Last month, France’s human rights watchdog released a biting assessment of discrimination in the country and urged the government to take quick measures to address deep inequalities along racial lines. In France, where tension over national identity has defined public debate since the 1980s, talk of discrimination is hardly new. But the report, issued by human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon, stressed a crucial element that has long been minimized in mainstream conversations—that the discrimination faced by French citizens of foreign origin is “systemic.”
The report isn’t the first time the notion of systemic discrimination has entered the public debate. Anti-racism activists, especially among the younger generation, have been insisting on its consequences for years. But Toubon’s intervention does mark a rare instance of that term coming from a public official—and has particular weight at a moment when racism, and France’s understanding of it, are more challenged than ever.
Toubon’s report comes on the heels of weeks of protest and debate in France. Since early June, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to denounce racism and police brutality. And while the movement has been buoyed by similar mobilizations around the world in solidarity with George Floyd—a Black man who was killed at the hands of police in the United States —young French people in particular have rallied around Assa Traoré, leader of the Truth for Adama committee. Traoré has spent the past four years demanding accountability for her younger brother Adama, who died in police custody on his 24th birthday in 2016. Although Traoré—who was recently honored with the BET International Global Good Award—isn’t alone in denouncing police profiling and violence, she has managed to capture national and international attention in a way others have not.
For activists who for years have labored to make their voices heard, the current moment presents a new opportunity not just to advance the fight against racism and police violence but to chip away at the way France conceives of race.
France famously sees itself as colorblind, defending a strict universalism in which citizens are expected to identify with the nation rather than with any particular racial or religious identity. The government does not collect race-based statistics. In 2013, France stripped its laws of the term “race,” and in 2018, the National Assembly voted to remove the word from the constitution. Although politicians occasionally acknowledge the existence of racism, the establishment consistently rejects references to institutional or structural bias. Racism, the narrative goes, is a moral flaw that stems from individuals rather than systems—and should accordingly be battled on those terms.
According to France’s universalist, Republican ideal, prioritizing national belonging over other forms of identity should serve as a de facto tool against racism—uniting around “Frenchness” is considered essential to integration. Defenders of this national myth often deride younger activists as importing an Anglo-Saxon or American obsession with identity that is ill-suited to the French context; seeing inequality through a racial prism, they say, will fuel communautarisme—a segregated society where identity politics undermine social cohesion.
Tensions over national identity consumed the years preceding Emmanuel Macron’s presidency—a period marked by successive terror attacks and anxiety over a perceived failure to integrate minorities, French Muslims in particular. During his 2017 campaign, Macron pledged to move beyond past controversies and reconcile with France’s troubled colonial history; he defended a “tolerant” form of secularism and called colonization a “crime against humanity”—a statement he immediately walked back under political pressure. Since taking office, he has often fallen back on old tropes around identity, in 2018 referring to the hijab as “incompatible with the civility of our country” and, in the wake of recent protests, brushing over activists’ demands and denouncing an “ethnicization of social questions.”
But for many young people, particularly those with roots in France’s former colonies in Africa, the experiences of Black Americans do resonate. Although it is far rarer for people to be killed by police in France than in the United States, the limited available data on racial inequality belies the notion of a post-racial society. Police stop Blacks and Arabs at a rate 20 times higher than they do whites, and stop and frisk is common, particularly in neighborhoods with significant nonwhite communities. People of color are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and numerous studies point to widespread discrimination in the housing and job markets. Universalism, many young people of color contend, is a national myth that glosses over the reality of police profiling and unequal opportunity.
Over the past decade, this younger generation of activists has become louder in contesting the narrative of colorblindness. And although for years they’ve struggled to penetrate the mainstream conversation, many see the recent protests—and energy around Traoré’s cause—as a sign of a shift.
Last month, Traoré managed to draw thousands to the streets, defying government bans on large gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic. On June 2, somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000—according to official numbers and the organizers’ count, respectively—packed the area outside the Tribunal de Paris as Traoré’s family released a new medical analysis describing the cause of her brother’s death as “positional asphyxia caused by prone restraint.” The independent analysis came after the family spent four years contesting numerous autopsies and reports that had ruled out any police wrongdoing. Macron announced that the justice minister would personally investigate the Adama Traoré case.
Then on June 13, Assa Traoré organized another rally at Place de la République, drawing somewhere between 15,000 and 120,000 protesters—despite official attempts to block the protest.
Mélanie Luce, president of the UNEF, France’s national student union, said that Toubon’s report, coupled with recent mobilizations, show that “something has clicked.” The 18-year-old law student at the Sorbonne has prioritized anti-racism in the UNEF’s objectives and drawn ire in the process, including from mainstream anti-racism associations that adhere to the universalist framework. But after attending last month’s protests, Luce feels newly optimistic.
“For young people, it’s clear that it wasn’t one cop that killed Adama Traoré but an entire system that allowed him to be killed,” she said. For some time, she’s seen a widening gap between campus conversations and what’s discussed in the media and in government, but over the past month, that rift has “accelerated.”
Echoing what many activists have observed in the United States, Luce described a new consciousness and sense of responsibility among white people. Although past anti-racism protests—organized by Traoré or others—have drawn a diverse crowd, “the white people who showed up before were already aware of and engaged in these issues,” she explained. “The difference today is that we’re seeing people turn out for the first time, and that shows that something has finally gotten through, in terms of racism and the role of white people in fighting it.”
The protests have been the one particularly visible part of an intensifying debate. “People are not only showing up, they’re keeping the conversation going between rallies and gatherings,” said Nacira Guénif, a sociologist at University of Paris 8 who has been involved in anti-racism activism for decades. “Young people are asking themselves questions and raising concerns in a way that allows everyone to take part. There’s a clear expansion in the level of consciousness.”
That same dynamic has helped fuel momentum in the United States, where social media—Instagram in particular—has been a crucial forum not just for organizing but for raising awareness about notions like white privilege. Because much of mainstream French media have been slow to adapt to the changing conversation, Guénif said, young people—and especially young, white people—have seized social media as a place to explore and discuss ideas that have long been considered fringe. “I wouldn’t quite say that the conversation about systemic racism is now central,” Guénif said. “What has become central, or has expanded across society, is the issue of racism, period.”
Despite the sentiment that many citizens are beginning to question old assumptions about race, activists lament the government’s conservative response. In a speech following the June 13 protest, Macron denounced the protesters’ “separatism” and “communautarisme.” Shortly after the June 2 mobilization, Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, promised to hold police accountable for racist acts and pledged to ban chokeholds. Police officers immediately erupted in protest across the country, and a week later, the director-general of the national police announced that chokeholds would remain in place until Sept. 1—after which they would be replaced by tasers. “Castaner is a weak minister who cannot imagine a different way,” Guénif said. Instead, she said, he bends to the pressure of the day—first, to protesters’ calls to ban chokeholds, and then, to police outcry against any reform.
Kiyémis, a 28-year-old blogger and activist, called Castaner’s announcement laughable. “He gave no indication of how he’ll penalize racist police officers, so basically he just reminded them not to be racist,” she said.
Despite Castaner’s weak moves, the issue of police brutality has been thrust into the public debate—as a major feature of societal racism and as a problem in general. Last month, new evidence regarding the death of a delivery driver following a police stop further energized calls for police reform; throughout the yellow vest protests, sustained brutality drew international condemnation. For Guénif, that generalized frustration could serve as an avenue for greater solidarity with anti-racism movements, even among people who have otherwise been reluctant to support Traoré’s cause. “Protest against police brutality has led to a very strong feeling that people have to stand with Black people—or whatever stands for Black—across the world,” she said.
Luce—who agreed that Macron and Castaner’s responses were “insufficient” and “out of touch”—sees in their reaction a realization that it will no longer be possible to ignore anti-racism protests. “Even if they don’t agree, the political class has clearly recognized that we’re a generation that’s concerned about these questions,” she said. “And that’s a huge advance.” The interior minister’s mere mention of racism among police, she added, marks progress from what had long been a “non-subject.”
“Because we’re making progress, people will fight back in order to win some ideological battle,” she said. “But unfortunately for them, they’ve already lost. The debate has evolved because we forced it to, and that’s something that’s irreversible.”