As the catalyst for a soul-searching debate on the state of French racism, a newly released video shot in the western city of Angers is starkly effective. It shows middle-class children surrounded by proud parents as they bait the country’s black justice minister with banana skins and obscenity-laced chants about monkeys. The crowd is ostensibly protesting against Christiane Taubira’s part in steering the same-sex marriage bill through parliament, but the personal hatred clearly runs far deeper.
“Racist France is back,” is how Harry Roselmack, the country’s first mainstream black newsreader, put it in Le Monde as he surveyed a range of evidence, including the film clip. What is particularly disturbing is the way watching police officers appear wholly unconcerned by the taunting, making no attempt to caution, let alone arrest, anyone. It was only because someone captured the incident on a smartphone and posted it on the web that people are talking about it at all. To the on-the-ground forces of law and order, it seems, the behaviour of active racists is chillingly acceptable.
I’m from a French-Algerian background and grew up on a Paris housing estate, so I know there is nothing casual about such prejudice either. For those with obvious foreign antecedents, it permeates every sphere of life, from employment and housing to education and social policy. I now spend much of my time in London, and frequently contrast its generally tolerant atmosphere with the air of France’s “deep-seated racism that withstands time”, as Roselmack put it in Le Monde.
As early as 1973 – the year Roselmack was born – Trevor McDonald became Britain’s first black newsreader. This was a time when thugs were still waving fruit at coloured players in decaying English football grounds, as well as going out to “bash” Asians and other minorities in concrete underpasses. But for the UK, at least, times have changed. The creation of institutions such as the Commission for Racial Equality certainly helped disperse the brutal climate of the 70s.
Yet in France the language and behaviour of street bigots has levitated up the social scale, not only into seemingly respectable provincial families but even into the very heart of François Hollande’s nominally leftwing government. The Socialist interior minister, Manuel Valls, insists that Roma from Romania and Bulgaria should be deported because they “cannot integrate”. Such views were regularly expressed by former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, who popularised slogans such as “France, love it or leave it” and organised hugely divisive “national identity” debates.
Xenophobic demagoguery is also the dynamic of the Front National (FN), the far-right party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted racist and antisemite who, despite his criminal antecedents, was runner-up in the 2002 presidential election. Three weeks ago an electoral candidate for the FN, which is now run by Le Pen’s daughter Marine, said that she would rather see Taubira “swinging from a tree than in government”. Yet polls still predict that the vociferously anti-immigration party will win 24% of the vote in next May’s European elections.
One of the aspects of French life I still find extraordinary is how marches and rallies by the FN pass off without counter-demonstrations. The tradition of protest in Britain is not what it was, but you always get a sense of outrage when groups such as the English Defence League present themselves to the public. I attended an address by the leader of the British National party at the Oxford Union and the building was surrounded by opponents. Nobody would condone fighting or anti-democratic behaviour, but in France you barely get much more than a shrug of the shoulders – even when the tricolour is being used to try to incite hatred.
The FN’s revival has been attributed in part to the economic mismanagement of Hollande’s government, and more generally to the perceived corruption of the Paris political establishment. Former Sarkozy lieutenants and the ex-Socialist budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac are among those currently involved in court proceedings.
Recession and an increasing distrust of elected representatives certainly breed extremism, but a tradition of vindictive nationalism going back to colonial times also prevails. It is still routinely exploited by those in power, while they occasionally try to redress the balance through token gestures. Roselmack, for example, was appointed to broadcaster TF1 on the advice of former president Jacques Chirac, who wanted more diversity in the media following the 2005 riots on housing estates mainly populated by families with African and Arab backgrounds. In fact, non-white skin or a foreign surname continue to be major impediments to progress within France. This is why up to 45% of those under the age of 25 from the district of greater Paris I come from are unemployed. Many contemplate using false names and addresses on job applications, even for the most menial positions. Any trying to break into a profession, or wanting to go into business, are increasingly tempted to move abroad.
Reforms are urgently needed, and they should certainly centre on equality: moving ethnic minority communities into cities rather than leaving them to rot in suburban housing; combating social problems with investment and training rather than armed police; and taking action against hateful language, especially when used by politicians. It is also crucial that anti-discrimination laws should be toughened and enforced instead of being ignored.
The media has a lot of work to do, too. Broadcasters such as Roselmack are still in a tiny minority, with white journalists and commentators dominating TV screens, and indeed radio and print journalism. What is particularly scandalous is the way racism like the kind recorded in Angers is so underplayed. If a British cabinet minister was subjected to such treatment, it would be front-page news. In contrast, a relaxed acceptance of explicit, banana-waving prejudice sustains a legacy of insidious Gallic racism that shows no sign of ending.