A couple of days ago Laurence Monroe, who is French and a woman despite what you might think from the name, interviewed me for a book she is writing about Catholicism in the U.S. for a publisher in France. I told her I didn't know anything (or almost anything) about Catholicism, but she wanted to know about "Hispanics." She obviously had read my book Hispanic Nation very thoroughly, but knew that her French audience would be deeply puzzled by the ethnic dynamic I describe. They do ethnicity differently in France, as you know if you been following the big headscarf flap over there.
She got me thinking about some of these differences. America (I mean here that small part of America that is the U.S.) has had to accept wave after wave of immigrants, each group demanding its rights to its own interpretation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and each changing and enlarging the culture. The Americans already here have tried to force them into the older Dutch-English-German mold that this country started with, but instead the Poles, the Irish, the Italians, the newer German Catholics and German Protestants and German Jews, then the Russian and other East European Jews, and now millions of Latin Americans and Asians and some smaller numbers of Africans break and reshape the mold.
The French try to make everybody who immigrates French, and they have a pretty clear idea what that means, from the most ironic intellectuals down to the reader of the police pages of Le Matin. Among other things, it includes speaking the language à la Académie Française, thinking with the logic of Descartes, and not wearing headscarves. Religion is optional. We Americans don't even have a consensus of what it means to be American, and those fundamentalist Christians who think they do have almost no influence over the American educated classes.
L'égalité à la française really isn't the same thing at all as "equality" in the American lexicon. The French version means that everybody should be equally subjected to the same laws. The American version means everybody has the equal right to "pursue happiness" even if there is a law that gets in the way. Here, people can be equal but different. Remember the legal principle that justified (rationalized) school segregation in the days before Brown v. Board of Education? In France, "separate but equal" sounded simply illogical, another example of the bizarre irrationality of Anglo-Saxons. They had a point.