Since the turn of this new century, problems of "culture" and "difference," diversity and multiculturalism, have made their way into public discourse in France. Across a dizzying array of polemics that includes social unrest in the country's disadvantaged suburbs, the rise of the National Front, post-colonial recriminations, and more, voices are being raised in favor of a more overt form of multiculturalist discourse as a means to think through contemporary social issues in relation to notions of race, identity, and discrimination. The integrationist French republican project, wherein racial or ethnic classifications are eschewed on the grounds that they enclose people into essentialist categories, is being outshined, some proclaim, by a more American-style focus on 'identity,' that shows up the gaps in French universalist claims.
In this paper I consider the dualities expressed in this contrast as a means to inquire into the broader implications of multicultural discourse. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in suburbs to the north and west of Paris, I push against tendencies to take these emergent identity claims at face value, to reflect rather on the interests they serve and the tensions they mediate. Situating these phenomena within the context of a globalizing economy, I argue that these trends need to be seen as efforts to grasp at readily comprehensible sources of inequality at a moment when opportunity has moved off-shore, altering the meaning of local life and politics, and diffusing the promise of social integration upon which the French republican contract depends.
Paper for presentation at EASA meeting, l’Université de Paris-Nanterre, July 2012