George Floyd protests stir a difficult debate on race in France

BOBIGNY (NYTIMES) – Mr Luc Pechangou had never joined a protest before, not even when his own neighbourhood just outside Paris was convulsed with anger over the violent arrest of a young black man from the area in 2017.

It was instead the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that led him to join an anti-racism rally and, he said, see things more clearly in France, his own country.

Men take to the knee during a rally on Place de la Republique in Paris, on June 13, 2020.
Men take to the knee during a rally on Place de la Republique in Paris, on June 13, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

“It was the shock that I needed to finally wake up,” Mr Pechangou, 20, said. “White privilege is real. Whites have access to employment. They’re not stopped by the police. They don’t have to worry about what they’re wearing or if they have their ID cards.

“But we, as blacks, have to worry every day,” said Mr Pechangou, who was born in Cameroon, a former French colony in central Africa, and lives in Hector Berlioz, a sprawling subsidised housing complex in Bobigny, just northeast of Paris.

“People look at us suspiciously. They ask us what we’re doing. When I take public transportation, I have to show what’s in my backpack. It’s not right to have to live like that.”

In the wake of Mr Floyd’s killing, agonising reflections on race have spread far beyond the United States. In France, they have set off an unexpected reckoning in a country that has long sought social justice through a commitment to universal ideals like equality and secularism, arguing that an emphasis on diversity, ethnicity or race would undermine unity and the social fabric.

Many black and Muslim French in the younger generation – by now often from third-generation immigrant communities – are pressing for a new model that takes account of racial differences and discrimination. They are challenging a founding ideal of modern France, drawing inspiration from the US movements that seek to remedy the racism that has metastasized in state structures.

In the past, perceived challenges to French tenets – like the wearing of Muslim head scarves that some see as a threat to France’s secularism – have been soundly beaten back. The political establishment, left and right, remains fiercely opposed to what it regards as an American-inspired threat to their worldview.

But even many in the political class acknowledge that the nation has failed to integrate nonwhite and Muslim immigrants and their descendants from its far-flung former colonies.

Ms Christiane Taubira, who was the first black woman named justice minister in France, serving from 2012 to 2016, said that a “structural discrimination” has prevented nonwhite minorities from finding their place in French society. Not enough has changed since 2005, when two teenage boys fleeing police officers were fatally electrocuted, setting off weeks of rioting in the poor suburbs of Paris and focusing attention on France’s racial fissures, she said.

“They tried to enter the republic through the door, the window, the basement, but they failed,” Ms Taubira, now retired, said in a phone interview from French Guiana, an overseas department on the north coast of South America. Rejected in France, they were seeking a form of “refuge” by looking to the United States, she added.

Protests in France have been led by the family and supporters of Mr Adama Traore, a 24-year-old man who died in police custody in 2016. In Paris, as many as 20,000 demonstrators, including a visible percentage of white participants, have assembled in a series of protests, despite concerns about the coronavirus.

Their formal demands of the government have focused on reopening the investigation into the death of Mr Traore. But the demonstrators’ comparisons between France and the United States, expressed passionately at the rallies, have angered many French, who have denied that racism is as deeply rooted in France and have accused protesters of advancing their own political agenda.

The protests appeared to have taken aback a government already grappling with the pandemic and an economic crisis. President Emmanuel Macron, after several days of silence, seemed to nod to both sides, saying “racism” was a “betrayal of universal republicanism”. On Sunday (June 14), in a national address devoted to the pandemic, Mr Macron also vowed to remain “uncompromising” against racism. But he warned this “noble fight” is “unacceptable” when it is “taken over by separatists” who want to divide French society.

France’s reluctance to discuss or even acknowledge race has served as an obstacle to integration and change, argue some French, especially those belonging to a younger generation of activists or intellectuals.

“When you talk about questions of race or racialisation, many people in France are shocked and think that you’re the racist one,” said Mr Pap Ndiaye, a historian at Sciences Po who, after studying in the United States in the 1990s, led efforts to establish black studies as an academic discipline in France.

“So those who talk about it are definitely not in the majority.”

The debates over race follow a two-month lockdown that laid bare the enduring racial inequalities in France. Just as black and Hispanic Americans were disproportionately affected by the virus, Seine-Saint-Denis – the poorest department in France, located just north of Paris and home to large nonwhite populations – was hit hard economically and suffered one of the country’s highest mortality rates.

Although authorities and the news media focused on the virus’s impact on Seine-Saint-Denis, they avoided looking at it in racial terms, Dr Ndiaye said. In France, it is illegal to keep racial, ethnic or religious statistics.

Without data, it is impossible to understand the scale of the problems, Dr Ndiaye said, adding: “Progress won’t be made just with code words. We have to be able to say things.”

But others say that an overemphasis on racial identities invites a pushback, including from the extreme right, because it goes against France’s founding principles. In recent days, leaders on the extreme right have seized on the protests to argue for the rights of white French – further example of what the French mainstream regards as corrosive identity politics.

Collecting data on ethnicity or race could turn minorities into targets of the far-right, said Dr Patrick Weil, a historian of immigration who teaches at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris and at Yale. During World War II, the absence of such data helped many French Jews evade the Nazis, Dr Weil said.

“We always have to be careful that the policy you’re proposing won’t be used for the exact opposite of what you’re fighting for,” Dr Weil said.

Though imperfect, France’s universalism brings more equality than in the US to important services likes education and health, which are financed nationally, Dr Weil said.

In a poll released this week by Seine-Saint-Denis, an administrative area whose centre is in Bobigny, more than 80 per cent of respondents said they believed that race or ethnicity was the basis of discrimination in dealing with police or in employment. The young felt the discrimination most acutely, the poll showed.

While the older immigrant generations in Seine-Saint-Denis were hesitant to speak out about racism, their children had higher expectations from the only country they knew, said Yancouba Dieme, 30, a writer who grew up in the department and still lives there.

“In France, they want us to stay locked inside Seine-Saint-Denis,” said Dieme, whose novel, Boy Diola, recounts his father’s emigration to France from Senegal, a former colony in West Africa.

“When we try to go to a nightclub in Paris on a Saturday just like anybody else, sometimes we’re stopped by a police cordon. They don’t want to see us. They want us to stay home, keep our mouths shut and remain like our parents – invisible.”

In the Hector Berlioz housing complex, some recalled Mr Theodore Luhaka, a 22-year-old black man who was injured by a police officer during an arrest in a nearby neighbourhood in 2017. In a still unresolved case, Mr Luhaka said the officer sodomised him with a baton. Medical experts later said his injuries resulted from being struck in the anal area.

On a recent afternoon, a group of men – whose parents had come from Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Haiti and other former colonies – socialised on the rooftop of a building next to the housing complex. They greeted one another with fist bumps. They referred to white people as “babtou” – verlan slang, or the inverted syllables, of “toubab”, a West African expression meaning whites. They spoke of black people not with the historically loaded French word “noir” – but with the English word “black” or the verlan, “renoi”. They spoke of being excluded from the France that lay beyond the “93” – the first two digits of the department’s postal code and shorthand for Seine-Saint-Denis.

“Our parents came here looking for El Dorado, they worked, they retired, they died, and they left us here,” said Mr Ibrahim Sakho, 38, a plumber whose parents came from Senegal and Mauritania. “And one generation, two generations later, and now it’s the third – until now, we haven’t been accepted as French.

“And it hurts,” he added. “When we go to Africa, we’re not Africans. And in France, we’re not French. We fall between two stools.”

Dr Norman Ajari, a French philosopher who specialises in race and teaches at Villanova University, said that the failure to integrate communities like Seine-Saint-Denis underscored the failure of France’s universalism.

“The French model has been discredited,” Dr Ajari said. “Now the debate has shifted to whether we should demand the abolition of the police and what we should demand of the state.

“This obsession with universalism is politically useless and prevents us from seeing the stakes in this fight, which are concrete,” Dr Ajari added.

But most in France, including its political mainstream, remain committed to its universalist tradition.

American concepts like white privilege and affirmative action are political non-starters, said Ms Corinne Narassiguin, the No. 2 official in France’s Socialist Party.

In its years in power, the party failed to help integrate nonwhite groups because it had relied exclusively on economic and social policies, said Ms Narassiguin, who lived in the US for 13 years and is from Reunion, the French department in the Indian Ocean.

It is necessary, she said, to tackle discrimination and racism directly: for example, by reforming police identity checks that the government has acknowledged unfairly target black and Arab youths, or by raising awareness in employee training and human resources in the private sector.

“We gave the impression to a whole generation of young people in France that we didn’t understand the reality of discrimination in France and the violent racism they experienced every day,” Ms Narassiguin said. “So we drove them to seek other solutions.”

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