Racism in France: It’s Not About Skin Color

In keeping with our current issue of the week, we’re reposting this article as an essential reader on race in France. The original article was published on February 11th, 2015.

When French Prime Minister Manuel Valls referred to an apartheid situation in France on January 20th 2015, it may have looked to some Americans like France was about to address institutional racial discrimination. A New York Times article quickly followed up with a question: does this mean that France is going to start keeping race-based statistics as a precursor to anti-discrimination policy?

Here in the US there is a well-established and accepted link between skin-color and success. But what do the terms “white privilege,” “racial discrimination,” and “apartheid” mean to French people? Who are the minorities of France and in what venues are they assimilated and in what situations do they struggle for acceptance?

To decode the differences, French Morning caught up with TV5 Monde Senior Editor Slimane Zeghidour after he gave a talk on French media coverage of the Middle East at the Alliance Française in Beverly Hills.

Over a strong coffee at 11pm, he showed us a 2012 polaroid of himself with slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Wolinski. “I felt it,” the veteran journalist said of the attack. “Over my whole career I was always able to distance myself from the horrors I witnessed. But this was different. I felt the pain of it in my body.” He also made a surprising assertion: racism in France, he said, is not based on skin color.

French Morning: I would like to help Americans understand how racism in France is different than racism here in the US.

Slimane Zeghidour: In France there is no racism based on skin color. To see evidence of this you only have to look at the streets of France where you’ll see more mixed-race couples than in New York or Rio de Janeiro. Before being black or Arab, foreigners or the children of immigrants from Maghreb or Africa are formerly colonized peoples, people who’ve been submitted to a double-standard of law and justice dating back as far as 132 years ago for Algerians. It leaves deep marks, but not purely negative ones. It ranges from exasperation to admiration with hate, fear, defiance but also intimacy, love and marriage. Last year the French film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes was directed by a French man of Tunisian origin. The highest French literary prize — le prix Goncourt — was almost won by an Algerian, Kamel Daoud.

If there is no racial discrimination based on skin color, where does the notion of apartheid come from?

Slimane Zeghidour: Even if there is very little or no racial prejudice, there is a very strong prejudice of class that is translated to a stigmatization of people living on the outskirts of big cities and who in large part are immigrants or the children of immigrants from Maghreb or Africa. But white people who live in these places are not better off.

Do you think there is a link between ethnicity and disenfranchisement in France?

Slimane Zeghidour: Given the cloistered nature of the functioning of the French elite which remains white and male, it’s still very difficult for a French person born to Arab, African, Turkish or Portuguese parents to break into their ranks, whatever his or her talent or level of study. This creates enormous frustration and a sense of injustice.

To get to the heart of the problem, you can draw a parallel between the US/UK and France: in France, white French people are intensely mixing with Arabs and blacks and inter-racial marriages are more common than in any other country in Europe. However, this is not true of the French elite. The don’t mix and don’t want to mix. Whereas one french person in 10 is Muslim there is not one Muslim among the 577 deputies of the National Assembly.

In the US it’s the opposite. Different peoples don’t intermarry, inter-racial marriages are still very rare. However, elites do accept racial diversity among their ranks in academies and political parties. To give a few examples from the UK, the mayor of Manchester is of Pakistani descent, Rotterdam’s mayor is of Moroccan descent, and there are Muslim Lords who have been knighted by Elizabeth II.

Often I’ll give conferences in our French Institutes in the Gulf states and I realize that the French people living there representing national industrial groups are often children of immigrants from Maghreb who have achieved very high levels of study. That means that those who are succeeding prefer to leave France.

If there are no census-driven race statistics, how do we know how many Arabs live in France and what the rate of inter-marriage is?

Slimane Zeghidour: Marriage lists are public and we can tell more or less where someone is from by looking at his or her last name.

How can France correct the absence of ethnic diversity in the upper ranks of its society? Do race-based statistics have a role?

Slimane Zeghidour: First it must be lucidly admitted that there is a problem. That must be the starting point for any change. It’s beginning here and there. There are some encouraging signs.

Where is the Charlie Hebdo attack in all of this? Can any link be drawn between that crime and ethnic tensions in France?

Slimane Zeghidour: It’s a terrorist attack, a barbaric assassination. To understand the killer’s motives we need not look to theology or specialists of the Koran, and to do so only gets us farther away from the root of the problem.

These were young men from broken families who never knew their father having grown up in foster homes. Any psychologist will tell you that the absence of affection breeds psychopaths, impressionable individuals who are unstable, easy to manipulate, devoid of context they seek a replacement father, a guru. This is barely an extenuating circumstance of their crime and is certainly not an excuse  — it’s simply an explanation. Because in order to get to the root of this spontaneous and savage terrorism, we would have to know where terrorists come from and why they choose death — their own and of others — rather than life.

To satisfy oneself with reading it as an expression of Islam that could somehow be violent by nature would only accentuate prejudices and blur the picture. I often say that just as we defeated the communist with social democracy, we will only defeat jihadist terrorism with Islam. It should be easy. This same terrorism has already killed more than a million and a half Muslims in Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s their fight. We should be helping Muslims instead of mistaking them for their own executioners.

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  • Sean

    To whom it may concern,

    I just read your article concerning racism in France & the fact you think it has nothing to do with skin color. I’m French-American grew up in the USA, been living in Paris for the past 15 years. My father who’s African-American & Mother FRENCH originally from Guadeloupe.
    You have some interesting points, but I do disagree that in France racism has a lot to do with color, I myself haven’t confronted racism. But am fully aware I could easily be mistaken for an African or West Indian person, in my opinion France is more racist then the USA.

    It’s not normal that in France doesn’t have one minority as a CEO/CFO of a CAC 40 company. I could give you other examples but I won’t bore with that, I just because a father. She’s mixed & France is the last place I want her to grow up, because in the public eye. There aren’t any minorities she could look up, my niece & nephew who mixed that live in the USA can at least look or consider who someone looks like them and the persons name is Barack Obama.

    Kind regards

    • Pamela Kennedy

      As Canadian “Red Indian” Aboriginal I, too, think that France would mistake me for “African”, “African American” or West Indian “black” one way or another and discriminate. Even though I’m perfectly capable of doing my PhD in Computational Physics entirely IN FRENCH they will assume by looking at the colour of my skin before I’ve even opened my mouth that I “can’t speak French” the way Quebec did…or no, I should stop comparing France to Quebec and just say “the way FRANCE will” because when I called the French Consulate to ask how long my FRENCH national ID would take in the mail they were hell-bent on calling me an “American” over the damn phone and telling me I should just go do a Student Visa on an AMERICAN passport EVEN THOUGH I WAS BORN IN CANADA. Yeah, that doesn’t bode well for dealing with THAT country and sometimes I’m sorry my father was French (he would be turning over in his grave at that one, by the way…at how “his” country is treating his daughter! Or would he?! He never went BACK there….FOR. A. REASON….!?!?)

    • Pamela Kennedy

      By the way, you don’t want to raise what you call a “mixed” daughter in the USA! She will be treated like “black” even though that was outlawed in 1967 by the Supreme Court – people still do it anyway and it’s getting worse, not better. There has been a huge backlash AGAINST anyone nonwhite going to top universities and doing anything with their lives since Obama took office. All the American racists have come out of the woodwork, from under the rocks they grew up under, so to speak. Don’t think Obama is any kind of “role model” or any kind of “hope” because his being President has set off some kind of huge overwhelming BACKLASH against progress for minorities. It’s made it WORSE for educated minorities who “look black” not better!!

      • J P ATL

        I am a black American (living in France, currently) and I don’t know why you think it is so bad for mixed people to be seen as black.

        What people like you don’t understand is that black Americans don’t see a person who has a white parent as superior to someone who has two black parents.

        In addition, African Americans are already an extremely mixed group (especially in the middle and upper classes) so a person with a white parent isn’t rare; in fact, they often have more black blood than some blacks with two very fair-skinned parents.

        In a nutshell, most people of black African descent in the U.S. embrace the black label in the face of so many others (like you, with all due respect) who look down on it.

        As for Obama, he is a perfect example of the type of black people I know: Proud to say “I’m black,” no matter the blend.
        Peace.

  • Pamela Kennedy

    Even though you’re probably right about that the French “mix” with other races all the time – just look at the entire race in Canada of “Métis” which is French-Indian mix and then look at French Guiana…I rest my case…as a Canadian Indian who had the misfortune of trying to live in my own country, in Montréal for two misspent years during which I got treated like “foreigner, from overseas who’s LYING about being Aboriginal First Nations and not “black”” – in TWO languages, no less! Let me assure you that the racism in French society is too skin-colour based as in, based on nothing more than the colour of my skin it is PRESUMED that I will be unable to speak French and they act all surprised when I do, and when I speak it properly. Just like the bloody racist English. It’s the Hispanophone world that’s slightly less racist in that they DO assume that I can speak Spanish and aren’t so bat-crap surprised when it’s not “bad” or “broken” or “ghetto.” I have yet to go to any country in any language where the people haven’t been racist and surprised that I have an education, came there to teach Maths or Physics, have a law degree, etc. Maybe somewhere in South America that might happen, but I haven’t tried there yet.

  • Chris V

    Racism does not have to do only with color in France.I have been living in France for 3 years and i am facing racism even from black french people.I am european,but not from those rich countries….
    I am in my mid fourties,well educated with a master’s.Being old and non french will not give you an interview for a job even if you are over qualified.I have hundreds of examples.

    I was not even treated equally even at mairie de Paris where i went to learn French.The teacher there prefered to speak and give more attention to Dutch,English,American and Italians…I didn’t even passed the exams even if my grades where really good.A good excuse there was the oral communication, even if the examiner told me that i passed.

    Next month I am out of here,leaving their country alone as most of the french believe for foreigners.

    • Mya

      This sounds similar to Texas, I moved here two years ago… they are a very proud people.

  • garner

    You forgot to talk about France traveller community, who still is vastly discriminated upon

  • Mya

    In all of history you can see, when a black Asian or Latin person wanted to progress in education or career they went to Germany or France. There was almost no segregation in those countries, while in the US everything was divided by race.

  • :-!

    Racist always blame an entire race for their problems. Backwards or retarded or both?

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