Paris Conference Examines Issues Raised By Immigration in Europe

Roundup: Talking About History

Lara Marlowe, in the Irish Times (Oct. 18, 2004):

The presence of large numbers of immigrants will continue to pose intractable policy questions for Ireland and Europe, a conference in Paris was told yesterday.

The symposium on The Multi-cultural Society, held at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, heard how Muslims in the US today are subject to prejudice and suspicion similar to what the Irish experienced in Britain in the 1970s.

"The majority of immigrants come from countries that have experienced colonialism," Ms Carol Coulter, legal affairs correspondent of The Irish Times, said. "Language, culture and religion assumed special importance for them. They take this with them into exile."

Prominent historian of Algeria, Prof Benjamin Stora, said Algerians began emigrating to France in the 1920s. Early opponents of the French presence in Algeria often referred to Ireland in explaining the need for an anti-colonial struggle.

"France does not think of itself as a country of immigrants or a multi-cultural society," Prof Stora said. Jacobinist centralism, the legacy of the French revolution, created a sacrosanct belief that public schools should assimilate immigrants into the Republic.

But Algerian immigrants have not assimilated like earlier waves of Polish and Italian immigrants, though they eventually abandoned the "myth of return" to their country of origin.

All studies of immigrants show a similar phenomenon, he added. "After 20 or 30 years, they never return. The third generation (in exile) doesn't leave, but it looks for its identity."

In France, this search for identity has resulted in demands for Muslim cemeteries, the right to slaughter animals in accordance with halal rules, and the building of mosques.

Prof Declan Kiberd, the head of the Department of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin, said the Algerian experience in France "would open echos for Irish people in Britain". Like third generation Algerians, descendants of Irish emigrants to Britain are now undergoing "a tremendous cultural revival", Prof Kiberd said.

"A couple of years ago, there were 17 different plays by Irish people on stage in London. They too are coming to terms with their double identity. They too had a myth of return."

Prof Kiberd said the problem of dual identity "has not really been solved by any overseas Irish community".

Prof Kiberd disagreed with his colleague, Prof Attracta Ingram, a political theorist at UCD, on the best approach to immigrant rights. He described himself as "an unreconstructed multi-culturalist" who believes that "everybody should be allowed to practice their traditions in the public sphere"....

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