The creation of Modern France through expansion goes back to the establishment of a small kingdom in the area around Paris in the late tenth century and was not completed until the incorporation of Nice and Savoy in 1860. The existing "hexagon" was the result of a long series of wars and conquests involving the triumph of French language and culture over what once were autonomous and culturally distinctive communities. The assimilation of Gascons, Savoyards, Occitans, Basques, and others helped to sustain the myth that French overseas expansionism in the nineteenth century, especially to North and West Africa, was a continuation of the same assimilationist project.
It seems to me that the United States and France can learn from each other. French universalism, or its equivalent, is a powerful weapon against racism, which is based on the belief in innate unalterable differences among human groups. Stressing what rights all people have because of what they have in common remains at the heart of anti-racism. A stronger awareness of such human commonality may be needed in the United States at a time when a stress on diversity and ethnic particularism may deprive us of any compelling vision of the larger national community and impede cooperation in the pursuit of a free and just society. On the other hand the identification of such universalism with a particular national identity and with specific cultural traits that go beyond essential human rights can lead to an intolerance of the Other that approaches color-coded racism in its harmful effects.