This post may contain affiliate links, meaning that if you click and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Read the full disclosure here.
Black Lives Matter. Ici aussi. Here also.
The slogan Black Lives Matter may have been coined in the United States, but it represents a global movement. It would be easy to write off the parallel movement in France as a simple reaction to recent events in the United States. In reality, it warrants recognition as a plea in its own right to bring awareness to racism in France. This rallying cry is as pertinent in France as it is in America.
In this post, I would like to explore France’s taboo surrounding the topic of race and the implications that this has for talking about and acknowledging racism. I will provide resources that have better helped me better understand France’s perspective. Many of these resources are in French, but some of them offer English options. Any video on Youtube can be auto-translated into English, for example. (Gear icon > Subtitles > French > Gear icon > Auto-translate) My inner French teacher implores you to remember that auto translation services are not the best.
I hope that everyone will approach this sensitive topic with an open mind. I am certainly no expert and am still learning, but please know that I am here if you’d like further information, and I would be happy to direct you as best as I can.
Why Is the Topic of Race Taboo in France?
In the United States, the topic of race is prevalent. Every official form (and some non-official ones—surveys from Gap and Banana Republic for coupons… anyone?) has a section where you check off a box to indicate your race/ethnicity: White/Caucasian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Other. The terms change sometimes, but white is often listed first.
Why do we do this? To collect data that will inform us of trends and potential inequalities, thereby providing us with opportunities to create affirmative action policies to level the playing field. We are continually confronted with data regarding employment, housing, education, etc. As a teacher, I regularly looked at data which revealed achievement gaps between white and black students. Obviously, this is not to say that the existence of statistics means that everyone recognizes the existence of racism, but it is certainly harder to deny hard evidence.
In contrast to America’s regular data collection, it is illegal for France to collect information about a citizen’s race or ethnicity, even for a census. This means that we don’t even know for sure how many black people live in France. I’ve seen estimates ranging between 2 and 5 million, which hardly seems precise.
Growing up in America, kids learn to categorize themselves early on, and the words for race become a part of everyday speech. There isn’t much of a stigma behind discussing race. On the other hand, in France, if you start talking about race, you are likely to be regarded as racist. Mentioning race is therefore to be avoided.
French Nationalism: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité !
According to the law, everyone who is of French citizenship is treated equally. It’s a nice idea, but how do we know that that is actually the case? Does everyone have an equal opportunity in France for quality education, employment, and housing? We know that what is fair is not always what is equal. France knows this, too. That’s why there are policies which address social inequalities based on geographic or class criteria.
In this way, France has cultivated a color-blind approach to social policy, because there are virtually no policies that directly target and aim to benefit racial or ethnic groups. This article, entitled “The French Model: Color-Blind Integration” (Erik Bleich, 2001) examines why affirmative action against racism and racial discrimination has not found its way into France’s policies, which continue to favor and encourage integration above all else.
In France, nationality is often the most important identifying factor. You are French, or you’re not. You are French, or you’re an immigrant. We can take this a step further to expose a common assumption: you are white, therefore you are French, or you are non-white and therefore an immigrant. French people of color are regularly asked where they are originally from with an insistence to divulge their “origins,” even though they might have been born and raised in Paris and have never lived anywhere else.
Despite the fact that it has become a multiracial country, France maintains an outdated national identity that’s based on everyone looking the same and sharing the same history. If those who are not white are often viewed as immigrants, how can we be sure that they’re being treated equally under French law?
In July 2018, the word “race” was removed from the French Constitution. According to the French government, leaving the word race in the Constitution would legitimize the idea that races exist, whereas science tells us that there is only one human race. In other words, the idea of race is outdated and removing it from the Constitution therefore reflects current practice of not recognizing racial groups. Read more about its removal in Le Monde (in French).
The Constitution now declares that France “assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction de sexe, d’origine, ou de religion” (ensures equality before the law for all citizens regardless of sex, origin or religion) in place of “sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion.” If the term is deleted, does that mean that racism doesn’t exist? Indeed, how can we fight it if we lack the tools to name it?
Pap Ndiaye is a researcher, historian, and professor at Paris Sciences Po, specializing in the social history of the United States with a focus on minorities. In an interview with Le Monde (in French, also available on Youtube), he explains that while race does not exist from a scientific standpoint, it remains a social construct and an unavoidable one at that. Removing the word from the Constitution is therefore a step back in the fight against racism.
Noir ou Black?
The correct word for talking about a black person in French is “un Noir.” Yet, it seems to be easier for some white French people to use the English word “black” while speaking French. This word can also be heard in television shows, even when a whole series has been translated into French.
This trend started in the 80s, as African-Americans in the post-civil rights era began to gain more visibility and prominence in mainstream culture through music and television. It was cool to be black, because it connected you to African-American culture. Even black French people have reclaimed this term. Watch this short video (in French) by Arte, to hear several examples of how black has shown up in French culture.
Now, however, black seems to be used simply to avoid saying noir, which is seen as racist by some white French people. Saying noir is to directly acknowledge someone’s race, whereas switching to the English word—black—feels less direct, thereby distancing oneself from the taboo subject of race. Conversely, when talking about a white person in French, you would never hear the English word.
Just like blanc (white), noir is not a racist word, so where is this one-sided discomfort in usage coming from and what impact does this have on viewing black French people as French? In this excerpt (in French) from the documentary Ouvrir la Voix, by Amandine Gay, several women attempt to explain this avoidance of the word noir and how they feel when it is replaced with the word black in everyday conversation.
What Evidence Is There of Racism in France?
White Privilege and Systemic Racism
“Recognizing white privilege begins with truly understanding the term itself.” (Eric Collins, “What is White Privilege, Really?”) What is important to understand is that it doesn’t mean that as a white person your life has been easy or that you haven’t faced hardship. It’s acknowledging that the color of your skin is not something that has made your life harder. According to Collins, “white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.”
In America, even after enslaved people were “freed”, many laws were established to legalize segregation. The last of the Jim Crow laws didn’t disappear until the 1960’s. Black people were essentially not allowed to integrate into society, and we see the effects of those laws today. Systemic racism affects every facet of life, and this video (in English) explains it very well.
Undeniably, France has a different history than the United States, but let’s not forget that France was a large colonial empire, which mandated forced work in its colonies into the 1940’s. It is easy and comfortable to say that France is different from the United States and “not as bad” due to the literal distance between mainland France and its colonies. However, it is not logical to believe that all the effects of colonization could simply disappear in such a short period of time.
Viriginie Despentes, writer and filmmaker, wrote a “Lettre adressée à mes amis blancs qui ne voient pas où est le problème…” (“Letter addressed to her white friends who don’t see where the problem is”—in French) A key point that Despentes makes in her letter is that while France is multicultural, she doesn’t see this diversity represented in government positions. What I find most striking is when she says, “Car le privilège, c’est avoir le choix d’y penser, ou pas. Je ne peux pas oublier que je suis une femme. Mais je peux oublier que je suis blanche. Ça, c’est être blanche. Y penser, ou ne pas y penser, selon l’humeur.” (“Because privilege is having the choice to think about it or not. I can’t forget that I am a woman. But I can forget that I am white. That is what it means to be white. To think about it, or not, according to your mood.”)
In this interview with France Inter (in French), Pap Ndiaye analyzes current events in the United States and speaks to the parallel demonstrations occurring in France. He says, “L’attitude de déni sur les violences policières en France est tout à fait classique…” (“The attitude of denial regarding police violence in France is quite classic…”) Furthermore, he says that while there are definitely differences between France and the United States, French people cannot hide behind a supposed “French exceptionalism,” in which one believes that the French Republic has somehow completely risen above racism and is unaffected by its colonial past, unlike other countries that have also been active participants in colonization and slavery.
The Lack of “Hard” Evidence
It’s obvious how racism has infiltrated every system in the United States, but what about in France? Quite simply, it’s difficult to determine what inequalities exist, because there is a lack of data.
In order to open up the dialogue regarding discrimination in France, organizations have had to get creative. Studies have been conducted to explore inequalities in housing and job employment. SOS Racisme did a study in 2019 (in French) regarding access to housing. They created and presented several candidate profiles, all of whom met the criteria for a certain accommodation, but each candidate had a different last name which could be traced to a specific origin. The study concluded that people of North African or Sub-Saharan African origin have a 50-55% less chance of getting housing than a person of mainland old French origin.
Be Open to Listening
Are statistics and numbers the only evidence worth listening to? Is the collective experience of the black community not worthy of attention? There are too many people speaking up for their voices to be ignored. I encourage you to listen.
Here are some more resources to learn from:
- We Don’t Say That (podcast & transcript in English)
- NPR Podcast discussing the closely guarded French language and the impact on black identity
- Let’s talk about women and race (in France) (video in English)
- Interview with journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo and writer Lindsey Tramuta
- France Is Still in Denial About Racism and Police Brutality (article in English)
- Journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo
- Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in France
- Book by Dr. Jean Beaman
- Aïssa Maîga : noire n’est pas son métier (Black is not Her Job) (short video in French)
- French Culture, the role and portrayal of black Frenchwomen in movies
- Noire n’est pas mon métier (paperback in French)
- Trop noire pour être française ? (Too Black to be French?)
- Full documentary in French by Isabelle Boni-Claverie, available on Youtube. If you do not speak French, I invite you to look at the portrayal of black people in commercials: 16:55-17:45 (colonial references), 17:58-18:05 (stereotypes), 18:14-18:23 (stereotypes).
- Ouvrir la voix (Speak Up)—preview
- Documentary in French by Amandine Gay, focusing specifically on the experiences of black women
- Ressources anti-racistes à destination des personnes blanches
- Books, articles, films, podcasts, etc primarily in French