The Americans do not descend from the Native Americans any more than the French descend from the Gauls. Both nations are in fact melting pots, and throughout our parallel histories, immigration has been, and remains, an essential part of who we are.
What goes in the United States, making up part of the national saga, is far less accepted — or not at all — in France. It is our self-narrated stories that distinguish our two countries, our historical mythologies and national ideologies, far more than any cultural or demographical reality. Although some Americans have recently tended to ignore it, it is a well-known fact that 20% of U.S. citizens were born elsewhere. And if we added on the undocumented workers, this diversity of origins would be even starker. However, it is not as well known, particularly in France, that one in three French people have at least one grand-parent who was born abroad. Another shared characteristic of our two countries is that immigration, despite being constant, continues to stir up resentment, and even violence.
At the end of the 18th century, English aristocrats in Virginia offered a lukewarm welcome to German workers, who then dared to marry their daughters! The first person to comment on this new American nation, in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), J. Hector St. John de Crevecœur [who became the first diplomatic representative of France after American independence], was astonished at the birth of a “new American race” made up of the English, the Germans and the Swedish. What he would make of the current context? We also know that the Irish immigrants to the United States — and Catholic, to boot — were unenthusiastically welcomed in the mid-19th century. They were followed by the Italians, the Jews and the Russians. Chinese immigration was forbidden for a certain time, and the Japanese were incarcerated. We need not be reminded that the African-Americans — despite arriving on American soil before most “white” Americans — had to fight for more than a century before their citizenship was officially recognized. The situation of Latin-Americans is just as paradoxical, as many of them were already in Texas and California before these states were annexed by the U.S.A.
With this in mind, what is an American but someone who has decided to become one, and adhere to the fundamental values of the United States? These values are sufficiently universal to appeal to Bangladeshi, Chinese or Ethiopian peoples, and Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim faiths. And yet, it is common for yesterday’s immigrants to distrust the latest arrivals and those in the future: difference always stirs up suspicion, and all newcomers tend to feel more American than the next. This feeling is entirely human, but gradually disappears as the most recent immigrants prove they have decided to become American through their work and their “acceptance” of cultural norms. That being said, we cannot deny that any new arrivals subtly transform American civilization, contributing their customs, music, language and cuisine. This is how the United States remains both immutable and in constant change. And exactly the same thing is happening in France.
A century ago, the Italians, the Portuguese, the Polish, the Spanish and the Jews were hardly better accepted that the Arabs and the Africans are today. Their presence sparked riots, xenophobia and racist political parties. Few today would disagree with the fact that the immigrants of the past are now integral components of French civilization. But what about the Arabs? Are they “different” because they are supposedly “Muslim?” Let us take another look back. The Italian immigrants in the early 20th century were seen as “black,” while the Polish arrivals in the 1920s had to bring their own priests because the French Catholic clergy refused to say mass for these “funny parishioners.” As for the question of xenophobia, the Front National still employs the same vocabulary as used by the Ligue des Patriotes against Jewish and Italian immigrants one hundred years ago. In reality, the level of anti-immigrant feeling does not depend as much on the origin, skin color or religion of newcomers as on the extent to which the context of their host country facilitates — or hampers — their integration through work and education. As the American economy is more dynamic that the French economy, it makes quick work of transforming immigrants into authentic Americans. Schools still leave much to be desired, but the diversity of the American school system (with its charter schools) does offer young people from immigrant families more paths to integration than in France. The French system is still too uniform, too insensitive to diversity, and secular to the point of being intolerant. Can governments manage migratory flows in order to find a happy medium (and what would it be?) between incoming immigrants, the ability to absorb them, and the reluctance of older residents? No more in theory than in practice, it seems, as immigration laws in both France and United States are unclear, unaccepted and inapplicable. The law of the market — a more powerful dynamic than legislation — will prevail.
The migration of the south — because it is poor and crushed under war and tyranny — to the northern countries of Europe and the United States is inevitable. No wall will ever halt this long march towards hope. Surely the French and the Americans should be honored they attract the world’s less fortunate? I wonder if all Americans are familiar with the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which reads “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” [Victor Hugo was originally supposed to write the lines, but he died too soon]. It is worryingly likely that even many of those whose ancestors passed through Ellis Island are unaware of its existence. There is no such equivalent in France, a country in which immigration is only celebrated in a neglected museum of the Porte Dorée neighborhood in Paris.
There is obviously work to be done to facilitate the cohabitation between well-established residents, known as “pure” (even when said “purity,” is rather recent), and those hoping to join them. This can be achieved through improved education and a better knowledge of national history — a little-known subject in the United States, and sometimes even ignored in France. This result also requires a school system better adapted to the diversity of its students, a welcoming job market — which is not the case in France — and perhaps even the reinstatement of obligatory military service or a civilian equivalent, which was long a source of integration in both countries. But things are not so bleak when considering that the most popular French people are called Gad Elmaleh (Moroccan origins) and Omar Sy (Senegalese and Mauritian origins), that Nicolas Sarkozy’s roots are Hungarian, that Patrick Modiano’s are Jewish and Italian, and that Barack Obama is half Kenyan. Both the French and the Americans are increasingly a reflection of today’s world, probably because our countries are seen as two of the greatest by others. We would fare better by congratulating ourselves, instead of pointlessly barricading ourselves behind an obsolete definition of national identity.
Op-ed published in the January 2015 issue of France-Amérique.