Is France really a racist country?

Gallic pride or burgeoning racism…have the French crossed the line?


© RemiJDN


On 30 March, 19 suspected Islamic activists were arrested throughout France. This followed in the wake of Mohammed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse eight days earlier, when 8 people were killed before Merah took his own life. Subsequently, French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced a new set of anti-terrorist laws which he intends to propose that would prevent people from travelling abroad for ‘terrorist indoctrination’ and also from visiting Jihadist websites while in France.

As the French Presidential elections loom, many believe President Nicholas Sarkozy’s crack down to be a calculated ploy to increase his standing by appealing to French nationalism. However, his proposals have drawn widespread criticism from those who believe that innocent people will be prevented from travelling to the Middle East for tourism or visiting Jihadist websites out of curiosity and further, if they do so, they could find themselves under investigation, arrested or even imprisoned.

France has never had a reputation as a liberal and relaxed country when it comes to immigration – witness the notorious refugee camp at Sangatte . Following Jean-Marie Le Pen’s showing in the Presidential elections in 2002, French leaders have attempted to gain votes from the far right by being tough on immigration and despite the fact that both Merah and his parents were French, all eyes are on Sarkozy as Marine Le Pen – now leader of the National Front – laments the French immigration system.

Several notions have contributed to the French culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is personified in the Merah episode. First, the policy of laicïté – a hyper-secularist approach to public society that attempts to separate church and state. It was laicïté which led to the law banning the burqa and niqab from being worn in public places and has effectively led to thousands of French Muslim women being imprisoned in their own homes. What is hard to determine is whether this is just Gallic pride or Islamophobia.

In 2010, a poll of 1,029 French people to determine their preconceptions about race, gender and sexuality found that 15% per cent of respondents described themselves as ‘rather’ or ‘a bit’ racist. The ease with which more than 150 people admitted that they were fairly prejudiced suggests a deeper, more ingrained problem in French society. As one French journalist wrote, “[the] anti-immigrant stance…is not so much about newcomers. It is about French society’s problems coming to terms with its own diverse make-up.”

The 2005 riots in France, sparked after three teenagers hid in a power station and were electrocuted, also demonstrated the ethnic divisions that permeate French society.

The boys, aged between 15 and 17, were running from the police, fearing the lengthy and often physical interrogation that youths from French housing estates say they often face. 10 days of rioting followed their deaths. 120 of the predominantly Muslim, African and North African rioters were deported in the aftermath – including naturalized French citizens – and the rest were denounced as racaille by Nicholas Sarkozy – a word that translates as scum but is actually used as a pejorative, racist form of abuse against Muslims.

The use of casually racist terms by politicians reflects another aspect: institutional racism. That the French don’t have a definition for it should not suggest that it isn’t still very much a part of French daily life.

Anecdotally, there are hundreds of cases of Muslim and black French men and women who have been ill-treated by the police. In Paris alone, Muslim and black people are between 11 and 15 times more likely to be stopped by the police than their white peers. Employers ask applicants to detail whether they are ‘BBR’ (white French) or ‘non-BBR’ – the initials standing for bleu, blanc and rouge, the colours of the French flag, and the French unemployment rate for non-white citizens stands at double that of the white population. In 2007, L’oréal were fined €30,000 after being found guilty of racial discrimination after using these acronyms to determine which applicants would be hired.

As the election draws nearer, immigration is a topic playing on each of the party leaders’ minds. Marine Le Pen’s policies of limiting legal immigration and deporting naturalized French citizens who commit crimes are overt in their aims, while Sarkozy’s recent decision to ‘harden up’ on immigration is designed to attract as much of the right wing vote as possible. Both have recently leapt ahead of Francois Hollande – candidate from the ‘Parti Socialiste’, whose manifesto speaks of marginally laxer immigration laws and a tough line against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Whilst it is not clear whether what is driving this shift is really just a particularly virulent bout of nationalism, what is not in dispute is that by making it part of their political campaign strategies, politicians are giving this nascent, insidious racism a cloak of legitimacy to which it is not entitled.


Abbie Cavendish studies languages and writes on politics and related issues. She can be found tweeting sporadically @abbiegeorgia_c