ODVV interview: There is a legal vacuum when it...
Racial and religious minorities account for a significant portion of the population of France. Owing to a long history of welcoming immigrants of different descents, it is one of the most cosmopolitan European nations. The first article of the Constitution of French adopted in 1958 unambiguously sets out the nation’s founding principle of universalism that promises protection and safety for all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion.
Reflecting the country’s time-hallowed tradition of secularism, collecting information about the citizens’ ethnicity and religious beliefs in national census has been prohibited since 1872, as it is believed to imply stigmatization. Therefore, there are contradictory accounts of the ethnic and religious composition of France. Some data sources have pointed out that between 7 and 9 percent of the population are Muslims and smaller groups, amounting to less than 1 percent are Buddhists and Jews. The national motto of France is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and the government, maintaining a “color-blind” model of public policy, is committed to serving the citizens regardless of their background or heritage. Extensive anti-racism legislation and policies implemented by the government mean safeguarding racial and religious equality is supposed to be a top priority in France.
In the recent couple of decades, however, barriers to racial and religious equality have emerged in France and the republic has found itself in the grips of an epidemic of anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-black racism. For example, in 2018, OSCE reported 145 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes and 588 anti-Semitic hate crimes in France. The rise of far-right across Europe and terrorist attacks attributed to religious minorities and immigrants are believed to be the main drivers of racial disparities in the Western European nation.
Jean Beaman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She previously taught at Purdue University and has been awarded fellowships by Duke University and the European University Institute in Italy. An associate editor of the journal “Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power,” she studies racism, international migration and state-sponsored violence in France and the United States. In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Beaman responded to some questions about the spiraling of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments in France, the shifting public perceptions of French Muslims after the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks and the public reactions to the perceived threat of the “Islamization” of France. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: France takes pride in being a traditionally “color-blind” state. In the national consensus, it doesn’t collect data pertaining to race and ethnicity. It was in 1972 that the parliament enacted the Pleven Law to legalize combatting different forms of discrimination, racism and hate speech. Even so, in the recent years, observers have been warning against the spike of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-black discrimination. Do you think racism in France has reached a worrying level?
A: I believe that racism has long been at a worrying level in France. Even though France purports to be colorblind, racism remains a crisis, partly because France has not reconciled with its history and legacy of colonialism and colonial slavery. Obscuring the role of slavery and colonialism in the creation of French society only serves to perpetuate white supremacy.
Q: Far-right parties in Europe made remarkable progress in 2017 and 2018 and gained several seats in general and parliamentary elections in countries such as Austria, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and Spain. They also resurrected their anti-immigrant, anti-diversity rhetoric across the continent. Where do the far-right parties stand in the French politics? Do parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and smaller factions such as Generation Identity significantly influence the policies and direction of the government?
A: When considering the role of the far-right in France, and Europe more generally, I think it is important to keep in mind not just the power and influence of the far-right but also how far-right ideas and ideologies permeate acceptable mainstream discourse. So yes, the presence of the ideas that Marine Le Pen and other far-right leaders promote is important and influential because of how they permeate outside of solely far-right audiences.
Q: In November 2019, President Emmanuel Macron announced that new restrictions would be imposed on asylum-seekers and that the immigration policies would not be as generous as they used to be in the past, even though the door remained open to skilled foreign workers. Why did the government make the decision to toughen its immigration rules? Does Marcon intend to derail the popularity of anti-immigrant, right-wing parties through the new policies?
A: I cannot say unequivocally why Macron announced these particular restrictions in terms of political strategy, but this is an example of what I mentioned in the previous answer. We make a mistake if we solely focus on what the far-right is doing and miss how center and center-left politicians are often just as anti-immigrant or xenophobic.
Q: Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the July 2016 attacks in Nice, the French Muslim community came under spotlight and the international media began demanding the French Muslims to denounce terrorism and distance themselves from the extremists. At that time, it was being repeatedly broached that French Muslims were not sympathetic to the Republic and opposed the secular values of the country. How has the public discourse on Muslims changed after the 2015 and 2016 attacks? Are Muslims still viewed skeptically?
A: I think to say that Muslims are viewed skeptically is unfortunately an understatement. What we witnessed following the November 2015 and July 2016 attacks was a reinforcement of Islamophobic and racist sentiment towards French Muslims under the pretense of national Republican unity. Political scientist Abdellali Hajjat uses the term “collective punishment” to refer how French Muslims are held to account for any negative behavior remotely attributed to Muslims, including the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks. In my own ethnographic research with French Muslims following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, I found that many French Muslims were repeatedly asked if they condemn or denounce the terrorist attacks, solely because they are Muslim. This reinforces, among other things, how French Muslims are not fully accepted as French and continually have to “prove” their worthiness in the Republic.
Q: The Gayssot Act passed in 1990 criminalized the denial of Holocaust and anti-Semitism and mandated the government to prosecute those who harassed the Jews in the public sphere. Considering the massive rise of Islamophobia and given that Islam is the second-most widely professed religion in France, do you agree that there is a legal vacuum when it comes to fighting Islamophobia?
A: I agree that there is a legal, and more broadly, cultural and societal vacuum when it comes to combatting Islamophobia in France. I commend the actions of various activists and collectives, such as the Collectif contre l'islamophobie en France [Collective against Islamophobia in France], but unfortunately more is needed to combat Islamophobia similar to combatting anti-Semitism. I think this vacuum at least partially exists due to a failure to see Muslims in France as French as any other French person.
Q: Figures show that 42 percent of the French consider their fellow citizens who are of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian descent to be Arab, not French. The unemployment rate for the Muslim youths living in marginalized suburbs is 50 percent. As reported by the Institut Montaigne in 2016, 28 percent of French Muslims are “Muslims who have adopted a value system that is clearly opposed to republican values.” Are these signs that the French integration model has failed?
A: The French integration model has failed, particularly in that it has not acknowledged the multicultural nature of French society. And it is crucial to keep in mind this failure of the French integration model is not due to the failure of French citizens of Algerian, Moroccan, or Tunisian descent. Rather it is due to a failure of French society to see them as French. There is a persistent idea that anyone who is not “white” is therefore not French, or could not be seen as French. This is a dangerous ideology that needs to be disrupted. Moreover, much empirically-based social science evidence demonstrates how French Muslims are just as “secularized” as French Catholics, and how they see being Muslim and being French as compatible.
Q: In a 2019 interview with the right-wing Valeurs actuelles magazine, President Emmanuel Macron had said some Muslim women put on hijab because they want to show their desire to “secede” from the French Republic. Do you think Muslim women in France are particularly subject to discrimination? Is the French authorities’ approach to hijab a source of contention and division in the French society?
A: First of all, Macron’s remarks demonstrate part of the issue here in terms of seeing French Muslims as actually French, as actually members of French society. I think both Muslim men and Muslim women are subject to discrimination and Islamophobia, but of course, we also know that racism is gendered so that men and women are subject to different stereotypes and mistreatment compounded with their gender. The French interpretation of hijab is problematic because, among other things, it signals out one religious practice or display as antithetical to French republican values, under the guise of laïcité.
Q: According to figures by the Pew Research Center, the population of Muslims in France will exceed 12 million by 2050 if immigration to France takes place at a medium rate. This is while the French economist Charles Gave has predicted that in 2057, the majority of French citizens will be Muslims. Is the growth of Muslim population and the declining birth rate of white French women something that alarms the majority of French people? Is the “Islamization” of France a scenario that the French public believes in?
A: Unfortunately, French society is embroiled in a panic of Muslims “taking over” French society, or the “Islamization” of France. Such a “debate” manifests in concerns about a proliferation of halal butchers and supermarkets or a panic about Islamist terrorist attacks. More generally, it is important to keep in mind that as scholars such as Ann Laura Stoler have demonstrated, gender, race, and concerns about reproduction are interwoven in the colonial project. We therefore cannot understand the “panic” about the Muslim presence in France without reckoning with the legacies of France’s colonial empire in the Maghreb and elsewhere.
By: Kourosh Ziabari