Discussions about how best to manage the cultural pluralism created by immigration have become increasingly frequent among policymakers and the public in Western democratic societies. Central to the debates is the distinction between two opposing acculturation ideologies that offer different strategies for engaging with cultural diversity: multiculturalism and assimilation. Acculturation ideologies describe—and prescribe—the ways in which immigrants and other minority groups choose to express markers of culture (e.g., clothing, food, values, religion) and interact with the majority group members in a host society (Sam and Berry, 2006). Within the assimilation framework, immigrants would abandon their home culture while fully taking up the language, values and customs of the majority group in the host society. By contrast, multiculturalism describes a system in which the majority group’s culture coexists harmoniously with other cultures; in such cases immigrants retain aspects of their home cultures while also adopting some aspects of the host society’s culture.

Across Europe, countries have adopted the logic of different acculturation ideologies to try and manage cultural diversity. On the one hand, the Netherlands and Great Britain abide by the doctrine of state multiculturalism, which refers to the acceptance of cultural pluralism resulting from immigration (Berry and Kalin, 1995; Sam and Berry, 2006) and contends that cultural differences should be acknowledged and valued rather than ignored (Wiles, 2007). On the other hand, countries such as France have pursued a policy of assimilation that places explicit pressure on immigrants to adopt quintessentially French behaviour and traditions, while distancing themselves from the culture of their home country (Brubaker, 2004). Indeed, French policies uphold a single national identity by not recognising race or ethnicity as defining characteristics (Jennings, 2000), and by relegating religion to the private sphere.

For a long time assimilation was assumed to be the official immigration policy in France (e.g., Sam and Berry, 2006). However, recent work suggests that the policy actually being implemented in France is “republicanism” (Guimond et al., 2013), based on an ideology of acculturation that includes two contradictory components (Badea, 2012). On the one hand, the policy builds on the values of democratic citizenship that promote positive intergroup attitudes. On the other hand, the policy also includes the less egalitarian concept of “laïcité” (or secularism), which is linked to increased intolerance and prejudice (Roebroeck and Guimond, 2016).

In this research, we examine individuals’ endorsement of assimilation and multiculturalism as possible pathways to prejudice against immigrants. We do not consider republicanism—even though it is the policy being implemented in France—for two reasons. First, the contradictory components of republicanism complicate the interpretation of individuals’ adherence to this model: The role of each component and their respective meanings should be taken into account. Second, we wish to consider how individuals from the majority group view immigrants as a clear outgroup (e.g., perceived threat). The model of republicanism offers limited ideological space for this concept, because it starts from the assumption that the group membership of individuals must be ignored. In contrast, the assimilation and multiculturalism frameworks allow for the explicit consideration of group memberships: They do not propose to erase social categorizations, but rather offer different views regarding whether they should be modified to create a single common category (i.e., assimilation) or to create different categories based on multiple group memberships (i.e., multiculturalism).

In this research we seek to demonstrate that the perceived threat of immigration shapes the link between national identification, endorsement of acculturation ideologies, and prejudice against immigrants. We begin by examining how attachment to the nation in-group may impact attitudes towards immigrant minorities.

National identification and prejudice against immigrants

The link between national identification and negative attitudes towards outgroups is complex. In particular, the way in which the national group is defined can shape attitudes against immigrants (Pehrson and Green, 2010). A common distinction is made between ethnic and civic forms of nationalism (Smith and Brookins, 1997). Ethnic nationalism is based on a definition of the national group in terms of ethnic ancestry, with nations seen as natural entities based on group membership rather than as politically created communities. In contrast, civic nationalism assumes that the nation is based on common citizenship and participation in society, rather than on primordial ethnic ties. While the civic definition of the nation is associated with higher tolerance towards immigrants, the ethnic definition often excludes certain immigrants from being national group members. The national definitions are reflected in the immigration and citizenship policies of nation-states (Brubaker, 2004). When citizenship is tied to ethnicity, ethnic natives are more entitled to citizenship than children of immigrants born on the national territory. In contrast, the civic national definition corresponds to a more egalitarian policy such as multiculturalism or colour-blindness, where all individuals are able to get citizenship independently of their group of origin.

Though in this research we did not examine the distinction between ethnic and civic definition of the nation, we start with the assumption that the political French context—as presented in the print media and television debates—does not look favourably on cultural diversity (Mahfud, Badea, Guimond, Anier, and Ernst-Vintila, 2016). In addition, numerous studies have shown the association between national identification and prejudice against immigrants (Pettigrew, Wagner, and Christ, 2007; Verkuyten, 2004).

This association is typically explained by the mediating role of perceived threat: High national identifiers perceive more threat from immigration compared to low national identifiers, which in turn increases negative attitudes against immigrants. Immigrants can be perceived as a symbolic threat to the host country—due to perceived group differences in moral, values, standards, beliefs, and attitudes—but also as a realistic threat to the host country’s economic resources and political power (Stephan, Diaz-Loving, and Duran, 2000).

Research has provided consistent empirical evidence for the role of threat in mediating the link between national identification and prejudice toward immigrants (Esses, Dovidio, Jackson, and Armstrong, 2001). Among white American students in the United States, for instance, as more participants identified with the national group, the more they perceived an immigrant minority group as a threat to national identity, and the more they consequently expressed prejudice against this ethnic group (Stephan, et al., 2000). Similar findings have been reported in investigations of Dutch adolescents’ national identification and their prejudice towards Muslims immigrants (Velasco González, Verkuyten, Weesie, and Poppe, 2008).

A second documented mediator between national identification and prejudice against immigrants is majority group members’ endorsement of specific acculturation ideologies (i.e., assimilation versus multiculturalism). In a study carried out in France, high national identification was associated with higher endorsement of assimilation rather than of multiculturalism, which in turn was linked to a high level of prejudice (Badea, 2012; Mahfud, Badea, and N’Gbala, 2015). The positive association between endorsement of assimilation and prejudice might appear surprising, as assimilation requires a level of conformity to mainstream society that should effectively serve to reduce the threat posed by immigrant groups. Indeed, sometimes, the endorsement of assimilation brings a sense of security, confidence, and control to majority group members (Verkuyten, 2004, Study 1), which in turn might decrease perceptions of threat and, consequently, prejudice against immigrants. However, endorsement of assimilation also suggests that the majority group does not value the differences that immigrant groups bring to mainstream society. Instead, such endorsement might be related to fear that immigrants do not wish to assimilate and consequently, might increase prejudice (Badea, 2012; Levin et al., 2012).

In contrast, the multiculturalism ideology celebrates diversity, where immigrants retain their cultural differences within mainstream society in the host country. As such, one would expect that endorsement of multiculturalism would reduce the majority group’s prejudice against immigrants. Indeed, multiculturalism advocates for equality between cultures, with minority cultures being considered as valuable as the majority culture (Levin et al., 2012).

Previous research has clearly documented the role of perceived threat from immigrants and endorsement of acculturation ideologies in shaping the majority group’s level of prejudice against immigrants. However, little is known about how perceived threat and endorsement of acculturation ideologies are related to each other. Does perceived threat predict majority group members’ endorsement of multiculturalism and assimilation ideologies?

Perception of threat as preceding endorsement of acculturation ideologies

We hypothesise that perceived threat of immigration promotes endorsement of specific acculturation ideologies (see Figure 1). In this model, strong identification at the national level is associated with increased perception of threat, which in turn is related to higher endorsement of assimilation and lower endorsement of multiculturalism. In turn, a preference for assimilation is associated with prejudice against immigrants, while a preference with multiculturalism is linked to positive intergroup attitudes.

Figure 1 

Hypothesized theoretical model.

Many studies provide partial evidence for the causal order specified in this model. Some focus on the link between national identification, perception of immigration threat, and preference for multiculturalism. For example, studies among ethnic Dutch participants (Verkuyten, 2009) show that the relationship between national identification and support for multiculturalism is mediated by perceived realistic and symbolic threat: as more participants identified with the Netherlands, the more they perceived threat from Muslim immigrants, and the less they endorsed the multiculturalism ideology.

Other studies focus on the link between national identification and perceived threat. In a meta-analytic review, Riek, Mania, and Gaertner (2006) found that national in-group identification had a significant impact on perception of realistic and symbolic threat coming from immigration. In the Netherlands, Van Oudenhoven, Prins, and Buunk (1998) showed that individuals who identify strongly with the Dutch ingroup were more likely to perceive the presence of ethnic minorities as a threat to Dutch culture and society.

Finally, numerous studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of adherence to multiculturalism on intergroup relations (Plaut, Thomas, and Goren, 2009; Richeson, and Nussbaum, 2004; Roblain, Malki, Azzi, and Licata, 2017). For instance, Wolsko, Park and Judd (2006) found that white American college students’ endorsement of multicultural statements (e.g., “If we want to help create a harmonious society, we must recognize that each ethnic group has the right to maintain its own unique traditions”) reduced negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities. Research conducted by Verkuyten (2005) with Dutch adolescents, who described themselves as Dutch and who had parents of Dutch origin, showed a similar pattern: as more endorsed multiculturalism, the more they show favourable attitudes towards Turkish immigrants. In addition, stronger endorsement of multiculturalism was significantly associated with decreased in-group identification.

We also note that some studies show more ambiguous evidence for the link between multiculturalism and intergroup attitudes. For instance, one study described white Americans who read academic experts’ testimony about the importance of multiculturalism, then reported negative evaluation of Hispanic immigrants in a conflictual situation (Correll, Park, and Smith, 2008). Interviews with Australian majority group members show that multiculturalism can be seen to threaten the unity and stability of Australia (Ginges and Cairns, 2000). In a study carried out in France, endorsement of multiculturalism did not decrease the negative impact of perceived differences between immigrants and the majority group at one hand, and attitudes towards them on the other hand (Mahfud et al., 2016). However, it is possible that multiculturalism was interpreted as “separatism,” which refers to strong allegiance to one’s own ethnic group rather than to the nation-state as a whole. Such views were likely fueled by public debates on national identity (e.g., L’Express, 2015) that tended to present immigrants as threats to national unity and cohesion. This ambiguity in the perception of multiculturalism might be also due to the misrepresentation of the multicultural beliefs in France: while personal support for the multiculturalism is relatively high, people view low levels of collective support for this ideology (Guimond, Streith, and Roebroeck, 2015). The perception of anti-multiculturalism norms can promote bias and discrimination (Guimond et al., 2013), and thus the link between multiculturalism and positive intergroup attitudes likely varies as a function of perceived collective support.

The present research

The present study seeks to clarify the role of national identification, personal endorsement of multiculturalism and assimilation, and perceived threat in shaping French majority group members’ prejudice against immigrants in France. We propose that perceived threat of immigrants precedes endorsement of acculturation ideologies in the link between national identification and prejudice. We argue that highly identified majority group members are more motivated to protect their national identity than are less identified members (Ellemers, Spears, and Doosje, 1999). According to our hypothesized model, highly identified French people will perceive immigrants as more threatening to their national identity (Velasco Gonzáles et al., 2008). Perceived threat of immigration is then associated with higher endorsement of assimilation, which in turn predicts higher level of prejudice. In contrast, less identified French people will perceive immigrants as less threatening. Lower perceived threat is associated with higher endorsement of multiculturalism and, consequently, with lower levels of prejudice toward immigrants.

Alternatively, it might be argued that perceived threat from immigrants could follow from endorsement of either multiculturalism or assimilation. According to this alternative model, highly identified French nationals will endorse assimilation, which would bring a sense of security and diminish the perceived threat of immigration. The perception of lower threat will, then, be associated with decreased prejudice toward immigrants. In contrast, less identified French nationals will endorse multiculturalism, which will be linked to less prejudice. We test this alternative model in the present research.

Method

Participants

The sample consisted of 150 psychology undergraduates who voluntarily participated in the study. One hundred and thirty-five participants declared their mother tongue as being French and were retained in the final sample. Their age ranged from 18 to 30 years (M = 19.78, SD = 1.91). Most of the participants (105) were female, 27 were male, and three did not specify their sex.

Materials and measures

Participants were given a three-page questionnaire and shown how to complete it. The questionnaire included measures of national identification, perception of threat to national identity, endorsement of assimilation and multiculturalism, and prejudice against immigrants. Responses were offered on a seven-point scale (7 = tout à fait d’accord/total agreement, 1 = pas du tout d’accord/total disagreement).

National identification was measured using a five-item scale (α = 0.68) adapted from Badea, Jetten, Czuckor and Askevis Leherpeux (2010). Sample items include, “I define myself as being French” and “Being French is not an important aspect of my personality” (reverse coded). Higher scores indicate higher identification.

A six-item scale (α = 0.93) developed by Velasco Gonzáles et al. (2008) was used to assess the perception of threat to national identity and economic well-being. Sample items included “Immigrants are a threat to French culture” and “Because of immigrants French people have difficulties to find a job”. Higher scores indicate higher perception of threat. Because the two types of threats were highly correlated (r = 0.91), we created a score of general threat.

A six-item scale (α = 0.75) assessed endorsement of assimilation following previous research (Badea, 2012). Sample items included, “Immigrants must adopt French customs and traditions,” and “Immigrants must renounce their culture of origin”. Higher scores indicate stronger endorsement of assimilation.

Endorsement of multiculturalism was assessed using an eight-item scale (α = 0.68) developed by Berry and Kalin (1995), which has been used in previous studies conducted in France (Badea, 2012; Kamiejski, Guimond, De Oliveira, Er-Rafiy, and Brauer, 2012). Sample items included, “The more cultural groups there are, the better it is for a society”, and “National unity may be weakened by the attachments of ethnic groups to their original style” (reverse coded). Higher scores indicate stronger endorsement of multiculturalism.

Prejudice against immigrants was measured using a six-item scale (α = 0.89) developed by Pehrson, Vignoles, and Brown (2009) in a cross-cultural study, including France. Sample items included “Immigrants increase crime rates” and “The number of immigrants must be increased” (reverse coded). Higher scores indicate higher levels of prejudice.

Results

Hypothesized Path Model

Descriptive statistics are presented in the Table 1. To assess the relationships between variables, we conducted two path models using EQS software. In our hypothesised model (see Figure 1), national identification was specified as an exogenous predictor of perceived threat from immigrants, which in turn was specified as a predictor of preference for assimilation and preference for multiculturalism. All three variables were specified as predictors of prejudice.1 Given the expected negative relationship between acculturation orientations (Badea, 2012; Badea, Jetten, Iyer, and Er-Rafiy, 2011), an association was specified between assimilation and multiculturalism.

Table 1

Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations for all variables.

M (SD) 1 2 3 4 5

1. National identification 4.83 (1.14)
2. Perception of threat 3.39 (1.53) 0.17 *
3. Endorsement of assimilation 4.41 (1.02) 0.25 ** 0.51 **
4. Endorsement of multiculturalism 4.75 (0.84) –0.11 –0.47 ** –0.28 **
5. Prejudice 3.71 (1.41) 0.22 ** 0.84 ** 0.59 ** –0.58 **

Note: *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

The hypothesised model provided excellent fit for the data: χ2(3) = 3.78, p = 0.286; NFI = 0.987, CFI = 0.997, IFI = 0.997, GFI = 0.988, SRMR = 0.041, RMSEA = 0.046. Standardised parameter estimates revealed a pattern of relationships consistent with predictions (see Figure 2). National identification was positively associated with threat, which was positively associated with assimilation and negatively associated with multiculturalism. Both threat and multiculturalism predicted prejudice: threat was positively associated with prejudice, whereas higher multiculturalism was negatively associated with prejudice. Assimilation was not significantly associated with prejudice.

Figure 2 

Hypothesized path model.

Note: Standardised parameter estimates shown. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

We next assessed the indirect effect of national identification on prejudice via the two specified pathways, using a serial mediation model in the PROCESS software (Hayes and Preacher, 2014). The first model examined the assimilation pathway (identification - threat - assimilation - prejudice). The 95% Bias Corrected confidence intervals for this indirect effect did include zero, 95% CI [0.00, 0.08]. This indicates that the indirect effect is not significantly different from zero at p < 0.05. The second model examined the multiculturalism pathway (identification - threat - multiculturalism - prejudice). The 95% Bias Corrected confidence intervals for this indirect effect did not include zero, 95% CI [0.04, 0.20]. This indicates that this indirect effect is significantly different from zero at p < 0.05.

Alternative path model

We also assessed an alternative model, which reversed the position of the threat variable on the one hand, and the assimilation and multiculturalism variables on the other hand. In this model, national identification was a predictor of assimilation, multiculturalism and threat. Assimilation and multiculturalism were included as additional predictors of threat, which was specified as the sole predictor of prejudice.

This alternative model did not fit the data well. The χ2 test was significant χ2(3) = 18.306, p < 0.001), the absolute and incremental fit indices were below 0.95 (NFI = 0.936, CFI = 0.944, IFI = 0.946, GFI = 0.942) and the residual fit indices were above 0.05 (SRMR = 0.054, RMSEA = 0.201). The fit of the alternative model cannot be directly compared to the hypothesised model, as they have the same number of degrees of freedom. However, the Model Akaike Information Criterion (Model AIC) values can be compared to ascertain the relative goodness of fit (Kline, 2005). The Model AIC value for the hypothesised model was lower (2.213) than the value for the alternative model (12.306), which suggests that the hypothesised model provides better relative fit for the data.

Discussion

The aim of this research was to understand the link between factors associated with negative attitudes towards immigrants. We proposed that perceived threat of immigrants precedes endorsement of two possible acculturation ideologies: multiculturalism and assimilation. It was argued that highly identified nationals would favour assimilation, and endorsement of assimilation in turn would increase prejudice against immigrants. In contrast, lower national identification would decrease perception of immigrants as a threat, leading to endorsement of difference-friendly multiculturalism and thus reducing prejudice against immigrants (Velasco Gonzáles, et al., 2008; Levin et al., 2012).

Our hypothesized model follows previous work in classifying acculturation ideologies as hierarchy-enhancing or hierarchy-attenuating models (Levin et al., 2012). According to social dominance theory, hierarchies can be enhanced or attenuated by personal endorsement of different acculturation ideologies. Assimilation is a hierarchy-enhancing ideology, promoting the dominant position of majority group members by using their cultural characteristics to define the national identity. By contrast, multiculturalism promotes the maintenance of each ethnic group’s cultural heritage. As an acculturation ideology that recognizes and promotes cultural characteristics of all minority groups, multiculturalism is a hierarchy-attenuating model. Consequently, endorsement of assimilation is associated with higher levels of prejudice, while the preference for multiculturalism is linked to less negative intergroup attitudes (Badea, 2012; Durand-Delvigne, Castel, and Boza, 2017).

Our results with French participants indicate that the hypothesized model provides a better relative fit for the data than the alternative model, which considered perceived threat as an outcome of individuals’ preferences for different acculturation ideologies. In our hypothesized model, however, highly identified majority group members’ endorsement of assimilation did not significantly increase prejudice against immigrants (Levin et al., 2012). In the French context that explicitly encourages immigrants to assimilate to mainstream culture, endorsement of assimilation among majority group members can be used as a shield to cope with the perceived threat of immigration. Endorsement of assimilation in such cases can provide majority group members with a sense of security, confidence, and control–effects that have been shown in previous descriptive research (Verkuyten, 2004, Study 1). As such, endorsement of assimilation did not increase or decrease significantly negative attitudes against immigrants.

The results also support our hypothesis concerning responses from less identified majority group members. Lower national identification decreased perceived threat from immigrants which led to endorsement of difference-friendly multiculturalism and thus reduced prejudice toward immigrants. These results confirm the links between stronger endorsement of multiculturalism and decreased in-group identification, on the one hand (Verkuyten, 2005), and lower negative out-group attitudes on the other (Wolsko et al., 2006). In addition, results extend previous work by demonstrating the central role played by perceived threat from immigrants in shaping negative attitudes against them.

The alternative model reverses the position of the threat variable, specifying perceived threat of immigrants as a consequence of the endorsement of multiculturalism (Ginges and Cairns, 2000). It proposes that higher national identification will be conducive to stronger endorsement of assimilation, as a way to defend and maintain the supposed superiority of one’s own culture (Levin et al., 2012), increasing the sense of security (Verkuyten, 2004) and diminishing the perception of threat posed by immigrants. This model also proposes that lower national identification would encourage endorsement of difference-friendly multiculturalism rather than assimilation. However, this alternative model did not provide good fit for our data.

Taken together, our results demonstrate that perceived threat appears to be the distal factor that triggers prejudice towards immigrants. When members of the majority group encounter the threat of pluralism created by immigration, they appear to manage this threat differently depending on their level of identification: endorsement of multiculturalism calms down apprehension in lower identified members and endorsement of assimilation serves a similar function for higher identified members. However, as we have already observed in the introduction, the link between national identification and preferences for acculturation ideologies and attitudes towards immigrants may be moderated by the content of this identity: ethnic or civic. When national identity is defined in terms of ancestral ties to the same ethnic culture, highly identified individuals may have more negative attitudes than those who are weakly identified with the national group. On the other hand, when national identity is defined in civic terms, there may be no differences in the extent to which higher and lower identifiers express prejudice.

The actual content of national identification may also play a role in determining its link to prejudice. For instance, Roccas, Klar, and Liviatan (2006) distinguish “ingroup glorification” (where individuals view their country as greater than others, and perceive any show of disrespect as a threat) from “ingroup attachment” (where individuals feel a strong emotional connection with their fellow citizens, but are also critical of the actions of their country). Similarly, Adorno, Frankel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford (1950) distinguish “pseudo-patriotism” (defined as blind devotion to national values and actions, and rejection of other national groups), from “authentic patriotism” (defined as attachment to values and actions based on a critical understanding). It seems likely that uncritical national identification (i.e., ingroup glorification and pseudo-patriotism) would be especially likely to encourage the perception that immigrants pose a threat, as well as negative attitudes toward this group. Future work should explore this possibility.

An important limitation of our study is its cross-sectional design: We cannot draw strong causal inferences from the results. A series of experimental studies will have to test the causal link between the different concepts included in our model. This work could also assess the multiple contents of national identity and types of identification, thus being able to assess more complex relationships between these variables and prejudice toward immigrants.

In conclusion, our study shows that perceived threat of immigration is a key factor guiding majority group members’ preferences for acculturation ideologies such as assimilation or multiculturalism. In turn, endorsement of these ideologies shapes the attitudes towards immigrants. This result is important both for the academic understanding of the predictors of prejudice but also for the design of effective social interventions to reduce prejudice toward immigrants (Badea, Binning, Verlhiac, and Sherman, 2017; Badea, Tavani, Rubine, and Meyer, 2017). Such interventions should focus on reducing majority group members’ perception that immigration poses a threat, in order to then promote more inclusive responses such as endorsement of multiculturalism and increased acceptance of immigrants.