LAURA KUPE is a Political Partner with the Truman National Security Project and a Youth Ambassador for Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Resolution. She served as a Special Assistant in the Office of Policy working on European affairs athe Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration. Views expressed are her own. She can be reached via Twitter @LauraKupeEsq.
Last May, the European political establishment and progressive leaders in the U.S. lauded the election of Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency as a victory over far-right and populist ideologies in France. Former U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) went so far as to say that the French electorate “rejected racism and xenophobia.”
But as Macron nears the end of his first year in office, it has become clear that the rejection of racism and xenophobia in France will require far more than just electing him into office or handing his newly-formed party, La Republique En Marche (LREM), a parliamentary majority.
Macron’s youthful appeal at the fresh age of 40 - combined with the diverse candidates he was able to recruit for his new party - has been credited for increasing the representation of minorities, women, and young people in the French parliament since June last year. FRANCE 24, a news network owned by the French government, calculated that 35 parliamentarians in the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the French parliament, are now ethnic minorities. This is a 25-seat increase from 10 parliamentarians five years prior, out of a total of 551 seats representing the French mainland.
Despite this visible improvement of minority representation in the French parliament, the discourse around racism in France remains palpably ever-present in a laissez faire society.
Laetitia Avia, a member of France’s National Assembly from Macron’s party, filed a legal complaint after receiving a letter filled with racist insults and death threats earlier this month. Avia, whose parents are from Togo, decided to publicly share the letter to stress that such racism should have no place in French society. She even coined the trending Twitter hashtag #NeRienLaisserPasser, which means ‘don’t give an inch,’ in opposition to violence against women and ethnic minorities in France.
Acknowledgement of the challenges that minorities in France face, however, are not commonplace. Unlike in the United States, communities of color in France have difficulty speaking candidly about issues that impact them, which include a lack of economic mobility, excessive racial profiling by law enforcement, and police brutality. This has proven to be difficult in a society that views itself as “color blind.” Definitive statistics on the major minority groups in France are not available, for example, because it is illegal for the French government to categorize individuals based on race.
Many immigrants came to France from former French colonies during a post-war economic boom that demanded low-skilled labor. When many of these immigrants arrived in France, they were confined to these low-skilled jobs and settled in low-income public housing areas in the outskirts of major French cities called “banlieues.”
The difficult living conditions in these banlieues have contributed to a tense relationship between ethnic minorities in France and the French government. Alienation is particularly present in the struggles of the children and grandchildren of these migrants who are now French citizens. According to France Stratégie, the French government’s economic-strategy unit, youth unemployment is at 32 percent for French-born citizens with immigrant parents from Africa (including sub-Saharan countries and the Maghreb), which is twice as high as for those with no immigrant background.
The tumultuous relationship between minority youth and French law enforcement also recently came to the forefront of French national discourse with “L’affaire Théo” last year, which involved a Black Frenchman who was allegedly sodomized while in police custody. According to France’s defender of rights, young men perceived as North African or Black are also 20 times more likely to undergo identity checks from police. Finally, banlieues have become areas of interest to French law enforcement for national security purposes. France has been the target of recruitment tools for terrorist organizations with some pointing to the marginalization of Muslim youth in French as the impetus.
As Macron approaches his second year in office, France should not shy away from meaningful conversations about race under his leadership. He already signaled his support for France’s diversity as a presidential candidate and now has the chance to implement real change and progress as president. French republican ideals, like equality and indivisibility, as exemplified by the public outrage around L’affaire Theo or the threats against Laetitia Avia, seem to not work for people of color in France.
Macron by no means needs to imitate how American society addresses issues on race, but it is important that he does something. What that something looks like is up to him and the citizens of France, by including candid exchanges with France’s marginalized ethnic minorities, to decide. It is imperative, however, in the face of growing political and economic challenges that sensible discussions start now. France’s national security and potential for a thriving multicultural society depends on it.