Breaking France’s Race Taboo

Breaking France’s Race Taboo

A new generation of activists is trying to change the way France conceives of race.


Late last month, a driver accelerated toward a group of teenagers hanging out in a park in a low-income neighborhood in Beaune, a town in eastern France, and tried, unsuccessfully, to ram into them. “Dirty bougnoules, go back to where you come from,” he yelled, using a racial slur that can be translated as “gooks” or “ragheads.” It was after 1 am, and they thought it was likely a drunk, hateful driver. They stayed in the park and, at 4:30 am, another car arrived. This time, the driver whipped out a gun and shot at the teens, injuring seven—one critically; two remain hospitalized.

Interviewed afterward, the victims, most of whom were of North African descent, insisted the attack was racially motivated. “I saw the hateful looks in their eyes,” one told a reporter from France 3. “The worst, was what they said. That we were ragheads and had nothing to do in this country, and that they would come back armed.” Local authorities, however, suggested it was more likely a gang vendetta; Beaune’s right-wing mayor issued a curfew in the area for minors. An investigation is underway.

The reaction—limited media coverage, an apparent minimizing of its racist undertones, and the mayor’s decision to institute a curfew for minors in the neighborhood—generated outrage on Twitter. “To figure out what’s going on in the aftermath of the shooting in Beaune, I need to do research by hand. The press isn’t talking about it, no opinion pieces, no grand political declarations. No polemics, no buzz,” tweeted an activist with the display name Mélusine. “Very few reactions to this serious aggression,” Jérôme Guedj, a governmental adviser in the Essonne department, near Paris, also wrote on Twitter, noting the racist insults. But because it happened in a low-income neighborhood and far from Paris, he added, nobody seemed concerned.

The incident came at a time when the French attitude toward race—and racism—is coming under increasing scrutiny both at home and abroad. France likes to see itself as colorblind, and aspires to be a universal community of citizens in which French identity trumps any other allegiances. As in several other countries in Europe, racial and religious statistics are illegal; in 2013, France stripped its laws of the term “race,” which last month the parliament voted almost unanimously to remove from the Constitution, arguing that race is a contrived biological construct with dark historical roots. Racism, accordingly, might exist, but only as an individual phenomenon; there are racists, but no structural racism—a few bad apples, not a set of political, social, and behavioral norms that hierarchize based on skin color.

The staunchest defenders of that national myth pit French universalism against so-called Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism. Affirmative action, for example, is widely considered radical, and flawed—revelatory of an alleged American obsession with color that helps racism thrive, even in attempts to thwart it. These opposing approaches were on full display during the recent debates about the diversity of the French soccer team—a majority of whose players are of African descent—which came to a head with a revealing spat between Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, and Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States. Noah, who is black and South African, had joked, “Africa won the World Cup,” before adding, “I get it, they have to say it’s the French team.” But, he went on, “you don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France, my friends.” In a fiery response, Araud wrote, “By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness,” which, “even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of Frenchness.” Noah thought that missed the point: “When I’m saying they’re African, I’m not trying to exclude them from their Frenchness but include them in my Africanness.” For Araud, emphasizing hyphenated identities negates individuals’ essential Frenchness; to Noah, those who say people can’t be both African and French “have a problem and not me.”

But beyond the bubble of talk-show hosts and opinion pages, a new generation of activists—young writers, filmmakers, and activists, many of them women and descendants of immigrants from France’s former African colonies—is trying to change the way France thinks about race. Race might not exist biologically, they argue, but racial hierarchies are fundamental to society’s power relations—a dynamic largely rooted in, and compounded by, France’s colonial history.

The French universal ideal clashes with an ugly reality: Police stop blacks and Arabs 20 times more often than whites, stop-and-frisk is routine practice, and a pattern of police brutality has emerged, setting off mass protests in recent years. Discrimination in the workplace and housing market is rampant, and the nation’s prison population is estimated to be overwhelmingly Arab and black—though the ban on racial statistics makes the exact population impossible to measure. Those are just a few examples of the structural biases that have inspired young activists to draw attention to notions like white privilege.

“Saying ‘race’ is like dropping a bomb,” Kiyémis, a 26-year-old author and blogger, whose parents immigrated to France from Cameroon, told me, calling the intransigence on race a “way to protect France’s colonial history”—a violent past the political class has, decades later, been slow to reckon with. During the 2017 electoral campaign, for instance, Emmanuel Macron was forced to walk back comments that France had committed war crimes in Algeria—even though it’s a matter of public record that from 1954 to 1962 the French tortured and killed thousands of Algerians, including civilians.

Intellectuals and politicians across the spectrum deride her brand of activism as importing American identity politics, described by the term communautarisme—a society in which members of ethnic and religious minorities draw on their backgrounds and histories as a form of self-identification and agency, allegedly at the expense of their patriotism.

Kiyémis acknowledges that the US civil-rights movement and theories developed at American universities have underscored her activism, but that’s due to the lack of a developed, intellectual framework to tackle race in France—not because the issues don’t apply to the French context. As Fabrice Dhume, a sociologist at Paris 8—one of the few campuses in France that offers course work on postcolonial studies and racism—told me: “There’s a deafness, an incapacity, to consider the problem of race. We learn growing up that race doesn’t exist biologically, but also that it’s a taboo subject.”

For Kiyémis, it’s about imposing her family’s history, one that the national narrative seeks to downplay: “My parents were colonized—I am a descendant of France’s colonial heritage. Everyone freaks out when I say that, but it’s a historical fact.” She sees the fixation on the dangers of the “American model” as both a way to delegitimize her activism and a fundamental misunderstanding of the way power dynamics shape minorities’ experiences in France. “If we’re incapable of distinguishing those who celebrate the African origins of the French team from the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” she said, referring to the former president of the far-right National Front party, “then it’s because we’re not asking ourselves questions about how race structures society.”

It’s not the first time racial minorities have tried to challenge the way France approaches race, but the current social climate—one of unprecedented fear stoked by a string of terrorism since 2015 and the rise of the far right—has created a new sense of urgency. “It’s the post-Charlie effect,” Hanane Karimi, a sociologist who focuses on French secularism and Islamophobia, told me. Since January 2015 attacks at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, she explained that “a citizen who criticizes the Republic is considered an enemy of the Republic.” As so many continue to celebrate the free expression Charlie Hebdo embodies—the right to mock and caricature, without fear of repercussion—they seem less tolerant of those who point out weaknesses in the country’s social pact or criticize its approach to its colonial legacy.

This moment—in which national values are glorified and selectively applied—has also coincided with a generational shift. “Before, postcolonial activists were part of the working class, and were on the ground,” Karimi told me. “They lacked the cultural capital to write, to document. But the current and previous generations have that access to universities, that desire to produce written work about their struggle.”

As young French citizens of North African and African descent become less patient with a model that demands they downplay their origins, the proponents of integration—a term often applied to people who were born and raised in France—have become increasingly defensive. Academics, Twitter pundits, and the government itself relentlessly attempt to quash organizing.

Last spring, for example, an Afro-feminist festival became a national scandal; the event was open to the public but featured several workshops reserved for the “racialized”—a term that reflects not just being a racial minority but the process of being reduced to it. The mayor of Paris and a slew of institutional antiracism organizations deemed these meetings racist for excluding white people. Around the same time, the Republican Spring, a movement that embodies the so-called Republican Left, condemned a group of sociologists for organizing a conference on intersectionality—an analytical framework developed in the United States to describe the often-invisible intersection of discriminatory experiences—and forced them to revise the content. Months later, pressure from the same figures led to the cancellation of a symposium on Islamophobia at a university in Lyon. Last November, the education minister sued a student union for organization a conference about institutional racism, which also included workshops reserved for people of color. And late last year, Rokhaya Diallo, a black journalist and filmmaker, was ousted from a government advisory council for her calls to combat “state racism.” The list goes on.

“The Republican ideal makes it impossible for people to grasp that specific forms of oppression require specific solutions: The idea that black women can speak freely about what they experience goes against the myth of vivre ensemble,” Laura Nsafou, an author who goes by Mrs. Roots and has published numerous children’s books that aim to empower young women of color, told me by e-mail, using a commonly invoked phrase that roughly translates to “living together.” That, she went on, is why meetings reserved to the “racialized” have become such a hot-button issue for the political establishment.

Many of the women I’ve interviewed have echoed that sentiment—that there is a fundamental refusal to take seriously and reckon with the structural inequities they try to expose. Their detractors often argue that focusing on minority experiences creates walls—highlighting differences at the expense of a common, national experience. But for racial minorities, those walls are a fundamental aspect of day-to-day life. Accordingly, the political establishment’s understanding of racism is skewed: While it is considered defamatory to decry institutional racism, there seems to be a certain legitimacy given to the notion of “anti-White racism.” In fact, the LICRA, one of France’s most prominent antiracism organizations, has stated: “If anti-White racism is a relatively marginal phenomenon regarding other forms of racism and anti-Semitism, it should still be the object of the same rigor and the same disapproval.”

Mounting energy to silence antiracism activists—by trying to shut down their meetings, labeling them “identitarian” or “racialist,” or likening them to the far right—has galvanized them and helped to increase their visibility. And even if they continue to face steep opposition, the shift is undeniable. Kiyémis said that while she’s not particularly optimistic—or perhaps has just become “blasé” about French conservatism on race—she sees the debate progressing. “In 2014, nobody talked about intersectionality, about being ‘racialized,’ about whiteness.” But in 2018, she sees those ideas inch their way into the mainstream.

For Mrs. Roots, social media have made it impossible to “muzzle the words of the racialized,” and that marks a “clear evolution.” Today, she explained, all-white panels during conferences about racism, or media silence on police brutality, can no longer slip beneath the radar.

“If we’re seeing such radical reactions from the other side,” Karimi told me, “it means that we’re getting our message across. It means that they’re afraid.”

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