Racism in France, What Most Americans Don’t Know

Protesters on the Champs de Mars
Protesters for racial justice on the Champs de Mars

George Floyd’s death at the hands of police sparked protests around the world, including in France. The French have a long history of looking at race relations in America and condemning our treatment of black citizens. France prides itself on being blind to race, religion, and ethnicity. Indeed, many famous African-Americans, such as Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, relocated to France throughout the 20th century. In France, they asserted, they felt safer and more respected than in the United States. But the recent protests in France aren’t just in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in America. Many of the demonstrators are equally concerned about racial issues in their own country.

Denial of Racial Differences

France definitively mixed
Poster celebrating a multicultural France

Since the end of World War II, the population of non-white residents in France has steadily increased. France is considered to be an ethnically diverse country. Yet, the percentage of non-white citizens is roughly 5%, far less than in the United States. The exact percentage is unknown because France does not track the race of its residents. Unlike most other developed countries, none of France’s public policies are directed at specific racial or ethnic groups. Issues of social inequality are addressed only by studying geographic and class data.

While France has instituted many anti-racist policies since the early 1970s, these measures focus primarily on reducing hate speech. Relatively little has been done, compared to the United States, to address job or housing discrimination. A reason for insufficient progress in this area is that, in France, it is illegal to collect any statistics regarding a person’s race, religion, or ethnicity.

The main impetus behind this mindset originated in the aftermath of World War II. Horrified by their own complicity in the identification and deportation of Jewish citizens and other targeted groups, the French vowed to never again classify people by race or ethnicity. Indeed, even the use of the word race (same in French as in English) has become controversial. In 2013, the government banned the word from all legislation. As recently as 2018, the word was lifted from Article I of the constitution which previously read:

France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.

A Colorblind France

Proponents for changing the constitution contend that the notion of race is an artificial distinction with zero scientific underpinnings. They argue that all people are members of the human race and that classifying them based on race, religion or ethnicity leads to racist ideologies. In a colorblind France, all citizens are equal members of a secular, French Republic, period.

Detractors of such policies say that they make it extremely difficult to study endemic and systemic forms of racism that are often hidden from view. There’s no question that in France, job and housing discrimination affect people of color disproportionately. Yet, there is no way of knowing which landlords or companies are engaging in unfair practices and sanctioning them since it’s illegal to track an applicant’s race.

Racial Activist Maboula Soumahoro

Professor Maboula Soumahoro
Professor Maboula Soumahoro, author of Le Triangle et L’Hexagon

One woman who’s in favor of revisiting the subject of tracking ethnicity, race, and religion is Professor Maboula Soumahoro. Born in Paris to Ivorian immigrant parents, Soumahoro said she never thought of herself as being French until she came to the United States to study. She points out that in the U.S., people born to immigrant parents are referred to as “first-generation Americans”. In France, people born to immigrant parents (like Soumahoro) are labeled “second-generation immigrants”.

Soumahoro and others claim that by ignoring people’s racial identities, France’s Republican institutions inadvertently overlook perpetual racist practices. Meanwhile, people of color must deal with such practices on a daily basis. By contrast, in the United States, people’s ethnic and racial origins are discussed quite openly. Soumahoro attributes this difference to two underlying factors.

First, the vast majority of Americans descended from non-natives. Thus, our origins have always been part of our identity. In France, however, the vast majority of citizens have either French or European roots. Secondly, practices such as slavery and the slave trade took place on U.S. soil and have become an integral part of our history. While French citizens may have owned and/or traded slaves, these practices occurred outside of continental France and, Soumahoro maintains, have never been acknowledged in the same way.

Removal of Statues

Statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert in front of the National Assembly

As in the United States, one of the ways activists seek to challenge France’s racist past is by removing statues and street names that glorify historic figures tied to slavery, oppression, and/or colonialism. While President Macron has promised to ensure that all French citizens have equal protections, earlier this month he fervently proclaimed that France “will not erase any markers or names from its history… [the country] will not take down any statues.” Activists responded by defacing a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, located in front of the National Assembly, with red paint. The words Négrophobie d’Etat, translated as State Negrophobia, were scrawled across the statue’s pedestal.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister to Louis XIV, is recognized as the man behind the Code Noir which legalized slavery throughout the French colonies in 1685. As such, he’s become a highly-charged and controversial figure. Government minister, Sibeth Ndiaye—a close ally of and spokesperson for Macron— criticized the graffiti, saying people should consider “the historical facts as they unfolded”. Speaking to reporters at a weekly press briefing, Ndiaye reminded people to not forget the actions that Colbert took to further France’s prominence outside his involvement with the Code Noir.

Sibeth Ndiaye
Sibeth Ndiaye, Minister and spokesperson for President Macron

However, Ndiaye also recently wrote a personal opinion piece for Le Monde in which she called for France to reconsider its colorblind doctrine. She argued that the country should reassess the value of keeping ethnic and racial statistics for French citizens because in the absence of such data, “we can’t measure and look at reality as it is”. Her editorial flies in the face of Macron’s fervent commitment to prohibit such classifications. The French president, embattled with issues relating to the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, signaled that the subject was not open for debate at this time.

A Multi-Cultural Identity

The recent demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter do not mark the first time that French people have taken to the streets to demand racial justice. Since the 1960s, France has seen intermittent bursts of social outrage, punctuated by calls for racial equality. In 1983, the month-and-a-half long March for Equality and Against Racism took place with people walking across France from Marseilles to Paris. More than 100,000 participants flooded the streets of Paris to join the protest at the march’s conclusion.

French flag with black-blanc-beur
French flag with Black Blanc Beur, France United Against Barbary

As in the United States, ongoing efforts to bring about racial equality fell short of aspirations. Then, in 1998, a multi-ethnic French soccer team carried France to its first, first-place victory in the World Cup. The slogan Black-Blanc-Beur, playing on the triptych Bleu-Blanc-Rouge which refers to the French flag, blanketed the media. Many hoped that the success of their beloved national sports team would once and for all help forge a new multi-cultural identity for France.

However, in 2010, the French team foundered in the qualifying matches and exited the international competition without a single win. Racist hostilities once again revealed themselves. Some of the loudest critics held non-white members of the team responsible for the disappointing performance. By contrast, the white coaches received very little blame for the team’s downfall. Stephen Beaud, a French sociologist and author of Traitors of the Nation?, a book about the French soccer team writes:

“Soccer seems to be a revealer of French divisions, an indicator of the tense rapport between France and its [largely black and arab] suburbs.”

A Problematic Slogan

In 2018, when Les Bleus once again won the World Cup after defeating Croatia in the final match, cries of Black-Blanc-Beur once again filled the streets and France seemed genuinely proud of its multi-ethnic identity.

Despite the popularity of the alliterated slogan, many French liberals take issue with it. Again, France’s aversion to openly identify race is at the heart of the criticism. If all French people are truly equal, it’s wrong to categorize them as black, white, and Arab. Such designations also exclude French citizens of Asian or Latino heritage. Meanwhile, activists such as Maboula Soumahoro take issue with the words “black” and “beur”. In a country where preservation of the French language is a national obsession, why adopt foreign words to convey the idea of national unity? Soumahoro contends that using black and beur, instead of the French words noir and arabe, subtly reinforces the notion that issues of race and racism are more prominent outside of continental France.

The French Police

cartoon by Selçuk Demirel
Cartoon by Turkish illustrator Selçuk Demirel

In matters of law enforcement, incidents of police violence leading to a suspect’s death are extremely rare. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, report that French police repeatedly target minorities without cause, use racial slurs and humiliating pat-downs on non-white suspects, and provide too little transparency to outside watchdog groups. In their defense, however, the police point out that with a force of roughly 150,000 officers across the country, only 22 cases of police misconduct went to court in 2019.

Be that as it may, sociologist Rachida Brahim notes that the lack of racial and ethnic data makes it nearly impossible to identify racial profiling or racially-motivated police violence. She adds that many victims are afraid to come forward since all complaints start by reporting an alleged abuse to the police. As a result, any estimates that seek to quantify police aggression against minorities are understated.

France’s George Floyd

Mural of George Floyd et Adama Traoré
Mural of George Floyd et Adama Traoré protesting police violence

In France, news of George Floyd’s death reignited calls for justice in the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old French Malian man who died in police custody in 2016. On July 19 of that year, Adama Traoré was apprehended by police who initially were looking to arrest his older brother. Three officers of the National Gendarmerie used their full weight (totaling 551 pounds) to pin Traoré down while arresting him. He died inside a police vehicle en route to the station. Four separate autopsy reports followed in the ensuing months. One of those autopsies, commissioned independently of law-enforcement, declared asphyxiation from sustained pressure as the cause of death. All officers were exonerated.

Franco Lollia, an Afro-Caribbean activist with the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade compares Traoré’s death to that of Floyd’s, but with one major distinction, “What happened to George Floyd was on camera. What happened to Adama was not on film.” Tens of thousands of French protestors agree. In demonstrations throughout France, you’ll see placards demanding justice for Adam Traoré amidst the universal slogan of Black Lives Matter.

A Taboo Not Easily Toppled

Hommage to Adama Traoré
Hommage to Adama Traoré by French photographer JR

Only time will tell whether or not France can loosen its commitment to denying racial differences. “When you talk about questions of race or racism, many people in France are shocked and think that you’re the racist one,” says Pap Ndiaye, a historian at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. Most French people believe that France’s universalism results in greater equality than in the United States. They proudly call attention to important services likes education and healthcare, which are nationally financed and applied more equitably.

At the same time, third-generation descendants of African and Arab immigrants are tired of feeling excluded from the society that their grandparents once dreamed of joining. No one expects changes anytime soon. But, perhaps earnest conversations around race and discrimination can begin. As Patrick Simon, a demographer at France’s National Institue of Demographic Studies, puts it, “In the fight against racism, you can’t hide the question of race.”

Resources

  • France24, Racisme en France : le poids de l’Histoire
  • NPR, Paris Has Been A Haven For African Americans Escaping Racism
  • Brookings, Race Policy in France
  • Le Monde, La difficile utilisation des statistiques ethniques en France
  • WorldPopulationReview, France Population 2020
  • New York Times, George Floyd Protests Stir a Difficult Debate on Race in France
  • France24, Maboula Soumahoro : “La France se pense aveugle à la race”
  • Le Monde, L’Assemblée supprime de la Constitution le mot « race » et interdit la « distinction de sexe »
  • Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, La marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme
  • Slate.fr, La victoire des Bleus ne fera pas oublier les discriminations raciales
  • FranceCulture, “Black-blanc-beur” : petite histoire d’un slogan ambigu
  • BFM TV, STATUE DE COLBERT TAGGUÉE: NDIAYE CONDAMNE “CEUX QUI VEULENT EFFACER DES TRAITS DE NOTRE HISTOIRE”
  • France24, Racisme en France : la figure de Colbert, auteur du code noir, nouvelle cible des manifestants
  • France24, “Négrophobie d’Etat”: graffiti sur la statue de Colbert devant l’Assemblée nationale
  • Politis, « Le déboulonnage des statues interroge le déni de la France face au colonialisme »
  • France24, Sibeth Ndiaye propose do rouvrir le débat sur les statistiques ethniques “de manière apaisée”
  • Le Monde, Sibeth Ndiaye : « Nous payons aujourd’hui l’effacement de l’universalisme républicain »
  • New York Times, Macron Caught Off Guard as Spokeswoman Calls for Lifting Taboo on Race
  • Huffpost, Sur les statistiques ethniques, Macron ne veut pas ouvrir le débat “à ce stade”
  • France24, The new negritude: Asserting black French identity
  • France24, Le racisme généralisé dans la police, une réalité?
  • ABC News, French leader rejects racism but colonial statues to remain
  • France24, Une fresque contre “le racisme et les violences policières”
  • Public Radio International, In France, the killing of George Floyd invokes the memory of Adama Traoré
  • Figaro, Culture, Une fresque de JR en hommage à Adama Traoré et George Floyd
  • Le Monde, Patrick Simon : « Pour lutter contre le racisme, il ne faut pas invisibiliser la question de la “race” »

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

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