How Racist is France? #France

There has been a sudden spike recently in expressions of racism in French public life—one that has provoked a national debate and may lead to legal action this week. It began in October 2013, when a candidate for the right-wing National Front likened Christiane Taubira, the Justice Minister, who is black, to a monkey, pairing her photograph with one of a chimpanzee on a Facebook page. Although the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, forced the candidate to withdraw, the attacks continued. During some of the protests against France’s new gay-marriage law (which Taubira, as Justice Minister, pushed), the crowds chanted “Taubira, t’es foutue, les Français sont dans la rue.” (“Taubira, you’re fucked, the French are in the street!”) At one rally, a twelve-year-old child symbolically presented Taubira with a banana.


This does not appear to be an isolated case. The National Commission for the Rights of Man (C.N.C.D.H.), which has been charged by the French parliament to monitor incidents of racism in France, noted a twenty-three-per-cent increase in incidents of racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism in 2012, and a five-fold increase over the past twenty years.

The Taubira affair has set off something of a national debate on the origins and responsibility for this ugly recrudescence of racism. Until fairly recently, the debate around prejudice in France has concentrated on the difficulties of integrating France’s sizeable Muslim minority, estimated at between four and six million people, or less than ten per cent of the population.

During the campaign, the center-right singled out Taubira as a reason to fear the election of the left. Taubira, who has a long and impressive political career, became one of the most visible members of Hollande’s government.

Joan Wallach Scott, an American scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies, at Princeton, argues in her book “The Politics of the Veil” that the Republican values of egalité and laicité were historically entangled in the racist roots of French colonialism. The idea that people of all races could become French was coupled with an implicit (and often explicit) assumption that they came from inferior cultures, and needed to submit to France’s mission civilatrice to be equal. The French, in her view, need to learn to “negotiate difference.”

Egalité makes France officially color-blind: the government is not allowed to count, let alone consider, whether individuals belong to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority. And yet, the reality is that the Algerian workers who were encouraged to come to France in the nineteen-forties and fifties were placed in temporary housing on the periphery of France’s cities, and these geographically segregated banlieues are where later immigrants have continued to live.

Numerous studies show that job applicants with such addresses or with “foreign” names are much more likely to be rejected out of hand, regardless of their professional qualifications. Many in France continue to consider as immigrants people of North African or African descent whose families have lived in the country for generations, and who are French citizens. Fifty-five per cent consider Muslims to be a “group apart,” and twenty-six per cent still consider Jews to be a “group apart,” surprising given that Jewish immigration is very old and highly assimilated.


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