The French and British have been declaring moral superiority over each other for centuries. The irony is that the French often based their claims on a religion that they would later come to see as antithetical to the very notion of Frenchness. The result is that the French public sphere is today a no-religion zone where all faiths are treated with suspicion, though one in particular is routinely singled out as a special threat to the Republic.
French politicians and intellectuals have, hence, been fiercely critical of British multiculturalism and the competing allegiances between faith and country that it tolerates. The French elite sees multiculturalism as incompatible with the cultivation of citizenship, as a barrier to the integration of immigrants and as a contrary to the inculcation of shared national values.
Their British counterparts typically respond in kind by criticizing the official French policy of secularism, which has led to the stigmatization of the country's Muslim population, Europe's largest. The rash of Islamist terrorist attacks that struck France in 2015 and 2016, leaving more than 240 dead, seemed to provide evidence of the failure of the French model of integration. The country's young Muslims were alienated and, thousands of them, radicalized.
With three horrific terror attacks in Britain since March, the shoe is now on the other foot and the French are once again zeroing in on multiculturalism as the problem across the Channel. Britain's laissez-faire attitude toward the assertion of religious differences, even allowing the existence of Islamic Sharia councils to regulate conjugal disputes among Muslims, is considered by French thought leaders an abdication of the state's responsibility for ensuring that newcomers and their descendants assimilate.
On Monday, the nightly news on the main network of France's public broadcaster asked: "Have the British gone too far in the name of tolerance?" The France 2 reporter, adopting a somewhat incredulous tone, described a country where "communities co-habitate, but do not necessarily mix." Where "secularism does not exist, while the Islamic veil in all its forms is accepted in schools, public hospitals and government offices. Islamic tribunals are also legal."
To be fair, the hook for the report was British Prime Minister Theresa May's own declaration, in the wake of Saturday's attack in London's Borough Market area, that "we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom." Still, as much as British Conservatives regularly question their own country's faith in multiculturalism, few would go as far as the French in condemning it outright. Not even France's pro-diversity new President, Emmanuel Macron, would dare to advocate rolling back the state ban on the hijab in public schools. And, in a signature speech last October, he declared it France's mission to ensure that "French Muslims are proud of being French before being proud of being Muslim."
The truth is that neither the French nor British model of integration has been a success. But neither model in itself is to blame for the radicalization of young Muslim men, and some women, that has occurred within each country's borders. Ethnic minorities face systemic racism in both France and Britain. These young men often become radicalized not because they are Muslims, then, but in reaction to the racism of which they, their friends and their families are victims. I'm not suggesting this is universally the case. There are radical imams in both countries who actively seek out vulnerable young minds to warp.
British writer Kenan Malik, the author of Multiculturalism and Its Discontents, argued in The Guardian in the wake of the November, 2015, terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 that an ideal integration policy would "marry the beneficial aspects of [the French and British] approaches – celebrating diversity while treating everyone as citizens, rather than as simply belonging to particular communities. In practice, though, Britain and France have both institutionalized the more damaging features – Britain placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, France attempting to create a common identity by treating those of North African origin as the Other."
France and Britain have both experienced repeated attacks since, with each country focusing far more in the aftermath on strengthening security measures and identifying potential terrorists than on addressing the alienation of young minorities in their midst. Instead of criticizing the other's model of integration, France and Britain would each be better off fixing the flaws in their own.