Assimilate or Die

Do the French riots portend a coming cultural backlash against globalization?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

About 130 years ago, Josiah Strong, celebrated evangelical preacher and a chief ideologue of American empire, offered a stark choice to the “inferior races” the United States would encounter as it fulfilled its “manifest destiny” across the seas. Their only hope would be a “ready and pliant assimilation” to the wishes of the new, “peculiarly” vital and aggressive Anglo-Saxon-Christian civilization bursting forth from the United States. Assimilate or die — in Strong’s terminology, become “extinct” — those were the only alternatives for the weaker races in what Strong, in most respects no fan of Charles Darwin, believed was a contest that could only be described as the “survival of the fittest.”

At the same historical moment, France was defining its own imperial and nationalist identities, based on the concept of “assimilation” to a republican consensus founded on liberté, egalité and fraternité. For those deemed truly French (vrais français) — from Brittany to the Basque regions, from the Germanized-Moselle to the Italian-speaking Savoie — innumerable distinct ethnic and regional identities could be subsumed in the citizen and his beloved republic.

Outre mer, across the sea, in France’s colonies, the choice was to be much starker. While the official goal of French colonial policy, particularly in Algeria, was the “assimilation” of Muslims into modern French culture, in practice the two communities were kept largely separate. Just as today in France’s urban areas, there was virtually no mixing between European and Muslim populations. A recent description in the French daily Liberation could (with minor changes) describe either era: “The paths of the people of the cités and of the graduates of the elite School of National Administration never cross.” Rather, Strong’s admonishment to assimilate meekly or die was the reality the conquered faced. Resistance, as the saying goes, was futile, except at the cost of millions of lives.

At the turn of the twentieth century large numbers of the colonized began migrating to their autre mère — France — to work at the kinds of jobs the French, facing a severe labor shortage, didn’t want to do. Not surprisingly, the republican ideal of equality for all citizens remained a distant dream. Indeed, the binary and hierarchical divisions of French colonialism only intensified in the mother country. There, the danger that the vrais français might be contaminated by the backward and (even today in the view of Interior and Religion Minister Nicolas Sarkozy) not-fully-human Other, was that much greater. Indeed, the republican ideals of liberty and equality, when adopted by immigrants from the colonies, threatened both French rule abroad and white supremacy at home. Segregating immigrants into ghettos, where they could be better monitored by security forces specifically created for such purposes, seemed an effective solution.

The policy hasn’t worked. The last two weeks have laid bare how a century of faux promises of republican equality have produced what no less an authority than French President Jacques Chirac has described as a “reign of soft terror” and dead-end lives in the banlieues. As he admits, such a situation cannot but lead the ghetto young “to revolt” every generation or so. What has made this most recent revolt so much more intense than the “intifadah of the cities” of a generation ago is precisely that it is occurring in the context of France’s slow, painful incorporation into the neoliberal globalized order of things.

However historically unprecedented its supporters believe globalization to be, it is more accurately understood as an expansion and amplification of processes that were born in the last great era of global integration — that of European high imperialism in which France’s Republican identity was shaped. What gives contemporary globalization its special disintegrative force, however, is the way it weakens the protective power of the nation-state which, until recently, acted as a buffer (however problematic) against the “assimilation” of whole societies into the global economic and cultural order.

Translated into the French situation, this means that a government continually accused of presiding over a “bloated welfare state” actually has increasingly less funds at its disposal to spend on the kinds of reconstruction and amelioration programs once again being promised to the inhabitants of the banlieues in hopes of quelling the current violence. Indeed, in France as in most countries, the state is constantly forced to choose between spending shrinking resources on addressing urgent inequalities or continuing to provide an acceptable level of services to, in France’s case, millions of petite-bourgeois citizens and retired functionaires (state employees) who are only a few euros away from moving to the extreme right and into the embrace of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National.

As the French historian Emmanuel Todd pointed out recently in Le Monde, the immigrants and petite bourgeoisie, who otherwise have “profoundly divergent interests,” together produced the stunning “no” vote on the European Union Constitutional referendum, precisely because both saw the Constitution as forcing France along a neoliberal path not faintly in their interests. But as Interior Minister Sarkozy’s comments at the start of the violencehe advocated, in language reminiscent of Saddam or Milosevic, “karcherising,” or sandblasting the “racaille,” or sub-human scum, from the banlieue–laid bare, neoliberal globalization has a nasty habit of intensifying the prejudices and suspicions alternatively nurtured and suppressed by France’s republican-nationalist ideology.

In fact, Sarkozy’s language makes even more sense when we recognize that, in the present advanced era of globalization, the order is no longer “assimilate or die,” but rather (as a New York Times editorial described it years ago), “dominate or die.” In this zero-sum context, the refusal of the banlieues’ Muslim inhabitants to “readily and pliantly assimilate” to either the republican or the neoliberal order has left the forces of law and order little choice but to (threaten to) cleanse them from the body politic. How else are the true French to retain some semblance of their thirty-five hour work-week and generous retirement benefits?

If globalization produces many economic dilemmas, it creates cultural crises no less potent in their threat to the status quo. As a recent article in Liberation argued, “The French model” in which people have “to forget their identity” to assimilate “cannot survive globalization.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Decades of discriminatory assimilationism have produced, geographically at least, a “ghetto Islam” that is now viewed as a primary breeding ground for al-Qa’eda’s global jihadis. But if the violence of the last two weeks has revealed anything positive, it is how unsuccessful extremist Muslim groups have been in significantly penetrating the urban youth culture of the banlieues. Islam is not the problem, then; rather the problem is that the majority of the residents of the banlieues are Muslim and/or black, and have been discriminated against on account of this for the entire history of the Republic.

Muslims might be physically ghettoized, but hundreds of interviews with teenage youth in the French and American press since the start of the violence offer a striking picture of those in revolt: They are rebelling precisely because they still dream of being accepted as French, not because they’ve given up on such a project. (Indeed, how one defines French identity is certainly one crucial issue that is up for grabs here). Several thoughtful French commentators even interpret the violence as a “refusal of marginalization” that reflects a deep acceptance of fundamental French values expressed in the “coupling of liberty and equality.”

That may be. But if French society supports Sarkozy’s push to crush the violence by cleansing the ghettos of their “troublemakers,” the next “intifadah of the cities” could well be in honor not of Marianne, France’s national emblem and the personification of liberty and reason, but of Musab al-Zarqawi and his successors.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.