On the question of how to deal with diversity, France seemingly occupies a unique position. There is little space for ‘diversity’ in its public sphere. Under the banners of républicanisme and laïcité, French politicians suggest that all citizens are politically equal, irrespective of religion, customs, background, etc. (all considered ‘private’ matters). French policy-makers care little about the religious and ethnic backgrounds of citizens; it is with disbelief that they discover that such characteristics are formally registered by the state in other countries.
Many French politicians take pride in their country’s ‘exceptionalism’ and claim that the neutral public sphere (or at least one without ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols) leads to a more harmonious society than the communitarian approach favoured by Anglophone countries. My own country, the Netherlands, is often portrayed as the very opposite of France, as a country that pursues ‘multicultural’ policies that grant public space and recognition to religious and ethnic groups. Quelle horreur !
As a researcher, I must admit that I am often surprised by politicians who focus on discursive di erences between countries, as discourse seems so often divorced from what is actually happening on the ground. I don’t mean here that ‘we’ don’t live up to our ideals (although this might be true as well). My claim, rather, is that politicians routinely misunderstand the character of their own ideals. Let me explain.
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