OPINION: New education minister has already given a lesson in France’s race problem

After just one week as Minister for Education, Pap Ndiaye has already provided us all with an education in French attitudes to race, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: New education minister has already given a lesson in France's race problem
France's Education and Youth Minister Pap Ndiaye (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

France is not necessarily more racist than other countries. By my observation, it is less racist than the United States but more subtly racist than Britain.

The appointment as Education Minister of an eminent black historian – and, worse, a historian of “blackness” –  has exposed the crude, ethnic prejudices of the French Far Right and parts of the French Right.

It has also pointed to the gyrations, and hypocrisies, of believers in France’s official-unofficial state religion: the faith in a single, “secular, indivisible” Republic in which all citizens are “equal before the law”.

Since 2018 the French constitution has denied the existence of race. The word was excised from the first article of the constitution of the Fifth Republic on the grounds that we are all human beings and the idea of “race” is itself racist.

For this same well-intentioned reason, it has been illegal to gather race-based statistics in France since 1978.

Do you want to know how well black children fare in the state school system? Or how well off on average are black people in France? Whether they are more likely than white people to be unemployed? Or sent to jail?

You are forbidden from knowing any of those things. If you collect and publish such statistics (with some exceptions) you can be jailed for five years and/or fined up to €300,000.

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Pap Ndiaye, the new education minister, thinks that that rule is wrong. It conceals social realities, he says; it also feeds the fantasies of racists.

Equally, he opposed the removal of the word “race” from the French constitution. Race may not exist scientifically, he says, but racial prejudice or racial awareness does. So long as that is true, black and brown people need to be constitutionally protected.

Ndiaye also believes that, in certain circumstances, positive discrimination in favour of racial minorities is justified.

He helped to write a report on the Paris Opera, which suggested that the almost total absence of non-white faces – and bodies and voices – from the big French opera and ballet companies could only be remedied by direct action.

Since his unexpected appointment as education minister last Friday, Ndiaye’s opinions have been used, and misused, by the Right and Far Right to paint him as a “racialist” or a “communitarian” or an “indigenist”. 

To give just one example, here is a tweet from Philippe de Villers, supposedly the face of the more respectable end of the Catholic ultra-right but now a fellow-traveller of the xenophobic Eric Zemmour.

“The nomination of Pap Ndiaye to Education is a historic turning-point. Racialism has taken power. Emmanuel Macron has moved to the next stage: he has surrendered to the enemy within which wants to de-colonise us and colonise us.”

This is absurd but not surprising. The French Right – not just the Far Right – always has trouble accepting intelligent, strong-minded, black people in government. Christiane Taubira, when she was justice minister from 2012-7, had bananas thrown at her, not by Lepennists but by young Catholic opponents of gay marriage.

However, Ndiaye’s appointment has also provoked disquiet on the ultra-Republican, ultra-secular Left. Jean-Pierre Chévènement, the former Socialist interior minister, says that the education minister’s published views are incompatible with his new job. The state education system is, Chévènement says, is supposed to promote the ideal of France as an “indivisible” Republic.

That’s fine as far as it goes. The secular and indivisible state is  important to French national identity. It is often misrepresented abroad (especially in Islamic countries and in the liberal part of the US media).

The French secular state is a guarantee of equality and freedom of worship. It’s also a guarantee of the freedom to be different, so long as you don’t deny that freedom to others.

I believe Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to check the advance of radical, separatist forms of Islam, although sometimes clumsy, are justified. Whether they should include clamping down on the “burkini”, I’m not sure.

Should the Islamic bathing “onesy” be considered a threat to women’s rights or an assertion of the right of some women to dress, or undress, differently?

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And yet Pap Ndiaye is also right. France’s well-intentioned secular state religion does sometimes help to hide the kind of discrimination that it is supposed to abhor.

There is an institutionalised  hypocrisy in banning racial statistics because all French people are equal, when they plainly aren’t. There is also an institutionalised hypocrisy in denying that there is institutional racism in the French police.

President Emmanuel Macron may well have chosen Pap Ndiaye for electoral-tactical reasons. He may hope to blunt accusations on the Left that he is “racist” and that he cares little for the struggles of the multi-racial, inner suburbs.

He may have thought that it was time to step away from the radical secularism of his former education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, and his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.

It is a courageous and exciting appointment all the same. Education, especially in the multi-racial “banlieues” and rural, white France, is one of the biggest challenges facing this government and future governments.

French people of all races should wish Ndiaye well. He made a good start by visiting the college in the western Paris suburbs where the history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an Islamist terrorist in October 2020.

During his visit to Conflans-Saint-Honorine, the new education minister promised to uphold the “universal” values and the promise of opportunity-for-all offered by the “indivisible” French Republic.

He didn’t say so during his visit, but Ndiaye’s previous writings suggest that “universal” and even “indivisible” can, and should, encompass difference and recognise discrimination. 

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Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   


Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.