Multiculturalism in Germany and France: How do they differ?

The theme of multiculturalism is a relatively new one and does in fact have a lot in common with immigration. Recent laws concerning the latter have allowed people to almost freely choose where they want to live in the world. This has of course resulted in certain areas becoming densely populated with people of very different backgrounds, which we would call a “multicultural” society. I personally live in London, which is very multicultural in parts, especially towards the east of the capital. I study at the University of Durham, which I would not call particularly multicultural at all, in comparison with other universities and cities that I have visited. However we are not here to discuss how multicultural England is, rather France and Germany, whose languages I currently study.

It is well known that metropolitan France has many immigrants (it is estimated by the French national institute of statistics that almost 20% of people living in France descend from immigrants), but how well exactly have they integrated into society? Many of the immigrants in France come from North Africa and they are known as “Maghrébines.” These people do not seem to have congregated in any particular area in France, rather they have spread out all over the country. Over a quarter of the population of the department of Seine-Saint-Denis (to the northeast of Paris) are immigrants, which represents the highest percentage in the whole of France. This shows that immigrants in France have refused to seclude themselves entirely from French society by all living in one particular place, however whether or not they are integrating themselves within their small societies is open to debate.

A woman wears the French flag as a face covering.
A woman wears the French flag as a face covering.

A large problem with immigration that exists all over the world at the moment is that of religion. It seems to be very difficult for people of different religions to blend together readily as the lives they live are so totally different. France has a long history of “laicism” (not to be confused with secularity), while many “Maghrébines” come from strong Islamic backgrounds, and so of course there are going to be problems. Laicism, which “is a concept denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs,” is deeply bedded in French history and tradition, and so these have clashed (not violently, yet) with the incommensurable beliefs and customs of the Islamic people who have settled there. The issue of the burqa and the niqab, for instance, both of which were banned from being worn in public in 2010, has highlighted many cultural issues. Although the niqab has absolutely no cultural basis in Islam, that did not stop many demonstrations taking place to oppose the law.

The key argument against these kinds of face coverings states that they represent a security risk (being unable to see someone’s face obviously prevents them from being identified). However another argument which is often forgotten, is that in the Western world social interaction and communication relies on facial recognition and expression, and covering one’s own face therefore prevents real integration into society. There is clearly no basis in the argument that the ban on face coverings is a racist movement, however this seems to be what several critics have argued. Many imams have even spoken out in support of the ban, suggesting that facial coverings have no place in French society, a country where women have been able to vote since 1945.

So if the full facial covering holds no truth in Islam, why then do women continue to wear it? Unfortunately this seems to be a very complex and controversial topic, with suggestions of male domination and Islamic indoctrination coming to the fore point of the debate. There is evidence that many females are forced by their husbands to wear the covering, although this has occurred more prominently in the Middle East than in metropolitan France. Sexist domination has a long history in Islam and unfortunately is not something that can be abolished overnight. The reasons for forcing certain females to wear such a covering are unclear, although it may have something to do with the Islamic belief in modesty in public places. If these women are married, then their husbands are normally unwilling to let them show their face due to it being considered offensive to show skin in public. As much I’d like to be, I can’t say I’m an expert in this topic, so I best leave it to others with more informed opinions to discuss.

Muslims wearing niqabs stand with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Muslims wearing niqabs stand with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

Going back to the issue of multiculturalism, I will repeat how difficult and complex it is for people of different backgrounds to fully integrate into the same society. Contrasting beliefs and upbringings mean that people are wired to behave in differing manners towards each other and to society in general. For example, many Muslims believe that homosexuality is a disease or a sickness, something which they have been brought up to believe and so which they cannot be entirely blamed for. This belief does not fit well into any Western society, where the treatment of homosexuals is similar to that of any human being and therefore there will be a struggle for Muslim immigrants to adopt and accept the beliefs of the culture which they are being faced with in France.

Racism in France is a very broad issue and a whole book could be devoted to the topic, however I will try and outline certain issues as briefly as possible. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that racism exists in many different manners, from housing and education to employment and public perception. The foreign population are twice as likely to be unemployed as any French native (20% compared to 10%), while university graduates of North African origin are more than five times more likely to be unemployed than those who originate from France ( Moreover, immigrants are effectively coerced into living in certain areas, or cités as they are more commonly known. These areas are characterised by a high unemployment rate, high levels of poverty and poor housing and infrastructure.

A chart in "The Economist" shows where France and Germany stand in comparison to the rest of Europe on the topic of immigration.
A chart in “The Economist” shows where France and Germany stand in comparison to the rest of Europe on the topic of immigration.

One conclusion that can be reached from this underlying presence of racism in French society is that immigrants have been used as scapegoats during a period of economic decline. The white population have experienced these uncertain times and have used the North African population in France to turn their fear and anxiety towards. This provides without doubt one reason why multiculturalism in France has not been as successful as it could have been, with French nationals maybe unwilling (that might sound a little harsh) to integrate the North African population, who have been discriminated against to a large extent.

Thankfully for the vast majority of people who immigrate to France, they speak the same language and so there is no problem in this respect in integrating into society. Speaking the language of the country which you have moved to is vital, and this leads us onto Germany, where unfortunately many immigrants do not speak the language.

In recent years multiculturalism has been a fiercely controversial topic in Germany. 1 in 5 people currently living in Germany comes from an immigrant background, quite a staggering number if you think about it. You would have thought that this would have led to a well-blended society in which Germans freely interact and get on with Turks, Poles and elsewhere. However this is unfortunately not the case, as even Angela Merkel confessed that “attempts to build a multicultural society have utterly failed.” Even though those comments were made in 2010, it is clear to see that they still apply. Surveys suggest that a considerable number of Germans are opposed to the idea of immigration, with 30% believing their country was being “overrun by foreigners.” This damning indictment points towards a lingering xenophobia in parts of Germany and which is being ignored. But what exactly is causing multiculturalism (which has been significant and far more successful in other European countries like England and France) to fail so drastically in Germany?

Many believe that immigrants need to do more to integrate themselves properly into German culture. As any language student would have studied in detail, it is absolutely key to learn the language in order to integrate oneself effectively, and there is evidence that this is not happening in Germany. A public debate occurred between former German president Christian Wulff and the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, who claimed that Germany weren’t doing enough to help Turks, who form the largest ethnic minority in Germany, to integrate.

Turkish-German women stand with banners proclaiming "We are Germany" in mass demonstrations in Solingen.
Turkish-German women stand with banners proclaiming “We are Germany” in mass demonstrations in Solingen.

Another reason for this failure is perhaps the differences in religion. Turks are generally Muslims, however a survey as recent as 2012 showed how differing their beliefs are to Christians, with 51% (of German Turks) believing that homosexuality was a sickness, while 62% prefer to maintain social contact only with fellow Turks. This is clearly problematic if immigrants are unwilling to integrate themselves with the natives and their culture, however the fault must not lie solely at their feet, and it is clear that Angela Merkel, or Joachim Gauck, the current president, need to do something to help the 16 million immigrants that live in their country.

To conclude, we can see that sadly multiculturalism has not been anywhere near as successful as it could have been in either France or Germany, and this is down to a variety of reasons, which have been discussed in brief. Language issues present a minor problem in France and a severe one in Germany, while religion continues to be a thorn in the side of both societies. Complete integration into a totally contrasting culture is very optimistic, however if immigrants and natives begin to interact in a way that helps the former adapt into society, then we are not too far off. Racism has no place in today’s world in any form, and so this needs to be abolished as quickly and effectively as possible, which is sadly far easier said than done. A utopic society in which everyone lives happily in whichever country they want to can only be hoped for, and with a few changes to the deeply-entrenched values and beliefs in certain societies, it can be achieved.


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