Blog 6- The Legacy of French Colorblind Rhetoric on Affirmative Action

Jean-Phillipe Mathy began the French delegation’s contribution to the conference by discussing the republican tradition underlying the attitude towards race in France.  He recounts the transition in the French government and society during the 70’s to the 80’s where a new sense of what it means to be a citizen emerged and the development of a new form of individualism emerged. For example, the universalistic individual gave way to a more consumerist focused individual developed during that time. In addition, the more recent integration of France into the European Union has created a sense of “national identity crisis.” And lastly, the collapse of Communism that forced the left to adopt a “new republican rhetoric” to compensate for the vacuum.

Now, more minority groups are standing up for more rights, ranging from Muslim women demanding to be able to wear their headscarves in school, to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement. In addition there is the rise of the, “black question” developing in France. But the resistance to these demands are framed in the new republic rhetoric.   

More interestingly, is the debate over communitarianism and the way it defines a French subject versus citizen. People from former French colonies were called subjects, but were not considered citizens, thus denied full rights and protection under the law. In addition, another presenter discussed how in France there is no race. Instead, certain people are not considered citizens and certain people are, but the constitution refuses to recognize that difference is based on race.

This leads to problems with data collection because the census does ask for race categories. This makes the implementation of affirmative action policies difficult because policy makers do not know how many people consider themselves Black or Arabic etc.  Instead, some people argue the problem in France is about integration, not about racism. This perspective allows the French to say, “we are not like the Americans” and into identity politics. Instead, the French believe the issue is more about what it means to be French.  

Ultimately, race does become an issue since even after many generations children of immigrants are still considered immigrants because they do not look French.  Initially, fifteen years ago, the speaker and other blacks would have said there is not “black question” like there is in the US. For France, the issue linked back to former colonies and the nature of immigration. But after the 2005 riots, suddenly people emerged from the rioting groups that declared themselves as black.  But the question of where does the Arab immigrant population fit into this emerging identity politics. 

But this newly developed sense of black identity can also be used against those fighting for affirmative action. For example, when Blacks demand race to be on the census, they are accused of being racist. On the one hand Blacks claim they do not want to be treated as Black, but by calling attention to it, they are calling attention to being Black.  

This harkens back to the problem experienced in the US as well, the rhetoric of colorblindness.  Daniel Sabbagh explained this concept in legal term by repeating the very words in the French constitution, that the republic recognizes every French citizen’s rights before the law “without any distinction of origin, race or religion.”  Due to this legal framework, those recognized by affirmative action polices can not be identified by race.  Therefore affirmative action can only be applied based on location or economically disadvantaged zones. The complexity of carrying out these policies in a “colorblind” context carried over into the questions asked.

Questions and Answers Session  

During the Q & A session, one of the participants noted the similarities between the Brazilian case and France.  Following up on that idea, the participant asked can policy makers interpret the law in different ways. For example, in Brazil, quotas are set aside for women through federal laws.

Other questioners wanted to understand the race riots as they related to the existing institutions. How did they respond to the riots. In addition, another participant asked about the existence of a black intellectual movement and whether it existed in France.    

In response to these questions, one of the French delegates responded that since Nicholas Sarkozy became president, very few institutional changes have come about due to the riots. In addition, the speaker does not a believe a significant black intellectual movement developed after the riots, at least not publicly.

Questions about the nature of the positive discrimination based on territory also came up.  Elenore Lepinard addressed this question by noting that certain dimensions are lost when class is substituted for race in policies.  Problems arise, however, when money is simply redistributed to a certain area with out guaranteeing that it actually addresses the disparities that arise due to race.    

In addition, questions came up about the nature of immigration in France. Lepinard clarified the earlier points in the presentation by making it clear that the Arab population is not assimilating three generations later like the Polish and the Italians in the 30’s. Instead, people point out that the Arabs are Muslim, so they will never be able to assimilate, disregarding the fact that not all Arabs are Muslim.  These views concluded the French delegations presentation and set the stage for further comparisons with other countries with similar issues of “assimilation,” immigration and colorblind rhetoric.




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