Who are these `ethnic minorities'?

Even as bridges are built, there is always an assumption of superiority by one side or the other
ON MY way to Paris, not for a dirty weekend alas, but a serious purpose. Travelling in a fine first class coach (these things still impress me), with not too many bores in suits with their attention seeking phones, I focus on writing a paper for a seminar later that day which is meant to discuss whether France or Britain has been better at managing the huge demographic transformations that have made both countries irreversibly multi-ethnic. The seminar was organised by the Franco-British Council, which exists to create better understanding between the two nations.

But even as bridges are built, there is always score-counting and an assumption of superiority by one or the other side. This topic is especially vulnerable to this tendency. For a century, there has been a schism in the way race relations are understood, discussed and planned for by the two countries. And it was ever thus.

When I was an undergraduate at Makerere in Africa, we spent hours discussing whether it was better to be colonised by the British who made no attempt to pretend that you could become one of them, so you were free to be yourself, or the French who, not content with taking your country, had to colonise your mind and heart, but who did then accept you as an equal. Brilliant African writers such as Leopold Senghor, member of the Academie Francaise and the first president of Senegal and the erstwhile president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere debated these differences. Negritude, the movement promoting African values, was all the rage.

To this day, I am not sure which was the better model.

But what I do know is that I am grateful I live here, on this flawed and fickle island, rather than in France, and that the reasons are firmly rooted in history. This trip, however, has made me question my views. For 30 years, multiculturalism, as expounded by that exceptional Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, has underpinned policy and politics this society. His vision was that integration should not be a "flattening process of assimilation", which deprived ethnic communities of their cultures, but a framework that promoted equality and mutual respect between groups.

The French have, for decades, considered us mad for taking this route. Profound assimilationists, they believed everyone in France was French and those who weren't had to damn well live as if they were. Consequently, you find black and Middle Eastern intellectuals who are indeed more proudly French than the French. Astonishingly, it was not until this year that any data on racially or culturally distinct residents or citizens in France was available, because such research militated against the self-definition of the country.

But key events have rocked both countries out of complacency. The Brixton riots and the Satanic Verses fiasco revealed how expensive multiculturalism could be. It was suddenly not only about lovely curries but values, battles and fury about essential matters. Even Roy Jenkins retreated from his own vision. France's confrontation with itself came over whether Algerian girls could wear headscarves in school. The band aid of assimilation, once unstuck, revealed bloody wounds of difference worn with defiance by an increasingly alienated young Arab population.

These experiences must explain the refreshing openness you now find among the elite on both sides of the channel. There is real engagement about where to go next, not only because past solutions have not always worked, but because the present and future are unimaginably more complex.

Just take these current examples. Twenty young Algerians in Toulon are on hunger strike to protest about their exclusion from the decent life and De Chevalier, an extreme right-wing mayor, is the only public figure who visits them daily. In both countries, ordinary Muslims despise foreign- sponsored Imams because they use European Muslims for wider geopolitical ideological battles and keep them in mental ghettos.

Neither simplistic multiculturalism or assimilationism can address these problems. We must dump these ideologies and their assumptions. Europe has no majority community and much cultural variation, so why talk euphemistically of "ethnic minorities"?

Asians, Caribbeans, Algerians are an intrinsic part of the West. They would not freely pack up and go to the world that is not the west, so why do they rant on about Western values? Shed presumptions and lies and you get a whole new discourse, where diversity is not something you "tolerate" as if it is a bad but unavoidable smell, but something we all salute.