What it means to be ‘Mauritian’ and what constitutes the ‘Mauritian character’?

Conflicting Notions of Ethnicity and Nationality

Walt Whitman’s humbling iconic line “I am large. I contain multitudes” should remind us about the multiple identities that we all, including Mauritians, carry, and yet hide behind identity politics in the public sphere

Trevor Noah, an American comedian of South African origin, recently said in a joke in his very popular ‘Daily Show’ that Africa has won the 2018 World Cup thanks to the contribution of African migrants in the multi-racial team of France. He immediately got into trouble with the French Ambassador to the USA who was very critical of his comment, arguing that the migrants who played in the team were full-fledged Frenchmen.

Trevor responded that there was no harm in celebrating the African-ness of the victory while being French citizens. He deplored that France does not grant duality or a hyphenated nature of citizenship like the USA, where it is possible to call oneself African-American or Asian-American or Italian-American, and so on.

The comedian goes on to say that, when Africans are unemployed or commit crimes on the territory of France, they are treated as illegal migrants deserving to be thrown out because they constitute a threat to the French nation, especially in the wake of the emergence of the extreme-right French political party ‘Front National’, known for its staunch anti-immigration stance, but when the African man scores a goal or climbs up a high-rise building to rescue a baby, as happened a month ago in France, he is treated as French.

The British newspaper The Independent carried the following headline on 11 July 2018 after the victory of the French multi-racial team: “It is no coincidence that, 20 years on from France’s 1998 World Cup win, ethnic minorities still have very little chance of advancing in a rigidly exclusive country.” As if by coincidence, this time in Germany, we learned that Arsenal star Mesut Ozil announced his retirement from international soccer citing ‘racism’ as the motivating factor behind his decision. He said he no longer wanted to wear the German national team shirt because of unfair discrimination, arguing that he is treated as a German when he wins, but as a Turkish migrant when he loses.

This debate about the relationship between the migrants and French identity politics is of significant interest to us Mauritians who have inherited, due to our French and British colonial past, and our Asian and African heritage, conflicting models of integration which, even after 50 years of independence, makes us ask ourselves what it means to be ‘Mauritian’ and what constitutes the ‘Mauritian character’.

Multiculturalism and assimilation

 Indeed, virtually the entire Anglo-Saxon world consisting of Britain, Canada, Australia and the USA, on the one hand, and France, on the other hand, have adopted two different integration models, namely ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘assimilation’ to integrate their immigrants. The USA is often regarded as a ‘melting pot’, but scientific literature is not very clear as to whether it should be called a ‘melting pot’ or a ‘salad bowl’, especially in the days of Trump and strong anti-immigrant sentiments.

These two big models of integration have distinctive characteristics to integrate immigrants. There is a general claim that multiculturalism as a model is the best for integrating immigrants in terms of actual integration; however, multiculturalism as an ideology has come under severe attack (read UK author and political commentator Douglas Murray’s 2017 book entitled ‘The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam’) on the grounds that it has encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, and is responsible for radicalization in the West , leading to extremist ideology and terrorism.

Some argue that the opposite, that is the French assimilationist model, is better, but this model has also been a failure as France has been the target of so many terrorist attacks, and is less effective in promoting social and economic integration.

The French Republic was founded after the revolution as a modern nation-state, universalist and egalitarian, viewed as both a physical territory and collective consciousness in which its citizens share the same rights and privileges. This equality was inherent to all “sans distinction d’origine, de race et de religion”. The political foundations of the French Republic clearly express France’s tradition and desire for the assimilation of immigrants and ethnic minorities into the image of the French citizen. Thus, the French integration policy is mainly assimilationist; the model requires immigrants to give up their collective linguistic, religious, and cultural traits for citizenship, through which they gain equal treatment.

In fact, in France the term ‘ethnicité’ goes against the ideology of the Republic as ‘one and indivisible’ because it refers to communities other than the national community, over and against the state. It is therefore rejected. Reinforcing this belief, state immigration policies do not recognise ethnocultural communities. In Britain, on the other hand, immigrants are commonly identified with the word ‘ethnic minorities’ while in France they are known much as ‘immigrant’.

British policy makers accept ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and they have developed ‘race relations’ approach while their French counterparts refuse to categorize ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and focus much more on antiracism. As theoretical model, Britain has developed ‘multiculturalism’ to integrate its immigrants and recognize immigrants’ cultural, religious and social differences from British people. On the other hand, France believes in assimilating immigrants into its society. France does not even want to give verbal recognition of ethnic identity out of fear that the use of such terms (ethnicity) might encourage the entrenchment of ethnic differentiation within French society. Therefore, policy divergence of these two countries differs significantly.

Today one in five people in France are estimated to be of immigrant origin. Yet despite this amount of ethnic diversity, France sees itself and desires to be a monocultural society. Immigrants most desire a bicultural identity, in which they retain some elements of their ethno-cultural identity while adopting some values of French society. The construction of a bicultural identity presents a challenge to France due to the particular philosophical foundations of the French nation-state and French culture. Given the recent increases in global people flows, a growing number of people are being exposed to second cultures, increasing the potential for cultural conflict (the ban on the Islamic headscarf, for example).

Denial of identity

While Mauritius has adopted a multicultural ideology and cultural pluralism as its policy and we have adopted along the way such appellations as “Hindi-speaking”, “Urdu-speaking”, “Tamil-speaking”, “Telegu-speaking”, “Marathi-speaking”, “Mandarin-speaking” and recognise the speaking unions of different linguistic and ethnic groups, the ‘assimilationist’ strategy in the French usage denotes an “absorption radicale… l’identité d’origine disparait totalement… sans réserve et sans retour.” It also conveys a sense of total “renoncement” of the culture of origin. In this respect, the French notion of assimilation goes one step further to denote the complete denial of any identity other than one that matches the identity of the members of the majority French group.

In a pluralist society such as ours, different cultures come into contact with each other and changes in our behaviour are bound to occur. When different groups present diverse behaviours within the same territory, these differences have the potential to result in conflict. Whether or not these differences result in conflict is contingent on the acculturation strategies of the non-dominant migrant group and the dominant host society.

Some societies, like France, seek to eliminate diversity through policies and programs of assimilation while others may be accepting of cultural pluralism and adopt a multicultural ideology. Assimilation occurs when individuals do not desire to maintain their cultural identity and seek interaction with other groups and the adoption of the dominant group’s values and culture. In this case individuals shed their heritage culture and become part of the dominant society.

Manuel Boucher, a French social scientist, who has studied the race riots breaking out in the French ‘banlieues’, notes “Au nom de la lutte contre la fragmentation de la nation et de l’éclatement de la société politique, il s’agit, pour le nouvel arrivant, s’installant en France, d’abandonner ses valeurs propres, celles de sa communauté d’origine et d’approprier les valeurs fondamentales de la nation française.”

Societal inclusion is an integral part of developing a strong national identity and can be impeded if immigrants are met with discrimination or rejection from the host society. Immigrants who are isolated by the host society are unlikely to be satisfied or productive members of society. However, due to the primacy of one’s ethnic identity as a defining characteristic, pressures from the host society to assimilate and give up one’s sense of ethnicity and values may result in anger, depression, and, in some cases violence. When immigrants feel that the host society is unwilling to accept or support the migrant groups’ value system and culture, acculturation may take the form of segregation or separation.

All societies must find a balance between accepting culture retention and fostering adaptation to the larger society. The lesson we Mauritians have to learn from this controversy around the issue of ethnicity and national identity is that we need to celebrate diversity. Amartya Sen, the Indian scholar, has written a book on identity entitled “Identity and Violence”, which is an echo of the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf’s work “Les Identités Meurtrières”, both emphasising that all of us have multiple identities. It is also helpful to bear in mind at all times the American poet Walt Whitman’s humbling iconic line “I am large. I contain multitudes,” which is a reference to the multiple identities that we all, including Mauritians, carry, and yet hide behind identity politics in the public sphere.


* Published in print edition on 3 August 2018

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