The roots and reality of racism in France

24 July 2023
Deaglan Godwin

Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. That was the slogan with which the French masses overthrew the hated monarchy in 1789. Today, it stands above the door to every government building, town hall and police station. To the poor Black and Arab youth of France, anything but free or equal, these words must seem like a sick joke.

The recent murder of Nahel M, a teenage boy shot in cold blood by a police officer, shone a light on the reality of racism in France today. Police brutality, intergenerational poverty and the deportation of migrants are as prevalent in France as they are in the United States. Yet, official French politics is unable even to pronounce the term “structural racism” when talking about the police or the situation in the banlieues, the migrant working-class suburbs on the outer ring of major cities. Claiming to be “colour blind”, the French government refuses to collect data based on the category of race or ethnicity. Racial minorities are blamed for “ethnic separatism” simply for trying to assert their existence. The ideology of “laïcité”, an aggressive form of secularism, provides cover for discriminatory laws banning the veil.

The roots of racism in France, specifically against those of Arab and African descent, can be traced back to France’s large and brutal colonial empire. France once ruled swathes of the Americas, Northern and Western Africa, and South-East Asia. To this day, politicians refuse to recognise the reality of this legacy. In 2005, the conservative government of Jacques Chirac tried to move a law requiring schools to teach the “positive role” of French colonialism. Modern laws and rhetoric around Muslims echo those used in French Algeria, where women were forcibly unveiled. “La mission civilisatrice”, the French equivalent of the “white man’s burden”, contrasted the supposedly backward Islamic practices of Algerians with the secular enlightenment of the French Republic.

When a revolutionary struggle for Algerian independence erupted in 1954, the French state employed widespread torture, collective punishment and fascistic paramilitaries to cling on to its colonial rule. Known for decades as the “war without a name”, the atrocities committed by the French state went unacknowledged. In Paris in 1961, riot police murdered over a hundred Algerian immigrants protesting in solidarity with the revolution, dumping their bodies into the River Seine. Following the victory of the Algerian revolution, the paramilitaries were brought back to France, with many of them forming the shock troops of the far right, including figures such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front.

Islamophobia today is not merely a hangover from the era of colonialism; it has been repurposed and retooled as an ideological weapon in the class struggle at home.

Racism diverts economic and social grievances into debates about religion and ethnicity, helping to justify state repression and divide the multiracial French working class.

Workers of North African, West African and Middle Eastern heritage have historically been an important source of labour for French factories. Immigrants and their descendants continue to work in these factories today, but the decline of traditional industry has led to rising unemployment amongst migrant communities.

Youth unemployment in the banlieues of Paris and Marseille ranges from double the national average of 8 percent to as high as 70 percent in one suburb of Marseille. Successive laws banning the veil in public service jobs mean that women who wear the hijab face the choice of not wearing the veil or being forced out of these jobs. Racist tropes about the laziness of immigrants are then mobilised to explain and justify this structural exclusion and impoverishment.

Over the past two decades, French governments have introduced successive waves of regressive legislation attacking the welfare state and workers' rights. However, the French working class have proven themselves to be not only victims, but persistent rebels. General strikes have paralysed the economy, students have occupied their high schools and universities and Yellow Vest protesters have blockaded highways and stormed the boulevards of Paris. Each time, the state has mobilised large numbers of riot police to repress these movements. Time and time again, politicians have turned to racism to win support for their exploitative and unjust project.

The major parties have weaponised racism to justify the huge expansion of the state’s repressive forces. Following terrorist attacks in 2016, the Socialist Party government of François Hollande declared a state of emergency, giving the state far-reaching powers to shut down protests. Armed soldiers are frequently seen on the streets of Paris. The French police may stop anyone at any time to check their identity papers. According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, brown and Black people were six to eight times more likely to be subject to these humiliating identity checks.

Anti-terror laws and rhetoric create a siege mentality in the population, uniting workers and the state in an alliance against perceived threats to the French Republic, thereby disguising the most significant division in French society, that between the multiracial working class and the French ruling class. What “republican unity” can exist between a garbage worker and Bernard Arnault, boss of Louis Vuitton and the world’s richest man?

Each time the real fissures in French society are exposed, the French ruling class reach for racism. Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term is a perfect example of this. Following the 2018-19 Yellow Vests revolt against increased fuel tax and the 2020 general strikes against a proposed increase in the retirement age, Macron introduced the Separatism Bill in 2021. This law extended the ban on the hijab beyond state employees to anyone working for a company contracted by the state, as well as allowing for the dissolution of NGOs or mosques that were found to breach a “republican engagement” contract. At the same time, the Minister for the Interior Gerard Darmanin launched a months-long campaign against “Islamoleftism”. In this racist fantasy world, Darmanin saw in the radical left and Muslims a mortal threat to French civilisation.

This racism of successive centre-left and centre-right governments has only provided succour to the French far right and its infamous leader, Marine Le Pen. Every time the government attacks Muslims and whips up a moral hysteria around immigration, it lends greater legitimacy to the even harder rhetoric and policies of Le Pen. After the Hollande government proposed in 2016 to strip citizenship from French dual citizens convicted of terrorism, Le Pen gleefully described it as “an homage to [her party] the FN”. In the lead-up to last year’s presidential election, and following Macron’s Separatism Bill, Le Pen proposed banning the veil in all public places. This is why it’s utterly hypocritical to paint Macron as a bulwark against the far right. He is their enabler and accomplice.

It won’t be the French elites who challenge racism in France, but the multiracial working class. This is not an abstract argument—it already exists in the various protest and strike movements. Non-white workers make up a significant section of public transport workers, garbage collectors and nurses, groups who have gone on strike several times in recent years. One of the popular leaders of the 2019-20 Paris metro strikes was the French-Moroccan socialist Anasse Kazib. Significantly, the left in both the unions and parliament have demonstrated their solidarity with the recent riots against the killing of Nahel. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the left-wing La France Insoumise party, tweeted, “The [government] guard dogs order us to call for calm—we call for justice”. A joint statement of several trade unions highlighted the social and economic motivations of the rioters and called for workers to join several upcoming anti-racist demonstrations.

So long as capitalism exists, the ideals of the French Republic remain a sick joke. That Republic, and the power of the bosses it protects, must be smashed if we are to realise true liberty, equality and fraternity.

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