to French nationality of children born to foreign parents—into public debate. It became the locus of juridical, historical, and political research on national identity and nationhood, with a specific focus on the second generation (Commission de la nationalité, 1988).

Research on second-generation immigrants in relation to national identity demonstrated that it is greatly hindered by the debate on national identity (Ribert, 2006). Escafré-Dublet and Simon analyzed the consequences of the official debate on national identity launched by the Interior Ministry in 2011 and argued that an increased interpretation of citizenship in terms of national identity contributes to a definition of “Frenchness” that is ethnic—or even racial—rather than strictly civic (Husson and Jourdain, 2014: 63–80). Based on interviews with second-generation immigrants, their (p. 91) research showed that descendants of immigrants feel French, but their immigrant background—should it be visible through their name or their phenotype—singles them out from the rest of society. It showed that they feel French, but in their daily interaction they may experience a denial of their Frenchness when people recall their foreign ancestry, which amounts to refusing them recognition of the various ways of being French. Along this line, works conducted by American scholars on France have contributed to this perspective, as reflected in Beaman’s work on French society and the difficulty it has considering children of immigrants as full-fledged French (Beaman, 2015).

Moreover, children of immigrants are often suspected of a lack of loyalty to French identity. The whistling over the French national anthem during the Algeria vs. France soccer game in 2001 is referred to as an example of this. It even prompted a political debate around the possibility of banning dual citizenship in 2011. However, quantitative surveys show that children of immigrants feel predominantly French, and if they also hold the nationality of their parents’ country of origin they do not see these as conflicting with one another (Simon and Tiberj, 2012). It is rather the constant debates on national identity that foster a sense of “otherness.”

Finally, a large literature has sought to trace the roots of this ethnic definition of Frenchness in the colonial period. Colonialism provided the basis for a juridical categorization of “race,” mainly in terms of skin colors: “black and white.” This translated into social science terminology as categories of belonging. “Race” or “ethnicity” was also superimposed on linguistic communities as political, sociological, and demographic classifications in colonial Algeria. Ethnicity-designated “local” populations and their “ethnic” communities were also classified by regional characteristics, language, and customs. French social scientists in dialogue with foreign historians of France have argued for an understanding of identities in the French context that is related to the empire (Shepard, 2006). Saada has demonstrated how the definition of French citizenship involved a process of boundary-drawing according to ethnic and racial lines (Saada, 2003). Blévis showed that the low number of cases of colonial subjects who were able to naturalize to French citizenship highlights this ethnic preconception anchored in the law (Blévis, 2004). From 1889 to 1962, only 10,000 Algerian Muslims were able to acquire French citizenship, which shows that the inclusion of colonial populations in the French empire as “nationals” did not mean they were fully equal to French citizens (Weil, 2004: 367). Moreover, this process of boundary-drawing that developed in the empire was transferred from the colonies to the metropole when defining the conditions for naturalization in the post-war period (Hajjat, 2012). Assimilation, as a condition of acquiring French nationality, was defined in terms of French language and manners, which departs from a strict civic understanding of citizenship. The French colonial past and the necessity to regulate the French citizenship therefore deeply influenced French law and contributed to the definition of “identity boundaries.” In practice, this is still very much the experience conveyed through the naturalization process; to receive French nationality is something that applicants consider a reward for their efforts to learn the language and integrate in French society (Mazouz, 2012).

(p. 92) Globalization and Transnational Identities

While identities are politicized in interaction with states, and institutions shape political participation in national contexts, such new developments emphasize transnational identification, which leads to identity claims that are not limited to one state. By definition, transnationalism portrays the bonds of solidarity based on an identity—national, religious, linguistic, or regional—across national borders. The concept is in large part the result of the development of means of communication, the appearance of large regional groups, and the increased importance of supranational institutions that facilitate their administration. Empirical studies focus on ethnic groups settled in different national societies, but sharing common cultural references and/or experiences, expanding their solidarities beyond state boundaries. The groups build networks; some formal, some informal, some based on identity, some on interest, and some often on both, like networks of professional corporations that cross state boundaries. Their scope is broad and expansive with regard to nationality, ethnicity, religious identity, and even denominations. They tend to affect the agenda for future studies on identities in France, as they did for social sciences in general.

It would be almost impossible to cite all the literature on the phenomenon of transnationalism since the 1990s. It is important to note that it is consistent on the fact that the transnational community is constructed out of solidarity networks across national borders from populations displaying a communal identity, whether it be religious, national, regional, or ethnic.3 The economic networks which govern the transfer of funds and goods and the associative networks, across which cultural activities, ideologies, and ideas circulate between country of origin and country of immigration claiming the universality of rights, constitute—either together or separately—the underpinnings of solidarity and transnational communities.

In France, research on transnationalism has referred to the organization of actors and institutions beyond borders, with an emphasis on their economic activities (such as the importance of remittances and their impact on the economic development of the home country (Lacroix, 2005; Geisser, 2000). Literature on mobilization has also found a new ground in transnationalism, with a focus on the analysis of participation beyond borders raising the questions of solidarity, belonging, and citizenship. In 1994 a special issue of Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales focused on the mobilization of migrants from a national to a transnational level in order to detect solidarities within the European Union. Bringing together migrants’ integration and mobilization on a national level, the issue challenges the comparative approach when national contexts become extraterritorial (Kastoryano, 1994). Some other studies focus on the mobilization paradigm on a transnational level (Siméant, 2010) and they show that the trend is not only seen with regard to immigration but to all social and political mobilization that transcends states’ boundaries.

(p. 93) The evolution of French and global social sciences from a national level to a transnational one with regard to all identities—ethnic, religious, gender, class, and professional—is the next logical step from political and economic liberalism. Economic liberalism has encouraged ethnic business. Its extension beyond their local setting is the result of the dispersion of immigrants with similar regional and/or national backgrounds throughout a continent or even the world. Indian and Chinese immigrant groups, despite the cultural, linguistic heterogeneity of the population, are the best examples of transnational communities based on economic activities. The flux of capital and goods is linked to economic norms and a culture of consumption carried from one country to another by transnational actors. Political liberalism privileging ethnic pluralism encourages cultural activities through migrants’ associations where identities are organized and redefined, giving a legitimacy to ethnic groups in one state and leading them to redefine their solidarities elsewhere. Such an evolution challenges the single allegiance required by membership to a political community represented by one nation and consolidated by one state. Transnationalism is then inevitably bound up with dual or multiple citizenships, insofar as it relies on more than one national reference as well as on at least two arenas of social and political participation.

More recent research in France analyzes the vote abroad of migrants holding dual nationality (Jaulin, 2014). This leads to an institutional expression of multiple belonging, where the country of origin becomes a source of identity and the country of residence a source of right, and the transnational space emerges as a space of political action, combining the two or more countries and creating confusion between rights and identity, culture and politics, states and nations. The claim for recognition creates tensions between on one hand states and the existing institutional setting, and on the other the reality of mobilizations coming from the outside fostering a transnational solidarity (Waldinger, 2004).

Transnationalism is not a new phenomenon. Migrants or minorities have always maintained ties with some other territorial references, be a home country real or mythical. Such is the case of the study of diasporas that has developed in the French social sciences since 2000, with an abundant literature—comparative and monographic—on different diasporas; their organization, their relation to states—home and host—and their allegiances (Dufoix, 2003; Dufoix, Guerassimoff, and de Tinguy, 2010; Berthomière and Chivallon, 2013).

Transnationalism is a “global phenomenon” and is studied as a “turning point in global social sciences” in France by Alain Caillé and Stéphane Dufoix (2013). It takes into account the context of globalization and economic uncertainty that facilitates the construction of worldwide networks. Its institutionalization requires a coordination of activities, resources, information, technology, and sites of social power across national borders for political, cultural, and economic purposes. Increasing mobility and the development of communication have intensified such transborder relations, leading to social and political mobilizations beyond boundaries. While the political mobilization of ethnicity for a long time was seen either as a disruptive factor within states or as a resource or barrier for migrant political involvement within national contexts, it is now (p. 94) often studied under the auspices of increasing transnational relations of individuals and entities.

Transnational Identity

In recent years, the formation of “transnational identity” and solidarity has been the focus of much empirical research and reflection on its influence in the creation of a transnational public space (Levitt, 2007; Casanova, 2001; Bowen, 2004; Faist, 1998; Berger et al., 1999; Habermas, 2000; Jones, Correa, and Leal, 2001; Kastoryano, 2002).

In contrast to studies of identity formation through mobilization and political action as a factor which may both challenge and contribute to the integration of national polities, interdisciplinary studies on transnationalism and globalization proclaim the end of national integration (Linklater, 1999; Habermas, 2000; Soysal, 1992; Keck and Sikking, 1998; Fraser, 2007; Preuss, 1998; Ferry, 1991). It has come to be seen as one of the most important markers of identity and difference in European societies (Carof, Hartemann, and Unterreiner, 2015). Regarding the French case, scholars have reflected on the possibility of creating a Muslim identity in reaction against the proliferation of anti-Muslim discourse (Geisser, 2003, Bowen, 2009; Bleich, 2011). The emergence of religion as a relevant cleavage for identity politics has therefore impacted on the French agenda for studying identities, despite the initial reluctance to consider religion as a legitimate basis for religious mobilization. On a European level, Kastoryano shows that Muslims in Europe stress the fact that despite its internal diversity (nationality, language, denomination), it is primarily the case that Islam as a minority religion in Europe is building a unifying discourse according to the experience of “being Muslim in Europe,” aiming to promote a European Islam which seeks to “homogenize” national differences.

Transnational participation thus introduces a new relationship with the state, characterized by “mutual dependence,” to use an expression coined by J. Armstrong; a mutual dependence between a liberal, plural state, and the “mobilized diaspora.” Since diasporas occupy an important place in international commerce in pre-modern states, “mobilized diasporas” are, according to Armstrong, in a position of “international negotiation” of political decisions (Armstrong, 1976). The interdependence gained between dispersed populations and the countries of origin, of residence, and even beyond, is registered in a system of global and complex interactions and is submitted to a process of internal and external negotiations. Transnational participation becomes a means of pressure from outside. It “affects the way immigrants incorporate themselves and alters conventional expectations about their assimilation” (Guarzino, Portes, and Haller, 2003). It also affects the understanding of integration for both ethnic groups (or migrants) and states. Kastoryano showed how in Turkey a transnational participation affects the definition of the nation and the redefinition of nationalism (Kastoryano, 2002). From the state’s point of view, transnational participation opens the field for research on state strategies as transnational actors in order to reinterpret the sense of ethnicity and nationhood (p. 95) beyond its borders, and to act as a “de-territorialized” power to maintain the bonds and loyalty of individual state citizens. This involves states behaving as transnational actors in permanent interaction within a global de-territorialized space or encountering cultural and political specificities of national particularities with multinational activities. It entails a mode of integration of states in the process of globalization.

European identity is also facing new developments and dynamics that affect the relationship between states and Muslims inside and outside their boundaries. In this new configuration, negotiations between states and immigrants extend beyond borders in order for states to maintain the “power” of incorporation and citizenship while expanding their influence beyond their territories and to compete with transnational communities in their engagement with the process of globalization through economy and culture.

While the European project has attempted to surmount the nationalist model, it has nevertheless spawned a backlash from populist parties, which continue to be successful at the polls. Indeed, populism has thrived in a Europe without internal borders. Nevertheless, this space of free movement is also a transnational space of mobilization for advocacy on behalf of national interests and identities. Recently, resurgent nationalisms have brought to the forefront issues of national identity and sovereignty, as expressed through the protection of territorial borders on one side and immigration issues, particularly that of Islam in the public space, on the other. This trend has been accompanied by an automatic reminder of the principles of citizenship and has raised the issue of the competence of states to regulate immigration, which is now viewed as a security issue (Chebel d’Appollonia, 2015). These trends also highlight how populism clings to a particular representation of national, linguistic, and territorial identities. Nationalism is a great challenge for the European Union, and it calls into question the ability of a united Europe to lead its member states beyond their national interests to share a harmonious common future and to form an enduring European identity.

Moreover, present-day nationalism in European member states does focus on national identity through targeting immigration, Islam, and multiculturalism. Consequently, national identities and a common European identity are reduced to ethnic and religious identities. The danger of such reactions of mistrust is not the only challenge to European integration. They may also breed conflict among nationalisms, the populism of nationalist parties, and minority nationalism. Confronted with this rising nationalism, minority populations are increasingly relying on the support networks they have established beyond the countries in which they live as they seek to develop a sense of belonging to an “uprooted” culture, and to participate in politics with such cultural agendas. The adaptation and the resistance of this culture, and even its radicalization, give it new breadth and content that melds nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. In addition, it creates a culture that appears to be “different” from the immediate environment in order to claim a kind of transnational solidarity. The more politically active members of these minority populations highlight states’ “failures” regarding human rights and citizenship and seek to channel the loyalty of their fellow minorities to distant imagined communities.

(p. 96) Conclusion

As we have argued in this chapter, France is moving beyond the representative case of a universalist country. While it is true that it displays characteristic features of a country that understands identity mainly in relation to the national community, in practice identity is also understood in cultural terms. To be French is not only a civic idea; it is a cultural one, as one can see with the November 2015 political debate that clearly points to immigrants and Muslims as the “other.” However, the internationalization of migration flows and the creation of an intra-EU migration regime has brought beyond borders the articulation of religion-based identities, such as the Muslim identity. As such, the increase of an anti-Muslim discourse articulated around the definition of exclusive identity boundaries is met with growing opposition and group mobilization. Despite a tradition of rejecting identity as a legitimate basis for political mobilization, French politics is no longer immune to this dynamic.

The development of the literature on identity politics at an international level and the multiplication of comparative research on France and other countries have contributed to the opening up of new perspectives for research. Mobilizations on the basis of identity, in particular, appear as a crucial topic to focus the analysis of identity formation in the twenty-first century. As minorities in Europe rely increasingly on networks that establish links between individuals beyond borders, research has therefore moved to the supranational level. We can observe a multiplication of comparative dissertations (Belkacem, 2013; Schader, 2013; Vickstrom, 2013), book series (Loch et al., 2012) and quantitative surveys (MAFE project4). The scholarship on identity in France is therefore increasingly integrated into a larger scholarly community on transnational politics and practices.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) In 2008, a survey established that 2.1 million people from 18 to 50 years old identified themselves as Muslim (that is 8 percent of the surveyed population), against 11.5 million who identified as Catholics, 500,000 as Protestants, 150,000 as Buddhists, and 125,000 as Jewish. 45 percent of the surveyed population identified themselves as having no religious affiliation (Simon and Tiberj, 2010: 124).

                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) The census does not ask for self-identification to an ethnic or a racial group, as in the case of the American census, for instance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) It is important to mention that the magnitude of the phenomenon of the transnational subject has given rise to the creation of a special five-year program at Oxford University directed by Steven Vertovec, called Transnational Studies. The program has supported dozens of research projects on the formation of transnational communities in multiple and varied populations in a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              (4.) The MAFE project is coordinated by INED (C. Beauchemin) in partnership with the Université catholique de Louvain (B. Schoumaker), Maastricht University (V. Mazzucato), the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (P. Sakho), the Université de Kinshasa (J. Mangalu), the University of Ghana (P. Quartey), the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (P. Baizan), the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (A. González-Ferrer), the Forum Internazionale ed Europeo di Ricerche sull’Immigrazione (E. Castagnone), and the University of Sussex (R. Black). The MAFE project has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement 217206.