France and the "Heirs" of North African Immigration

Posted by Angélique Vassout • Saturday, May 22. 2010 • Category: In Depth
In the past few years, the immigration debate in France has become more and more impassioned. A new ministry name, “selective immigration”, plans for new laws, changes in the Nationality Code and debates about deportation are the media’s daily bread. However, in France, this debate can’t be separated from the particular experiences of the several previous waves of immigration (Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, African) and especially of the North African immigration. Arab people, Islam and French suburbs are nowadays unavoidable topics in the immigration debate.

And as usual, you will never hear of the positive aspects (e.g. cases of successful integration), only of the problems that fuel the debate and grab attention. Very recently, for example, the controversy regarding the ticket given to a French Arab woman driver wearing a burqa led to a new project to revise the Nationality Code to remove the French nationality of her husband (acquired by marriage) who is suspected of polygamy and social benefits fraud. The extreme-right parties happily jump on these kinds of stories to demand the strengthening of laws against immigration.

Let’s try to rebalance the debate... What is the reality of the North African immigrants and their ”heirs” (as the European Union sometimes refers to them) in France today?


France and the North African Immigration

France and the Maghreb countries – especially Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco – share special relationships due to the French colonial presence in those countries, which ended only fifty years ago. After independence from colonial rule, “Harkis” (North-African people employed by the French army) and “Pied-noirs” (French settlers in Algeria) moved into France, quickly followed by the immigration – at that time strongly encouraged – of hundreds of thousands of North African workers who came to support the French economic development during the “Trente Glorieuses” (30 years of economical growth that followed the Second World War).

Initially intending to stay for a short time period, they eventually settled in France because French industries still needed them. Taking into account this new situation, the French government introduced a new policy of family reunification, which became the largest source of immigration and helped to rebalance the ratio between men and women immigrants. Their children are now the second and third generations of North African immigrants, the majority of whom have French nationality thanks to the jus soli policy. Today, more than one million of immigrant descendants in France are the descendants of immigrants from North Africa.

The French Model of Integration

The French model of integration is based on two pillars: the republican and secular school, and the universalist model of citizenship. The French school system is meant to be a place where all the future citizens can socialize beyond their families’ particularism. Children will be taught the same language and the same values in a religious-neutral context, whatever their social background is, in order to promote “equal opportunity”. The republican school must allow children immigrants to fully feel French, by acquiring core cultural norms. Indeed, unlike multiculturalism, the universalist model of integration seeks to integrate the individual as a member of the Nation, promoting universal values, regardless of one’s religious or ethnic community.

Thus, in France, one cannot perform statistics on the ethnic origins of individuals (despite an INSEE/INED “Trajectoire et origins” 2009 study). This makes it harder to assess the successes and failures of that model. Some associations argue that it prevents the ability to highlight successes (although less visible) and leaves free space for clichés of violence and sectarianism.


Obviously, the system is experiencing difficulties and, even without statistics, it is well-known that immigrant children are discriminated against because of their name or their skin colour. In particular, graduate students have a strong feeling that they are being discriminated against on the labour market, far from the hopes of ‘equal opportunity’ raised by the republican system.

“Black-blanc-beur” (“black-white Arab”) is a slang word used to describe people of North African origin, Arabs and Berbers. Even though the expression “The Black-Blanc-Beur Generation” was proudly used to describe the 1998 French football team that won the World Cup, this generation is hardly represented among the executives in business, politics or even on TV. Recently, the director of the Miss France committee said that it was time to have a Miss France of North African origin... Nowadays, more and more voices are questioning the system and demanding the introduction of affirmative action as in the Anglo-Saxon countries, in order to achieve real equality and not only just equal rights.

Discrimination affects mainly young men between 25 and 34 years old: when they look for a flat or a job, want to enter a discotheque or face regular identity checks, which can easily lead them to a police station in case they have forgotten their identity papers, reminding them constantly of their foreign origin. Racism is obviously something that can be experienced daily by a North African immigrant’s male child in France.

While Muslim women seem to be less discriminated in these kinds of situations, they might have a feeling of rejection, especially since the veil issue in 2004 and 9/11 in the United States, and now also with the law to ban the burqa from the public space. The immigration issue has become more and more linked with the “invasion” of French territory by Muslim immigrants and their descendants, not only as a threat to Christianity but most likely to French secularism.
North African immigrants’ children are also associated with unrests in French suburbs. The immigrant workers used to live in newly created suburbs that the French middle-class abandoned when enriched, thereby creating areas where immigrants and poor people are concentrated. The suburbs, which are outside of the city and lack public transport, also suffer from the French system where you have to go to the school near your house preventing the republican school system from fully doing its part in the integration process.

The unique cultures of these areas – particular language (“Verlan”, a slang which reverses French words to make new ones), different dress style (jogging suit, “bling bling”), rap/RNB music with critical remarks about French institutions like the famous “nick la police” (“fuck the police”) – are looked down upon, making the integration of the youth in these neighbourhoods even more difficult. Also, the high violence and criminality rates and the 2005 unrests in the suburbs, whose images were seen all around the world, are elements generally used by the political right to argue that these people can’t integrate into French society, and therefore that immigration has to be restricted. This kind of argument, for example, enabled the extreme right to remain in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections.

One major sign of partial failure of the integration system is evident. French people continue to address the descendants of North African immigrants as foreigners, like guests in our country, completely forgetting that it is also their country, because most of the immigrants’ children are born in France and have French nationality! It can be considered as a logical response to feel less attached to France and to turn to other cultural anchors (community, religion, etc.), when people refuse to consider you as part of the Nation, and if the “heirs” feel that there was no improvement between how France considered their parents or grand-parents and them.

Thus, the discourses on the right side of the political spectrum, saying that immigrants must return to their homes now that the French economy doesn’t need them anymore, are deemed highly offensive. Similarly, the sentence of Nicolas Sarkozy “France, you love it, or you quit it”, clearly addressing the people living in the suburbs merely fans the flames.

Of course violence, criminality and infringement to fundamental values in France cannot be accepted. But let’s not forget that the main factor in these neighbourhood problems is economical, since they are areas of concentrated poverty and government neglect. Economic difficulties are often linked with disrupted family ties, which is one of the main obstacles to social integration. However, it is much easier for a government to proclaim the unwillingness of these people to integrate than to criticize its own policies.

... and Successes

But if the system is that bad, and if North African people can’t be integrated into the French Nation, how can we explain the many success stories? Because, yes, there are successes and there is lots of proof of this. One of the proofs is the fact that those immigrants’ children often reject the term “integration” and all discourses associated with it, because it denies their French citizenship. As an example, a picture of a woman veiled with the French flag during demonstrations against the law on the veil has been shown as the representation of Muslim French people, an icon of French Muslims and members of the French Nation, defending but also protected by its values.

Another example could be the large number of mixed marriages (between immigrants or immigrants’ children and French people without immigrant origin) which is much higher than in most countries applying a multicultural model.

Immigrants’ children also usually encounter difficulties with regard to their cultural roots and quickly become foreigners in their own culture of origin. For example, around 50% of immigrants’ children lose their mother tongue. One of the consequences of using French as the sole language of instruction in school is the devaluation of the mother tongue, either Arabic or Berber. However, French language offers many more opportunities in France than their mother tongue, be it in terms of socialization or intellectual pursuits.

At the same time, we can notice that the North-African languages – Arab and Berber – are increasingly being taught at educational institutes. Berber language can be sometimes chosen as an option for the “Baccalauréat”, and diplomas in Arabic language grow in number in French universities, as well as diplomas on Arab culture or linked with Islamic studies.

Famous schools, like Sciences Po, signed some partnerships with other scholarly institutions so that more children from suburbs can get into the college. In terms of discrimination in the labour market, the possibility of an anonymous resume without a picture or name could soon be implemented, but that still won’t solve the problem of facing interviews. Of course, many laws have already been implemented to outlaw such discrimination. A couple of measures are in discussion to avoid the fears and clichés, which are the main obstacles to value the intercultural richness.

What should be the real measure of success of the integration model? It should be the opportunity for immigrants’ children to use their cultural origin as an advantage and to assimilate to whatever extent they are able and willing to. Keeping a link with your culture of origin is supposed to be a right in France and, of course, not an obligation – but it should definitely never be a shame!


The benefits of North African immigration are tremendous, if we manage to get over the fear of the unknown and make the most of this intercultural opportunity. Learning that differences inside a Nation can be a resource, a wealth and a strength, as long as you are able to avoid sectarianism, is the very foundation of a harmonious society. France was a land of immigration throughout the last century, but has France lost its identity? The fears linked with immigration were the same at every wave, and only reveal a short-term way of thinking. The encounter between two cultures always provokes some conflicts and requires some time for adaptation, but nowadays, we just can’t avoid other cultures anymore.

Indeed, on a long-term basis, North African immigration has been one of the main elements that allowed France to keep its high standing in the world, rather than being a threat to French identity. In 2006, the film “Indigènes” about North-African soldiers involved in the French Army during the Second World War reminded the country of the deep involvement of these communities to free France – even in the then heavily racist environment. Even today, many children of immigrants are involved in the army or in the police. For building a bright future, France will depend on immigrants and their children to safeguard the solidarity among French citizens and to protect the symbols of French identity, such as the pension system.
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