Class Origins Predict French Integration Success

With financial hard times whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has bowed to the angry wind by launching a national debate on what it means to be French. The touchstone of this discussion remains the widespread rioting of 2005, which seemed to prove that France is a land of increasingly marginalized and restive migrants. Into the center of this fray comes a new book, which shows that integration à la française works better than most French imagine.

In The Destiny of Immigrants' Children, authors Claudine Attias-Donfut and François-Charles Wolff offer a landmark survey of 6,000 migrants and 19,000 of their offspring. It is the first time that a study on immigration in France focuses on migrants from all continents. The authors' deliberate intent is to counter the common fiction of French political debates, which tend to define "les immigrés" as African and Arab newcomers, and to use immigration as a pretext to talk about ethnicity, an otherwise taboo notion in France.

The book's main finding is that a family's class origins play a much bigger role than their country of origin in determining whether their children will thrive in France. The child of a doctor from Morocco is much more likely to succeed at school than the child of a stonemason from Poland. Another key to success is having parents with a positive attitude: the more Mom and Dad value French education and France as a whole, the more likely their children will succeed.

And they do. Almost 50 percent of the children of immigrants have at least a high-school diploma—compared with just 12 percent of their siblings who stayed in the home country. And while the majority of immigrant mothers received only a primary-school education, the majority of their daughters received a college diploma, which shows that the integration system is indeed working. "People think that you can neither assimilate nor integrate immigrants. It is not true, and that's not even the problem. The problem is socioeconomic. We shouldn't have to ask them to choose between integration and maintaining a link with their roots," says Attias-Donfut. This doesn't mean, however, that integration leads to a dream situation—just to the same reality as those nonimmigrant citizens who have a comparable socioeconomic background. But isn't that exactly what integration means? For France's policymakers, this book suggests that their time might be better spent on policies that create opportunity for the poor (immigrant or not) than on debating who can rightly call themselves French.