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How France Sets the Rules for Discussions About Racism, Terrorism and Islam

Discussions around race and Islam have been preemptively funneled into “acceptable” channels by the French state.

The last decade has seen a global rise in authoritarian populism, racism and Islamophobia in Europe. Indeed, there is an increasing stigmatization of Muslims, both those who were born in Europe, as well as those who are arriving as refugees. Moreover, the recent wave of terrorism in France has drawn particular attention to the Republic’s failures at the so-called project of “integration.” Sparring French intellectuals have even become a major news story in the Anglophone press. Despite claims that there is a “taboo” around the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), or that one cannot talk about racial difference because the Republic is “color-blind,” there is no lack of discussion on the topics of Islam or racism. In fact, anti-racist movements are receiving renewed attention — from the Parti des Indigènes de la Republique to Black Lives Matter to the “Decolonial” Summer Camp held in late August.

The state’s response to the demands made by these groups has been decisive: It has denied the legitimacy of any organization explicitly based on race. In so doing, the government has also carefully delimited “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ways of speaking about racial difference. In other words, rather than silencing a discussion on race, there is a strict set of rules for discussing the plight of France’s minorities. Yet, the rules of engagement ensure that any examination of the root causes for racial discrimination is considered hors-jeu, or out of bounds.

The Question of “Non-Mixity”

In France, the first Black Lives protest in Paris in July 2016 led to accusations that the movement is based on “communitarianism” (communautarisme). This is a French way of expressing the accusations of anti-white racism the group faced in the United States. As protesters proclaimed “les vies noires comptent!” (Black Lives Matter!), their grievances centered on the legacy of France as a colonial power and the fallacies of France’s purportedly universal ideals. Another anti-racist movement, the “Decolonial Summer Camp,” has taken a cue from a study group at the Paris 8 University that was organized in April 2016 in response to the reform of the labor code. Both of these initiatives have been defined as spaces of “non-mixity” that are explicitly and exclusively geared for those who have been victims of racism.

One might understand these groups as a way to address the widespread silencing of certain communities that have specific grievances based on their racial identity. Yet, rather than taking a frank look at the racialized nature of police violence, housing policies or employment statistics, the French newspaper Le Monde asked if non-mixity was a “tool of emancipation” or a “communitarian folding inwards” (repli communautaire). Centrist websites like Marianne were even more hostile, making a pernicious parallel between this event and the “no Blacks allowed” policy of Jim Crow in the United States. A workshop that addresses the experiences of those who have been victims of racism is thus being likened to racial segregation in the US (US apartheid), prompting the question: “Who are the real racists?”

Reading the French mainstream press, one might have the impression that the forces of exclusion stem from these myriad social movements, rather than from the French state. Racial difference can thus be acknowledged in the public sphere, as long as the discussion actively erases the distinction between racism (a set of structures that historically marginalizes a population) and anti-racism (a strategy that seeks to redress this violence). As David Theo Goldberg has argued in the American case, this is a sign of the “post-racial” era in which we now live.

Islamophobia: A Misnomer?

A similar confusion is being enacted in relationship to Islamophobia. Scholars, such as Gilles Kepel have claimed that a use of the term Islamophobia itself serves to evade a critical analysis of religion. Going one step further, he even argued that the term was invented by Islamists themselves. In this series of claims and counterclaims, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between the victim and perpetrator of racism — a confusion that suits the State of Emergency just fine.

These rules of discourse have also extended to the academy as the French government has promoted knowledge production around Islam. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister of education (whose Moroccan origins prompted much discussion among the right wing of the political spectrum), supported a research agenda on Islam that led to the creation of 10 academic posts on “Islamology and radicalization.” According to a March 2016 report, which explicitly linked Islam and terrorism: “An understanding of the causes and an explanation of reasons are the best way to determine and decide how to fight terrorism.” It is hard to argue with such logic — except that Vallaud-Belkacem has also publicly condemned the Decolonial Summer Camp as fostering a “racist vision of society.”

Similarly, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has claimed that certain sociologists who attempt to “explain” terrorism merely provide an alibi for these violent acts. Clearly, the line between “useful” and “subversive” knowledge is being carefully guarded, and the brows of the state furrow when its non-white subjects gather outside of the Republic’s pedagogical gaze. At the same time, the goal of the state, in conjunction with the mainstream media, is not to silence a discussion of Islam and terrorism, but to funnel it into certain acceptable channels.

How else can we explain the project of the French state to reform Muslim institutions (again), often written about as the “reform of French Islam”? After all, recent perpetrators of terrorism are closer to the “born again” model of religious practice rather than reliable Mosque-goers, as Olivier Roy has pointed out. The man who committed the attack in Nice, for example, never attended a mosque; he was reported to be an avid salsa dancer, and an alleged womanizer who also drank alcohol before his quite sudden turn to ISIS (also known as Daesh). It is thus unclear how teaching Muslims how to appreciate French secularism through official religious channels would have changed his violent trajectory.

On August 2, 2016, French President François Hollande chose ex-Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement to head the Foundation for Islam in France (Fondation pour l’islam de France). Chevènement has drawn attention to the international financing of mosques and asked the Muslim population in France to show “discretion” in their religious practice and suggested the creation of a “halal” tax, which highlights the fixation of the Islamophobia industry on the “right to difference” summarized in symbolic differences, such as eating habits and clothing. Here, one could also cite the long-winded debates on the burkini, which offer another platform to recycle clichés about Islam and the public space. Discussions on the appropriate role of Islam in the Republic are underpinned by a long debate that dates back to the French Revolution and the fraught relationship between the Catholic Church and the state. These polemics have now become the bread and butter of the Islamophobia industry.

Thus, as commentators drone on about the need to encourage “living together” (vivre ensemble), they treat Islamophobia as a mere question of personal prejudice against Muslims. Indeed, the phenomenon has been discussed as a question of individual psychology or as an unwillingness to socialize with Muslims. Like all racism, Islamophobia is based on a perception of difference that can be as superficial as a style of dress, a last name or a facility with the Arabic language. Indeed, as the “one drop rule” in the United States reminds us, race has always been a fluid category that scholars generally acknowledge is socially constructed rather than biologically determined. Nevertheless, any attempts to address the problem at the level of individual preference is bound to fail; the solution can be nothing less than a radical change in the structures of governance.

The War Without a Name

Recently, a different kind of violence has also become a frequent tool in the Islamophobia industry’s toolbox: The Algerian War of Independence. Scholars have termed the violence a “war without a name” since France refused to admit that Algeria — which was legally part of France and not a colony — was engaged in a struggle for independence. At the time, the French government referred vaguely to “events” in Algeria, and was more likely to see the struggle in terms of a civil war or communist incursion.

Yet in 2016, it is undeniable that the Algerian War is widely discussed in France as well as in the United States and the UK. A recent article in the Guardian was one of dozens of pieces that established a link between the attack in Nice and decolonization in Algeria. So why, at this precise moment, has the mainstream press looked to 1962 as a useful paradigm? Rehashing the Algerian War establishes a link between terrorism and another war that was seen as “savage” by French observers at the time. Moreover, it also obscures 50 years of history in France, including its domestic policies and close partnership with the Algerian state (here one could cite cooperation on so-called “anti-terrorism” policies and the largely unpopular intervention in Mali). Instead of engaging with these contemporary realities, the Islamophobia industry would have you think that old Cold War animosities (and Muslims) are again rearing their violent (and covered) heads.

A robust system of economic and cultural exclusion has created solidarity among individuals who rightly recognize that they have been excluded on the basis of their religion or skin color. Yet, when they organize along these lines realizing that any mediation or dialogue with the state is largely futile, observers worry that the fabric of the Republic is under threat. Exposing the rules of talking about race in France should not stop us from asking important questions about the efficacy of certain forms of organization, or expressing our discomfort with certain political positions (the Parti des Indigènes de la Republique’s statements on Muslim masculinity and homosexuality in the Arab world, for example). But what we must do, imperatively, is to reject the myth of the French Republican taboo.

The Algerian War, race and Islam are splattered over front pages, televised debates and even school curricula for the bac (the academic exam taken by high school students). As Foucault taught us about sexuality, race in France only seems to be a repressed topic of conversation. Rather than something that must be discussed in whispers, it is a subject that has been actively and purposely fashioned through state power. Multiculturalism might not be the operative vocabulary in France, but there, too, demands for visibility and inclusion have resulted in a defeat for anti-racist struggles. As Robin D.G. Kelley writes about Black Lives Matter, attending to the trauma of exclusion, or making that exclusion feel less violent, does nothing to dismantle the social and epistemological architecture that allows racism to flourish.