Advertisement

ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?

Author thumbnail
Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?
Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

France likes to see itself as blind to race and religion, but there is an increasing chorus of criticism within France that the notion of universal republican identity really just allows the country to close its eyes to racism.

Advertisement

The latest controversy around colourblind France centres on a video put out by the Education Ministry in which a group of schoolchildren pay tribute to American Civil Rights campaigner Martin Luther King.

Except that, as numerous commentators pointed out, the video featured not a single person of colour and does not explicitly mention racism. The education ministry hit back by saying that the children in the video were all competition winners - in other words they were selected on a 'colourblind' basis.

And its far from the first time that representatives of the French state have reiterated this type of position.

Advertisement

In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the world - including France - the then head of Paris police took to Twitter to make a statement.

Didier Lallement said: "There is no race in the police, nor racist or racist oppressors. There are civil servants who are committed to freedom, equality and fraternity on a daily basis!"

While a police chief denying racism among his officers is not unusual, the idea of there being "no race in the police" makes, for non-French eyes, surprising reading.

But it reflects the French state policy of being 'colour blind'.

Advertisement

Fill out an official form in France, including the Census, and you will never be asked for your ethnicity or religion.

France likes to see itself as fundamentally different from others - perhaps especially the United States - because of this policy.

There's no hyphen after or before "French" when declaring your origin, officially no such thing as French-Moroccan, French-Algerian, French-American. All children of the Republic are French, full stop.

But the liberté, egalité and fraternité quoted by the police chief in his statement - the foundation principles of the French republic which are carved onto every public building in the country - have lately been claimed for a new meaning.

They have been carried on many signs at demonstrations decrying racism in French society and - in particular - among the police.

When Leïla Khouiel first saw the signs and heard protesters singing the French national anthem La Marseillaise at the top of their lungs, she was slightly astonished.

A French journalist who has been covering police brutality and issues of racism in France for years, she would not immediately have guessed "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" to be the chosen slogans for this particular protest.

Then she saw the logic.

“The protesters are claiming their rights as equals in the French state," she told The Local.

By placing the founding values of the French Republic "at the heart of the debate," Khouiel said the protesters were reminding onlookers of what France was supposed represent: a country of equality, for all. 

Currently, she said, that was not the case.

'A far-right problem'

“This idea of the French state as a nation of universal equality, it’s a myth,” said Julien Talpin, a sociologist and researcher at the French institute CNRS and author of the book “Bâillonner les quartiers” (Gagging the suburbs) which traces how the state has repressed mobilisation from these areas throughout the years.

“The French state has always distinguished between different populations, especially whites and non-whites,” he told The Local.

Denying institutional racism is an old tradition that can be traced back to the idea of a of France as a nation, he said.

“France is the country of human rights, so racism cannot exist,” Talpin said.

"Those who criticise the model risk being called communautariste, or even racist."

Communautarisme is a pejorative French term for identity politics that is frequently used to brush off criticism of France's universalist policy. 

“It’s unimaginable to us that there can be something like institutional racism. What a horrible idea!”

Advertisement

Today, Talpin explained, French perceive racism as an individual problem, largely concentrated in the far-right political party Rassemblement National (formerly Front National).

"But of course you can be behaving like a racist without being a racist," he said, pointing to police identity checks as one example. 

'Blinders are on'

Racism is a particularly inflammatory topic in France.

After France won the World Cup in 2018, the comedian Trevor Noah made a joke that Africa had won the World Cup - referring to the fact that most of the players on the French team had African origins.

Noah's comment caused a huge stir among the French.

Even the then French Ambassador to the US Gerard Araud got involved, sending Noah an indignant letter where he pointed to the national motto and explained that: "Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin."

"By calling them an African team," the ambassador wrote to Noah, " you are denying their Frenchness".

Manual widget for ML (class="ml-manual-widget-container")

Over her 20 years living in France, African-American author Nita Wiggins has touched similar nerves several times.

Once, she asked a French white male journalist why he thought there were so many people of colour doing the least attractive jobs in the French capital - cleaning the trains, picking up trash, driving the refuse trucks.

“Before I could complete my question, he said, ‘you’re calling us racist! We're not racist’,” Wiggins told The Local.

Back when she lived in the US, Wiggins wrote the book “Civil Rights Baby,” a story about race and covering sports in the US as a black journalist. Today she teaches journalism at the Paris-based school Ecole Supérieure du Journalisme where she pushes her students to strive for diversity in all their work. 

“Is France colour-blind or just blind? I need to say that it looks more like blinders are on,” she said.

“I am still cautious about labelling. But I will not dismiss the demands of my brothers and sisters of the same colour,” she said.

'We may be at a turning point'

Because of the official policy of colour blindness, there is no official data on the ethnic breakdown of offenders, or of how many people of colour are stopped and checked by the police.

Advertisement

There is not even an official number for how many Muslims live in France, a gap that some say allows far right groups to spread fears of native culture being 'swamped' by exaggerating the Muslim percentage of the population.

There is data available, of course, but these are independently gathered by journalists, researchers or NGOs. 

Eric Fassin, a professor in sociology at the Paris 8 University, pointed to the justice system as part of the problem. 

“When the police commit a crime they are very seldom prosecuted and very seldom sentenced. This kind of cover-up seems to be the logic of the institution,” he said. 

Fassin said the important point was not how police perceived themselves, but whether the French population perceived them as racist or not.

“We don’t ask men, are you sexist? We ask women, have you experienced sexism?” he said.

READ MORE: Almost all Black French people have experienced racial discrimination, study shows

Although France's Black Lives Matter protests were huge, three years later they have led to little concrete change in either policy or daily life.

In July, five nights of rioting erupted across France after a French teenager of Algerian origin was shot dead by police during a traffic stop.

Credible data collected by campaigners show that young people of African or North African origin are 20 times as likely to be stopped by police than young white people.

While the official government response did not mention race - the ethnicity of the rioters was seized by the French and foreign far-right who tried to paint a picture of 'foreign' mobs causing mayhem on the streets of France.

The most inflammatory language came from extreme right figures such Eric Zemmour, but the leader of the supposedly centre-right Les Républicains in the Senate was accused of "crass racism" for his comments on the riots.

Bruno Retailleau had alluded to the rioters being foreign, and it was pointed out to him that 90 percent of those arrested during the riots were French citizens.

He responded on FranceInfo radio: "OK, they're French, but these are French people in their official identity, and unfortunately for the second and third generations (of immigrants), there is a sort of regression towards their ethnic roots."  

While the state may be colourblind, many of its citizens are clearly not. 

More

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Anonymous 2020/06/29 08:57
To answer your question MackM - for North Africa at least, the reason so many ended up in France is because they worked for the French government when it was in control there...when the French left, they were slaughtered...it was flee or die. For many others, the shambles their countries are in leaves them seeking better lives elsewhere (something I cannot blame them for as I did the same 20 years ago). They have a reasonable right to expect at least equal treatment to the native population if they have been granted entry to a country.
Anonymous 2020/06/18 16:07
I wonder with Africa, are the problems on that continent still being attributed to colonialisation and if so why are their residents so anxious to return to live under the apparent yoke of the colonials.
Anonymous 2020/06/11 08:41
France is racist, pure and simple (not just on skin colour, but to any cultural, non-French groups). Until they are capable of admitting to their wrongs as a colonial power (especially in North Africa) and will open their eyes to the systemic racism in French society, there is no possibility of any lasting change being achieved on this front.

See Also