France is going through a national contradiction. On the one hand, diversity is an important and visible value. French tennis player Yannick Noak and soccer player Zinedine Zidane are popular with the French public. On the other hand, as the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights highlighted in its last report, racist prejudice is once again on the rise, after decades of decline.
This dual trend was evident during the presidential and legislative campaigns in 2012. Racism and xenophobia pervade the political landscape. When former president Nicolas Sarkozy referred to someone being “of Muslim appearance” and an elected official as being a “Muslim Prefect,” he was not alone in these thoughts. The tendency to blur religion, race, ethnicity, and origins and focus primarily on these aspects of individuals’ presumed identity is widespread in France. Other characteristics such as social and local background, age or gender, are usually ignored.
In between January and June 2012, Graines de France, a think tank rooted in the French banlieues (underprivileged French suburbs) and supported by the Open Society Fund to Counter Xenophobia carried out media monitoring on xenophobic public discourse during the presidential and legislative elections. The research shows that in France as elsewhere, racism and xenophobia are no longer exclusively expressed via racist language or throwaway remarks. Instead, their primary form of expression involves a constant focus in political discourse on topics relating to immigration, Islam and integration, always framed as negative and threatening. This trend divides society into “us” and “them”—the “French” and others. This results in a form of everyday racism in which French citizens with foreign backgrounds are construed as alien to France and consequently demonized.
This political agenda was in large part created by the National Front, but also by a part of the center right former governing party (UMP). While the National Front party did not make it to the second round of the presidential election, it nonetheless obtained more votes in 2012 than in 2002. Today, UMP is experiencing an internal crisis stemming from attempts by sections of the party to attract the extreme right electorate.
In the meantime, other political groups offer little positive to the debate. The left wing parties (socialist and communist) have developed a reactive response to this racist discourse, criticizing without proposing an alternative approach to understanding France’s diversity.
France has the power to rebuild social cohesion through its founding values of equality, secularism, and republicanism. However, these values should be interpreted in a truly universal manner in order to avoid their being taken hostage by a particular social group and used against others. First, we must stop understanding those who live in France only in terms of race, ethnicity, or religion, whether to stigmatize them or value them via the notion of “diversity.”
We are all complex human beings with, more than ever, diverse and dynamic forms of belonging and identities that all need to be taken into account. Focusing on a limited and erroneous conception of the identity of a segment of the French population leads to a simplified understanding of the social make-up of France. This is all the more dangerous in a time of crisis when scapegoating can be tempting.
The report was launched in Paris on October 30, 2012.