Jan 16th 2021WHEN GROWING up in La Courneuve, on the unfashionable fringes of Paris, Rokhaya Diallo says she “didn’t feel black”. The daughter of parents from Senegal and the Gambia, she recalls that “being black was just not an issue, because there were so many of us.” It was only as a young adult in Paris, when people began to ask where she came from, that Ms Diallo realised “that they didn’t mean La Courneuve. It was really a matter of the colour of my skin.”Today, Ms Diallo belongs to a generation of French writers and activists who are asserting their identity as black in a way that challenges France’s sense of itself as colour-blind. This is prompting a complex and heated debate about how, and whether, to think about race. It is particularly sensitive in France because its
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WHEN GROWING up in La Courneuve, on the unfashionable fringes of Paris, Rokhaya Diallo says she “didn’t feel black”. The daughter of parents from Senegal and the Gambia, she recalls that “being black was just not an issue, because there were so many of us.” It was only as a young adult in Paris, when people began to ask where she came from, that Ms Diallo realised “that they didn’t mean La Courneuve. It was really a matter of the colour of my skin.”
Today, Ms Diallo belongs to a generation of French writers and activists who are asserting their identity as black in a way that challenges France’s sense of itself as colour-blind. This is prompting a complex and heated debate about how, and whether, to think about race. It is particularly sensitive in France because its universalist model assumes that all citizens have equal rights as individuals, not groups. Partly as a rejection of identification methods used under the wartime Vichy regime, it is illegal in France to collect data on ethnic, racial or religious origin. Officialdom neither counts nor recognises racial minorities. Identity is assumed to be simply French.
Yet the reality of racial discrimination has for years meant that France fails to match up to this ideal. Studies that use proxy measures for race, such as parents’ national origin, show that French people with links to the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa find it harder to rent housing or get jobs. They are also disproportionately absent from French television studios, boardrooms and government. In the 1980s, which saw the growth of groups such as SOS Racisme, anti-racism movements often ended up more concerned about social equality than racial identity. Now a new generation is pressing a different sort of racial awakening. This has pushed President Emmanuel Macron to respond—but also to question the way the problem is discussed.
Last month Mr Macron stirred indignation in some quarters of the police force when he acknowledged that people “with non-white skin colour” are more likely to be stopped by the police in France. He also conceded that “being a white man can be an experience of privilege.” Commonplace in America, the use of such terms is highly unusual in France. Mr Macron has now promised to launch a “citizens’ consultation” on discrimination. In February he will also set up a permanent anti-discrimination platform—online and via telephone and chat—to register and respond to complaints. The idea is to raise awareness of discrimination, and supply tools to fight it.
If Mr Macron has decided to do more about racial discrimination, though, this does not mean that he shares the way that some activists in France seek to steer the debate. A row currently pits “universalists”, who prefer to combat discrimination by reinforcing the existing colour-blind model, against those who argue that deep structures of racism can be erased only by “racialising” French society. “France has a theoretical universalist philosophy which is hermetic to the experience of a large number of French people,” says Ms Diallo. “We refuse to talk about race, so we don’t have the words to discuss it. This is denial: a refusal to put words on things that we don’t want to recognise.”
Much of this push comes from students and those familiar with the American campus debate. Often even the vocabulary is missing in French. Being black at Sciences Po, a group at a Paris university, for instance, calls for classes on “la critical race theory”, as well as “intersectionality” and “decolonial studies”. When you hear talk in France about “white supremacy” or “systemic racism”, says Thomas Chatterton Williams, an American writer on race based in Paris, “these are American ways of thinking, which derive from a society built on slavery and oppression.”
Up to a point, Mr Macron is sympathetic. When campaigning in 2017, he upset conservative French circles by calling colonisation a “crime against humanity”. He agrees that more should be done to teach the full picture of French history, and last year asked Benjamin Stora, a historian, to re-examine the archives on France’s colonial history in Algeria. Mr Macron draws the line, however, not only at the idea of sidelining controversial figures in history. He also rejects the “ethnicisation” of French society in ways that could be divisive—particularly regarding extreme forms of Islamism—and undermine universalism. “We’re not a country like the United States that has lived through segregation,” he told Brut, an online platform.
The challenge for France is whether it can accommodate more explicit racial identities within its existing model, in ways that neither crush genuinely felt differences nor abandon the colour-blind ideal. James Baldwin, an American writer, once commented that in France “I was freed of…the crutches of race.” Mr Williams echoes that thought today. “I’m a mixed-race black man,” he says, “but in France my identity is primarily my nationality. I’m not the first American to feel liberated by stepping out of the black-white binary.”
Some, such as Sibeth Ndiaye, Mr Macron’s former government spokesperson, suggest that France should at least debate the question of collecting statistics based on ethnic background. It is harder to measure diversity, let alone prove discrimination, when there is no official recognition of racial groups. The legal case for discrimination currently rests on a plaintiff belonging to a “real or supposed” race and on the perception of racism. For universalism to prosper, wrote Ms Ndiaye in Le Monde last year, “we shouldn’t hesitate to name things, to say that skin colour isn’t neutral.”
Part of the difficulty of the debate, says Hakim El Karoui of the Institut Montaigne, a think-tank, is that inflexible defenders of the French model consider that the mere “recognition of difference is a way of contesting that model”. It may be that French universalism is more elastic than its rigid guardians believe. “Until the mid-20th century”, says Pap Ndiaye, a French historian and author of “La Condition Noire”, “we spoke very freely about race, even within the universalist idea.” It was only after the second world war and decolonisation that talking about race became illegitimate.
Mr Macron’s vision of universalism may be more nuanced than his critics allow. He has often talked about France’s plural identities. Recently he said: “We should be able to be fully French and to cultivate another belonging.” The challenge will be to get this balance right, while ensuring that those who do not feel fully recognised in France can genuinely prosper in it. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Colour vision"