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Why The French Deny Their Own Racism



Riots happen for myriad reasons, but often they’reignited by a single incident. Last week, a policeman shotand killed a 17-year-old French boy of North African descent at a trafficlight in a Parisian suburb. Riots broke out throughout the country andcontinued through the weekend, resulting in the mobilization of 45,000police and the arrest of thousands of protesters. On Friday, a spokespersonfor a union representing over half of all police officers issued a statementthat they were “at war” against “vermin.” The interior minister has promisedthe police “unwavering support,” and French President Emmanuel Macron has blamedvideo games for protesters’ violent unrest. Initially, the French media cited anonymouspolice sources claiming the young driver, Nahel Merzouk, was shot when hetried to plough into a group of officers. Bystander footage later revealed thevehicle was stopped at a traffic light and one of the officers was pointing agun through the window of the driver’s side. As the car began pulling away, oneof the policemen fired a shot directly at Merzouk, who then crashed into asidewalk. He died an hour later. The policeman who shot him has been chargedwith voluntary homicide.
For those who live in the French suburbs,run-ins with heavily armed cops are not uncommon. To understand why, it isimportant to note that the word “suburb” in French does not suggest leafycommunities of middle-class apartments in beautiful Haussmann buildingssurrounded by cafés and restaurants. The suburbsas they are known, are mostlyassortments of block residential towers deliberately separated from commerceand public transportation. The neighborhoods suffer from high unemployment, loweconomic mobility, and social exclusion.
Police in the banlieues need no excuseto stop anyone on the street; a simple demand of “show me your papers” isenough. In 2021, six nongovernmental organizations fileda class action lawsuit against the French government claiming the police haveengaged in widespread racial profiling. One of the victims in the report saidhe experienced racial profiling since he was 16, “sometimes up to three times aday” and that on one occasion a cop “put me violently up against the wall. Oneof the officers touches my private parts. Then he hits me in the stomach andcalls me a ‘dirty Arab.’” Although accounts of discrimination at thehands of the police are widespread, proving it is an entirely different matter.That is because the French government has explicitly outlawed keeping anystatistics on race. This means ethnic minorities can claim mistreatment allthey want, but without any statistical evidence their claims fall on deaf ears.It is, in effect, the national policy of France to pretend that racism doesn’texist within its boundaries.
The law against statistics on race dates tothe 1970s and has origins in the Holocaust. Defenders of the law claim theNazis were able to round up Jews because the French government kept records onfaith and ethnicity. Another reason, and perhaps the most deeply rooted, is the French ideal of universalism—thenotion that one’s identity as a French citizen transcends race, gender, andreligion. In Macron’s words:“‘Many’ doesn’t mean we’re an agglomerate of communities. It means we’re anational community.” This adherence to a singular national identity is definedabstractly by the French motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” All are equalbefore the law because the law, like society, is color-blind. This insistence on color-blindness manifestsin different forms. Because the national curriculum is established centrally inParis, it means all students, for example those in the French Caribbean islandswho are descendants of enslaved Africans, are taught a shared history of Francethat begins with the Gauls and climbs through the centuries of kings andqueens before arriving at revolution and world wars. Colonialism and slaveryare brushed upon, but unless a teacher at Frantz Fanon high school inMartinique takes precious time to step away from the national curriculum, noneof the students will read the works of the Creole political philosopher. Universalism extends beyond education. Underthe auspices of French secularism knows as secularism, Marine Le Pen, theleader of the right-wing party Rassemblement National and former presidentialcandidate, proposeda total ban on wearing the Muslim head scarf in public. In public health, itmeans officials have no way of knowing how health crises affect differentcommunities (during the Covid pandemic, Reuters accumulated data that revealedFrench Muslims died at a higher rate from the virus than the overall population).Universalism means no records can be kept on discrimination in the workplace, housing, or access to public funds. The French government has no way ofknowing if the children of French immigrants are falling behind those ofnative-born students and therefore has no way of targeting any reforms thatmight help them catch up.
Over the years there have been murmurs ofreform. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, governmentspokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye wrotean impassioned op-ed in The world rekindling the debate on keepingnational ethnic statistics. She wrote: “If universalism is going to live andprosper, we shouldn’t hesitate to call things what they are, to say that skin colourisn’t neutral, that a name or surname is stigmatising.” By making universalismthe foundation of the law, Ndiaye argued, extremists on either end of thepolitical spectrum could claim racism is everywhere or nowhere, and nobodycould disprove their claims. Her words were not well received. The economyminister, Bruno le Maire,scoffed,“A French person is a French person, and I do not take account of their race,origin, or religion, and I do not want to take account of it.” Universalism has amounted to institutional earmuffs—awilful ignorance of widespread racism, not only in the government but in thebroader public sphere. Bemoaning the growing influence of Anglo-Saxonuniversities, and of “le wokeism” in particular, French intellectuals are quickto argue that those who fight against racism are themselves responsible forspreading racial animus. Last year, the French minister for higher education, FrédériqueVidal, attempted to launch an investigation into French universities for whatshe called widespread “Islamo-leftism”—an entirely made-up concept that assertsthe left is legitimizing Islamic terrorism and trying to “corrupt society.” Inan interview with a conservative French newspaper, the minister claimedthat students are increasingly seeing themselves through a prism of identitypolitics that is set on dividing society into categories of oppression. It shouldn’t be controversial to say thatFrance is a racist country. The country’s wealth was built on an imperial pastthat relied on the stolen labor of the enslaved and the colonized. Nor shouldbe it be controversial to say that everybody experiences their nationality indifferent ways. Being French does not exclusively mean buying a ham-baguette sandwichfrom the local bakery at lunch and chasing it down with a nice burgundy wine.It can also mean spending Friday afternoon at the mosque or spending Sundayeating Senegalese fish and rice. How Nahel Merzouk experienced his nationalityin the banlieue is no less valid an experience than those of the children ofFrench presidents attending high school across the river in Neuilly sur Seine.The difference is that those children will have numerous opportunities that Merzouknever could have dreamed of. Acknowledging this lack of equality would be a signof national strength, not weakness.
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