Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.
Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.
The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’
Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.
It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.
Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.
His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.
But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.
So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).
We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.
For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.
Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.
He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.
Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.
Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.
Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).
Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.
The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.
This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.
But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.
But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.
This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.
Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.
The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?
This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.
Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.