Europe's Multicultural Challenge

Friday, March 11, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowChristopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for Newsweek Magazine, discussed the different approaches by the U.S. and French governments to free speech and multiculturalism in the context of recent events.

In France, fashion designer John Galliano may be put on trial for anti-semitic remarks, even though he made them in private conversation. In the United States, the Westboro Baptist Church can wave homophobic signs celebrating military casualties in public, yet they remain untouchable.

The differing legal responses to these incidents highlights the U.S. and France's contrasting perceptions of acceptable discourse. In turn, the cases demonstrate that multiculturalism, or the idea that a society should welcome as many different views and behaviors as morally possible, may have met its limit in Europe. Christopher Dickey explained:

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants; it has a social pact that is based on everybody coming and building a future together, so a high level of tolerance is required. As long as people are looking forward, the ugly incidents are behind you. In Europe, people have a much more static culture. Identities are tied to long, long histories in certain places, among certain races, with certain religions, and it's a much more static culture in that regard, much more sensitive to anything that disrupts the norms. 

Lingering memories of the Holocaust render some European social relationships especially fragile. That's part of the reason French law prohibits people from making anti-semitic comments and other hate speech; there's a legitimate fear of "disrupting the norm."

But the status quo in Europe already faces a huge challenge, Dickey said: the near-certain influx of African Muslims as a bloody civil war rages in Libya and other Arab nations show signs of unrest. Part of the reason for hate speech laws is to tamp down expression of bigotry in the hope of promoting integration. On the other hand, immigrant cultures have a habit of resisting integration into European society, creating a feedback loop of frustration for native Europeans who then feel they can't speak out.

This is hugely disruptive for people who want to live in static societies, who want France to be the way it always was. There are going to be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands more people coming from North Africa as a result of unrest there, and particularly as a result of the failure to bring any resolution or end to the Libyan war....The whole question for the French is, how do you best integrate society, get people together, exposed to each other, sharing cultures but not isolating themselves within their own cultures, and I don't think that's unreasonable at all.

Dickey said that while Jews were the subject of Galliano's offensive comments, the trend in European hate speech is actually toward disparaging Muslims, which makes the task of absorbing refugees all the more daunting. But therein lies another difference between the United States' response and Europe's, according to Dickey. Terrorism isn't so much a concern for Europe as a loss of identity.

I would say the fear is a combination of good old-fashioned xenophobia and a perfectly legitimate emotional feeling that people want to live in their own country, not one populated by strangers. Those are by far the strongest sentiments in France and the rest of Europe, not a fear of terrorism.


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Comments [17]

Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

Really serves Europe right.

Legally punishing people for merely speaking their mind, even when it is absurd or bigoted, it off the charts wrong... its not even a slippery slope, its already done slipping deep into a crevice of government overstep into peoples' private lives.

Mar. 11 2011 10:21 PM
Mike from Tribeca

Amy from Manhattan -- Since the early 90's France has had a law making hate speech against ethnic groups and homosexuals, among others, a crime punishable by prison terms.

Mar. 11 2011 11:33 AM
MikeInBrkln from Clinton Hill

A major difference between Europe and the US is the connection to strong established traditions. What European countries are often trying to protect are the long standing traditions that is at the heart of their identity.

Mar. 11 2011 11:31 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Don't some European countries still not define children of immigrants born on their soil as citizens?

Mar. 11 2011 11:27 AM
Oscar from Ny

These french have a small mind like ny enjoy dissing everyone..specially the jews..its almost a culture for us insult..thats the way god wanted it!

Mar. 11 2011 11:27 AM


Guess you don't get out much...sure, folks that come here as adults tend to seek out their own, but look around at the kids! There are so many interethnic groups of young people hanging around, not to mention dating each other. That's one source of hope for a saner future.

Mar. 11 2011 11:25 AM

what about french muslim converts?

Mar. 11 2011 11:25 AM

Regardless of what country we speak of, no group wants to become a minority in their own country. Even in the US, whites are now morbidly in fear of becoming a minority here, both culturally and in actual numbers. They fear loss of their traditional control of the country, and fear of what may come. Nobody WANTS to be a minority. Nobody. Nobody likes the fear or paranoia of being a minority.

As for Germany, I was born there. I don't care if your ancestors were there for 2000 years, if you are not of German blood, you will never be a German. Period. In Germany, they believe in blood. Period. And it doesn't matter what they say. You are part of the Germanic tribes by blood, or you are not a German., Citizen, yes, but German never!

Mar. 11 2011 11:24 AM
Patricia from FH

I can't believe we're having this discussion. The French are against multiculturalism - well maybe they should have thought of that when they were going about colonizing. They don't want these groups not assimilating to their culture, yet they went to other's countries and forced their culture on others. Give me a break!

Mar. 11 2011 11:24 AM
Amy from Manhattan

To draw a connection between the 2 cases, homosexuals were also murdered by the Nazi regime. Does French law also forbid hate speech against homosexuals? Or, for that matter, against Gypsies? (Note: I'm using the terminology of that time for both groups.)

Mar. 11 2011 11:23 AM
Mike from Tribeca

Why is it that when the media talks about Europe, the conversation is usually at the 101A level?

Laura from Manhattan -- Because Stephen Harper isn't married to a sexy pop singer?

Mar. 11 2011 11:21 AM

It shouldn't be just a legal or corporate question on the level of tolernace, but rather it should start with a basic level of social respect for everyone and every culture or religion on earth. That is also not just a social or governmental issue, but really one that should start with education at home.

Mar. 11 2011 11:20 AM

EVen in the United States and the other "constitutional settler states" such as Canada, Australia, etc., the myth of the melting pot went away a long time ago. It is true that there are those who keep stirring the pot and keep trying to get people to mix it up, the reality is that "birds of a feather flock together," especially in hard times. By and large, people will adhere to their own social, tribal, racial, ethnic or religious group despite what they preach to the public. People feel most comfortable, right or wrong, amongst "their own." People of their own mentality, history and culture. Watch what people do, and where they live, and not what they say.

Mar. 11 2011 11:16 AM
Laura from Manhattan

Why aren't you talking about Canada? It's much closer culturally, yet it has fairly tough hate speech laws.

Mar. 11 2011 11:16 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

We shouldn't make attempts to restrict speech, even of these homophobic jerks, but rather change the laws of access they have to these funerals. Increase the buffer zone by treating them as we would a stalker -- strict restraining orders. These folks are stalkers, essentially.

Mar. 11 2011 11:16 AM
Laura from Manhattan

Why aren't you talking about Canada? It's much closer culturally, yet it has fairly tough hate speech.

Mar. 11 2011 11:16 AM

The French are not free
Women can't even choose their own head covering.

Personally I like when crazy people make noise. that way I know where they are.

Mar. 11 2011 11:05 AM

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