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Incomplete Assimilation among Muslims in France


Recognizing the political consequences for Europe of Muslim immigration, and relying on a novel identification strategy, this paper investigates why Muslim assimilation into French cultural norms is incomplete, and provides experimental and survey evidence that reveals the low expected payoffs that Muslim immigrants in France receive for full assimilation. While the data show that rooted French people initially distrust Muslims (compared to a matched set of Christians)  in part due to their unwillingness to fully assimilate, the real source of Muslim reluctance to fully assimilate is their perception that in anonymous transactions (i.e., through French institutions) they will always be perceived as foreign and face discrimination.

Workshop paper is available to Stanford affiliates upon request by email to

David Laitin is the James T. Watkins IV and Elise V. Watkins Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. He received his B.A. in Political Science from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include comparative politics, nation-state formation, ethnic conflict, and religion. Among his publications are Politics, Language and Thought: The Somali Experience (1977), Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba (1986), Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa (1992), Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (1998), and Nations, States and Violence (2007). Prof. Laitin has been a recipient of fellowships from the Howard Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.


Event Summary

Professor Laitin opens the seminar by providing background on the research project that motivated the paper. This examined: whether Muslim immigrants in France faced unique social and economic barriers; the source of the barriers; and whether French republicanism exacerbated or lessened the barriers. He provides a brief summary of studies examining the first and third points, but the focus of his talk was on the second point: if there are higher barriers for Muslims, who is building them?

Professor Laitin then describes the study his research team carried out on a Senegalese population in France for 15 years, drawing on equal-sized groups of Muslims and Christians from similar social and economic conditions. Through a series of games and surveys, the team observed that within Senegalese Muslims in France, certain groups assimilate more than others, and those that assimilate less are treated worse by French individuals and institutions. Many of the Muslims expected to be treated less generously by French individuals, and reported more experiences of discrimination from French institutions, which Professor Laitin's team found was more difficult to overcome than individual discrimination. This group also exhibited stronger financial ties (measured by investments and remittances sent to Senegal from France) and emotional ties (measured by desire to be buried in Senegal rather than France after death). The results of the study are used to provide a series of decision rules and reward matrixes for incoming Senegalese Muslims, including the likelihood of penalties and rewards for assimilation, such as giving children French names.

During a discussion period following the presentation, such questions were raised as: Do the results of the study have more to do with the respondents being Muslim, or simply not being French - or, do other ethnic or religious groups have the same problems assimilating into French Catholic society? Is the example of preferences for burial locations more about ties to Senegal than lack of ties to France? How much of the effect is due to being black rather than Muslim? Will the results of the study change as the Muslim population in France increases? What has been the reception in France to the prohibition of collecting ethnographic data? Why is "incomplete assimilation" framed as a "response" to the discrimination - is it a choice or is it just the way things are? Where does the fault lie in the discrimination reported in the survey?