Europe's Multicultural Challenge

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.