RBR asked about the difference between integration and assimilation. I think it is important to explore this question in the French context. It is one of the major differences between the French system and our own. And let me open by saying that I respect the French because they have a valid world view that is often discarded as being, "just too French". But that is very unfair. Needless to say, they are facing some serious issues when it comes to defining the fundamental values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Notice that fraternity, that idea of national solidarity, is a founding value for the French. For a brief, broad historical overview, see below .
Integration is the American model. It is the melting pot, salad bowl, model. You can be Whatever-American. You don't sacrifice what you are to become American. Becoming American just enriches that which you are. We talk about multiculturalism and identity, so much so that we claim our diversity as our identity. This is tied to our idea of self-determination and independence. We aren't about fraternity. And in practice, we see equality in terms of justice or treating similarly situated people similarly. We are less Cartesian and more pragmatic in our approach. So we don't think that dogmatic equality is possible. The French do. This doesn't make us better or any less discriminatory than the French. Let's not ignore the huge role that race plays in the US and the deep divisions it creates. But we have a pretty fluid notion of what "American" means. It means you buy into the value system; you agree to the social contract. If you do that, you are in. Your language, your social position, your background are less important.
The French, however, have a strong national identity and a sense of patriotism that can rival that of Americans. They don't have such a fluid attitude about who they are and they aren't keen on acquiring one. In France there is no such thing as Whatever-French. The French notion of equality means sameness. You are accepted to the degree that 1) you look French and 2) the degree to which you act French. This simplifies things a lot because you can nullify differences. You don't have to create policy to deal with the non-French or visible minorities.
You have this attitude because if you are French, you have a pretty good way of life and a pretty long history of either outsiders or societal rifts undoing it. Consider that France has been through countless wars, dictatorship, 2 empires, military occupation, civil war, and 5 Republics. There was a time when the French would wake up in the morning surprised if they had the same government as the day before. The Fifth Republic nearly fell in the last elections. Their salvation (and sometimes their undoing) has always come by being unified against outsiders and having strong leadership.
In America, we ask where you are from so as to learn something interesting. In France you are asked about your family origins, and if they are acceptable, you are in. In America, minorities can and do control a great deal of our politics- whether they be ideological or racial minorities. In France, elites run the show, an idea left over from before 1789.
All of that said, I think the French have valid concerns about how you establish equality and how you maintain a secular state. Being dogmtaic about it ensures that the rights of the whole and the greatest number are protected. And I think this may be wrapped up in some notion of an ideal sized population that can be provided for. We are a nation of minorties wrapped into a sinlge contract. The French are a nation of a majority that is fracturing into minorities.
Many of the concerns I hear in California about immigrants are the same ones I hear in France. They draw away important resources; they refuse to live our way they don't respect our customs, etc. These are concerns based on fear and insecurity. So poverty, exclusion, lack of education are blamed on the immigrant for failing to assimilate rather than on society for failing to allow him entry.
Lets start with decolonization. The French have long maintained a system similar to that of the commonwealth called TOM / DOM.This system allows people from former colonies to enter into France with favorable immigration and visa terms. This was useful for France on two fronts. First, it helped meet labor needs created by the devastation of WWII. Secondly, it kept the world populated with French citizens. But for this to work, total assimilation (Frenchification) had to take place. So no special allowances for foreignness. This was easy, so long as the immigrants came from other European countries. To accomodate these immigrants, "projects" were built in the suburbs of large citys. These quickly turned into over crowded slums that spearated the immigrants from the French and made both assimilation and integration impossible.
With the fall of Algeria in 1962, France began to see the arrival of Muslims. The baby boom, the liberation of woman, and growing economic prosperity ended the need for immigrant labor and increased resentment toward Muslims who suddenly wanted to build mosques in French villages.
So to halt immigration, Pasqua Laws, named after former Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua were enacted in 1993. Under these laws, many legal immigrants found themselves suddenly illegal. And those who had been living in France for several years, and thus were entitled to legal papers, were suddenly faced with deportation. These laws were aimed at a "zero immigration" policy and were supported by the likes of Chirac. At the same time, Le Pen began to gain favor, especially in the South. The Pasqua Laws worked. Between 1991 and 1995, legal immigration was cut in half. By 1996, however, the problems started. In a few cases, refugees and asylum seekers barricaded themselves into churches to avoid deportation and to protest Pasqua Laws. The French Constitutional Court had declared certain provisions of these laws as illegal. And slowly, the tide turned and the laws were loosened or dropped. Immigration started to rise.
Today, the French do not keep statistics on the number or nationality of its immigrants. It does distinguish in its statistics between those born in France, naturalized citizens, and foreigners in general. This category contains children under 18 who were born in France.