Ghettoizing Identity

Citizen, Immigrant, Professional, Political Activist; Why Should We Accept Being Reduced to Only One of Our Dimensions?

A French Immigrant displays a plea for acceptance to Nicolas Sarkozy: “Each time someone is humiliated, is persecuted, is oppressed, he immediately becomes French” | Photo: Jean Pierre Deveaux

Once, as I picked up the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen at his hotel, the receptionist asked me if I was his driver. After hesitating, I nodded yes. Among my various identities that day, that of driver was the most obvious to him.

This sense of multiple identities is something that Sen himself highlighted mischievously in his book Identity and Violence: “The same person can be, for example, a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God invented Darwin to test the gullible.”

Only a minimum of introspection shows that our difficulty in answering the question “Who am I?” arises from the complexity of distinguishing between our many identities. Who am I, indeed, and why should I accept people reducing me – and the richness of my identity – to only one of its dimensions?

Yet such reductionism lies behind one of today’s dominant concepts, multiculturalism.  According to this concept, one of our identities must prevail above all others, serving as the sole criterion for organizing society into distinct groups.

Nowadays, we are often told that there are only two ways for people to integrate into a society: the “British” model of cultural pluralism, and the “French” model, based on acceptance of Republican values and, above all, the concept of equality.

According to the conventional wisdom, Britain’s social model is based on coexistence between different communities, with each continuing to observe its conventions and customs while respecting the country’s laws – an informal federation of communities. But in fact it means much more. British law grants immigrants from all the Commonwealth countries something extraordinary: the right to vote in British elections, even national ones.

Citizens know by experience that democracy does not consist in universal suffrage alone, but also requires a public sphere that is equally open to all. In the United Kingdom, a large group of immigrants share with native Britons the right to participate in public debates on all matters of general interest, whether local or national.

Because fundamental equality is granted in this way, the British system manages to cope better than others do with a greater expression of distinctive identities.

Nowadays, however, Britain’s government itself seems to be forgetting these bedrock conditions by trying to satisfy particular desires for public recognition by officially promoting things like state-subsidized denominational schools. This is regrettable, according to Sen, because it leads to people giving one of their identities – religious, say, or cultural – priority over all others at a time when it is essential that children broaden their intellectual horizons.

By embracing the kind of separatism that such schools represent, the British are now saying, “This is your identity and you can have nothing else.” This is communitarianism, not multiculturalism.

In the last few years, the “French model” has also been subjected to misinterpretation, due to confusion about its basis. Genuine inclusion in the life of society means genuine equality in terms of access to public services, the social welfare system, schools and universities, employment, and so on. Republicanism grants each individual, regardless of his or her other identities, equal rights in order to achieve universal equality. It does not deny distinctive identities and gives each the right to express itself within the private sphere.

The temptation of communitarianism, which the French have debated for at least a decade, comes from the wish to turn the failure of genuine equality into something positive. It offers integration by default within the differentiated space of various communities – a sort of imprisonment by civilization, Sen would say.

But you cannot dress up failure in the clothes of success. As long as urban areas are socially and economically deprived, communitarianism will only serve to mask the violation of the principle of equality. Social groups are then measured in terms of their “ethnic” or “racial” differences.

Because the social conditions of the “French model” have been so neglected, the model is now a living contradiction of its core principle of equality. To reverse the trend, French republicanism must, like English multiculturalism, contradict itself in order to fulfil itself. The French must recognize that equality before the law is a core principle, but a weak one; it needs to be complemented by a stricter vision of how to achieve equality.

This vision should make republican efforts proportional to the importance of people’s handicap in order to free them from the burden of their initial conditions. Genuine equality in the public sphere – which differs according to the values and history of each country – implies a minimal level of acceptance of a country’s history and values. Sen says that what is being accepted here should be thought of as national identity. But this identity must be open. It is an identity we share by living together and by what we have in common, whatever the differences between our multiples identities.

The great British novelist Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Russian-ruled Ukraine, said that words are the biggest enemy of reality. The appealing term “national identity” must not be turned into a collective smokescreen behind which inclusion becomes a disembodied dream coexisting with the communitarianism that is now emerging from its failure.


Jean-Paul Fitoussi is Professor of economics at Sciences-po and President of OFCE (Sciences-po Center for Economic Research, Paris).

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2007.

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