Why French universalism is the wrong response to the Black Lives Matter movement
Illustration: Holly Woodhead

C/N: discussion of police brutality and racism

While Black Lives Matter movements mobilised millions around the world, France has failed to find common ground on an everlasting debate opposing republican universalism with anti-racist activism. It is the sign that the country must confront its failing approach of handling race-related issues.  

What is Universalism? 

Universalism is the principle according to which the French Republic and its values are universal. It implies that the French nation is a political construct rather than a predetermined ethnic community. According to this vision, all French citizens are equal regardless of their race, religion, culture and gender. This is mirrored in the famous French motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. While the ideal is noble, it has always been tied with a “colour blind” vision of society. 

This principle is responsible for the extremely limited use of ethnicity-based statistics in France, depriving research from evidence and data, therefore making race problems invisible. In 2019, Decathlon sparked national controversy after introducing the running Hijab[i] on their catalogue.  When talking about race, France’s representatives remain quite shy about the subject and often prefer to state that they “do not see colour” or that French people are not judged by the colour of their skin, because the institutions were funded on universalist principles. Universalism is, according to its supporters, focusing on what brings us together rather than what sets us apart.

A number of French intellectuals and politicians, including the French President, are now opposing Universalism with the ideas of the anti-racist protestors of the past weeks, which are being accused of separatism. In this context, the gathering of individuals because of their skin colour is unacceptable. So when  French people of colour organise themselves to fight for their rights, they are accused of dividing the nation. Multiple controversies have risen when women of colour in particular, created safe environments where they encouraged others to share and open up about dealing with racism. Opposing universalism and communitarianism is failing to recognise that communities are coming together because they are denied their individuality elsewhere.   

How universalism leads to ignorance

Applying the principle of universalism in a country where racism practices continue to be perpetuated is ineffective. France has its own history of racism stemming from its colonial past where massacre and slavery of the indigenous people were the norm. To this day, the country has an extensive record of race-based discrimination. The National Human Rights Defender issued several reports revealing the seriousness of discrimination in France and their systemic nature, particularly in work environments and during police controls. 

Through the lens of universalism, a large part of society is unaware of the injustices some communities are enduring. It also has a harmful impact on government actions against racial discrimination. For example, the two major government-funded organisations in charge of the fight against racism, the LICRA (International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism) and SOS Racism claim to fight against: “all sorts of discriminations, including the racism that white people can experience”. They defend a moral and individualistic conception of racism, which is precisely the dogma Black Lives Matter activists have been trying to break with. 

When discussing police brutality, all of these challenges resurface. Although protests against racism and police brutality were held in major French cities, the President did not address the matter directly. The Minister of the Interior was in charge of holding a press conference after the police and activists clashed during a demonstration in Paris. He addressed the allegations of racism in law enforcement but persisted in denying the existence of systemic violence and the very term of police brutality, reminding of France’s universal values. 

The French response to the worldwide anti-racism movement of the past month is avoidance, fearing introspective analysis of the old and extensive racial injustices the French society is still facing today. Universalism is an ideal, not a reality. Tackling systemic and institutionalised racism starts with acknowledging this reality. If racism cannot be called by its name nor taken seriously, the invisibilisation of the crisis is likely to continue. France’s  revolutionary history shows that change is within the country’s values. French people of colour are not defined by the colour of their skin, but their struggle must not be rationalised away through the dogma of universalism.