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Eyes Wide Shut

Why the French Deny Their Own Racism

The protests over the police killing of Nahel Merzouk have reignited the debate over the country’s claims of color blindness.

A protester at Place de la Concorde in Paris
A protester at Place de la Concorde in Paris on June 30

Riots happen for myriad reasons, but often they’re ignited by a single incident. Last week, a policeman shot and killed a 17-year-old French boy of North African descent at a traffic light in a Parisian suburb. Riots broke out throughout the country and continued through the weekend, resulting in the mobilization of 45,000 police and the arrest of thousands of protesters. On Friday, a spokesperson for a union representing over half of all police officers issued a statement that they were “at war” against “vermin.” The interior minister has promised the police “unwavering support,” and French President Emmanuel Macron has blamed video games for protesters’ violent unrest. 

Initially, the French media cited anonymous police sources claiming the young driver, Nahel Merzouk, was shot when he tried to plough into a group of officers. Bystander footage later revealed the vehicle was stopped at a traffic light and one of the officers was pointing a gun through the window of the driver’s side. As the car began pulling away, one of the policemen fired a shot directly at Merzouk, who then crashed into a sidewalk. He died an hour later. The policeman who shot him has been charged with voluntary homicide. 

For those who live in the French suburbs, run-ins with heavily armed cops are not uncommon. To understand why, it is important to note that the word “suburb” in French does not suggest leafy communities of middle-class apartments in beautiful Haussmann buildings surrounded by cafés and restaurants. The banlieues, as they are known, are mostly assortments of block residential towers deliberately separated from commerce and public transportation. The neighborhoods suffer from high unemployment, low economic mobility, and social exclusion. 

Police in the banlieues need no excuse to stop anyone on the street; a simple demand of “show me your papers” is enough. In 2021, six nongovernmental organizations filed a class action lawsuit against the French government claiming the police have engaged in widespread racial profiling. One of the victims in the report said he experienced racial profiling since he was 16, “sometimes up to three times a day” and that on one occasion a cop “put me violently up against the wall. One of the officers touches my private parts. Then he hits me in the stomach and calls me a ‘dirty Arab.’” 

Although accounts of discrimination at the hands of the police are widespread, proving it is an entirely different matter. That is because the French government has explicitly outlawed keeping any statistics on race. This means ethnic minorities can claim mistreatment all they want, but without any statistical evidence their claims fall on deaf ears. It is, in effect, the national policy of France to pretend that racism doesn’t exist within its boundaries.

The law against statistics on race dates to the 1970s and has origins in the Holocaust. Defenders of the law claim the Nazis were able to round up Jews because the French government kept records on faith and ethnicity. Another reason, and perhaps the most deeply rooted, is the French ideal of universalism—the notion that one’s identity as a French citizen transcends race, gender, and religion. In Macron’s words: “‘Many’ doesn’t mean we’re an agglomerate of communities. It means we’re a national community.” This adherence to a singular national identity is defined abstractly by the French motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” All are equal before the law because the law, like society, is color-blind.

This insistence on color-blindness manifests in different forms. Because the national curriculum is established centrally in Paris, it means all students, for example those in the French Caribbean islands who are descendants of enslaved Africans, are taught a shared history of France that begins with les Gaulois and climbs through the centuries of kings and queens before arriving at revolution and world wars. Colonialism and slavery are brushed upon, but unless a teacher at Frantz Fanon high school in Martinique takes precious time to step away from the national curriculum, none of the students will read the works of the Creole political philosopher.

Universalism extends beyond education. Under the auspices of French secularism knows as laïcité, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing party Rassemblement National and former presidential candidate, proposed a total ban on wearing the Muslim head scarf in public. In public health, it means officials have no way of knowing how health crises affect different communities (during the Covid pandemic, Reuters accumulated data that revealed French Muslims died at a higher rate from the virus than the overall population). Universalism means no records can be kept on discrimination in the workplace, housing, or access to public funds. The French government has no way of knowing if the children of French immigrants are falling behind those of native-born students and therefore has no way of targeting any reforms that might help them catch up. 

Over the years there have been murmurs of reform. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye wrote an impassioned op-ed in Le Monde rekindling the debate on keeping national ethnic statistics. She wrote: “If universalism is going to live and prosper, we shouldn’t hesitate to call things what they are, to say that skin colour isn’t neutral, that a name or surname is stigmatising.” By making universalism the foundation of the law, Ndiaye argued, extremists on either end of the political spectrum could claim racism is everywhere or nowhere, and nobody could disprove their claims. Her words were not well received. The economy minister, Bruno le Maire,  scoffed, “A French person is a French person, and I do not take account of their race, origin, or religion, and I do not want to take account of it.” 

Universalism has amounted to institutional earmuffs—a wilful ignorance of widespread racism, not only in the government but in the broader public sphere. Bemoaning the growing influence of Anglo-Saxon universities, and of “le wokeism” in particular, French intellectuals are quick to argue that those who fight against racism are themselves responsible for spreading racial animus. Last year, the French minister for higher education, Frédérique Vidal, attempted to launch an investigation into French universities for what she called widespread “Islamo-gauchisme”—an entirely made-up concept that asserts the left is legitimizing Islamic terrorism and trying to “corrupt society.” In an interview with a conservative French newspaper, the minister claimed that students are increasingly seeing themselves through a prism of identity politics that is set on dividing society into categories of oppression.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that France is a racist country. The country’s wealth was built on an imperial past that relied on the stolen labor of the enslaved and the colonized. Nor should be it be controversial to say that everybody experiences their nationality in different ways. Being French does not exclusively mean buying a ham-baguette sandwich from the local bakery at lunch and chasing it down with a nice burgundy wine. It can also mean spending Friday afternoon at the mosque or spending Sunday eating Senegalese fish and rice. How Nahel Merzouk experienced his nationality in the banlieue is no less valid an experience than those of the children of French presidents attending lycée across the river in Neuilly sur Seine. The difference is that those children will have numerous opportunities that Merzouk never could have dreamed of. Acknowledging this lack of égalité would be a sign of national strength, not weakness.