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.


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. The French people are the descendants of Neolithic stone age people. In modern times Gauls and Romans populated what is now modern France. This means western Celtic and Italic peoples, as well as Bretons, Aquitanians, Ligurians, and Germanic invaders. The Germanic invaders included Franks, the Visigoths, the Suebi, the Saxons, the Allemanni and the Burgundians. French people are the descendants of Gauls and Romans, western European Celtic and Italic peoples, as well as Bretons, Aquitanians, Ligurians, and Germanic people arriving at the beginning of the Frankish Empire such as the Franks, the Visigoths, the Suebi, the Saxons, the Allemanni and the Burgundians. The dominant group was the Franks. And the 'France' etymologically derives from the word Francia--the territory of the Franks. A later Germanic groups was the Vikings wjo became known as the Normans and gave their name to Normandy Where they settled (9th century). All of this played into the ethnic diversity of the French, but were Largely territorially based.

Colonial Immigrants

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


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.


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.


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.


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



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Created: October 4, 1999
1:46 PM 2/16/20191:23 AM 1/18/2011