The myth of French republicanism

In France, Black and Arab minorities are excluded from the country’s liberal values—and then treated as threats to them.

Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

Amid the pomp of France’s Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, lingered a shadow over French republicanism that not even the guest of honor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could disguise. The death on June 27 of Nahel Merzouk, yet another young Frenchman of color killed at the hands of police, contradicts the country’s famous republican values: liberté, égalité, fraterinité. So, while economists estimate the damage caused by the resultant protests to be in the region of USD 730 million, the spectacular media coverage of police brutality and “violent” protest masks the more damaging rupture of the social contract between the French republic and citizens who are visible minorities.

In her 2012 autobiography, Mes météores. Combats politiques au long cours, Christiane Taubira, a member of the National Assembly of France for French Guiana (1993–2012), relates the ethnicized and racialized limits of French republicanism to everyday discrimination:

For me, it felt like mutilation. To speak of a vibrant Republic, alive with all the challenges of cohabitation, while I know it to be fragmented, deliberately ignoring the gaps of inequities that are widening and which it widens. […] There were millions in this country whose appearance, “visible identity”, predetermined their educational stream, their professional capacities, their place of residence, their place of residence, plainly their limits (translation from French).

The discourse of integration and assimilation, which emerged in the 1980s and was popularized in the 1990s by the French national football team slogan Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab)—a play on the French flag’s three colors; Blue, White, and Red—does little to address minoritization of racialized French citizens.

Before Nahel Merzouk was shot at point-blank range during a traffic stop in Nanterre, policing practices in the peripheral banlieues were also responsible for the June 2016 death of Adama Traoré in Beaumont-sur-Oise. Adama did not have his identity documents on him. Neither did Zyed and Bouna, two adolescents who died after hiding from police in an electrical substation in the neighborhood of Clichy-sous-Bois on October 27, 2005. The slogan “Mort Pour Rien” (Dead for Nothing) reflected the collective anger of the 2005 protesters in banlieues across France. Given the presumed “guilt” of visible minorities who are unable to produce ID documents at a moment’s notice, who could blame Zyed and Bouna for being so afraid that they ran and hid?

Taubira, who went on to become France’s minister of justice, returns to the events of 2005 in her second autobiography Paroles de la liberté (2014), describing the accusations made by Nicholas Sarkozy (the then minister of interior) that the boys had fled because they were implicated in a robbery as “one more act of violence.” While current President Emmanuel Macron has astutely avoided the type of incendiary language used by Sarkozy in 2005, following the death of Nahel Merzouk, the French media’s fascination with the “violence” of protesting banlieue youth echoes that nearly two decades past. As Rama Yade-Zimet, the former secretary of human rights, observes in her 2007 book Noirs de France, the French media saw “black people everywhere” after the 2005 banlieue protests, feeding the fantasy that the violence of visible minorities posed a threat to “good” French citizens. In the ensuing frenzy, a meaningful conversation about the everyday discrimination against visible minorities in France failed to occur.

French republicanism limps along as a “fragmented” national space, characterized by inequalities and racialized boundaries exemplified by the weaponization of banlieues as spaces that need to be contained. Although there are other cases of police violence in France, it is worth noting that the three cases cited here—Clichy-sous-Bois, Beaumont-sur-Oise, and Nanterre—are all banlieues of Paris. French anthropologist Didier Fassin describes banlieues or the proverbial “space of the banished,” as having a “pejorative connotation” that can be read as shorthand for designating through generalized (and generalizing) expressions such as “problèmes des banlieues” (the problems of banlieues) or “jeunes des banlieues” (banlieue youth). Despite signifying multiple locations, “the banlieue” comes to signify a singular space for the containment of those who do not belong, underscored by the political narrative of protecting “good” citizens. In the French media, the narrative is that of a “menacing space” which poses a threat to “French republican identity” without considering how French citizens who are visible minorities are excluded from “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Watching French politicians and pundits discuss how to better “teach” republican values to protesting youth ahead of Bastille Day celebrations, one wonders when proponents of French republicanism will acknowledge there is reason to be angry when the promise of such values is not experienced equally by all citizens.

About the Author

Polo B. Moji is an associate professor in the English Literary Studies department at the University of Cape Town. Her recently published monograph is Gender and the Spatiality of Blackness in Contemporary AfroFrench Narratives.

Further Reading

The inexpiable crime

The reaction to Nahel Merzouk’s murder by the French state showcases its tactic of depoliticizing the suburban uprising and diverting attention away from state violence.

The lost promise of childhood

The state-sanctioned violence committed against children such as Nahel M forces us to revisit the very question of childhood, its privileges, and its roots in the French imperialization of Africa.