France: Ethnic Diversity


Figure 1.--This 1903 postcard shows ethnic costumes worn by a boy and girl in the Pyrenees area of France. Note the berets, knee-length breeches with tassles, and spat-like shoe covering.

European countries despite the relatively small sizes are often divied by regional and ethnic differences. While Americans may think of France as a homogenous country, there are in fact many regional differences in France with distinct ethnic costumes. Interestingly, the French are one of the few European nationalities that did not emmigrate in numbers to the United states. As a result, there are virtually no important French ethnic celebrations in America. I do not yet have much information on these regional and ethnic divisions. We have, however, begun to collect some information.

Chronology

Major changes occurred in France during the 20th century. There were until the mid-20th century major regional differences in France. Untill World War II, one could observe many regional traditions , they are several French dialects, including Alsatian which is a German dialect. There are also four important regional languages (le Breton, Basque, Provencal and Corsican. Before World War II, people in these regions spoke their dialect averywhere in their village excepted in the school where standard French was compulsory . Newspapers of course were published in France. By the end of the century, however, these regional differences were of only minor importance. Since the War practicly all the dialects have been abandoned. Most people born after the War speak French without accent . The new generation have one single accent, they speak alike at the television , and it is impossible to know if they are coming from Paris, Strasbourg, New-Caledonia or other part of France. Many time honired local and regional traditions have disappeared, although two regions are still attached to their traditions (the Basque and Corsica) where nationalist sentiment continues. Several factors were involved in the disappearance of French regional culture. here. School was one factor. Children went to school longer and in the schools standard French was taught. Another major factor was modern massmedia, including magazines, radio, movies, and television. Improved roads also meant easier travel between regions.

French Ethnic Groups and Regions

We have at this time only limited information about ethnic diversity within France itself. There was considerable diversity between France before the Revolution (1789), but succeeding French governments have adopted policies that sought to reduce the importance of regional cultures and languages.

Alsatians

In Alsace, many of the modern generation can not longwr speak Alsatian, especialy in Strasbourg and big cities. A reader tells us, "In the 1950s my Granparents spoke both French and Alsatian fluently and German was taught in school. Many people in this generation had some difficulty learning French.

Basque

In the Basque region many persons including the children can still speak this difficult language, the origins of are not fully inderstood. The Basque still observe many traditions. The Basques are very proud of their origins and on Sunday it is still common to see some people wearing traditional garments. Unlike the situation accross the border in Spain, the French Basques have not turrned to terrorism, perhaps because the population is smaller and the French Basque's were never suppresed as were the Spanish Basque's under Franco.

Bretons

Brittany is a region of northwestern France, the most westerly extension of France. Brittany has a fascinating history explaining the tenacity by which the region has clung to its language and customs, including their destinctive dress. Only in the 20th century has Brittany been fully integrated into France. At the turn of the 20th century, Breton culture was much stronger than is the case today. The first postcard pictured here was made about 1903. The children, a boy and a girl, are dressed in almost identical outfits. In Brittany it was the custom for boys to wear dresses in their early years. Breton before World War II was still widely spoken. Today a majority of people in Britanty can no longer speak Breton.

Flanders

Flanders is a region now divided between Belgium and France. French Flanders, is a region in the far Northwest of France along the Atlantic coast. It is located east of Dunkirk, a city with an old Dutch name, Duinkerken. The official Gallicized name is Dunkerque. In "La Flandre Flamingante" there are about 20,000 inhabitants who still speak Flemish, a Dutch dialect. In 1984 a Parti Fédéraliste Flamand has been established to promote Dutch culture. There are a few theater groups that perform plays in Dutch, in cities and villages with names like Hazebrouck, Hondschoote and Steenvoorde. General de Gaulle, who was born in Lille (Rijssel), is said to be of Flemish decent.

Gypsys

The Romani people recognize divisions among themselves based in part on territorial, cultural and dialectal differences and self-designation. One of these are the Manush in the French-speaking areas of Western Europe. Tghe French have several terms: Manouches and Tsiganes. Romanichels and Gitans are alsonused, but pejorative. Bohémiens was once used, but is now considered outdated. Another term is Gens du Voyage (Travellers), but seems to mean Gypsy rather than a different group as in Ireland. The French police (National Gendarmerie) tends to use the term Minorités Ethniques Non-Sédentarisées (MENS--Travelling Ethnic Minorities). Perhaps French uniquely in Europe, municipal autjorities are required by law to provide Romani travellers land where they can set up a camp. An estimated 0.4 million Gypsys live in France as part of established communities. France's affluence has attracted Romni from other countris, mostly Eastern Europe (Bulgaria and Romania). Estimates vary as to the numbers involved. They are mostly found in illegal camps. French authorities have been known to conduct roundups and deportations which have been critizied by civil libertarians.

Jews

Jews first reached France during the Roman era. There has been a ontinuing Jewish presence in France since that time. With the coming of Christianity, the Jewish community went through periods of both toleration and persecution depending on the policies of both the Church and the ruling monarch. The secularization of the French Revolution brought an era of toleration and emancipation. Even so there was a strong anti-Semetic element within France. even into the 20th century. Jews in the 19th and 20th century played a major role in French intelectual and commercial life. France's Jewish population was devestated by the Holocaust, but unlike many other countries occupied by the NAZIs, many French Jews survived.

Normans

Normans are the French translation of Northmen or the Vikings. The fierce boat people that emerged from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They invaded northern France, even sailiong up the Seine and attacking Paris. They established themselves in Normandy. As a result, there developed important cultural differences between Normandy and much of the rest of France. They were theoretically vassaks of the French monarchy, but in real terms were often more powerful than the king. William Duke of Normandy invaded England and after defearing King Haroild at Hastings (1066), seized the crown. The French roots of the English monary subsequently led to an English claim on the French crown and the Hundred Years War. Whem France began settling New France, Noemans played an important role.

Provance

France is a land of minorities and the most important was Provence in southern France. A reader writes, "I lived near Orange on the Rhone River and I can tell you that those "Occitans" who spoke Oc ( distinct from Oïl or Parisian French) are still fighting to save their culture. Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Orange, Nimes, Arles, Toulouse, Bordeaux are parts of Occitanie.

Pyrenees

HBC does not have details on ethnic dress in the Pyrenees. Presumably they are strongly influenced by Basque customs and dress. The children pictured here wear berets with jackets and knee-length pants wtth white stockings.

Colonial Immigrants

Large numbers of people from France's many colonies have emigrated to France, most since World War II.

Africans

Many persons from France's former Colonies have come to France. Many are Blacks because FRance had so many colonies in Africa, especially West Africa.

Algerians

A French reader tells us that until after World War II there were very few Muslims in France. He rarely recalls seeing Muslims in the 1950s. As a result of the Franco-Algeria war, however, larger number of Muslims came to France. Algeria won its independence (1962). At first it was Muslims who had sided with the French and feared retaliation. Later Algerian mismanagement of the economy caused more Algerians to come to France, largely seeking jobs and economic improvement. Muslims have come from other North African countries, but the largest number have come from Algeria. France in 2004 has about 4 million residents and citizens of North African ancestry. This is about 7 percent of the population and growing. Many of these Muslims have had trouble integrating in French society. There have been a range of social problems. In recent years there have been concerns over radical Islam. The French Government's approach has been to deport Imans who preach violence. (Most Imans are foreigners and thus subject to deportation.) A new policy adopted in 2004 was to ban conspicuous religious attire in state schools. This has meant a ban on Muslim girls wearing head scarves. It has proven controversial and the impact is not yet clear. A French reader writes, "About the law about the school. In September 2004, there have been practicly no problems. Muslim girls are respecting the new law. They are about 7 million pupils, 2 million pupils are in privat school, almost all are Catholic. Terrorists in Iraq durng 2004 took two French hostages because of this agains this law. All French Muslim organisations have joined the overall French population in protesting this criminal act and have reclared they support the French legal system, even if they object to the law concerning religious apparel. Many Muslim children, often raised in Arabic-speaking families, do not do well in French schools. This has meant that they have trouble getting jobs. There is a related problem of criminal activity. One reader tells us that Muslim youth and men have been convicted of sex crimes against girls and women to a much larger extent than the overall population. The French jail population includes unusually large numbers of Muslims.

Other Europeans

A substantial number of other Europeans have also come to France. Italians, Portuguese, and Spaniards came to France after world War II because of the economic conditions there. They have had little trouble adjusting to French life because of similarities in culture, religion, and language. One reader remembers his Spanish nanny. His uncle met her during the World War II when he was active in the Resistance, He made several trips to Spain. Interestingly she didn't like the Republicans (she was very Catholic), but hated the NAZIs.

Italians

Italy in the early 20th century was still a poor country. Economic conditions, especially in the south were still almost feudal. Many children had to work instead of attending school. Many Italians after World War I emigrated to France. For the most part they were laborers seeking better paid jobs then were available to them in Italy. Before the War, large numbers of Italians emigrated to America, but the United states enacted strict immigration laws after the War which established strict country quotas. A French reader reports, "There were some difficulties adapting to the French life style, but many successfully integrated into their new country." I am notg sure if there were differences in clothing styles. Most settled in cities and found jobs in the building trades. Our French reader reports, "Italiam immigrants were hard-working people. Like the French, they were Catholic. Most did quite well with their new lives in France." More Italians came to France after World war II. One source reports 250,000 Italian immigrants. Again many sought jobs in the building trades. Our French reader reports, "The Italians were looked on as hard workers. Many construction workers during the 1950s-60s were Italians and many Italians founded contstruction companies. Many Italian families in France today are affluent. They are well integrated into French society and feel here completly at home." HBC wonders if the children of these immigrants consider themselves as French or Italian, or perhaps both. The European Community is gradually changing the concept of nationality in Europe. One factor here is that France borders on Italy. Thus it was relkatively easy for Italiam immigrants to maintain contact with their families in Italy. Our French reader tells us, "The Italian mentality toward their children is very protective. The Italians are devoted to their children. Proud mothers turn their boys into little kings. The Italians are very demonstrative and hug and cuddle with their children. This appears to be a common Latin mentality. We French are also like this. The English and Germans seem much more reserved with their children." Interestingly some of the same attitudes toward children can be observed among American immigrant groups.

Portugal

Substantial Pportuguese emmigration was reported to France in the 1970s.

Spain








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Created: October 4, 1999
Last updated: 1:23 AM 1/18/2011