‘Black and treated as such’: France’s anti-racism protests expose myth of colour-blind Republic

The unprecedented wave of protests that swept French cities over the past week has exposed cracks in the country’s universalist model, lifting long-standing taboos and fuelling calls to shed the “myth” of a Republic immune to racism.

Protesters attend a rally against racism and police brutality in Nantes, western France, on June 8, 2020.
Protesters attend a rally against racism and police brutality in Nantes, western France, on June 8, 2020. © Stéphane Mahé, REUTERS

Maelle B. dithered at length before heading to the Paris courthouse to protest against racism and police brutality. Sporting a broad face mask, the 23-year-old student from the Paris suburbs carried milk and eye drops in her rucksack to ease the sting from teargas. 

“We’re black, Arab, white etc. This is the reality. And we need to stop pretending that blacks and others are not discriminated against,” she said, holding up a sign that read: “It’s not black vs white. It’s everyone vs racists”.

Maelle was among more than 20,000 people who rallied in northern Paris on June 2 to vent their anger and frustration over discriminations that have been allowed to fester unchallenged for decades. Inspired by the global protest movement triggered by the George Floyd killing in the US, the Paris gathering was France’s largest such rally in decades.

“Of course France and America are very different countries, but they have a common enemy in racism,” said Maelle. “Nothing will ever change until people are educated about racism.”

White privilege

The June 2 gathering was just the first in a wave of rallies that have swept French cities in recent days, surprising even their organisers by the size and diversity of the crowds. It reignited a longstanding dispute about policing in the immigrant-rich suburbs of France’s largest cities, forcing the government into a rare admission that “there are racist police officers” and that such deviance cannot be tolerated. 

Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent anti-racism campaigner who attended the Paris rally, said she had never seen such a large gathering before. In an interview with FRANCE 24, she credited the impressive mobilisation with helping to lift entrenched taboos.

“Racism and police brutality were largely hushed by the media before,” Diallo explained. “The coverage now is still often skewed against the protesters, but at least these subjects are considered worthy of debate.”

For Maelle M. (right) and her friend Aline, tackling racism is they key to healing the fraught relationship between police and youths in the suburbs.
For Maelle M. (right) and her friend Aline, tackling racism is they key to healing the fraught relationship between police and youths in the suburbs. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Beyond the issue of policing, the mobilisation has led to a new bout of soul-searching about the long-neglected cracks in the French Republic’s universalist model, which undermine its cherished principles of égalité and fraternité. Mirroring debates taking place in the US, it has prompted talk of “white privilege” — a notion France’s nominally colour-blind Republic is deeply uncomfortable with.

In a searing letter read out on France Inter radio on June 4, prominent novelist Virginie Despentes compared treatment of racial minorities with the relative privilege of being white.  

“In France we are [supposedly] not racist, and yet the last time a waiter refused to serve me I was with an Arab; the last time I was told to show my ID, I was with an Arab; the last time a person I was waiting for almost missed a train because police stopped her, she was black,” Despentes wrote.

She added: “A white person like me can move freely through the city without even noticing the police. [...] I cannot forget I am a woman. But I can forget I am white. That’s what it means to be white. To think about it or not, depending on your mood. In France, we are not racist, but I don’t know a single black or Arab person who has such a choice.”

Republican ‘mythology’

The racialised nature of inequality in France is a no-brainer for Maboula Soumahoro, a specialist of African diaspora studies at the University of Tours.

“I am black and I am treated as such,” Soumahoro told FRANCE 24 in a televised interview earlier this year. She said France’s reluctance to address such matters derives in part from a misreading of its history.

“France is not blind to racism. France thinks it’s blind to racism,” she explained, arguing that French colonialism and slave trade had “produced race” throughout the world, but outside mainland France.

“Because slavery was illegal on the mainland, people in France have the impression that this hyper-racialised history that is characteristic of the modern world only concerns the Americas, when in fact we have our own history,” Soumahoro said. 

According to Diallo, denial of racism is a legacy of the French Republic’s “mythology”. 

“We are fed the story of a country that is blind to colour and impermeable to racism, but this is merely a mystification,” she said. In a perverse effect, she argued, this denial prevents the country from addressing the problem in the first place.

“France won’t give itself the means to measure and address racial discriminations,” Diallo explained. “The country continues to view racism from a moral and individual standpoint. In doing so, it excludes the possibility of enacting broad policies that can tackle the structural problem of racism.”

Social and racial divides

While France famously doesn’t compile official statistics based on faith, ethnicity or skin colour, racial discrimination in all spheres of public life has been widely documented, frequently overlapping with socio-economic inequality.

The intersecting social and racial disparities were glaringly exposed during the nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The immigrant-rich Seine-Saint-Denis department northeast of Paris – France’s poorest – accounted for a disproportionately high number of both fatalities from Covid-19 and fines handed out for breaching the lockdown rules.

There are obvious reasons for this. The combination of large families in cramped quarters and a lack of doctors and hospital beds left the local population particularly exposed to the virus. And while many Parisians fled to countryside residences or switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs supplied most of the frontline workers who kept the metropolis running.

Touching on this subject in her letter last week, Despentes noted that many commentators added insult to injury by attributing the high mortality to a lack of discipline.

“In France we are not racist, but when we were told that the death rate in Seine-Saint-Denis was 60 times higher than the national average, not only did we not care, we even had the nerve to suggest this was because ‘they don’t confine themselves properly’,” the novelist wrote.

At the June 2 rally, protesters said this mix of indifference and condescension was apparent in the way much of the media and the political establishment treated their grievances.

Divy Vasanth, a former journalist, pointed to the case of Camélia Jordana, a French singer and actress of Algerian origin who recently caused a storm by using the term “massacre” to talk of police violence in the suburbs. The ensuing backlash, he argued, was indicative of a society that ignores people so long as they live in the banlieue and expects them to be grateful and “shut up” when they are successful. 

“When [protest leader] Assa Traoré speaks, she’s told to shut it because she’s from the suburbs. And when Camélia Jordana says something, she’s told she has no reason to complain,” Vasanth said. “They don’t listen to what we have to say: they mock the words we use and ignore the substance.”

Racism ‘not a priority’

Carole Reynaud-Paligot, a historian and sociologist who recently curated an exhibition on racism at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, traces the origins of France’s unspoken racism to the “contradiction” between the French Republic’s universalist principles and the reality of colonialism.

“The result of this contradiction is a form of universalism that is itself not universal, tainted by a sense of superiority and a tendency to depreciate other cultures,” she explained. “Racism is derived from this context of domination, a context that is still at play today, most notably in France’s relations with the so-called developing world.”

Over the years, French ambivalence regarding this past has translated into widely differing political initiatives. In 2001, under a Socialist government, lawmaker Christiane Taubira — one of only a handful of black politicians to have held a high-ranking ministerial portfolio under France’s five republics — sponsored a landmark bill that recognised slavery as a crime against humanity. Just four years later, a conservative administration sought to pass a law stating the “benefits” of colonisation for France’s colonial subjects, until a backlash led by historians forced it to back down.

Reynaud-Paligot said French authorities had failed to identify the legacy of racism as a threat to the unity of the French Republic and the legitimacy of its institutions.

“School programmes continue to be skittish and shy about racism, as though this were not a priority,” said the historian, for whom the situation is even worse when it comes to training civil servants.

“Studies have shown that racism has largely penetrated state institutions, particularly the police and prefectures,” she said, referring to administrative bodies that represent the national government at the local level. “A huge training effort is required in such institutions, but this is not seen as a priority.”

Instead, she added, officials “have been obsessed with the threat of radicalisation ever since the recent wave of terrorist attacks,” neglecting the widespread discrimination that has provided the Republic’s foes with such fertile terrain.

Though born out of legitimate concerns, “the psychosis over radicalisation in turn amplified racial prejudice,” said Diallo, pointing to a “climate of suspicion that only increased the existing racism against minorities perceived to be of Muslim faith", giving free reign to an already prejudiced security apparatus.

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