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Diversity in France

On November 29, 2005, one month after outbreak of urban riots in the French outer cities, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin agreed to a TV interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She asked pointed questions about French inequality and discrimination and race. Didn’t “poverty and racism” explain the rates of unemployment among minority youth that were twice the national average? Quoting angry young people, she said, “Many of them told us that the French government doesn’t do enough to make sure that they have equal opportunity in a country that is all about égalité.” Villepin acknowledged that young people did have “the feeling of discrimination” but he insisted, “It is important to understand the real nature of these movements, there is no ethnic or religious basis to it.” Amanpour pressed on: “The majority of these people who are in the banlieues are blacks or of North African origins. They feel there are no opportunities, there are no role models for them. There are no minorities in your parliament, none in your news organizations.” The PM injected: “These young people don’t want to be recognized as Muslims or as blacks, or as people coming from North Africa. They want to be recognized as French.” She shot back, “So what do you say to somebody whose name is Mohammed, who knows that even if he has the best grades from the Sorbonne, his c.v. will be rejected 5 times more often than someone named François?” The Prime Minister responded by describing the initiatives of French companies to produce more diversity in recruitment and hiring along with sanctions for non-compliance with what he described as “our Republican rules.” But, he insisted, “This is not affirmative action… “In our republic everyone is equal and we don’t take into account the color of the skin or religion. We take into account the difficulty one may have. So we want to help individuals on the basis of their own difficulties.” What was at issue for Villepin’s government was a perceived failure of integration among young people from the second generation of immigration-a revealing contradiction in terms that remains in wide usage. The problem, he noted, is that “they don’t know their country of origin, they don’t have the same link with France as their parents who came here to work.”

Amanpour’s final question, “How can you help these people if you don’t take into account that they are discriminated against because of their color?” may have seemed so obvious to American viewers and so misplaced to many of their French counterparts. I want to start with this exchange because of the assumptions surrounding diversity that are embedded in the question and responses. The exchange highlighted what many view as two diametrically opposed models on diversity- the French universalist color-blind model and the American differentialist or color-conscious model. The CNN interview presupposes different responses to diversity. It begs the question of whether to view it as a challenge or an opportunity, what to call it, how to measure it, and how to define it in law and public policy. The Prime Minister gave voice to a republican master narrative that is increasingly challenged but still widely shared in France. I want to unpack that narrative, to discuss the impact of 2005 on this narrative, and to show how French notions of diversity work within the French legal establishment and the Paris juvenile court by drawing on the research I conducted there from 2000-2005 and on the book I published in 2009.

Master Narrative

By describing the equal treatment of all, Villepin was not denying the existence of racism or discrimination in France. Rather, he was describing a consensus in French public opinion and among the political class on the best way to measure difference, to ensure equality, and to translate it into public policy. French law allows no recognition of collective versus individual rights. The rule of color-blindness is enshrined in article one of the Constitution which rejects the notion of minority status. Under current law only individuals can seek redress for discrimination. Claims cannot be based on one’s origin or membership within a race or ethnic group because these are not recognized legal categories. State representatives do not collect data on ethnic, racial, religious or cultural origin nor do they use “statistiques ethniques” (ethnic statistical data) to assess discrimination in public institutions or the workplace.

What to Call the Problem?

Amanpour’s last question spoke to the contradiction between official colorblind policy and the persistent use of ethno-racial categories to discriminate against minority populations in housing, education, and the workplace. As she said, it is well-established thanks to the important work of French social scientists on discrimination that minority groups have been discriminated against on the basis of addresses and last names as well as skin color. The repeated use of racial profiling and intentionally provocative tactics by the police (racist slurs, excessive force, abuse of identity checks and unwarranted arrests) have been documented by French social scientists and have been denounced by NGOs, judges and the bar. These issues were particularly relevant in the outer cities such as Clichy-sous-Bois where violence broke out in 2005. The government’s management of the crisis was at issue as were the labels used to describe the problem. I refer to the Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy’s provocative suggestion that the trouble was started by bandes de racaille fleeing a crime scene-a coded term for riffraff of non-European ancestry. It was understood to be the spark that ignited a powder keg. The use of coded references is a common practice in French public and political discourse. It is particularly striking in the coverage of youth violence over the last 25 years where reports focus on particularly egregious and largely unrepresentative acts of physical violence committed by young people whose last names and addresses convey their immigrant origin. How do you identify the problem when signifiers like minority or black are viewed as illegitimate? The label “youth” (les jeunes) was often used interchangeably with “foreigner” (étranger), “immigrant” (immigré), of foreign origin (d’origine étrangère), of North African origin (d’origine maghrébine) or non-European foreigner (étranger non-européen). The problem of labels in the wake of the riots, and their reception among minority youth renewed virulent debates that began 20 years before on the collection and use of ethnic data. Should state authorities maintain the legal invisibility of minority groups that had prevailed for a century and a half or should they begin tracking race and ethnicity as a way to identify and redress discrimination? A broad consensus among the public, politicians, and academics supports the view that a color-blind approach is the best way to ensure equality. Equality through invisibility is deemed to prevent the categorization of individuals on the basis race and the misuse of racial categories in the law, education, politics, work, housing and leisure. Unlike Britain and the United States where race and racism are studied across the academy, France has not had a social science literature on “race relations” literature because scholars deny the scientific basis of racial categories. Since racial categories are produced by racial thought, it follows that the official use of such categories, even for positive uses, is inconceivable because it risks marking groups in ways that stigmatize them and essentialize them. As the 19th century political philosopher Ernest Renan famously asserted, being French is based on consent to live in a national community conceived as a political entity not an ethno-racial entity based on descent. Affirmative action then is deeply unpopular because it is seen as nothing more than the use of preferential quotas that risk substituting arbitrary ethno-racial distinctions for socially constructed and shifting definitions of difference. If racism exists, it is a racism without races or as Etienne Balibur put it recently, it is racism after race.

Republican Citizenship

The Prime Minister’s insistence that the French Republic treats all equally derives from an understanding of nationhood forged during the Revolution, honed in the 19th century, and under challenge in the 21st century. It is also a representation of the nation as a champion of universal values and human rights. These values are linked to an idea of citizenship that is inclusive- those born on French territory are French- and assimilationist-all French belong to a uniform national culture. Society is conceived as a contract binding individuals all deemed to be equal. The individual is the primary unit which the nation and its supporting structure of the state must serve and protect. Conceptions of the nation are historically been tied to the definition and management of foreigners who work and settle in France. For this reason policy makers have used the vocabulary of immigration and the model of integration to describe foreign populations who are differentiated by their culture not skin color. As French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd put it in the debates surrounding the headscarf:“The French attitude starts from a universalist presupposition: if people have behavior similar to ours they are welcome! We are for the mixing of populations! And that is incompatible with the preservation of immigrant cultures.” The French model demands that immigrants lose the linguistic and cultural markers that differentiate them from citizens. When this happens, so the thinking goes, it eliminates the need for an official record of origin and reduces the risk that ethnic/racial identities pose-namely a politics based on race.

Rethinking Race

The riots were a watershed moment because they disrupted a longstanding consensus view of France as a race-less society. In the important volume, From the Social Question to the Racial Question, Didier and Eric Fassin argue that the existence of racial discrimination was finally officially recognized and condemned. This recognition demanded a reconceptualization of the nature of the problem and the solutions needed to address it. It was no longer simply a matter of refuting racist ideologies but of confronting the effects of racialization in French society and its institutions as a whole--a racist problem had become a racial problem (Fassin and Fassin 2009:13-24). The conflict was explicitly racialized but in different ways by politicians like Chirac who compared racial discrimination to a poison, journalists like Dominique Vidal in Le Monde Diplomatique who spoke of French apartheid, and legislators who racialized cultures at odds with French republican values, beliefs and laws noting the corrosive effect of rap, abusive patriarchy, and polygamy among African immigrant families. The emergence of polygamy as an explanation for the violence reveals the conflation in political rhetoric of a Muslim problem, a racial problem and an immigrant problem. In a curious inversion, many saw the racialization of immigrant communities in closed, isolated enclaves as the cause of the violence, not the effect of state policies and structural conditions. The riots also made visible two populations that had been invisible in racial terms. The victims of discrimination were identified as the new dangerous classes and marked as a racialized minority. The problem was their racism and rejection of French society. The invisible majority consisting of the mainstream French public was also marked and racialized as “white.” Anti-white hatred was seen as a catalyst for urban violence.

Paris Palace of Justice

I finished my research on the Paris juvenile court in July 2005 and followed the unfolding events of 2005-2006 from Harvard where I had a residential fellowship. I began the opening chapters of my book on juvenile delinquency with a description of the riots and the first day I spent at the Paris Palace of Justice. I arrived at the public entrance in time for the afternoon court sessions and soon found myself caught in the press of mostly brown and black people clutching court summonses and jostling for position to pass through the metal detector. I was scheduled to attend proceedings in the 18th south courtroom which hears the cases of minors who live in this Paris district of approximately 100,000. Residents in that area are unevenly divided between two groups: a large, poor multiethnic population dominated by African immigrants living in overcrowded apartments and makeshift public housing, and a smaller, affluent group in gentrified neighborhoods in the Montmartre area. Delinquency consists largely of public order violations, thefts, muggings, and petty extortion.

I did not know it then, but that afternoon’s proceedings were largely representative of the civil and penal cases tried in the five courtrooms where I observed judicial proceedings between 2000-2005. The cases involved parental abuse or neglect of minor children, or penal infractions of simple theft or theft aggravated by the circumstance of assault (violence) and/or in a group (en réunion). The overwhelming majority of the accused were Maghrebi, African, and Antillean males from working-class and underprivileged backgrounds, or eastern European (primarily Romanian) males and females who were unaccompanied, irregular migrants and lived in squats outside the city, then earning large sums of cash from the theft of parking meter receipts. By the time these hearings ended I had more questions than answers. How did these cases square with the reputation of the French juvenile justice system as a progressive welfare approach? What was the impact of color-blind policies in public institution like courts? What are we to make of a system that has an arsenal of antidiscrimination laws but recognizes no minority groups and permits only individuals to seek legal redress? Is there evidence that the rejection of ethnic or racial categories actually curbs the spread of prejudice or discriminatory practices? Or does the policy of recognizing and differentiating individuals by nationality alone actually serve to conceal the nature and extent of discrimination? Is the egalitarian rhetoric and inclusive logic that surrounds the “one and indivisible” Republic a myth that allows state officials to claim that because France does not recognize legal minorities it has no minority problem or ghettos segregated by race and ethnicity. How does what French demographer Patrick Simon has called “the choice of ignorance”-not recognizing difference based on race and ethnicity- operate in an institution where there is no diversity among the court personnel or the minor defendants. The vast majority of cases involve minors of immigrant and foreign ancestry from disadvantaged and working-class families and the overwhelming majority of court personnel- judiciary, the bar, bailiffs and clerks- are recruited from the middle and upper-middle class majority population.

I was drawn to the topic in the late 1990s in part because of the confusion surrounding what was identified as a newly threatening social category, what an eminent jurist and former juvenile judge termed “a delinquency of exclusion.” I wanted to see who were the “new” delinquents that experts depicted as younger, more violent, and irredeemable. I wanted to understand how their offenses justified a shift in the 1990s away from prevention and protection to accountability and punishment? Why had a rehabilitative ideal enshrined in postwar law come under such swift attack in a society where figures for violent juvenile crime most aimed at property not people--have been stable over a forty year period and remain quite low compared to other developed nations such as the US. Since crime statistics differentiate only between nationals and foreigners, there are no de jure mechanisms to assess and address equality under the law for youth of immigrant ancestry who are citizens. The only way to know who gets arrested and released, who gets prosecuted, for what offenses, and in what proportion is to get inside the courts and through ethnographic observation, to see who arrives for a hearing from jail, who will be issued a warning and returned to his parents after a hearing, or whether, and under what circumstances, the judge will revoke probation (contrôle judiciaire) and send a teenager to Fleury prison.

What did I observe?

Culture at Court

If race and ethnicity were absent from discussions at court, culture was central to the understanding of juvenile delinquency and the juvenile court’s approach to minority youth. In contrast to the US juvenile court’s concern with the moral character of offending youth, the French court is concerned with how the pattern of offending connects to the minor’s social milieu of origin and what this says about his prospects for integration within French society. Many Paris jurists and judges were familiar with a new social science literature on youth cultures and violence and they viewed a culture of poverty as an explanation for the behaviors that landed minors of immigrant ancestry in court. This worked in two ways. First, they saw disadvantaged youths as the products of a particular ecology that trapped residents in self-perpetuating cycles of economic marginalization and social dysfunction. Secondly, even the best intentioned court personnel tended to view these young people as the products of less evolved Non-Western immigrant cultures deemed to be incompatible with French national culture. Immigrant culture like biology was understood to determine the practices of those born and raised within it. For these reasons, many court personnel viewed young people of Antillan, Maghrebi and African origin less as individuals than as members of groups, remained unsure about their ability to adapt and change, and expressed skepticism regarding the utility of rehabilitation. On the one hand, court personnel emphasized the importance of social origin and familial continuity. If you don’t know where you come from you can’t know who you are. Recall the words of Villepin. Court interviews after arrest or in judge’s chambers centered on territorial roots and genealogical continuity. They took group affiliation as a given and stable residential patterns as the norm. For this reason they interpreted the behavioral problems of even the children and grandchildren of immigrants through the lens of identity conflict and social alienation. At the same time, a break with the one’s culture of origin was deemed a necessity if one is to integrate with France. Thus, the cultural differences of young people were racialized and treated in one of two ways, particularly when it involved non-Western practices and beliefs such as arranged marriages, family honor, polygamous arrangements, witchcraft belief, or head and facial coverings. Culture was stigmatized and neutralized through the standard interventions of the justice system or it was medicalized and treated through the services of university-affiliated ethnopsychiatrists (Terrio 2009:83-89; 90; 229-230;253).


The emphasis on immigrant cultures as imperious to change and on youth of immigrant ancestry as unredeemable was related to changing conceptions of childhood in French law and juvenile courts. Throughout much of the 20th century childhood was viewed as a malleable and perfectable age extending to the late teens. In the immediate post WWII period judges saw delinquency as the temporary by-product of coming-of-age, individual pathology or flawed parenting. This understanding was giving way to a more punitive trend deemed more appropriate for a new category of adolescent offender. In the words of the Paris head of Brigade de la Protection des Mineurs (Child Protection Unit): “These children are hardened, more mature. They are not like French children.” The child-adult can be held accountable and treated like an adult for his intentional choices and bad character rather than as a wayward child who can be excused and rehabilitated. This type of offender requires a different regulatory regime that includes more aggressive policing, enhanced prosecutorial power, harsher penalties, new infractions for public order violations, stiffer sentences, and more prison time.

French Justice

My research reveals that structural features of the French legal establishment and the juvenile court are particularly good at masking the nature of power relations and modes of discrimination. The French legal model bears strong traces of its heritage as an inquisitorial system and presumes an impartial magistrate who judges socially unmarked individuals. Whereas the American adversarial system clearly favors those with the resources to hire good advocates, the inquisitorial system, which relies on a career judiciary drawn from the middle and upper middle classes, can appear insulated from such structural biases. This system has always prioritized the protection of the social order over individual rights and accords enormous power to judicial police, investigating judges, prosecutors and trial judges rather than defense attorneys. The invisibility of race and ethnicity and the focus on cultural difference reveal the logic of a system that is increasingly blind to the role that social and economic structures play in producing behaviors that are classified as, at best “uncivil” or, at worst, “illegal.” Minors in juvenile court proceedings are caught in a double bind, forced to accept responsibility for offenses they insist that they have not committed (resisting arrest, rioting, disturbing the peace or insulting an officer of the law) or understand in entirely different terms (intervening to defend friends or resisting unwarranted arrests by racist cops). Refusing to accept responsibility in the juvenile court is read as further evidence of one’s status as a cultural outsider and may result in harsher punishment than acknowledgement of the offense. The rare acquittals I observed involved defendants who admitted their guilt, recognized the facts of the case as given by the state, and accepted responsibility for their actions. A respectful demeanor and meek acquiescence allowed some minority youth to separate their offenses from backward cultural differences while upholding the integrity and authority of the court. But both acknowledgement and denial could lead to punishment. Even well-intentioned, politically leftist judges ruled more leniently in cases where minors and their families met their expectations about an unmarked, middle class habitus. Left-right political cleavages are increasingly irrelevant to understanding developments within the juvenile court. Court personnel and politicians continue debates on the relative merits of punishment versus prevention but there is now more consensus on the need for more punitive models. It bears reminding that French court come from the mainstream middle and upper-middle classes and draw on dominant class-based notions of childhood and development. Origin and place in a social, cultural and spatial sense are central to these notions. Children are capable of developing normal personality structures and internalizing correct social norms if they come from the right families and locations. In a context of scarce resources and limited rehabilitative options the juvenile court is less focused on individual outcomes than on tracking and removing the pathological elements that threaten civic life and republican values.


I will end this talk as I ended my book with a discussion of the 2005 riots and the relatively harsh response of the courts. Despite the depiction of the unrest as a dangerous threat to the republic and the vilification of the perpetrators as involved in structured gangs and organized crime, the vast majority of those tried had been born in France, were enrolled in public school, and had no police records. There were no groups of criminal, Islamist instigators at work. Nonetheless the courts were harsh and judges heeded then Justice Minister Pascal Clément’s instructions to prosecutors, “not to hesitate to request firm prison sentences.”

I would not presume to suggest that American understandings of race or policies should be adopted in France. If we do agree on the need to study race and racism in the US, there is little consensus on what it means or how it should be used. As we head into the 2012 presidential campaign with Barack Obama as the incumbent, debates rage on what role race should play in the census, law, politics, and public policy. What we do know from research on the police, on housing, the workplace, and the courts in France is that color-blind policies have not lessened discriminatory practices based on race. When racism is viewed in legal and social terms as individual behavior, it is extremely difficult to prove discrimination based on race. We also know from our experience in the US that a state’s capacity to legitimize its political authority and to maintain the consent of the governed finds its limits when it engages in or tolerates discrimination. The recognition of race as a social fact in a Durkheimian sense-both as a powerful predictor of social and economic inequality and as a source of self-ascribed identity- is perhaps a place to start.


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Fassin, D. & E. Fassin, eds. 2009. De la la question sociale à la question raciale. Représenter la société française. Paris: La Découverte/Poche.

Hargreaves, A. G. 2000. Half-Measures: Antidiscrimination Policy in France. French Politics, Culture, and Society 18 (3):83–101.

Jobard, F. 2002. Bavures policières: La force publique et ses usages. Paris: La Découverte.

MacMaster, N. 1991. The “seuil de tolérance”: The Uses of a “Scientific” Racist Concept. In Race, Discourse, and Power in France, edited by M. Silverman, pp. 14–28. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.

Ossman, S & S. Terrio. 2006. The French Riots: Questioning Spaces of Surveillance and Sovereignty. International Migration 44(2):5-21.

Rudder, V. de, C. Poiret, and F. Vourc’h. 2000. L’inégalité raciste: L’universalité républicaine à l’épreuve. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Terrio, S.J. 2009. Judging Mohammed. Juvenile Delinquency, Immigration and Exclusion at the Paris Palace of Justice. Stanford: Stanford University press.

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