A racial revolution in France

by Timothy Spangler

When the Socialist Francois Hollande took over the French presidency this spring, many French voters hoped that his new government would bring about a distinct change in direction from the “bling-bling” administration of his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy. By filling his Cabinet with many fresh faces, Hollande seems committed to looking at complex and contentious issues from new perspectives.

This week, one of the most awkward and inviolate elements of the French political foundation – the issue of race – was explicitly called into question by one of Hollande’s new ministers.

Article Tab:  In this June 19, 2009, file photo, two women, one wearing the niqab, a veil worn by conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes,  walk side by side in downtown Marseille, France.
In this June 19, 2009, file photo, two women, one wearing the niqab, a veil worn by conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman’s eyes, walk side by side in downtown Marseille, France.

According to the philosophic orthodoxy that cuts across partisan politics in France, there is only one type of Frenchman. Everyone is equal in France because in France every Frenchman is equally French. As a result, the “hyphenated identities” prevalent in the United States and a key feature in contemporary Britain have not been officially sanctioned in France.

Although there are “African Americans” and “Black Britons,” in France there is no such thing as a “French Algerian” or a “French African.”

This week, however, Yamina Benguigui, Minister of the French Language, made the radical proposal that the French government should recognize and accept that the concepts of ethnicity and race actually exist in the French Republic. To date, no official statistics are compiled based on ethnic or racial backgrounds, so no formal attempt to analyze the French nation, or any problems it faces, from this perspective can take place.

Benguigui, a film producer whose father was from Algeria, argues that France should recognize the effects of decades of immigration and the failure of assimilation has had on many communities. Despite the importance of “equality” and “fraternity” to successive generations of French government officials, a lack of pragmatism has meant that abstract ideals about how the French state should be constructed have limited the government’s ability to address important race-relation problems.

The television images of burning cars and nightly violence that regularly emerges from the dire suburbs that encircle Paris and other large French cities are a constant reminder that many men and women, born in France as the children or grandchildren of immigrants, still do not feel included in the Cartesian perfections of the French Republic.

According to Benguigui, the time has come for the government to take off its blindfold and begin to recognize that communities based on ancestry have always existed in France and will continue. Only then could a pragmatic new approach be fashioned to address the challenges France faces.

Unfortunately, for any French politician to stand before television cameras and say that France should look to America or Britain for inspiration on how to solve its problems is either the very definition of “political bravery,” “political suicide,” or both.

Will President Hollande back his minister’s controversial views on race relations?

His new government faces many pressing challenges, so it will be interesting to see how much political capital he is willing to devote to what is certainly a controversial new position on an intractable problem.

Hollande’s honeymoon period ended this week when he received a stark warning from the French government audit department, the Cour des Comptes, that he will need to cut more than $40 billion from government spending in order to meet stringent deficit-reduction targets. Hollande had campaigned on a platform for shifting the country away from austerity, but the reality of France’s spiraling debt and empty coffers may be superseding his personal political priorities.

Even if Hollande manages to increase taxes to 75 percent on every French citizen earning over 1 million euros (about $1.25 million), as he has proposed, he will still not have anywhere near the revenue necessary to close the budget gap.

In the face of such negative economic prospects, it remains unclear how much of a priority Hollande will give to Benguigui’s radical new rethinking of how French citizens should define themselves and, consequently, how the French government should develop policy to address the challenges facing this diverse country.

Like much abstract thought, there is something intellectually appealing about a government structured to deal with its citizens solely as philosophically undistinguished units devoid of individual characteristics and “back story.” If such an approach could work, it would satisfy the desire that many have for highest-possible level of equality before the law.

However, the reality of life in France shows that, rather than facilitate assimilation and integration, France’s inability to recognize or adapt to the ethnic and religious backgrounds of its citizens is causing more harm than good. Discussion of these issues is coded and indirect and awkward, but these issues are arising again and again, regardless of the intoxicatingly abstract desire that they did not.

As France tries to climb its way out of its deep fiscal hole, millions of its citizen remain excluded from the economy and society. At times like these, a country need all hands on the oars, in order keep the country moving forward as fast as possible. Hopefully, the French government eventually will recognize that there are times when the direct results of pragmatism trump the aesthetic pleasures of abstract idealism.

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