Joshua Berlinger, CNN, July 1, 2023
What does it mean to be French?
It’s been more than 1,500 years since the first French kingdom was founded; more than 480 years since French became the state’s official language; more than 200 years since the French Revolution; and more than 60 years since the establishment of the Fifth Republic.
Yet an answer to the question of how to define French identity remains a point of contention that helps to explain why, three days after a 17-year-old boy was shot to death by a French police officer, burnt-out cars, shattered glass windows and other signs of furor surround the makeshift memorial where the teen took some of his last breaths.
Though the violence has been committed by a small number of protesters, anger and frustration has been palpable among many young people of color who live in France’s multiethnic suburbs, who believe race was a factor in the death of Nahel, who was reportedly of Algerian descent.
Activists have long claimed that police treat French people of color differently than their White peers, pointing to cases like that of Adama Traore, a black man who died of asphyxiation while handcuffed in 2016. According to a 2017 study by one independent human rights group, young men perceived as Black and Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than their peers.
The state, however, rebuts claims that racism in the police force is a problem. And a longstanding ideal that the state is colorblind and all citizens are French first has made it particularly difficult to convince government officials to broach the possibility that implicit biases may play a part in the treatment of France’s ethnic minorities.
Official French philosophy is that all citizens are French first and that the state must resolutely avoid differentiating between them, even to the point that civil servants must refrain from wearing religious symbols.
That vigorous adherence to equality often prevents the government from doing anything that would appear to categorize French citizens based on race, including collecting statistics.
Those idealistic virtues clash with the reality of race relations in France’s post-colonial 21st century society, a melting pot of diverse communities, many of whose families trace their roots back to former French colonies.
“Foreignness” is often something that is seen as inherited by blood, explained Mame-Fatou Niang, the director for the Center for Black European Studies & the Atlantic at Carnegie Mellon University.
French people often use anglicisms to address issues of race rather than the French equivalent – for example, Black people are referred to as “Black” rather than “noire,” the French word for black – despite the aversion of the francophone world to the rising usage of English in French culture.