Discussion of the topics of race and ethnicity in France elicits a series of contradictions: between cultural assimilation and segregation, between universalist notions of citizenship and historical realities of discrimination, and between an increasingly diverse nation and a government hesitant to acknowledge those demographic realities. In the most general sense, French racial politics begin and end with one question: who is French?
Source: CIA World Factbook
Although France does not conduct official surveys related to racial composition, the non-French, non-white population is estimated at 5% today (Bleich: 2001). Nearly a quarter of French citizens have at least one foreign-born grandparent. Its origins as a multiracial nation lie in the immigration wave from North Africa, in addition to sub-Saharan Africa and the Carribean, from the 1940’s onward. While originally thought of as temporary workers, these immigrants were gradually accepted as full residents, with many of them–and their families–eventually acquiring French citizenship (Cornell 154-5: 2007).
Many scholars point to the French Revolution as the genesis of its modern notion of citizenship. Rather than garnered by divine or royal will, citizenship was conceived of as being created from within by individual will to belong to the French community (Cornell 157: 2007). The idea of equality among citizens has been enshrined in many ways in law since the Revolution.
Today, many perceive French citizens of immigrant background as having fully integrated culturally into French society. In addition to not conducting official surveys on race, the French government has refused to implement affirmative action policies, targeting disadvantaged sectors of the population by region or economic class instead (“To Count”: 2009). These policies have contributed to the idea of an egalitarian society governed by universal ideals and accepted by all, regardless of racial or ethnic background (Giry: 2006).
Yet France’s historical and present-day reality suggest a more complex narrative. The French colonization of Algeria presents a stark contrast with it egalitarian ideology: while Muslim Algerians were drafted into the French Army, they were not allowed to become citizens until well after their Jewish and Christian counterparts. As immigration from North Africa and other regions increased in the 1940’s and 50’s, immigrants were relocated by the government to segregated housing that came to be known as the banlieues. White migration away from these areas further contributed to segregation, as did decreases in government funding for education and welfare in these areas. Inequalities in levels of education, income, and employment persist in these areas (Cornell 157-9: 2007).
Additionally, France has seen an increase in religious strife aligned along racial lines since this wave of immigration. The 1980’s saw the rise of the National Front, an ultraconservative political movement led by Jean Marie Le Pen, who gained popularity by espousing racist rhetoric. In 1995, an Algerian resistance organization protested French action in Algeria by bombing the Paris metro. And in 2005, the death of two African immigrant teenagers led to widespread rioting in immigrant areas (Bleich: 2001).
Today, the divide in France between immigrants and native-born Frenchmen and women is undeniable. Many have called for official surveys by the government that might aid in addressing the infrastructural issues relating to immigrant communities (“To Count”: 2009). The debate over the legality of the hijab and other religious symbols remains potent (Cornell 155: 2007). Meanwhile, the demographics continue to shift: in Marseille, nearly a quarter of all residents are estimated to be of immigrant descent, putting it on track to possibly become the first Muslim-majority European city in the coming decades (“Marseille”: 2012).
This general overview of France’s racial history, then, suggests that the question of just who is to be considered French has not yet been answered. Moreover, the issue of French identity is obscured by the fundamental contradiction between French policy goals and outcomes. In a somewhat similar case to that of Brazil’s so-called “racial democracy,” the nation has rendered differences in skin color legally irrelevant, and pointed to these legal structures as evidence that justice has been meted out. Yet France’s assimilationist, race-blind policies, made with the specific intent of rendering all citizens equal under the law, seems to have garnered quite the opposite effect, calcifying a racially/ethnically stratified society and making its inequalities resistant to change.