The terrorist bombings in Brussels and Paris in recent months have brought a strong and at times xenophobic edge to the continuing discussion on immigration and the integration of minorities in Europe. While previous articles on this website have focused on the migrant crisis, this article looks at issues with regards integration of migrants in European society, in particular the risks associated with the development of parallelgesellschaften (parallel societies) as expounded upon by Wilhelm Heitmeyer.

While Heitmeyer’s seminal idea came to prominence in the early 1990s, the emergence of parallel societies far predates Heitmeyer’s analysis. Historical precedents suggests that ‘ghettoization’ of migrant communities in Europe is not, as often thought, a recent post Second World War phenomenon, but rather has historical precedents across Europe in all previous migration flow. Indeed France, one of the traditional case studies of modern day parallel societies, displayed parallelgesellschaftliche tendencies in some communes as early as the 1930s, where migrants from similar cultural and geographic backgrounds concentrated in specific arrondissements to the extent that 1,700 of the circa 36,000 communes in France had a foreign population close to or exceeding the native French population (Noiriel, 1988).

A previous article addressed the geopolitical preferences often considered by European states when scripting migration policy, and the French immigration model, while nominally one of the least discriminatory with regards concepts of race and ethnicity, historically attempted to encourage necessary migration from other European states as opposed to utilising the ever ready but less ‘desirable’ migrants from its former colonies in the Maghreb (Schain, 2012, p. 48). Indeed while the clampdown on migration from former colonies was somewhat successful in reducing the numbers entering France to work, the number of migrant family members travelling to France rose rapidly in the following decades, responsible for 77% of all immigration into France in 1984 (Ibid., p. 65). Similarities can be seen in the German experience of immigration, where the growth of family reunification as a proportion of total migration has come to be regarded as one of the major tipping points in the parallelgesellschaften discussion – in part owing to these new predominantly house-based migrants being perceived as less likely to integrate with others from outside their ethnic group, and likewise owing to family reunification being at odds with Germany’s traditional Gastarbeiter (short-term) migration policy.

The realisation that the temporary Gastabeiter model, so long the official position on migration, was removed from the reality led to the rise of the discussion on whether these migrants would become fully integrated into German society, culturally, linguistically and even religiously. While parallel societies and integration have long been key focuses in sociology and the wider social sciences, the perceived threat of disillusioned ethnic minorities being attracted to increasingly extreme and militant ideologies has ensured that the topics of integration and parallel societies, with particular emphasis on the Muslim community, continues to gain major traction in political discussion. Naturally, there is a refusal by those on the anti-immigrant ‘Right’ to constructively engage in a discussion on the issue of parallel ethnic community formation. More surprisingly perhaps is the apparent unwillingness by much of the ‘Left’ to acknowledge that the emergence of distinct minority ethnic communities can damage the fabric of society, seemingly preferring to believe in harmless multiculturalism, with the resultant social ills evident within such communities being explained away as the product of economic deprivation and government neglect as opposed to ethnic concentration. Yet parallelgesellschaften are multicultural in image only, with the population of parallel communities like Molenbeek in Brussels, perhaps the most infamous parallelgesellschaft of the current time, 80% Moroccan or Moroccan descent in make-up, illustrating how the combination of white flight and chain migration can recreate distinct ethnic communities within short periods of time.


Photo Credit: Romain Veillon

There is a propensity for ethnic parallel communities to become disengaged from dominant communities and norms. This is evident not only in France and Belgium, currently the prime focuses of media attention, but also in Britain, perhaps most notably when social tensions have expressed themselves through violence as in the 2011 riots. The riots, while initiated by the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in London, spread across London and to Birmingham, Bristol, Gloucester, Nottingham and other cities, taking on a distinctly ethno-racial edge in cities with large ethnic minority communities.

Following up on these events, it is easy to be drawn into making the conclusion that large ethnic minority communities will invariably lead to increased social tensions, segregation and ultimately hold a propensity towards violent social disturbances. Yet this summation in no way accurately represents the wider picture of ethno-racial relations, nowhere better illustrated than in the multicultural hotspot that is Leicester City. Currently the darling of football neutrals, Leicester City has been regarded as a posterchild of British multiculturalism for far longer than its current time in the football limelight. Outside of London, Leicester is the most ethnically diverse city in England; only 45% of the population identified themselves as ‘White British’, and only 50.6% describing themselves as ‘White’ in the 2011 Census. In terms of faith, only one third of Leicester City is Christian, again the lowest for any city in Britain outside of London. While the original migration to Leicester may have come predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and Asians displaced from newly independent and ethno-nationalist African states like Uganda[i], migrant backgrounds have diversified to include Africans, Asians and Black-Caribbean. Yet despite this increase in the ethnic makeup of the population, there is little conflict reported between individuals of different faiths and backgrounds, with disturbances in the city during the 2011 riots miniscule when compared to other British cities.

Indeed, Leicester has come to be seen as the realisation of the idyllic Multicultural arrangement, so much so that the public policy commentators speak of the lauded ‘Leicester Model’. There is no universally agreed upon explanation as to what makes the Leicester model of Multiculturalism so successfully different to other cities of similar ethnic plurality, but the role of positive public discourse in promoting social cohesion in the city, such as by the local media, has been attributed to helping to reinterpret multiculturalism as a positive for the city of Leicester. In this regard, the Leicester Mercury, Leicester’s regional daily, plays a leading role, with the editor of the paper setting up the Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group in 2001, and portraying multiculturalism in a positive light in the contents of the paper.

Leicester is distinct not because of its peaceful multicultural existence, but rather is peaceful on account of the makeup of its ethnic communities. In the first instance, migrants to Leicester were predominantly ‘twice immigrants’, who having already migrated to another country (predominantly former colonies) prior to migrating to Leicester, were equipped with entrepreneurial experience, education and professional competence. While ethnically diverse, immigrants to the city have traditionally been more economically successful prior to moving to Leicester, bringing with them skills to generate their own wealth and better adapt to the local economy. As such, while riots occurred in other cities with high structural unemployment, this was not such a major issue in Leicester where Indian business continues to be largely responsible for the city’s prosperity (Machin and Meyer, 2007, p. 457).

Yet doubt remains as to whether this positive discourse is sufficient in continuing to promote multi-ethnic cohabitation and collaboration in the city. Leicester is, according to commentators such as Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, at risk of ‘sleepwalking in ghettoization’. New immigrants moving to the city are largely unskilled, and predominantly take up low-level jobs in the services sector. Machin and Mayr (2007) perceives a distinct risk that Leicester, the posterchild of multiculturalism, has a growing alienated and embittered population living in poverty and at risk of disaffection that is being ignored by the official ‘carnival’ view of multiculturalism that seeks to highlight the successes of multiculturalism without acknowledging the minorities being marginalised. This ‘carnival view’ of multiculturalism is perpetuated both by the media (Machin and Mayr focusing their discourse analysis on the Leicester Mercury) and business leaders, for whom the creation of a positive ‘Leicester as a brand’ image is important in attracting business and wealth that can in turn keep unemployment and deprivation down.

By refusing to acknowledge the fact that certain minorities are being marginalised in society, social actors may unwittingly ensure that race and racism do not become obvious concerns, but rather form part of what Bourdieu (1972) termed the ‘doxic’, or the socially taken for granted. While the refusal to acknowledge racial markers might be regarded as a positive, it does not mean that ethno-racial distinctions are non-existent, but rather that they take on less obvious forms. Ethnic background is still a strong determinant in network formation and economic prosperity, and refusing to acknowledge the influence of ethno-racial divisions in society means that many of these potential fractures in social cohesion are likely to be papered over as opposed to being resolved. Sociologist Michele Lamont (2000) has even ventured to argue that the refusal to acknowledge ethnic differences and characteristics, intended at delegitimising one form of racism, is itself perpetuating a new form of racism by drawing clear distinctions between those who share and partake in a universalistic culture (majority of citizens) and those who do not (minorities).

Indeed, this insistence with delegitimising ethnic and racial distinctions, to the extent that violence and other social vices are attributed to anything but ethno-racial division, can be regarded as being responsible in part for the continuation of such ills. There continues to be a strong portrayal from a distinctly westernised perspective that ethno-racial conflict, segregation and even radicalisation witnessed in communities like Molenbeek is being thrust upon a passive populace, vulnerable victims of economic and social deprivation, owing to their rejection by majority communities in society. Teun Voeten, writing on his experiences as a resident in Molenbeek, argues that this discourse only succeeds in portraying radicalised individuals as victims to the exclusion of all personal responsibility:

 The debate is paralysed by a paternalistic discourse in which radical Muslim youths are seen, above all, as victims of social and economic exclusion. They in turn internalize this frame of reference, of course, because it arouses sympathy and frees them from taking responsibility for their actions.


Such discourse purposely simplifies parallel societies into something that results from general social ills such as poverty, and not towards the harbouring of a distinct cultural and value system that promotes distance from dominant and other minority communities. There is no doubt that economic and social deprivation plays a major role in the formation of parallel societies, and that life in the Banlieues Rouge is indeed visibly inferior to the quality experienced by the middle class majority. But refusing to acknowledge other determinants in the development of parallel societies is a naïve statement of belief in a Multicultural system that history has illustrated the flaws of. Research indicates that in Britain ethnic minority identities are being formed on ethnic and even ethno-religious lines, with British Muslims in particular identifying far more strongly with their religion than with their British identity, and less concerned with problems of unemployment than with the perceived decline of religion and the influence of pop culture (Schain, 2012, pp. 19, 20, 167), in spite of the British public being no less accepting and indeed in some instances even more accepting of expressions of Muslim identity and multiculturalism than their fellow European countries (German Marshall Fund of the United States, p. 29; in Schain, 2012).

The British example would seem to indicate that inability to integrate is not merely down to economic negligence of areas as inferred by the Left, but a more complex issue largely revolving around ethnic and religious identities. Unless these issues are addressed as workable issues of concern, as opposed to being discarded as irrelevant or even racist considerations, the promotion of successful intercultural dialogue in modern European societies is likely to continue to battle against a natural flow towards ethnic stratification.

[i] In 1972, Idi Amin ordered Uganda’s minority Asian population out of the country within 90 days. Of the 27,000 Asian Ugandans that left the former colony for Britain, 5,000 travelled to Leicester, thanks in part to adverts taken out by the Leicester City Council in Ugandan newspapers intended at discouraging migrants having the adverse effect of in fact bringing the city to the attention of would-be migrants.



Lamont, M. (2000) The dignity of working men: morality and the boundaries of race, class, and immigration. Russell Sage Foundation: Harvard University Press.

Machin, D.  and A. Mayr  (2007)  ‘Antiracism in the British government’s model regional newspaper: the ‘talking cure’’. Discourse and Society, 18(4), pp. 453-477.

Noiriel, G. (1988) Le creuset Français : histoire de l’immigration XIX-XXe siècles.  Éditions Points: Paris.

Schain, M. A. (2012) The politics of immigration in France, Britain and the United States : a comparative study . Palgrave Macmillan: USA.



Ryan Ó Giobúin

Ryan Ó Giobúin is a PhD candidate in Sociology in Trinity College Dublin, having previously studied Sociology and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin and Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Ryan's interests range across economic, political and social issues, with specific interest in social policy, ethnic identity formations and conflict studies.

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