On race, France is now Americanised

This is the full version of my Times of India piece: With a George Floyd moment eroding French claims of colour-blind universalism, the charged issue of racism has finally broken out of long institutional silencing

This Bastille Day, celebrations of the moment in 1789 that sparked the French revolution, serves as a symbolic stage for the country’s social tensions. France’s latest wave of public unrest has subsided somewhat but the long streak of explosions was distinguished by speed, scale and an ineffable American-ness compared to the 2005 race riots.

The 2005 unrest, which I covered for this paper on the ground in Paris, was the worst social turmoil France had seen since the student-led unrest of 1968. It started after two terrified black and Arab teenagers were electrocuted to death as they hid from police in the transformer of an electricity substation in October 2005. Beginning in one suburb north-east of Paris, the unrest spread like a slow-moving forest fire to scores of cities over three weeks. It was in a time before social media and it triggered a prolonged edginess but no epiphany.

In contrast, 2023 sets a different, more troubling record. For  seven nights, violence, looting, arson and other mayhem flared in more than 200 cities and towns across France and even in its overseas territories, not least French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe and the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. It underlined a paradox: too little has changed since 2005 in terms of tackling systemic racism in France but a great deal is different about the way black people and those of north African origin in working class neighbourhoods now see themselves. Notably, America’s persistent and ongoing racial struggles are a reference point.

Consider this.

** The fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk on the outskirts of Paris is being described as “France’s George Floyd moment”. Le Monde drew the parallel in an editorial: “Leaving aside the completely specific American racial context, the events are reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man suffocated by a White Minneapolis police officer in May 2020”.

** After the death of Nahel, of north African ethnicity and with the looks, according to his grieving mother, of “an Arab”, there have been calls by French activists to begin a US-style, long-tabooed national conversation about race, police brutality and social injustice.

What’s clear is an altered level of racial consciousness in France. Thus far, it has adhered to the ideal of a colourblind universalism and the sunshine belief that all people are equal irrespective of the brutal reality of racial discrimination. France collects no census or other data on the race of its citizens but equally, it distinguished itself in the last century by running counter to explicit black segregationist policies, such as in the US.

And yet France has its troubled multi-racial suburbs or banlieues, ethnic ghettos and islands of poverty mainly occupied by coloured new arrivals or second, third and fourth generation immigrants, and a world away from elegant boulevards. That is where the volcano repeatedly erupts and this is where change must be felt if it is to happen at all.

Can it?

It’s debatable how much one piece of writing and one man can be said to indicate the direction of travel of a whole country but President Emmanuel Macron’s education minister may be the right place to start. The person in focus is Pap Ndiaye, an historian, whose groundbreaking La Condition Noire: Essai sur une minorité française or The Black Condition: an essay on a French minority was published in 2008.

Ndiaye, the son of a Senegalese father and a white woman, is visually black and identifies as such. He has said that he only realised his blackness (and the black condition in France) while studying in the US in the 1990s. “It’s an experience,” he said, “that all black French go through when they go to the United States. It’s the experience of a country where skin colour is reflected upon and where it is not hidden behind a colourblind discourse”.

Ndiaye has led efforts to establish black studies as an academic discipline in France despite some complaints that such a field represents a lamentable “Americanisation” of French society because it pushes the charged issue of race and religion into public discourse, rather than keeping it unsaid.

But for all the bemoaning, the forbidden bottle seems to have been uncorked and France is further along that it realises in its racial awakening.

In 2009, Ndiaye delivered a public lecture titled The Emergence of ‘French Blacks’ at Florida State University, a visit that appeared to have official blessing because it was arranged in concert with the French embassy in Washington, D.C.

Then, in May 2022, Ndiaye was appointed education minister., a surprising move right at the start of Macron’s second term. Not only is the left-wing Ndiaye different from much of the cabinet, he has been outspoken about the “dark dimensions” of France’s colonial history and the need to confront the violence.

Ndiaye’s elevation seemed to recognise not only the persistent social inequalities in France’s school system but the need for the government to be mindful of the effects of colonialism as well race relations. It brings race to the fore.

In all sorts of ways then, France may be increasingly American and I don’t mean the 1,500 McDonalds in the land of croissants.

Originally published at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com on July 12, 2023