Opinion: French universalism sidelines ethnic minorities - why that must change

Professor Philippe Marlière
Professor Philippe Marlière
Professor Philippe Marliere (UCL European Languages, Culture and Society) argues the universal principles held by the French state fail to act as a safeguard against institutional discrimination in the Conversation and suggest how minorities can become full citizens.

French MP Olivier Serva has urged his government to tackle discrimination against people with afro hair. In a recent interview on the national radio station France Info, he reportedly introduced plans to present a cross-party bill to parliament by appealing to the republic’s values of "liberty, equality, fraternity".

He said: "This is about allowing everyone to be as they are and as they want to be, whether in it’s in the workplace or anywhere else". 

Diversity in the public sphere is not something French republicanism, as it is currently defined, does very well. As opposed to the American and British approach to immigration that has tended to promote multiculturalism, Republican France espouses an "assimilationist" model.

There is broad political consensus, from the left to the far right, that what matters is to integrate minorities, culturally, into the national community. People are free to entertain personal allegiances, as individuals, as long as they integrate into the national community and respect its rules.

Every French citizen must fit, either voluntarily or under duress, into the framework of "republican values". Ostensibly, these values are enshrined in the constitution as freedom, fraternity and equality, as well as laïcité (secularism). But they are actually ill-defined.

This universalism is intended to settle any class, gender or race-related inequalities. France sees itself as an exception in the world, on a mission to defend universal values. Anglo-Saxon societies, by contrast, are often branded, by French political thinkers and pundits alike, as "fragmented" along religious and ethnic divisions.

However, proclaiming that the state upholds universal principles does not, in itself, act as a safeguard against institutional discrimination and racism. Instead, it leads to the issue being intentionally overlooked. France does not collect data on race. It has never critically reflected on its colonial past. And it sees no problem in having a disproportionately low representation of ethnic minorities in the media, politics, culture or business.

French republicanism seeks to promote a specific, yet diffuse national culture. I call it catho-laïque, a blend of catholic, Christian values and militant atheism. It is a type of partisan patriotism based on an authoritarian communitarianism.

While purporting to defend universal values, classic republicans are in fact defending the interests of a predominantly male, bourgeois and white population. They do not want to share political and economic power with women, young people and racialised minorities.

In his 1988 study, Le Creuset Français (The French Melting Pot), French historian Gérard Noiriel showed how Italian and Polish immigrants during the interwar period were made to integrate in a rather brutal manner. French workers saw their Italian counterparts as competitors and "scabs"; the public in general labelled them "dirty" and "dangerous enemies of the Republic". The fact that Polish workers were openly demonstrative of their Catholic faith only made things worse, particularly in the mining areas of north-east France.

In 1974, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s centre-right government closed the nation’s borders and suspended all immigration, in an effort to protect French workers. An exception was made for family-based immigration, also known as le regroupement familial (family reunion). This particularly affected people in former French colonies - Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco - in north Africa.

Nearly two decades later, in 1993, Jacques Chirac’s government voted in the "Pasqua law" on immigration. Until then, children born on French soil to foreign parents were automatically granted French citizenship. The new law now required them to apply.

New laws governing public life began to appear, from the late 1980s, which were rooted in partisan patriotism. In 1989, three Muslim schoolgirls refused to take off their headscarves at their college in Creil, near Paris, and were sent home. Subsequently, politicians from the left and the right passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools.

I have argued that, in the context of the 2015 terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo, the slogan "Je Suis Charlie" initially expressed solidarity with the victims of the attacks. However, it was quickly co-opted by the government as an injunction to support Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and humour.

The concept of French citizenship could be expanded to include reference to ethnic or cultural backgrounds. It should be possible to present yourself as Franco-Algerian, Franco-Italian, Franco-Senegalese or Franco-Guadeloupean without being suspected of conspiring against republican universalism.

Similarly, in schools, the priority should be that pupils attend classes and receive an education. Religious symbols that do not hamper the curriculum being taught should be tolerated in school. Educational materials in history or philosophy, say, should recognise the existence of minority identities. The 2004 law banning religious signs in schools should be abolished on the grounds that it is teaching that emancipates, not the forced removal of a religious symbol or the expulsion of a student who does not want to comply.

A multicultural republic would guarantee, in practice, that everyone, including people from ethnic minorities, has access to management positions in business, in public services, in universities or in politics. A policy that actively promotes minorities in these areas would enable minorities to acquire the social visibility which they still so often lack.

In its fight for equality, however, France should not fall in the trap of identity politics. The glorified and exclusive defence of an identity, which would be more important than alliances between classes, genders and races, would prove classic republicans right. A multicultural republic should not despise universal rights. On the contrary, it should fight for all to have access to them.

What is at stake here is not the recognition of minorities or the withdrawal into stigmatised or invisible identities. Even if well intended, this approach would only serve to further exclude minorities from the nation.

Instead, it is a question of making the presence of diversity in the public sphere the norm. This would be the sign that the French Republic is no longer a "white", but a universal community; one that is aware of its racial prejudices. Only then will minorities become full citizens.

This article originally appeared in  The Conversation  on 9 May 2023.
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