The Racial Paradigm: Ostensible Egalitarianism in France

Photo: Frenchculture.org

Incoming editor-in-chief Matthew Santucci sat down with Dr. Pap Ndiaye after his talk on French Republicanism and blackness in France. Dr. Ndiaye is considered to be one of the pioneers of ‘Black Studies’ in France and founded the Circle of Action for the Promotion of Diversity in France (CAPDIV) with Patrick Lozehe. He is also a professor at Institut d’études politiques de Paris and has authored numerous books and articles.

Let me start off by thanking you very much for taking the time to sit down with me today – it’s an absolute pleasure. So, for my first question I want to ask you about the conception of race in France both in terms of its theoretical framework and its existence in praxis: how do black people in France perceive race in the post-colonial period?

Unlike the United States, race in France is not considered as a valid theoretical or political category; it’s the ‘r’ word, one that you don’t even want to pronounce. This is for a good reason, because of the colonial past of the French and the fact that the social sciences in France, up until World War 2, were very much structured by race. Anthropology, for example, in France was all about race. Just like the United States, it was all about the racial hierarchies that anthropology meant to describe. Following the war, the genocide in Europe and the decolonization in the 1950s, the French broke with this long tradition and reestablished the social sciences under a new basis. Now it was about promoting the human race, made of human beings who were equal to each other. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the very famous anthropologist, played a big role in the 1950s trying to rebuild the French social sciences on new grounds, that of unique human race. So the French remain extremely vigilant and skeptical of the notion of race. To them it sounds as if we are trying to reintroduce the old social sciences of the pre World War Two period; it’s almost a way to reintroduce racism – if you will.

And because of this, that’s why in the constitution the government is forbidden from including race in their census?

Exactly! It’s not in the constitution but it is forbidden by the Conseil Constitutionnel – the highest court – the equivalent of the Supreme Court. As I’ve showed it’s not completely forbidden but it is extremely difficult to do this kind of study, more generally the French census doesn’t have any kind of ethno-racial statistics. Unlike the US and Great Britain, the French census does not take into account race or ethnicity. It takes into account the age, address, where you live, the size of your apartment, whatever, but not ethnicity or race.

Is it true to say that there is a large socio-economic gap, rather socio-economic discrimination in France? You have this elite class, who are less than receptive to immigration and they want to maintain this notion of social purity where they will not intermarry with any people of African descent – I think that this plays out differently in the US than it does in France.

I would nuance this point for example the issue of intermarriage has never been that central in France. Unlike the US where interracial marriages were forbidden in many states up unit the Supreme Court decision of 1967 – the famous Loving [v. Virginia] decision – in France there were no laws prohibiting interracial marriage; it was possible. It was possible in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. That does not mean that racism did not exist in France, it did of course, but there was no obsession of the miscegenation, whereas in the US it was very central. The main reason is that, in the US, the national territory was the territory of slavery. Whereas in France the colonial system of slavery was organized far from France. So, you have what people consider France and the colonies, thousands of miles away.

And slavery was abolished in France in 1794?

For the first time, yes, but before being reestablished by Napoleon in 1802 and abolished for the second time in 1848. France is in a unique situation of having abolished slavery twice; once during the first revolution and again during the revolution of 1848. To get back to my point, it is as if the French had thought that the geographical separation between the colonies and the national territories was safe enough so that they didn’t have to invent laws of segregation, various laws that would prohibit interracial marriages, for example, since non-white slaves were so far from continental France.

By looking at the political landscape, in France, we can see that is a rich history, an enmeshment, with Socialism. The current president, François Hollande, is of the Socialist Party and there have been many workers protests. How does that affect the national psyche, the collective empowerment of the blacks within the political system? Are they represented in the national assembly; do they embrace the ideas of socialism; or are they more reticent to show their political affiliations in public?

When Hollande, the socialist president, was running for president in 2012 he built his campaign on different issues, one of them was obviously targeting the non-white French population. He promised that he would do something to fight racial profiling by the police. He said that the police would have to write, each time there was an encounter, a little note; we know through foreign experiences, including the U.S., that this is an effective way to prevent the multiple controls of the same person, by the same police man. So he made a lot of promises in 2012. He also said that the left would try to implement the possibility for non-French citizens to vote in local elections. This was a long demand; it has been made for a long time. Once elected, he forgot all this in a very quick and very cynical way. There is a lot of bitterness and disappointment, because the majority of non-white French voted for François Hollande in 2012. They’re very disappointed, they feel that the have been completely forgotten, that François Hollande paid attention to them when he was running for the presidency and once elevated, he turned his back on them. So, I seriously doubt that these people will vote again for Hollande, if he runs, which is not even sure. More generally, it is interesting to see, to look at their relationship between the left – more specifically the socialist party – and ethno-racial minorities in France. On one side those minorities tend to be leftist, to believe in equality and in raising the minimum wage, things like that. On the other side there is a kind of tension because a lot of non-white French feel that the left uses them to win the elections and doesn’t do as much as it should once they’re in power. It’s a bit like the African Americans and the Democratic Party in the United States. It is an important part of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton needs the African American vote, for sure, but a lot of African Americans feel that once the Democrats are in power they don’t act as much; it was just lip service during the presidential campaign. It is very similar in France, when it comes to the relationship between the Socialist Party and minorities.

And so you can draw further parallels between The U.S. and France. You’ve noted earlier that we’ve seen this with the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy over the past year, which has been predicated upon xenophobia and islamophobia and has fed into the fears of working middle class people because they’ve seen wage stagnation and have been precluded from entering into the market. I think you’ve seen this [rise of right wing populism] in Europe as well, which has been compounded by the migration crises over the past couple years. You’ve had the Charlie Hebdo attack and I think that’s fueled Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

Absolutely! Think also of the Brexit with Nigel Farage (UKIP); think of the situation in central Europe, more specifically in Poland where an extreme right government is in power; in Hungary with [President Victor] Orban, an extreme right government with extremely xenophobic and even racist policies. There is clearly a wave of xenophobic populism throughout the world. Also, think of the Philippines with [President Rodrigo] Duterte. So, in many countries the xenophobic, ultra-rightist populist is on the rise. Which, means that the national situation is important and that there are also large global issues at stake. What is the global issue at stake? Well, we can sum it up by saying that, the rewards of globalization are mostly confiscated by a very small part of the population. Which has generated an intense frustration – anger – among groups, who feel that the globalization, the opening of borders and the intensification of circulation threatens their social position. This is very much the case here in the U.S. with Trump, Trump people, who want more tariffs, who want to denounce international treaties et cetera. This is very true with Le Pen in France who wants to get out of the European Union, forget the Euro to get back to the old currency, the Franc, so on and so forth. So this is very striking.

That’s interesting that we see this playing out both in the U.S. and in Europe. So then, would it be important for black people, in France, to show solidarity like we’ve seen in the U.S. in terms of BLM and with Colin Kaepernick?

Absolutely! One thing at stake is to figure out how to organize since a minimum of organization is required as to have a collective voice; so as to have some leverage in the political arena; this is very much my hope that minorities in France have a voice so as to express their demands and as to fight for justice and equality. They’re not asking to be in a higher position than others, they’re just asking for equality; to be treated like anyone else. This can be something that a lot of people can agree with. A lot of people agree that racism should be effectively fought, that various forms of violence that women have to face should be effectively fought and prohibited, it is also fair to say that the people who have a vested interest in this fight, women in the various cases of sexism but also racial minorities, should be at the forefront of this fight – this is their life, their personal interests. What we are witnessing in France is the slow rise of such organizations, which of course have to face the strong opposition of organizations, political organizations, such as Le Front National, who denounce these groups, the same way that Trump has denounced Black Lives Matter.

You see a lot of people on the right in the United States who talk about ‘law and order’ and respect for police, and implicit in that is this ‘us versus them’ mentality, saying that if you’re not respecting law then by virtue of that you’re repudiating everything that the U.S. stands for. However, they don’t acknowledge the long standing institutionalized racism that exists and I think you can say the same about France as well. The people are inadvertently dismissing it or are woefully ignorant of it and that is reflected in the political arena as well. It would be better if there was more representation in the National Assembly for minorities and black people, because if I recall there are only 11 seats out of 577 that represent minorities, there is not equitable representation.

The statistics are depressing, because most of these people are representatives from the overseas department. When it comes to continental France, metropolitan France, the statistics are even more depressing, you’re now talking about 1 or 2 representatives. It is very, very low, so it really speaks volume about the issue of political diversity. Myself, among many others, who advocate for more diversity at the Assemblée nationale, it’s not because the Assembly should look exactly like society; it is because we know that when it comes to racism and discrimination there are very few MPs who are interested in this issue. They’ll say, ‘oh yeah I’m against racism,’ but when it comes to implementing laws, having some expertise in this field, there is no one. So, if we want more of these laws and issues to be discussed in the parliament we need more diversity, otherwise its just lip service. We need people for example with disabilities, we need more women, more people form the LGBT community, so as to reflect the issues that are important to millions of people in French society.

Absolutely! It’s like in the U.S., we’ve had our first African American president, perhaps we’ll have our first female president, and as a result this broadens the perspective of everyone in the country – we see firsthand these issues at play. Thank you for speaking with me today, it was a pleasure.

Yes, perfect; thank you!

About the Author

Matthew J. Santucci
Matthew J. Santucci (FCRH '18), is a history major with a minor in Italian and serves as editor-in-chief. He is interested in European politics, foreign policy, and the progressive movement in the US. Contact Matthew at msantucci1@fordham.edu.