France and the United Kingdom are currently facing deep-seated challenges regarding the interlinked issues of racism, rising extreme right wing parties and the integration of non-European populations; especially populations coming from former colonies. The present literature focuses on either one or two of these issues but do not fully grasp them and put them in perspective by making the comparison between the British and French social processes of integration that include the key-concept of colonial memory.

How do the French and the British former colonial empires deal, since 1960, with immigration coming from their former colonies.  This article attempts to evaluate both countries integration processes and assess official public policies related to their former empires.

Looking at the current situation of ethnic minorities – solely coming from their no-longer empires –, who settled in the UK and France, steers my research within the post-colonial studies framework. Bearing this in mind, to focus on colonial heritage and memory presupposes to examine how a state and its people grasp, comprehend and politicise their own history.

Since the 1960s, despite the extreme violent wars led to give birth to their own nations, former colonised people have been fleeing their home countries for economic and social reasons to the mainland. They were pursuing the idea of having a better life for themselves and future generations.

There is a large literature about how much the French and the British empires cooperated, influenced each other or were just rivals[1]

Fifty years after the decolonization, the United Kingdom and France have two very distinctive approaches to their colonial history and its remains, which includes imperial post-colonial immigration. In the United Kingdom, multiculturalism is the chosen social model of integration and the colonial memory is not state-established. While in France, assimilation is the social pattern that should be followed by any new immigrant and the colonial memory was initiated by the state and groups of people, decades ago. These two models are poles apart but both French and British societies are facing extreme communitarianism and rising far-right wing parties despite the implementation of similar immigration and citizenship laws.

This article will tackle two points:

  • First: The waves of immigration and the public policies implemented by both states from 1960 to 2014;
  • Then the focus will be on colonial memory; how both states see their no-longer existing empires.

I.                    Immigration and public policies: from the rejection of others to a challenging integration (1960-2000s).

For both empires, the decolonisation process actually started a decade before it hit the African continent.  India gained its independence in 1947 and Indochina gained its own in 1954. In the late 40s-early 50s, it is fair to say France and Great-Britain were not considering decolonisation as their top priority. At the aftermath of World War II, both empires were assessing what their domestic situations were, trying to build Europe and figure out how to fit into an even stronger bipolar world. In 1956, France engaged in two wars: Algeria; and at the Suez Canal, alongside the British.

In January 1960, Conservative UK Prime Minister Mac Millan delivered his now-famous speech the “Wind of Change”, where he acknowledged that the British government was resolved to the idea of all colonies emancipating themselves from its imperialistic assertion: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact”. This public political acknowledgment marks the point of non-return, a time marker, in the European colonial history.

Despite the violence and harshness of decolonisation, former colonised were fleeing their home countries with the idea that “something better” was ahead of them. And this “better” would be somewhere they have heard of and have been told it was better: the metropolis. Migrants coming from former colonies in the 50s and the 60s were seen as a concrete reminder of an imperial colonial past but also as a proof of the present[2] which was the fall of the empires.  

In the UK, there were 3 major immigration waves:

  • 1960-1972: immigration coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh;
  • 1980-1990: immigration coming from Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylan;
  • 1991-2009: +2.4 millions of immigrants – regardless of types, but in 1998, immigration sourcing from the Commonwealth raises up to 82.000 people per year. The acme is reached in 2004 with 156.000 immigrants.

The first politician to take a stand against immigration was Enoch Powell. At the time, Powell was a member of the Shadow Cabinet. In April 1968, he delivered a speech, later called “Rivers of Blood” where he asked for immigration to be drastically reduced. In both countries, laws and regulations that were passed, revolved around the access to citizenship and the control of the number of immigrants. From then to 2014, seven Acts and two reforms were passed by successive governments and, out of those 9, 7 were implemented by a Conservative Prime Minister.

According to the Migration Observatory, migrant population has doubled between 2007 and 2012[3], and went up by 63% between 2001 and 2011[4]. Various polls and ethnic and cultural studies show that immigration was mostly coming from former colonies until the mid-2000s. More people from former soviet republics and Arab countries migrate to the United Kingdom. This diversification implies changes in the perception British people have about themselves, their society and their principles and values. Insularity is not only geographic and material; it is also in peoples’ mind.

Since 2010, immigration laws are now severely decreasing the number of legal immigrants thus, between 2012 and 2013; immigration had decreased by 13%. The quarterly numbers for 2015 were made public mid-May 2015. These numbers show a 50% increase of net migration and for the first time, a significate decrease of immigration coming from Indian and Pakistan.

Surprisingly enough, France faced three waves of immigration and implemented the same kind of laws, at the same time the United Kingdom did. Of course, migrants were coming from French own former colonies, especially from Africa and Asia. In the 80s, President François Mitterrand softened the immigration criteria, but the numbers were very low at that time; before considerably increasing between 1999 and 2009 by 24%[5].

The deeply-rooted British euro scepticism and the very unique way they perceive integration in today’s globalized world, legacy of their past as most powerful colonial empire, are heightened and reinforced. On April 13, 2011 David Cameron delivered a speech before the Conservative Party on his immigration policies. Cameron affirms that immigration is a highly emotional topic. There, he calls on the audience’s emotions and does not appeal for reason. In this speech, a crystal clear differentiation between illegal and legal immigration is made, alongside a clear cut differentiation between mass and controlled immigrations. According to the Prime Minister, illegal immigration should be stopped with the support of the French and under Brussels supervision. Over the last year, he shifted his position on the Europe question. Late May this year, the Queen made official that a referendum on the EU membership will happen before the end of 2017.

The increase of membership to the extreme right wing parties and the phenomena of “I close the door after myself” experiencing by long-term migrants, partly show that British people, tend to strongly advocate against immigration. In the past decade, migrants have been more and more frequently asked to speak English to ease their integration which provoked a national outcry. The United Kingdom is facing some of the consequences of its colonial past through migration but might not fully grasp its colonial memory. Whilst France attempts to grasp, own and pass along its history through education and state established colonial memory.

Both empires have been on the same pace regarding waves of immigration and how to handle them from a legal standpoint. Although, they do not have a the same view on how these newly arrived people, from their former colonies should integrate in respectively British and French societies. Once these immigrants are on the territory of their former metropolis, what happens? In the UK, the social pattern to follow to be integrated is multiculturalism, whereas in France it is a process named assimilation.

II.                 Integration and colonial memory

  1. Creating and maintaining unity of the nation through the process of integration

Because immigration from former colonies to the UK and France would probably not stop anytime soon, it is only fair to assess if the expected results are delivered by the organized integration models.

In the United Kingdom, ethnic and religious statistics are allowed, which is not the case in France. There are several ethnic categories that evolved throughout time, especially around the 1960s and again in the 2000s. These categories mirror the provenance of the immigrants – otherwise, no need to create a special category or subcategory – aside from the European Union; they mostly come from the Commonwealth.

In the archives from 1960-1969 of the French Embassy located in London[6]; the Prime Ministers (MacMillan, Home and Wilson) were constantly referring to “building the multicultural society of tomorrow”. It appears they were looking at what they could take forward in the future but not really about how to build today’s (back then) multiculturalist society.

Immigrants to the United Kingdom are welcome, even encouraged to keep speaking their native languages, practicing their cultural traditions and their religions. As Adrian Favell argues “Britain sees integration as a question of managing public order and relations between majority and minority populations and allowing ethnic cultures and practice to mediate the process.“[7]. The British mind-set was that in a well politically constructed multi-ethnic environment, racism would be teared down, dialogue would be the key and comprehensiveness would rule. There should be no conflict of identity. Not for the migrants coming to the UK, nor for the British who were witnessing the evolution of the ethnic landscape.  There was no conflict of identity intended from the beginning, and I don’t think the first, second nor the third generation face a conflict of identity. Multiculturalism, meant for their “native identities” to go alongside the British one (often called Britishness), maybe to straddle, but not to conflict each other. They have a “layered identity” as historian Linda Colley says[8].

On the other hand, identities conflict in France. Especially for migrants coming from the Maghreb and they conflict even more when it comes to the French-Algerian population. In the 60s, the French mind-set was very similar to the British. Only, the lecture of the situation was opposite, their lecture of imperial history is drastically different. French had the Algerian war that acts like a branding iron mark in people’s minds, on policies, in the diplomatic game etc. Also, the Revolution of 1789 still weights on the French daily life. The revolutionaries took down the monarchy by divine right and the system of unmoveable social classes. In a nutshell, to avoid religion to be used as an argument of power or as an element that could create inequality between people; laicity (political secularism) was created, on top of secularism. Added to these historic arguments, French tend to be more often driven by their feelings than the British do. The latter are known to be more pragmatic[9]

Assimilation, the French social integration process is a very inclusive and convergent one. Immigrants are expected to conform themselves to the neighbouring environment. Their native identity should come second after the French one.

Both former empires dictated social interactions policies, albeit they cannot erase memories and heritages.

  1. The colonial memory as a key element to hold a nation together

The colonial memory is how a state and its people remember the colonial history and heritage and how to move forward as a united nation. This concept was developed and theorized by the French scholar Benjamin Stora in 1978[10]. The memory can be awaken and gave rise to by memorials, in French, lieux de mémoire. I consider as ground definition of lieux de mémoire, the one produced by Pierre Nora in 1992[11]: “a lieux de mémoire – a memorial – in every sense of the word, might be an object physically concrete, maybe locatable or something abstract and intellectually constructed.” A memorial to the fallen, a museum, a movie, a myth are “objects of memory”. They become “lieux de mémoire” when the state or a group of person make it a lieux de mémoire. I use the French term, as it is more precise than the generic English term “memorial”. All the lieux de mémoire appeal to collective memory.

In the UK, there is no state-established colonial memory whereas in France, it is very strong, which is paradoxical. Indeed, in the UK, communities are recognized as such but the state seems reluctant to establish colonial memory and the communities, more often than not, are not acquainted to the concept, thus rarely ask for an official mark that embodies their side of history. Whereas the French constitution states communities do not exist in France, as the French people is one and united, nevertheless the state does establish a colonial memory and often groups of people, associations, are in demand of this establishment.

The UK is more diligent to focus on the British imperial memory and heritage, oppositely France is more thorough to focus on its colonial memory than its imperial one.

Colonial memory, collective memory, and education (mandatory history classes in high school) are bound to hold a people together as a nation-state. However, both countries are seeing extreme right wing parties, not only becoming non avoidable political actors but also the French and British populations agreeing more and more with the extreme right wing discourses.

There is no doubt migration numbers have increased impacting the ethnic and cultural landscape. A parallel with France could be draw. In the last decade, new migrants to the UK were asked to speak English to ease their integration. This debate led to an outburst in the media and civil society, as this issue was raise for the first time. Multiculturalism hit a new limit. In January 2013, a poll revealed long-term migrants were very preoccupied by the increase of migration flows. This is the phenomena of “I-close-the-door-after-myself”, quite common in countries with mass migration. The rise of extreme-right wing parties can be put in perspective with the arguments above.

III.               Conclusion:

1.      Rising extreme right wing parties as a statement against immigration 

The results of both integration processes are not the ones we have counted on to be delivered as communitarianism is one of the outcomes.

In the UK like in France, these parties are standing firm against immigration. In the last decade, conflicts have been physical and political in both former colonial empires. Indeed, UK faced riots in August 2011. France also had its fair share of riots in 2005. Both riots were triggered by policemen involved in the death of teenagers who were descendants of immigrants. These riots showed how much second- and subsequent- generation immigrants are feeling left-aside.

The UK has currently two extreme right wing parties: the British National Party and the UK Independent Party. The BNP is a long term rooted party while UKIP has been created in 1993 and made its first major breakthrough at the local elections in 2013. Two years later, in May 2015 during the General Elections, Nigel Farrage and his party came out as the third party of the UK, based on number of votes with 12.6% and only one seat at the Parliament. In 2014, they scored about 27%[12] at the European elections.

Right after the UK General Elections, Nigel Farrage congratulated himself for placing immigration as the number one topic discussed in the country. Farrage played the anti-European and anti-immigration cards during his campaign. Polls and surveys on the Brexit contradict one another, and they have been for years. It is fair to assume British people are not fiercely against the European Union, as the urban legend spreads. Although, it is an electoral lever that stood the test of time, and is less likely to work in France.

The Migration Observatory published a report in June 2013   displaying that 77% of British people think immigration is “high” or “too high”, 18% think it is “fair”, 4% “too low” and 1% has no answer. 77% is obviously a very high number, especially in a society where multiculturalism is the integration model advocated.

In France, the Front National is the extreme-right wing party and it had its major breakthrough at the Presidential Elections in 2002 where Jean-Marie Le Pen was at the second round, running against Jacques Chirac. Until 2014, they scored around 10-12%, but at the last European elections they scored similar numbers to UKIP.

2.      Are integration models, myths and could they be enhanced by the implementation of a (even) stronger colonial memory?

Nowadays, Paul Gilroy depicts multiculturalism as a “blurred term” and “being counterproductive and pronounced dead”[13]. In his argumentation he thereafter stands against the death of multiculturalism even though there are “zombies” terrifying the power in place and the establishment of multiculturalism itself.

Even though immigration has been decreasing in both countries since 2012, British and French populations tend to “feel” immigration is constantly increasing and act upon it by voting for extreme-right wing parties, if they actually do vote.

The newly open arisen of racism through France and Great Britain shows the failure of the two models of integration and both states’ incapacity to determine a balance between education, memorial laws, and the respect of other cultures.

By following Gilroy’s way of thoughts, a different conclusion could be made. Indeed, according to him, as long as many others (Sneja Gunew, “Haunted Nations: the colonial dimensions of multiculturalism”; Etienne Balibar; Greg Clancy; Reza Hasmath even Samuel Huntington) that multiculturalism is not working as much as it used to and as it should. From the research I have done so far, multiculturalism and assimilation do not exist. They are collective ideas. Integration in both countries was and is the result of regular social interactions and integration patterns. Although, education in all its form, basically raising awareness of others and history definitely improve integration.

The creation of museums of immigration, teaching colonial and imperial history in middle and high school, expand and include former colonised people in national remembrance ceremonies are only few examples of a stronger colonial memory to a better integration and move forward as united people.

[1] Clothilde Houot, “Securing Empire after WWI: Local and imperial armed forces in Britain and France’s Middle-Eastern mandates” paper presented at the conference Amongst Empire at Lingnan University (May 2015) – pending publication;

Berny Sébe, Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[2] Jordanna Balkin, The Afterlife of Empire., Berkeley and London, Berkeley University Press, 2012.

[3] Rienzo, Cinzia and Carlos Vargas-Silva. “Migrants in the UK: An Overview,” Migration Observatory briefing,

COMPAS, University of Oxford, December 2012.

[4] Michèle Tribalat, Assimilation, la fin du modèle français, Editions du Toucan, September 2013, p.64.

[5] idem

[6] Mostly speeches and correspondences between the Embassy, the Permanent Missions to the UN and the British Government.

[7] Adrian Favell, Philosophies of Integration. Immigration and the idea of citizenship in France and Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998, p.4.

[8] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1701–1837, Yale University Press, (1992).

[9] The British are more pragmatic about imperialism, its memory and immigration. They are in general and it is a component I would like to include in my thesis.

[10] Benjamin Stora, Messali Hadj, pionnier du nationalisme algérien (1898-1974), (Paris : La Sycomore), 1982. (doctoral thesis defended in 1978, published four years later).

[11] Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de mémoire, (Paris : Gallimard), 1984–1992, and « Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire » No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24.


[13] Paul Gilroy, « « My Britain is fuck all » zombie multiculturalism and the rce politics of citizenship », in Identities Global Studies in Culture and Power, 19:4, p.384, Routledge, 2012.

Diane Jeanblanc
PhD Student in British History and Political Sociology

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