The following documents represent French census forms from 1999 and 2008, respectively:
Neither form addresses the topic of race directly, instead inquiring as to country of origin, addressing “Étrangère” (Foreigners) and “Française” (French citizens) separately:
This is no oversight: the French government deliberately chooses to avoid asking questions regarding the race or ethnicity of French citizens and residents, due to a 1978 law (reaffirmed in 2004) that the government may not conduct public surveys for the administrative purposes that request “sensitive data” from those being polled. Other statistical surveys may request such information, provided it satisfies certain necessary criteria. (Harvard Public Health: 2005).
Yet given the inquiry into “Nationalité à la Naissance” (nation of birth), it is easy to see how the results of the census could (and have) been interpreted in a way that creates a sense of the racial and/or ethnic composition of France. Furthermore, other statistical surveys have been carried out asking for not only national origin, but also parents’ national background and language(s) spoken at home (Harvard Public Health: 2005).
The French method of census and classification is highly unique, and can be traced back to the concern over anti-Semitism dating back to the aftermath of WWII and Vichy France. “Hitler racism” is a term frequently used by those who worry about France’s potentially backsliding into a lamentable history of discrimination. In this way, anti-Semitism, and not racism in the American or South African sense, has provided the “frame” through which French lawmakers view both social problems and their solutions (Bleich 1068: 2002).
Yet North African and other immigrants continue to immigrate to and establish roots in France, complicating traditional notions of “race” and “racism.” Given the issues relating to infrastructural development and inequality that have arisen in these communities, it seems that the French “frame” may need reframing.
Post WWII France has seen the rise of a number of laws intended to combat racism, often conflated in that nation with anti-Semitism due to its history of collaboration with the Nazi regime during the Vichy era. A 1972 law, for example, outlaws hate speech and discrimination, in addition to providing mechanisms for the government and private sectors to fight against racism. In 1990, a law was enacted strengthening hate speech laws related to the Holocaust, no doubt an attempt to redress wrongdoing committed by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime of the 1940’s (Bleich: 2001).
Generally speaking, France allows both civil society organizations and the government to play a role in monitoring racism and bringing individuals or groups accused of racism to justice (Bleich 1056: 2002). Bleich argues that the important role antiracist organizations play in enforcing antiracism laws allows the French government to maintain its neutral and inward-looking role in the national racial/ethnic conversation. Accordingly, he also notes that the government tends to look to its own history–the French Revolution in particular–when deciding policy rather than examples set by other nations, such as the US or Britain (Bleich 1069-72: 2002).
Accordingly, French society has reacted negatively to the ideas of data collection on race and affirmative action, politics that have been instituted in the US and other diverse nations struggling with racially-based socioeconomic inequality. The debate over the aforementioned illegality of census collection of racial data has been revived several times over in the last few years. After a debate sprang up in the 1990’s, one French commentator responded to an advocate of racial data collection by invoking a 1940 law regarding Frenchmen of Jewish origins:
“Do you know what that is? That is the ordinance of 18 November 1940 which defines the Jew according to the Vichy regime, which says that one is a Jew if one has one Jewish parent or two Jewish grand-parents. It is impossible to imagine a French law that uses this formulation. It would have a frightening effect. It is absolute evil.” (Quoted in Bleich 1071: 2002).
When the debate was revived again in the late 2000’s, SOS Racisme, a French antiracist civil society organization, campaigned against racial data collection in a similar way. “Nobody must have to wear the yellow star again,” an online campaign which garnered over 100,000 signatures read. Yet the founder of a lobby group in France, the Representative Council of Black Associations, disagreed: “I’m black in the eyes of the police, or an employer,” he said. “So as a society we should have the courage to say so.” (“To Count”: 2009).
The origins of secularism in France deserve their own discussion; sufficed to say, however, that the nation has a deeply-felt, centuries-long tradition of separation of church and state, or “laïcité,” dating back to the French Revolution. This secularism, however, has at times translated into active government hostility toward religious expression (Idriss 260-1: 2006).
Most relevantly, in 2004 the French government passed a law banning all “ostentatious” religious symbols and attire from the state school system. Whether deliberately or incidentally, this law targeted young Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab, or traditional head covering. While the law did not extend to any other aspects of public life, it was met with condemnation by Islamic countries, and skepticism by other nations more permissive of religious displays, such as the US and UK. There have also been reports that Muslims have been selectively targeted, whereas Jews and Christians (wearing yarmulkes or crosses) have been ignored. Others argue that the ban merely affirms the growing global perception of growing Muslim extremism and insurgency at the expense of women and ethnic minorities, who have been consistently targeted historically (Idriss 277-9: 2006).