Arnaud Lacheret analyses the success stories of the descendants of Arab-Muslim immigrants in France.

* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.

The book Les Intégrés by Arnaud Lacheret, a doctor in political science, is unusual in that it stands out from the most frequent publications on the subject of integration, which are often pessimistic and overbearing. But this book is also educational, because it gives a voice to the people involved. After the national psychodrama experienced by France at the time of the vote on the "immigration" law at the end of 2023, on the initiative of Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, this is also a relevant book. In eight finely crafted chapters, it puts a medium-term perspective on a phenomenon that is affecting French society and those most affected by it.

As the sociologist Gérald Bronner notes in his preface, this book "explores the subject of the integration of Arab-Muslim populations by taking as its starting point upward career trajectories, an original point of view with regard to the negative stereotypes sometimes attached to members of these populations". The author has collected 70 testimonies from two specific types of population, resulting from five years of field research: Arab women from the Gulf States who have become managers; and French women and men from the Maghreb who have successfully integrated into the professional world.

Integration is understood here, as defined by Dominique Schnapper   , as the dual challenge of acquiring shared values within society and overcoming persistent cultural stereotypes.

Invisibility of success

According to the author, "few contemporary politicians talk about integration in their speeches, except to emphasise its failure". He adds: "There is a fantasised integration of the waves of immigration at the beginning of the 20th century (Poles, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.), and the excellent integration of people of Asian origin is held up as an example, contrasting with the alleged failure of integration of North Africans and Sub-Saharans".

In the far-right discourse of Marine Le Pen, Jordan Bardella and Éric Zemmour, as well as in the discourse of part of the right inherited from Nicolas Sarkozy, today in the wake of Éric Ciotti and Laurent Wauquiez, it is not so much integration that is demanded of these immigrants or descendants of foreigners, but genuine "assimilation" into a national body — falsely considered to be homogenous. This is a far cry from the "France métissée" promoted by Ségolène Royal in 2007 or the family reunification policy introduced by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s.

In order to do justice to these hundreds of thousands of people living in France and to give an account of their singular trajectories, the author proposes to analyse, following the example of Annie Ernaux, Didier Eribon, Edouard Louis or Chantal Jaquet, the case of class defectors who "extracted themselves from a social condition and broke with determinism to find themselves fully involved in a society whose codes they did not initially master". In this respect, the notion of transaction is a key concept: as a thread running through the book, it enables us to consider the compromise with the social milieu of origin and its structuring cultural foundations, as well as with the socio-economic spheres of adoption.

The integration of women, between culture and negotiation

The first three chapters are rich in lessons because they illustrate how institutional, sociological and political forms of integration are intimately linked and profoundly interdependent. Through negotiation within the family and, very often, by leaving the neighbourhood of origin, social emancipation is made possible for women thanks to the republican meritocracy and the fulfilment of their professional ambitions.

For those who hold positions of responsibility, particularly in management, within companies, and who are sometimes adepts of a form of "Islamic feminism" in opposition to patriarchy, long studies and a comfortable professional situation are seen above all as levers of independence and freedom. This state of affairs is not unrelated to the change in the level of education observed among immigrant women, which rose from 11% with a higher education qualification in 1974 to 22% in 1983, 31% in 1998 and 34% in 2010 — a level that is very close to that observed in the rest of the French population, thereby challenging a number of preconceived ideas.

However, the level of education does not tell the whole story about the integration of these children of immigrants into the labour market since, as in the case of the rest of the population, the level of jobs held may be uncorrelated with the level of education. For a more detailed analysis, Arnaud Lacheret relies on INED's "Trajectoires et origines" survey, which allows for better comparisons and more precise characterisation. This shows that Algeria is unique compared with the situation of the descendants of immigrants from the other two Maghreb countries: while 20% of the children of parents of Algerian origin have a higher education qualification (22% for women), this is the case for 31% of the children of parents of Moroccan and Tunisian origin (34% for women). In other words, the social shift is spectacular, as the descendants of Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants have almost caught up with the rest of the French population in a single generation.

What is even more revealing is the fact that, in terms of socio-professional category, there is no significant difference between the upward social mobility of North Africans in one generation and that of the descendants of European immigrants, whether from southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Portugal) or eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, Turkey). In this respect, these data, amplified in the case of women, go hand in hand with increased exogamy: even if the parents would perhaps have preferred a marriage with someone from the same culture (a trend observed in particular among women from the Gulf or of Kabyle parents), the number of unions with atheists, agnostics or Christians is almost comparable to that of the majority population, higher than that observed within the Chinese, Indian or sub-Saharan communities.

This is illustrated by the apparently counter-intuitive words of a young woman from a working-class district of Grigny, in the Paris suburbs:

"I fought so that there wouldn't be another library on my estate, because I wanted to get out. If they put public services and other libraries in the neighbourhood, it would give my parents every excuse not to let me take the bus. [...] Getting out of the neighbourhood means meeting other people, not locking people into their own world; it means not leaving them in their own box and allowing them to discover something other than the misery of their own housing estate."

The integration of men

As far as the Arab-Muslim entrepreneurs and managers with whom the author spoke are concerned, their career paths have points in common with those of the women, but there are also a number of specific features. The sample of people interviewed by the author, with an average age of 35, highlights different realities.

The relationship with parents is the foundation and structure of integration potential. In other words, this relationship is both the link that enables a culture to be transmitted and the lever for celebrating professional success, which could be summed up as follows: work hard at school and then be free from want. Abdel, 42, puts it this way: "My father was very strict. When I was 18, I'd never been to a disco before. He was so afraid we'd go off the rails, all that mattered was getting through school". Conversely, as in the rest of society, dysfunctional intra-family relationships and the growing number of single-parent families are factors in social exclusion and failure to integrate.

Compared to the rest of the population, the choice of specific studies is partly guided by an economic logic, that of earning money quickly and therefore obtaining a position of responsibility. For example, when it comes to higher education, men are more likely to go to business or engineering schools, particularly those offering work-linked courses, than to other scientific or literary courses, in relative terms.

Children play an integrating role for their parents. The latter, who often come from poor, rural areas in the Maghreb and live in socially deprived neighbourhoods, are better integrated into society when their children have successfully achieved socio-professional integration, a virtuous "feedback loop". The children help them with administrative formalities and everyday tasks, and expose them to modern values that can help to change their traditional views on social issues (such as the normalisation of divorce, acceptance of homosexuality, less fusional parent-child relationships and generational decohabitation).

Furthermore, sport is a powerful vector for success, both financially and symbolically. Without mentioning the illustrious but rare Zinedine Zidane, Kylian Mbappé or Brahim Asloum, the fact remains that faced with young people who have sometimes lost their bearings or live in environments that encourage them to go off the rails (delinquency, drug trafficking, fundamentalist recruitment), sport is an integrator that catalyses a shared sense of belonging and makes it easier to leave the neighbourhood thanks to sporting competitions. As the association "Sports dans la ville" points out, "through sport, we pass on to young people coming from priority neighbourhoods values that are important for their personal development and professional integration. Our mission is to promote real equality of opportunity".

Gender discrimination

The discrimination experienced by descendants of immigrants is multi-faceted. According to a 2022 CEREQ survey, nearly 45% of men of North African descent, 35% of those of sub-Saharan origin and 20% of those of Turkish descent experience discrimination.

But discrimination is felt more acutely by men than by women (who on average are more successful than men). Ahmed, 35, sums it up this way: "I think it's harder to be a man than a North African woman in France, for several reasons. Not least the fact that it's men who are seen as the source of problems for people".

While in some interviews the men surveyed gloss over moments of rejection by society, preferring to emphasise merit, hard work and effort, the majority of the sample give anecdotes or accounts of the discrimination they have suffered. This is particularly true in the educational sphere, where there is an early orientation towards courses outside the general stream, but also in the labour market. This is what Ayman, 30, a graduate of one of France's top management schools and a hypermarket floor manager, has to say. According to him, this is due to "caution at the end of studies in order to earn money", while feeling trapped "in a career by default".

Similarly, the confrontational relationships that sometimes arise with the police are far more important for men than for women. The situation is the same, however, when it comes to access to housing or leisure activities, as has been shown by numerous testing operations organised in recent years.

Integration, religion and culture

Contributing to the construction of an identity that adds more than it subtracts, the relationship with culture and religion are also important determinants of success. For example, the 2010 INED "Trajectoires et origines" survey shows that only 80% of Algerian descendants went on holiday to Algeria during their childhood (35% every year), whereas 95% of Moroccans (60% every year) went to Morocco. The link to one's origins, trips to the 'bled', as well as culinary or family rituals, are as much a link to one's parentage as they are a means of enriching the country of birth or the host country.

As for the significance of religion as a belief or practice, this varies in intensity and remains less important in the testimonies than the cultural affiliation asserted. For the most devout, it is not only a faith but also a way of life. Aziz, aged 28, describes his practice: "I do my prayers, I do Ramadan, I get involved as much as I can while reconciling it with my daily professional life. It's simply my faith". Khadija, 35, explains why: "I was brought up in a Muslim culture, and my life has been built around my religion. For me, it provides protection, rules and principles for living". For others, their religion is completely absent, but this does not mean they are opposed to it or see it as an obstacle to integration.

In this respect, the question of whether or not to wear the veil is not seen in a neutral light: whether it is a mark of rebellion, an expression of choice, a sign of constraint, a tool of protection or a symptom of withdrawal, the fact that women wear the veil is never insignificant. Rather than resorting to the many analyses of pseudo-specialists or groups seeking to use the veil as a tool rather than really trying to understand what drives these identity-related phenomena, the best thing to do is to let Leïla, aged 45, have her say:

"For me, it's not a sign of submission. Even though I've noticed that there are a lot of young girls who wear it, and I find it sad because for me it must correspond to a spiritual journey above all. I have the impression that for some it's a quest for identity, a sign of fashionistas. Personally, I respect a woman whether she wears a veil or a miniskirt. You can be on a spiritual quest without wearing a headscarf."

This argument of free choice obviously refers to different realities, from a spiritual path to a response to pressure from the environment, or a tool for asserting oneself or differentiating oneself from the majority. It's also a fashion phenomenon largely imported from the Middle East, because in previous generations of women in the Maghreb and the West, it was numerically less important than it is today among the younger generations influenced by social networks and satellite channels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Mehdi, 34, sums it up in his own way: "I think that for some, there's an affirmation: I'm French, I'm Muslim, I wear the veil. It's a way of saying 'fuck it' to those who don't accept them."

Analysing the 'how' rather than the ‘why'

Ultimately, Arnaud Lacheret clearly shows how the collection and analysis of testimonies, in the wake of the Chicago School and Howard Becker, provides keys to understanding the 'how' of successful integration processes. This work makes it possible to map out the stages in the integration process, which, while not the norm insofar as the constraints of social reproduction remain massive, does provide a fresh look at a reality that is all too often obscured.

Culture, family, socialisation and social advancement are all vectors that help to create a "we", while at the same time asserting our own singularity — all the more legitimate in a contemporary society that tends to ensure the primacy of the individual over all other considerations.

The book's conclusions, six months ahead of European elections that will be crucial for the future of the European project and three years ahead of the presidential election that will bring President Emmanuel Macron's second term in office to a close, raise the crucial question of plurality and the commons. In a fractured and archipelagic society, so aptly described by the political scientist Jérôme Fourquet, prey to identity-based tensions and weakened by the xenophobic temptations of the far right, the findings set out here could be useful for current and future political leaders who are concerned about living together and defending the republican model.