Is France’s Multiculturalism Under Threat? An NRI Explains

Kavya Iyer Ramalingam
·6-min read

(In view of the France attacks in October 2020, The Quint invited experts across the board to weigh in, amid debates on France’s ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘freedom of speech’. You can access the other viewpoints here , here and here.)

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Jacobeans, guillotine, Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake’, the French revolution…” – I still remember snapshots from my Class VIII history textbook which served as one of my first introductions to le monde français.

If someone would have told me five years back that I would be living amidst baguettes and camembert, the Louvre and the Eiffel, I would not have believed them.

But here I am. And I keep coming back. Pourqoui?

When we started working on this piece in March, little did we know what the next few months would have in store. So much...

Posted by Kavya Iyer on Thursday, July 16, 2020

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‘You Can Find Almost Anything – From Anywhere In The World – In Paris’

I started learning French in 2013 on a whim; I fell in love with the language and the culture and thus, came to Paris to pursue my Masters in International Development at Sciences Po in 2015. One thing led to another and I have now lived in Paris for almost four years.

The most beautiful, exciting thing about Paris is that it is a melting pot of cultures, people, ideas and lifestyles from all across the globe.

I still remember, the first festival I attended here in Paris was a Ganesh Chaturthi parade (yes, you read that right!), celebrated annually in the 18th arrondisement.

Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, Paris 18ème
Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, Paris 18ème

During my student years, I lived at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, a sprawling campus housing 12,000 students from more than 120 nationalities. I worked as a waitress at a Latin American restaurant and as an English-teaching nanny for a family of three French kids.


My local crêpe-wala was from Palestine, the co-habitants in my student residence were from various parts of Africa and the Middle East, the closest boulangerie was run by Tunisians. If I ever had a craving for ramen, or ceviche, paneer or momos, they were all a metro ride away. The truth is, you can find almost anything – from almost any part of the world – somewhere in Paris!

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Paris’s Love Affair With Bollywood

While I have spent a majority of my time in the capital, I have also travelled to other parts of France such as Lille, Lyon, Nice, Cannes, Marseille, Reims and Bourges. While a mere tourist in these cities, never have I felt excluded, or scrutinised. In fact, people here have been warmer and more welcoming, away from the hustle-bustle of stressful, Parisian life.

This year I decided to make the switch to take up dance professionally – I teach, perform and choreograph as a freelancer across various public and private organisations in Paris. I have collaborated with many French dancers, photographers, and artists. And it might come as a surprise, but Bollywood is quite the rage here – one would easily find classes in almost every centre d’animation in Paris.

Summer Bhangra workshop with ‘Bolly Deewani’ in Paris.
Summer Bhangra workshop with ‘Bolly Deewani’ in Paris.

I even had the courage to launch my own Bhangra classes, which were readily welcomed by a group of enthusiastic, supportive locals. This September, I performed with a dance company called Bollywood Paname at an Indo-French wedding.

A little boy came up to congratulate us at the end of the show, looked at me pointedly and asked, ‘Vous-êtes la chorégraphe, non?’ (You must be the choreographer, no?), probably because I was the only one who ‘looked’ Indian. And I proudly said “No, she is!” pointing to my friend Mélodie who has been born and brought up in France, and practices Odissi, Kathak and Bharatanatyam along with hip-hop.

Dance collaboration with dancer, Lucia Sous.
Dance collaboration with dancer, Lucia Sous.

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A Nuanced View Of ‘Multicultural’ & ‘Multiculturalism’ Is Needed

Of course, I do not want to paint a one-sided picture of my experiences; there is the occasional rude bureaucratic personnel, the uncomfortable feeling of exclusion when friends forget you and ramble excitedly in fast, colloquial French, the occasional stare or curious questioning when I wear a bindi or a kurta; but, then again, where does this not happen?

Especially with the recent rise in attacks in France, one might wonder if French multiculturalism is under threat. Such happenings do create an atmosphere of fear, distrust and anger, but for me, the very ethos of French society – its diversity and tolerance – still thrive.

I think a more nuanced view is required of the oft-misunderstood difference between the terms ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism’. While there exist many competing interpretations, a popular one proposed by political theorist Bhikhu Parekh (2006: 6) is that, ‘a multicultural society…[i]s one that includes two or more cultural communities’. These are communities with their ‘own long history and way of life which [they] wish to preserve and transmit’.

However, the way the society responds to this cultural diversity makes it either ‘assimilationist’ (trying to bring all communities under one majority culture) or ‘multiculturalist’ (letting each constituent community uphold their cultural beliefs).

Can One Say France Is Still The Epitome Of A Multicultural Society?

So then, could one claim that France is the epitome of a multicultural society? Honestly, I do not have a straightforward answer. Have I had to adopt the ‘French’ culture to survive?

Yes. Have I managed to safeguard, share and transmit my own roots and culture, without feeling judged or discriminated? Also, yes. A resounding yes!

And I can only hope that the liberté, égalité, fraternité – that once defined France for me – will not disappear anytime soon.


Parekh, B. C. (2006) Rethinking multiculturalism : cultural diversity and political theory. 2nd edn. Basingstoke England: Palgrave Macmillan.

(Kavya Iyer Ramalingam is a professional dancer with an Erasmus Masters in Dance Knowledge, Practice & Heritage (Choreomundus) and a Masters in International Development (Sciences Po, Paris). She can be contacted on LinkedIn. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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