PARIS -- At a time when the multicultural model for society has made great progress in the United States and Britain, and is firmly established in Canada, the French are determined to stick with their policy of cultural assimilation.
This is a crucial choice, since tension in France over immigration is fundamentally cultural and social in origin, rather than racial. Even National Front voters object mainly that these people are ''different'' in the way they live. They say they have created an alien society of their own inside France. This, of course, is exactly what a policy of multiculturalism is meant to produce.
Most immigrants in France would like nothing better than to become part of the mainstream. That's what they are trying to accomplish. Those who do not are mainly Muslims. Even though Islam is now the second religion in France -- its adherents now are more numerous than either Protestants or Jews -- religiously observant Muslims remain conspicuously exceptional in a country that today is firmly secular and rationalist, and historically is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.
In principle, it is perfectly possible to assimilate socially, professionally and intellectually to mainstream French society and remain an observant Muslim; but in practice assimilation tends to produce secularization and abandonment of the Koran.
There was not the same problem with earlier waves of immigrants. Poles, Jews, Spaniards, Portuguese, Indochinese and non-Muslim black Africans have more or less rapidly moved into the larger society. The new National Front mayor of Vitrolles, a town near Marseille, whose election drew international attention to the immigration controversy in France, is herself the daughter of a thoroughly integrated Jewish immigrant.
In Germany and some Balkan and East European countries (and in Asia) nationality is understood to derive from birth. There is held to be a ''German people,'' or a ''Croatian people,'' and you cannot become a part of it by swearing an oath of allegiance in an immigration office.
A mix of peoples
There is no ''French people'' in that sense. The French have always understood that they are a mixture of Gaulish and Germanic tribes, Celts, Latins, Normans, plus those who have come in more recent times. Even today, 40 percent of all the French have at least one foreign grandparent.
Moreover, since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution France has seen itself as the home of human rights and the source of modern civilization. Thus, just as in the United States, citizenship is a matter of commitment to certain political principles and values of universal significance.
The difference between France and the U.S. or Canada today is that citizenship is also thought to mean acceptance of France's language and civilization. The values of the political society are held to be integral to the civilization. Multiculturalism is explicitly rejected.
The ''machine for integration'' -- as President Jacques Chirac put it last week -- is the public education system, which still is very powerful in France.
The nation's schools are run from the Ministry of Education in Paris, with a national curriculum that by comparison with most American public schools today makes very high demands on children. There is systematic inspection of results, and much popular press attention each spring to the percentage of children who successfully pass their ''bac''' -- their secondary-school graduation exam -- as well as to which schools had the best results. It is a highly competitive system, since educational certification is crucial to finding a job, and also to social promotion in France.
There is much that can be criticized in the system, which is very different in assumptions and practice from schools in North America and Britain. However, it has until now proved to be very good at turning little foreigners into Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.
Americans ought to understand this because this is how immigration worked in the United States until fairly recently. Multiculturalism is a post-1960s idea. Before that, American schools -- parochial as well as public -- instructed immigrant children in their Pilgrim and pioneer ''ancestors'' and taught them what they had to do to be ''good Americans.''
It worked. It worked at a cost, since -- as it was meant to do -- it distanced children from their immigrant parents, who may have gone on speaking the ''old world'' language and regretting the lost standards of the societies left behind. But the system manufactured little Americans, integrated into the mainstream culture.
Today, the major English-speaking countries have given up this system and reject its assumptions about mainstream culture and the imperative of cultural integration. The French have not given it up and continue to apply it with determination.
The fact that they are doing so provides an important test for the future of all of the democracies, in an age when the populations of poor non-Western countries are on the move. We will see in another decade or two who was right. We will see which of our societies is at greater peace with itself.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 3/10/97