Tocqueville in Review: On Race and Racism in France and America

3 July 2023

Tocqueville in Review – July 4th. Subscribe to the Tocqueville 21 Newsletter on Substack to receive Tocqueville in Review directly in your inbox!


Dear Readers, 

This week was an especially tumultuous one in France with the outbreak of riots across the country in the wake of the death of Nahel M. in Nanterre, in an act of police violence that many in the United States are equating with the death of George Floyd three years ago. This cultural parallel has only been furthered by subsequent violence, particularly as several of the worst conventional talking points about the victims of police brutality make their way into the mouths of French far right leaders such as Eric Zemmour. And indeed, with the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action spurring an entirely separate conversation on the legacy of racism in the US, it would be easy to view the two countries in similar lights.

It would also be wrong. Nahel is not George Floyd, even if one disregards the events surrounding his shooting, because the issues surrounding race are not the same in France and in the US. This is both due to major historical differences in the treatment of minorities, but also due to philosophical differences in the way that race is perceived between France and the US (and indeed, the broader anglosphere), both of which tend to be conveniently swept under the rug by pundits who tend to instead focus their attentions on the lack of data collection relating to race in France with what could be called a smug bemusement.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to fundamentals, and examine the French and American understandings of race. As I am not a specialist of this topic, the following statements are merely my views – the perspective of a biracial American and a Frenchman.


A Nation Without Race?


The French view on race is one of the core legacies of the French Revolution, and it is one that is consistently forgotten by the anglophone commentariat. This is due to the way that the anglosphere remembers (or mythologizes) the end of slavery as being broadly structured around two core moments – the British abolition of slavery in 1838, and the end of the American Civil War in 1865. I’d like to focus on the first of those two dates, as it is often misremembered as the abolition of slavery, a defining moment wherein the West finally ratified the moral conclusion that slavery, and not just the slave trade, was wrong.

France first abolished slavery in 1794, when the slave revolt in the territory of Saint Domingue shifted the conversation in the métropole and brought the question of race into dialogue with the proclaimed universality of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The relationship between the French and Haitian revolutions indelibly linked the end of slavery to the ideals of the Revolution in the French cultural imagination, and also tied an ideal of equality to the founding myths of the Republic in a way that simply isn’t true for the US: the American Revolution very explicitly did not emancipate men of all races, a pragmatic hypocrisy that tarnishes the legacy of the Revolution in the collective American cultural imagination. Instead, slavery and race are remembered as the questions that resulted in the greatest domestic conflict ever fought, a war that to this day influences policy in the US.

This end to slavery in France didn’t stick – for reasons that are complicated and, ironically, have a lot to do with geopolitics and the anglosphere’s utter horror at the idea of freed slaves governing themselves in the Caribbean – but it did create a legacy which affiliated the injustices of slavery with the injustice of the Ancien Régime. Consequently, as the ideals of the Revolution shaped notions of cultural, political, and social progress across the 19th century, the matter of slavery and racial equality was codified in a way that simply isn’t true of the US or the rest of the anglosphere.

Even more important is the relationship between these ideals of freedom that were inherited from the Revolutionary period and the consolidation of France as a nation. To summarize over a century of history and a question that has been the topic of an untold amount of academic literature, France as a nation was built around this notion of equality, because the nation was constructed around the idea of citizenship. France may well be a territory, but its defining characteristics are its laws, its rights, its freedoms. As such, to be French isn’t about race, or blood; it is instead about citizenship, and upholding the ideals of the Republic. And because the ideals of France are universally adoptable, anyone can be French. (More worryingly, anywhere can be France; this was the idea that fuelled the second French Colonial Empire and provoked both the Algerian War and the Vietnam War).

This is the lens through which the French think about race. To the French, the question of equality between races is moot, because equality transcends race. As such, the very discussion of race, its acknowledgement as a factor in the social equation, is viewed as reactionary thinking, the shameful relic of a darker age when such things mattered. Thus, to demand the inclusion of, say, statistics on race is to infringe upon one’s right to equality as a citizen of the Republic. As a Frenchman, I have a legal right and a cultural right to be viewed purely as a citizen. My identity requires no qualifications, no hyphenations. There are no debates as to whether I am Afro-Français, Américano-Français, etc – Je suis Français, tout simplement, and I need not submit to any additional categorization of my identity. 

This stands in stark contrast to the US. Bluntly, which boxes do I tick on a census? I’m biracial: does that make me African-American? Does it make sense for me to qualify as African-American in the strictest sense, given that my father immigrated from the Caribbean? And what about the white half of my identity? In the American perspective, these questions have no adequate answers, because they are subjective, and subject to endless cultural revisions depending on the thoughts and feelings of whoever happens to be talking about it, as well as whomever happens to be looking at me.


National Identity in Perspective


The US and France therefore have two very different perspectives on national identity, and how it relates to race, and this has historically led to cultural confusions. A good example was a kerfuffle about the French victory in the World Cup in 2018, when The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah horrified the national team, the French government, and the overwhelming majority of the French population by stating that, no actually, the French team was broadly of African descent, so Africa actually won the World Cup. Even after an exchange with the French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud, Noah refused to back down from this perspective. But in France, only the far right would make a claim that skin color determines your national belonging. And even on the far fringes of legitimate political discussion, where politicians tie French national identity to something much older than its Republican heritage, there is some reluctance to practice what they preach. After all, Zemmour himself is of both North African and Jewish descent.

Here, however, is where things get messy. Because while France may be ideologically multiracial, and very comfortable with that fact, it is not multicultural. Belonging to the French identity is tied to citizenship. But the reverse is also true: the legitimacy of one’s belonging to France is contingent upon conforming to a national identity which, realistically, individual immigrants and their children have no hope of changing. The hegemony is cultural, and it is at times ruthless. And it does not tolerate sub-identities (not well, at least). This has been true of many identities in France, including the North African diaspora.


The Legacy of French Colonialism and the Banlieues


The existence of the banlieue and its relegation to immigrants from North Africa and people of North African descent can be traced to a boom in immigration of the Second World War and during the period of decolonization. The influx of people from the colonies notably swelled the size of cities, and in the 1950s and 1960s, shantytowns rose up in rings around France’s metropolitan areas. These were, in effect, slums, and during the Trente Glorieuses  there was a push to resolve the issue by constructing massive amounts of social housing, vast blocks capable of accommodating thousands of families. Hence, the banlieues. Of course, following that, very little was done to actually integrate these new immigrants, or even to make the banlieues liveable: they are bereft of communal gardens or parks, underserved by firefighters, police, and schools, dubiously connected to rail and subway systems, and feature little in the way of thriving commercial infrastructure. If the situation before the 1960s had been an array of slums, the situation after the 1970s was a series of ethnic ghettos.

I could take time here to speculate as to why the integration of North Africans is often viewed as difficult for the French Republic than, say, the integration of the Vietnamese; I could talk about the communal focus of society in North Africa dating back to before the Almohad Caliphate, and just how poorly that interacts with the broadly individualistic French identity that is unified essentially at a national level. But that is not my story to tell. 

What I can comment on is the sociological realities of the banlieue, and how they relate to the recent unrest – that is a story of anomie, and its consequences. The lack of economic and political opportunity of the banlieues ultimately created an economic underclass on the frontiers of French cities – one that is characterized by systemic un- or under-employment, high crime rates, low levels of education and literacy… When combined with Mitterand’s massive, brutalist urban structures, which are dehumanizing in even the best of cases, these factors invariably lead either to heavily policed areas or, in some cases, areas dangerous enough that they go unpoliced altogether. These areas are present in all major French cities.

High levels of police involvement in an area are, historically, inversely correlated with other forms of government spending: if the schools are good, if there are parks, civic centers, clubs and other forms of organizations that drive community engagement, there tends to be more integration, less unrest, and less need for a highly involved police force. If these things aren’t present, there’s invariably higher levels of unrest, leading to more police engagement. This inevitably results in the obvious, ie more policing, driving unrest and destabilizing already fragilized communities: a vicious cycle.


In the End, Race?


And this is where racism makes its grand return into the French public consciousness. As the police engage heavily with specific communities of a particular racial or ethnic background, associations are invariably made, leading to implicit assumptions that go beyond the economic and social conditions that led to the heavy police presence in the first place. In other words, the police lose their blindness in matters of race, particularly when affiliated with a core set of cultural signifiers, usually ones that also relate to poverty.

It would be insensitive for me to state that this is the cause of Nahel’s death – that responsibility falls on the police officer who shot him. But the above is certainly the context of his death. And to the Americans in the audience, it seems a familiar one. Police brutality, combined with decades of poverty, indifference and oppression, leading to protests about race: this is the story of George Floyd!

So again, to be very clear: this is not the story of George Floyd.

First, the circumstances of African-Americans in the US are completely different. African-Americans have repeatedly sought relief from the American nightmare of race in France, from Josephine Baker to James Baldwin. They, and I, attest to the fact that the French simply do not see race in the same way as Americans.

And second, North Africans in France aren’t analogous at all to African Americans in the US. Instead of the 20th Century, the issues of race surrounding Africans in America began in the 17th Century. The failure to adapt to high immigration that eventually curdled into heightened tensions and oppression along racial lines is not all the same as the mass displacement of Africans across centuries as chattel. In some ways, the French story ends with race; for the US, it begins there.

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