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.”