All over the world, people are rising up and protesting against generations of injustice, discrimination and institutionalized practices that adversely affect marginalized communities. After the death of George Floyd in the USA, the Black Lives Matter movement received support far beyond the borders of America. In France, too, people are joining American voices and calling for equality in their own country. Recently, French protesters took to the streets and on social media platforms to expose the harsh realities of a minority in a nation that prides itself on its policies of unshakable universalism.
The “color blind approach”
France’s “color-blind” approach to public order is a modern manifestation of the traditions of universalism deeply rooted in French history. French universalism can be traced back to the relationship of the nation to the church in the Middle Ages and the later rise of linguistic universalism. The French belief in universalism was based on the idea that human nature is not influenced by cultural differences or historical variations. It is an ideal that aims to unite all French citizens under a single French identity, regardless of their country of origin or ancestral roots. The values of equality of rights and secularism – key pillars of French history – are reflected in modern public order. Instead of taking measures that target minorities directly, the government chooses measures that are based on geographical and socio-economic factors, with the aim of improving life in all regions and neighborhoods.
Examples of this approach can be found in various areas of French society. In 2001, the Paris Institute for Policy Studies passed an admissions program aimed at improving access to the prestigious institution based on geographic determinants. The entry process has been adjusted for students in 100 high schools in priority educational areas and low-income zones. Although this program has met opposition from those who viewed the program as an expression of the American system of racial positive action, it is representative of the French approach to addressing economic needs. Rather than targeting policy initiatives explicitly to specific minorities and racial groups, French policymakers focus their attention and efforts on geographic areas. The concentration of low-income residents in certain neighborhoods enables policymakers to address specific economic needs without referring to race or ethnicity.
The French approach is based on socio-economic rather than racial factors and is in stark contrast to the United States’ approach, where race is an important issue both within communities and in the wider political arena. However, recent events have led researchers and activists, delving deeper into its origins and beginning to question its effects, to examine France’s alleged “color blindness”.
A social taboo
In France, the concept of race is not only overlooked in public order, it is viewed as somewhat taboo and, for many, is a frightening reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Identity politics and the labeling or differentiation of citizens according to race or ethnic background are sensitive practices that are reminiscent of the division and turbulence of the past decades.
In fact, in 2018 the National Assembly unanimously voted to remove the word “race” from the constitution after arguing that the term was out of date. The constitution now reads: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It guarantees the equality of all citizens before the law, regardless of gender, origin or religion. “The word“ race ”is deleted from its previous place between the words“ origin ”and“ religion ”.
This taboo is also manifested in the French aversion to collecting racist and ethnic data. Thousands of people immigrated to the country during France’s extensive immigration history, and the first North African migrant workers came to France in 1871. The number of immigrants continued to rise and rose sharply after the Second World War. Immigrants filled employment gaps, turning France into a multiethnic mosaic of cultures, races and traditions. Despite the country’s multiethnic makeup, politicians have stayed away from “racially conscious” politics. A 1978 law banned the collection and computerization of racial data, leaving the nation without concrete statistics on race or ethnicity. The law reflects the government’s desire not to use race as a means of differentiating between individuals and not to commemorate a bitter and scarring time in the nation’s history.
Private studies have been carried out on the current racial breakdown of French citizens, but the results are largely ambiguous. In 2008 Louis-Georges Tin, founder of the Conseil Représentatif des Associations (CRAN) wrote: “Nobody in France can say how many black people live in the country. There is a wide range of unofficial statistics floating around, and the numbers range from one to six million. “Due to the lack of accurate racial data, far-right politicians have taken advantage of the ambiguity, increased the number of Muslims living in France and fueled the flames of xenophobic sentiment and rhetoric against immigrants. Politicians used such tactics to spread fear of terrorism and mass immigration, two issues at the heart of French policymaking. More recently, the lack of racist data collection has left French citizens in the dark about the frequency with which colored people are stopped and searched by law enforcement, discrimination in the workplace and in homes, and the death rate from COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of the lack of racial data in France. While data in other countries shows that non-white people are at higher risk of contracting the virus and dying from it, there are no statistics in France showing the effects of COVID-19 on specific racial groups. Authorities have recognized the severity of the virus in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest regions in France, but “they have avoided looking at it racially,” said Pap Ndiaye, historian and academic in black studies at the Paris Institute for Political Studies .
Deviating from the universalistic tradition
Ironically, the French government’s “color-blind” policy of avoiding racial differences is not without social implications. Despite the lack of government statistics on race or explicit racial awareness policies, in a recent survey in Seine-Saint-Denis, more than 80% of respondents said they attribute race or ethnicity to the discrimination they face when dealing with the police or in the process are exposed to employment. Those looking to change the “color blind” approach to politics find that while France has a plethora of anti-discrimination laws, the lack of specific racial data prevents any noticeable change for color communities. The lack of racial data makes it difficult to identify problem areas and measure progress or regressions as there is no benchmark.
Activists and politicians are now calling for a radical change in public order to adequately address racial differences and injustices within the nation. Sibeth Ndiaye, a spokeswoman for the French government, is one such figure. She suggests that collecting racial data would enable policymakers to “measure and see reality for what it is”. This mindset departs from the traditionally universalist mindset of French politicians and represents the emerging idea that the current approach is out of date and does not adequately address the needs of minorities.
The word “race” does not appear in French law or in official documents, but many proponents of racial justice are calling for racism to be recognized in France. “Race may not exist, but racism still exists and it kills,” said Emilia Roig, founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice. The sentiment is shared by the waves of protesters who took to the streets in June 2020 calling on the country to see the cracks in the universalist “myth” that claims the republic is immune to ethnic differences. Social media and major protests have proven to be powerful tools for addressing races in ways that French politics have not. Younger generations of black and Muslim residents are calling for a new model that addresses race and its role in economic, political and social differences in the nation. Christiane Taubira, the first black woman to serve as Justice Minister in France from 2012 to 2016, argues that “structural discrimination” created barriers for non-white minorities and hampered their ability to find stability in France.
Studies of French employment (conducted without using official data) found that applicants with obviously North African or African names were less likely to be interviewed than applicants with traditionally French names. Another study of policing in France found that black and North African youth were far more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. Luc Pechangou, a young black man who lives in the neighborhood of Bobigny, spoke about this reality at an anti-racism rally in June. “But we as blacks have to worry every day. People look at us suspiciously. They ask us what we do. When I’m using public transport, I have to show what’s in my backpack. It is not right to live like this. ”
Across France, younger generations, disillusioned with the universalist myth, are beginning to speak out, urging French officials to review their racist policies to better adapt them to the current climate and to deal directly with nuanced racial issues that the Penetrate communities. They argue that changes need to be made and their struggles made visible so that the revered French values of liberté, fraternité and equalité really apply to everyone.
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