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Discussing Racism in Race-Blind France: Unsettling Questions Arise After a Teenager’s Death by Police

by Ryan Lee
10 comments
France's Discussion on Racism

In France, where the concept of race is officially unrecognized, the identity of a police officer who fatally shot a French teenager during a recent traffic stop remains undisclosed, with no requirement for it to be revealed.

Yet, the tragic incident involving a 17-year-old boy of North African descent has stirred up tumultuous protests, exposing simmering sentiments about deep-seated racism lurking beneath France’s commitment to equality irrespective of color.

This distressing incident, documented on video, could be seen as France’s equivalent to the George Floyd incident in the United States. However, the ensuing French discourse largely omits what many in America would consider vital: the issue of color.

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Addressing race and racism is a complex issue in France where race is, as per policy, non-existent. Paris police chief, Laurent Nunez, expressed shock over the UN human rights office’s usage of the term “racism” to critique French law enforcement.

The mainstream French perspective, predominantly white, does not usually frame discussions of discrimination and inequality in terms of black and white. In fact, many French citizens view discussions about skin color as inherently racist. The absence of racial data makes it even harder to gauge the ethnic diversity of France’s population.

According to 25-year-old Nanterre resident, Iman Essaifi, it’s considered racist to distinguish people by race. Following the death of the teenager, Nahel, she observes the growing acceptance of open discussions on race.

France’s constitution upholds the universal values of the French Republic, ensuring equal rights for all citizens irrespective of origin, race, or religion. This leads to verbal contortions when trying to broach racial disparities without explicit mention of race. Instead, terms like “communities,” “banlieues” (suburbs), and “quartiers” (neighborhoods) are used as euphemisms for disadvantaged urban areas often home to large immigrant populations.

Following Nahel’s death, vague language has been used in various contexts, ranging from supportive to derogatory. For instance, Nanterre’s mayor spoke about the suburb “in all its diversity,” while the Alliance Police Nationale labeled the rioters as “vermin.”

France’s colonial past, chiefly in Africa and the Caribbean, manifests in contemporary attitudes that persist generations later. Recent migration trends have spurred controversy and division, leading to a government that discusses racial issues in a broader context but often overlooks their impact on the everyday lives of its citizens.

There are stories of successful assimilation under France’s policies, but some with immigrant backgrounds fear these stories are being overshadowed by rioting and criticism.

Those close to Nahel, and others who identify with him, insist it’s unjust to deny the existence of disparities and discrimination. Their anger is palpable, especially considering a fundraising campaign for the accused officer’s family has already raised over 1 million euros ($1.09 million).

The tension and violence in many communities are fueled by other factors too, like escalating cost of living and general policing issues. In 2021, Amnesty International and five other rights groups launched a class-action lawsuit against the French state alleging ethnic profiling during police ID checks.

Police officers vehemently deny singling out individuals based on color. However, Mariam Lambert, a friend of Nahel, emphasizes the burden of feeling obligated to suppress one’s identity. She contemplates moving to Morocco if France doesn’t change, adding, “Who protects us from the police?”


This report includes contributions from Paris-based journalists John Leicester and Nicolas Garriga.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about France’s Discussion on Racism

What was the event that sparked discussions about race in France?

A French teenager of North African descent was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. The race of the officer has not been disclosed. This event ignited widespread protests and initiated conversations about systemic racism in France.

Does France officially recognize race?

No, according to French policy, race doesn’t officially exist. This means the country doesn’t record racial data and conversations about race and racism can be complex and nuanced.

What is the public’s reaction to the teenager’s death?

The incident led to widespread protests, exposing deep-rooted sentiments about systemic racism in France. There were varying responses from supportive to derogatory. Notably, a fundraising campaign for the family of the accused officer has already raised over 1 million euros ($1.09 million).

How does the French government handle discussions about race?

France’s constitution ensures equal rights for all citizens, regardless of origin, race, or religion. This leads to conversations about racial disparities often being addressed through euphemisms like “communities,” “banlieues” (suburbs), and “quartiers” (neighborhoods), instead of directly discussing race.

What was the reaction of French law enforcement to the UN’s criticism?

Paris police chief, Laurent Nunez, was shocked by the UN human rights office’s use of the term “racism” in its criticism of French law enforcement. He dismissed the accusation, highlighting the complexity of discussing race in a country where it’s officially unrecognized.

What are some factors fueling tension and violence in many communities?

In addition to the issue of race and discrimination, other factors include the rising cost of living and general policing issues. In 2021, Amnesty International and five other rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the French state alleging ethnic profiling during police ID checks.

More about France’s Discussion on Racism

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10 comments

Paul B July 5, 2023 - 5:46 pm

I’m white and i’ve never thought about this much… This whole situation has opened my eyes, seriously. Didn’t even know we had these issues in France.

Reply
Jean-Luc D. July 5, 2023 - 11:10 pm

Can’t believe what’s happening here in france…where’s the equality we’re supposed to stand for? Race may not officially exist, but it’s clear that racism does.

Reply
Nadia T July 6, 2023 - 3:20 am

I watched the video and it’s just horrifying… couldn’t sleep all night. This is our George Floyd moment. we need change! NOW!

Reply
Francois L July 6, 2023 - 7:12 am

This is a sad state of affairs. Maybe its time France stopped being ‘colorblind’ and started addressing the issue of race directly. we can’t keep ignoring it.

Reply
Fatima R July 6, 2023 - 8:26 am

I’m from North African descent and i can relate to Nahel’s case… it’s sad and frustrating that we’re treated differently even though we are french, too!

Reply
Paul B July 6, 2023 - 9:43 pm

I’m white and i’ve never thought about this much… This whole situation has opened my eyes, seriously. Didn’t even know we had these issues in France.

Reply
Nadia T July 7, 2023 - 5:39 am

I watched the video and it’s just horrifying… couldn’t sleep all night. This is our George Floyd moment. we need change! NOW!

Reply
Fatima R July 7, 2023 - 7:33 am

I’m from North African descent and i can relate to Nahel’s case… it’s sad and frustrating that we’re treated differently even though we are french, too!

Reply
Francois L July 7, 2023 - 8:58 am

This is a sad state of affairs. Maybe its time France stopped being ‘colorblind’ and started addressing the issue of race directly. we can’t keep ignoring it.

Reply
Jean-Luc D. July 7, 2023 - 1:14 pm

Can’t believe what’s happening here in france…where’s the equality we’re supposed to stand for? Race may not officially exist, but it’s clear that racism does.

Reply

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