‘I don’t see colour’. The phrase spoken in a mock-American accent with an eyebrow raise and an ostentatious head tilt, is often used to poke fun of a point of view that proclaims not to see race in any society riddled with racism.
Yet in France, colour, or race, is not acknowledged at all. ‘I don’t see colour’ is a reality. Race is not a category recognised in law and since 2018 it has been removed entirely from the constitution. As a French citizen your primary mode of identity is the nation, the tricolour, the Marseillaise. Outward displays of religion are not allowed in public and the state does not collect statistics on race and ethnicity. Everyone is painted in the red, white, and blue of universalism. But scratch away at the painted façade and you find a much more contradictory reality where structures of racial and economic exclusion continue to exist.
It is estimated that France has the largest populations of Muslims, Black people, and Jewish people in Europe. Many of these people are direct descendants of colonial France with grandparents moving to the metropole either side of decolonisation to find opportunities not available under the colonial regime. Of course, with no official ethno-racial statistics unofficial estimates do vary, but it is believed that France has around a 13.5% Maghrebi and Black population.
Unofficial statistics are collected by organisations seeking to tackle racial inequalities within France. Unsurprisingly, it is calculated that it is within minority communities that poverty, unemployment, and police brutality are most prevalent. One study has shown that a man under 25 who is perceived to be Black or Arab is 20 times more likely to be stopped than ‘all other persons’. Unemployment within the metropolitan suburbs where many of these non-white populations live is 2.5 times greater than the national average. 44.8% of people living in the banlieues of Grigny, located to the South of Paris, live in poverty – a rate 3 times higher than the national average of 14%.
France does not use racial categories because of its problematic colonial and domestic history of employing racial groupings. Racial quotas were imposed on Jewish people in France during the Second World War and access to many public goods was systematically denied them. In Algeria, the bloodiest thorn in the French colonial side, there was explicit racist legislation with the ‘code de l’indigénat’ which deprived the mostly Muslim population of Algeria access to basic civil liberties.
France rightly remembers these dark chapters of her national history. And, it is because of these uncomfortable episodes that the principal of French universalism is based. In creating a Constitution that does not ‘see colour’ it hopes to never repeat previous sins. Yet, in doing this, France unsettlingly places one colour-blind shroud over the past. In attempting to remedy one recurring wrong of its history, it simultaneously and systematically denies all acknowledgement that the wider legacy of colonialism has had on French society. For, the legacy of the racist laws that served to justify the physical, political, and economic subjugation of so many in the French overseas colonies did not stop when independence was achieved. That legacy followed migrants and immigrants to France and remained in the national psyche of many white French people. The social construct of race does not disappear simply because the category has been removed from public discourse.
In creating a ‘colour blind’ public sphere that many on the Left as well as on the Right in France support, a metaphorical plaster has been put on a cut on the arm when the real injury is a deep and bloody wound on the neck. The French may have cut off one rotten branch from the festering tree of history; but they have seemingly now dropped the axe, turned around, and act as if the infected roots do not spread far and wide.
President Emmanuel Macron called colonialism a “grave mistake” during a visit to the Ivory Coast in 2019. He was right to do so just as he was right to say in 2017 that the atrocities committed by the French during the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962 today should be considered “crimes against humanity”. But, retrospective apologies are only meaningful if the continuing effects of these ‘grave mistakes’ are also addressed. Today’s France was not created in a vacuum. It is not a blank slate upon which idealistic universalism can be transposed. The present-day inequalities faced by minorities in France are a direct result of the colonial legacy based to a large extent on a racist ‘civilising mission’ of Black and Maghrebi people by the white French population. The fact that race was a category which defined inferiority then means it must still be used to understand the problems of now.
After the violent clashes between Gilets Jaunes and police across France towards the end of 2018 seeped into the new year of 2019, Macron told the French people – “do not speak of repression or police violence; such words are unacceptable in a state under the rule of law”. The violence of the police towards the Gilet Jaunes, of which a majority were white protestors, was startling. The violence shocked many unsuspecting Europeans who thought that France was the country wherein Paris was tinged with a romanticism of free-love and philosophy, the Riviera was always flooded with sun and wine, and the bucolic campagne was home to not much else than ivy covered chateaux. However, this same violence was already a lived reality for many.
The Flash-Ball which was so scorned upon during the Gilet Jaunes clashes was first used in France as a riot-control tool to combat the mainly second and third generation migrant communities in the riots of 2005. In 1999, France became the first European Union state to be convicted of torture by the European Court of Human Rights for the sexually charged abuse of Ahmed Selmouni, a French citizen of North African origin, in police custody. In 2012, Human Rights Watch put forward the case in a 55-page report that ‘French police are using overly broad powers to conduct unwarranted and abusive checks on black and Arab young men and boys’.
In Britain, the recently published Lammy recommendations have called for a more ‘colour-blind’ legal process wherein racially identifying information is redacted from police reports to help fight against subconscious and conscious racism within the police and legal system. Arguably, this is a scenario in which the idea of colour-blindness should be used and implemented. Now, whilst France already has this set-up in place, the problem starts before the man or woman enters police custody. The problem starts in the street when Black or Arab people are disproportionately stopped by police. Yet, the French state has no apparatus to remedy the institutionalised problem that race is a reason for discrimination. Beyond the racialised streets, the French state is blind when it comes to recognising the inequalities racial minorities face in areas such as housing, finance, and health. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the hardest hit areas in terms of mortality and economically was Seine-Saint-Denis. It is France’s poorest department and home to large non-white populations. A poll released by the administrative area of Seine-Saint-Denis showed that 87% of people asked in that area thought that that the basis for their discrimination was their race or ethnicity.
The department of Seine-Saint-Denis which is situated a short metro-ride away from the central Parisian boulevards steeped in the romance of Revolution and resistance, stands in stark contrast to French universalism. Here, the intersects of race and class collide. Yet, too often the race factor is overlooked in the name of this same universalism. The French imperial project was designed to enrich the metropole using resources from overseas colonies: the economy was the superstructure and racism was the ideology used to justify this exploitation. As they did during France’s colonial era, race and class continue to go hand in hand. To erase one from public discourse is to render insufficient the explanation of the other. As the prominent Black intellectual C.L.R James wrote, “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental”.
More recently, June’s protests in Paris may have been sparked by the death of George Floyd in America, but they were sustained by French-specific injustices. Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré who was a Malian French man killed in French custody after being choked and held down by police in 2016, wants the colour-blind French society to recognise its racism. She has been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement in France and the hundreds of thousands of protestors who have joined her weekly in demanding a more racially conscious country.
Universalism is an ideal but racial inequality is the reality. France recognises certain aspects of its brutal colonial past but in doing so suffocates the parts that continue to have ramifications today. The country of liberté, égalité and fraternité needs to understand that to achieve its ultimate goal of colour-blindness, you first have to recognise the inequalities caused by colour.