In 2013, the French National Assembly approved on a measure to remove all traces of the word “race” from all existing French legislation. “In eliminating the legal category of race, the Assembly has helped our country move forward on ideological and educational levels,” proclaimed the bill’s author, leftist MP Francois Asensi. The elimination of the word “race” from the legal vocabulary exemplifies the inappropriately optimistic, even dangerous, “see-no-evil” view of race that permeate French society. Whether or not race has scientific validity, as declared in the bill’s preamble, matters little when problems caused by the perception of race persist. Continuing to let these tensions fester without addressing them explicitly in law and policy fosters a brittle and divided society easily susceptible to violence along racial and ethnic lines.
Racial denial has led to questionable French policy choices that have heightened societal tensions. First, France does not abide by Article 27 in International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.” The French government justifies its position by claiming that Article 1 of the French Constitution prohibits all social distinctions among citizens. On this basis, it argues that no minorities exist in France, and therefore Article 27 of the ICCPR is inapplicable.
Furthermore, France is also one of a few European countries that has not ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, whose signatories recognize such languages as part of unique European traditions that should be protected and promoted. Speakers of regional minority languages in France, such as Basque and Breton, therefore lack protection of basic linguistic rights. Yet numerous cases brought against French government by such minorities have been declared “inadmissible” by the United Nations Human Rights Committee because of France’s reservation to Article 27 in the ICCPR. France’s unusual reservations to internationally recognized conventions and treaties has forced such groups to find alternative routes to the usual legal systems. Representatives of endangered languages in mainland France and its overseas territories recently petitionedUNESCO for “cultural asylum” against the French state’s supposed linguistic discrimination. Center-right MPs have defended the restriction of minority languages, and their associated cultures, by arguing that recognizing and practicing them undermines the unity of the Republic.
Indeed, French citizenship is viewed almost as a contract, wherein newcomers not only gain political and residential rights, but adopt French culture and values as well, thus becoming one with the majority. And though the minorities addressed in Article 27 are not explicitly denied the right to expressing their culture in France, they face extreme societal disapproval because French society only truly accepts those who have embraced French culture or at the very least hide obvious cultural differences in public.
The growing Muslim population in France represents the most obvious challenge to the sustainability of this view. One of the defining aspects of modern French society is laïcité, roughly translated as secularism. In France, following laïcité means suppressing public expression of personal beliefs and religions. This especially poses a problem for Muslims. Unlike Christianity, Islam frequently manifests itself in practices such as dress and food that cannot be hidden. A Christian may wear a small cross or rosary and abide by laïcité because the law prohibits “ostentatious” display of religion. On the other hand, a Muslim student who wears a hijab to school is seen as a bad citizen, because she is seen as blatantly opposing a critical French value. Although she may not talk to anyone about her beliefs, she will be seen as imposing her beliefs on others merely by wearing an article of clothing in public. And with societal disapproval and prejudice, in addition to the difficulties of going to public schools or joining the workforce, she must choose between social acceptance and a key aspect of her own identity. Islam has threatened French society only in the sense that it has unveiled the contradictions of laïcité to a society unable to “see” race and indirect racism.
The racial tensions caused by laïcité explain the rising popularity of France’s right-wing populist party, le Front National (FN). The FN was originally headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen — best described as the French equivalent to Donald Trump — an easily-hated Holocaust-denier and social conservative termed le diable (the devil) by the French press. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, has since toned down the party’s overt racism and moved it towards the French political mainstream, making it significantly more palatable despite its xenophobic party platform. The FN, which Le Pen has described as “the only party to defend an authentically French republic” and “the preservation of our way of life,” appeals to a population dealing with a backlash against laïcité, a value by which France has proudly defined itself for decades.
Further consequences of French race policy have become evident in the aftermath of the two tragic attacks by ISIS-connected radicals that occurred last year in Paris. In the days following January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, global media presented the attacks as a unifying event for thousands. Chanting, “Je Suis Charlie” in spontaneous vigil, citizens around the globe cited the shootings as an attack on free speech. This view was bolstered by President Hollande’s official remark that “The Republic stands for free speech … that’s what the murderers were attacking.” The reaction in different circles, however, provides a larger look at an issue that was painted by the French as one of freedom of speech and of the press. First, almost no Muslims marched in the “Je Suis Charlie” protest, which was primarily composed of white Parisiens from Paris’ richer central neighborhoods. Public school students in largely Muslim suburbs refused to obey the national minute of silence for the victims of Charlie Hebdo.
Soon after these incidents, a national holiday for laïcité was declared, and since September, students and parents have had to sign a laïcité charter to “demonstrate their willingness to respect it.” Such regulations have only served to further alienate the Muslim community, with whom strained tensions over laïcité already exist. By propagating such measures concerning laïcité, the government inadvertently admitted that Charlie Hebdo was not merely about free speech, but also religion and race.
Viewing the events in January as a unifying rallying point for French citizens obscures the voices and grievances of minority groups. Abuse of French Muslims rose to an all-time high after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with attacks against these citizens increasing fivefold. In addition, even secular Jews are fleeing France at an alarming rate, afraid to proclaim their ethnicity, in fear of being associated with “practising” religious Jews. But even between Jews and Muslims, France’s history of Holocaust involvement and laws against anti-semitism as lending itself to more favorable treatment of the Jews. In 2009, a Charlie Hebdo editor who made a quip about Jews was fired and promptly prosecuted for anti-semitism, while cartoons against Mohammed and Islam were defended as expressing “freedom of speech.”
The urgency of examining such questions of race and ethnicity has become even more evident in the wake of the more recent terrorist attacks by the Islamic State. France, which has has been involved in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, decided in September to expand its aerial attacks to Syria as well. While the Paris attacks were a retaliation and warning to the French government, Paris was also likely targeted because of its isolated, alienated, and impoverished Muslim population, many of whom live in banlieues — a French word literally translated as suburbs, but which has now taken on the negative connotation of slums. The banlieues are perfect incubators for terrorism, where youths with little sense of identity and bleak prospects for the future are attracted to the brotherhood and direction offered by radical Islam. Last year, France already produced the largest number of Islamic State recruits of any Western country. Anticipating a reaction that conflates all Muslims with terrorists, similar to that of the Charlie Hebdo aftermath, the Islamic State may have hoped to further isolate the Muslim population and gain more French recruits.
Even more troubling was how the the attacks affected the results of France’s regional elections in December, in which the FN ultimately gained of 27 percent of the national vote. The party was unable to maintain its initial score of 40 percent to the second and final round of elections because of the Socialists’ decision to withdraw regional candidates and ensure victories for the Republicans, rather than the FN. Still, the FN’s near-victory is a continuation of a trend of increasingly successful elections over the past few years for the FN. Such support for a party whose leader recently said that “to merit French nationality, you have to speak French, eat French and live French,” can only spell trouble for minorities in France.
Because the appeal of the FN banks on cultural insecurities produced by racial tensions, the necessity of having open discussions of these problems is increasingly apparent. But without ethnoracial population statistics, it is difficult to seriously study and address racial discrimination in France. France must introduce self-identifying ethnoracial questions into its national census; currently, collecting statistics is considered “racist” because it makes ethnic distinctions among France’s one “indivisible” majority.
It could certainly be argued that creating categories for races would reinforce racial splits. However, the daily experiences of citizens of colors show that such distinctions are drawn regardless. Pretending that we live in a society where these differences do not matter is unwise. Even if the government’s choice of categories prove contentious, debating issues of race would open a path for honest assessments of racial and cultural identity in France.
How, then, should race be categorized on the census? Collaboration with race researchers would be necessary to classify race according to major groups that compose French society. It should be noted that there is an important difference between racial categories that are objectively “valid” from a biological or anthropological standpoint and racial categories that reflect social definitions of race. While there are intersections between the two types of categories, it is important that the census’ racial categories reflect the latter more than the former, since definitions of race are constantly debated. Having data to refer to is essential for discussing racial divides in society that exist — regardless of whether race is a social construct.
Still, fears that the reintroducing race into law could become a slippery slope to the Holocaust are not entirely without reason. This year, mayor Robert Menard of right-wing town of Breziers openly declared that his administration had used lists of pupils’ names to determine that more than half of the students were Muslim. Menard used this crude statistic to point to an “immigration problem” and noted that many of these children’s parents had imperfect French. Beyond the obvious inaccuracies in this this method of counting, Menard’s use of statistics for racial profiling is an example of how the re-legalization of race could exacerbate racial problems. His racist use of statistics, however, should not be confused with constructive uses of statistics for countering such attitudes.
Putting race into the census can only do so much to open up questions of race in society, but it is an important first step that only the government can initiate. Meanwhile, the government has already begun trying to address race-based differences in housing and living conditions in the banlieues. However, politicians are careful to insist that they are to improve the lives of all locals, although the vast majority of banlieue residents are Arabs and migrants. Another problem to be considered are banlieues’ typical location at the peripheries of cities, adding a physical component to the racial and socioeconomic divides between banlieue residents and other members of French society. While the cost of redeveloping an entire city layout would be enormous, future urban planning should be considered to redirect the current geographic inequalities and better incorporate the banlieue residents into larger French society. In addition, the racial and ethnic aspects of these problems should be clearly stated, rather than avoided. Such policies are in no way easy to undertake, especially given the current political climate, but they would at least begin easing tensions caused by socioeconomic disparities among races in France.
In general, the French have approached their concept of race and racial policy as though erasing all traces of race and religion from the public and legal spheres will magically eliminate racism. But it is such events as Charlie Hebdo and the November 13 terrorist attacks that show how easily this illusion falls apart: while turning a “blind eye” to race sound forward-thinking, in practice, social realities in France demonstrate how pretending racism can be fought by pretending it does not exist only hinders efforts to address deeply-embedded racial divides and prejudices. Furthermore, France should be mindful of these unsustainable attitudes, as they can further push Muslim minorities into the open arms of such radical groups as ISIS that offer a sense of inclusion lacking in French society, and encourage other minorities to emigrate out of the country.
InHae Yap is a freshman studying anthropology.