Xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment have been on the rise in Europe, and France is no stranger to this trend.
Racism in public discourse has become especially conspicuous in recent years. In the political arena, politicians are no strangers to dealing with xenophobia. This turmoil can be attributed in part to the influx of immigrants from post-colonial Africa. The floundering economy has prompted nationalists to protest that the immigrants are taking away opportunities from domestic candidates. Not surprisingly, the wave of political refugees from northern Africa, as a result of the Arab Spring, only exacerbated these concerns.
Earlier this month, Nadia Portheault, an ex-candidate of the far-right Front national party (FN) municipal elections in Saint-Alban, a suburb of Toulouse, became the subject of national news when she denounced the racism of the party. Portheault, who is of Algerian descent and bears Djelida as a maiden name, claimed to have been the victim of racial slurs during her time with the Front national.
“[There was] a permanent ambiguity between the show window and a back shop that specialized in dubious jokes about Arabs and homosexuals, which was no longer bearable,” said Portheault.
Notable in Portheault’s accusations was a threat from a FN departmental representative saying that Portheault and her children “are good for the crematorium oven.”
While the Front national has denounced Portheault’s claims, her story highlights a predicament that is by no means rare in French politics. In October, a candidate for the FN compared Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey, juxtaposing her photo with that of a chimpanzee on Facebook.
In 2005, Jean-Marie Le Pen caused a nationwide scandal when he made comments denying the Holocaust with fellow party member Bruno Gollnisch. “As for the existence of gas chambers, it is up to the historians to determine,” said Gollnisch.
Le Pen, on the other hand, asserted that the German occupation of France during World War II was “not particularly inhumane.” While both were accused, and Jean-Marie Le Pen was forced to pay a fine for his comments, Gollnisch was found not guilty by the courts. Today, the party continues to operate on a staunch policy of anti-immigration—particularly Muslim immigration from North Africa and the Middle East, economic protectionism, euroscepticism (criticism of the European Union), and zero tolerance on law and order, including the death penalty.
What is shocking is the support the FN has garnered nationwide in recent years. In the 2012 presidential elections, Marine Le Pen came in third in the first round with 17.9% of the vote, the highest ever percentage for the party. Additionally, polls conducted in April and May 2013 about presidential favorites showed Le Pen’s growing popularity—the FN leader came in second, ahead of current president and leader of the Parti socialiste (PS), Francois Hollande.
While other politicians have condemned recent xenophobic events, no effort has been taken to resolve the underlying issues of prejudice. The discourse of race—or rather, the lack of it—no doubt plays a crucial factor in this development. The French are rooted in the principle of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité—lyrical vestiges of the French Revolution that have become synonymous with the country’s ideals. But the word egalité, in this case, carries a distinct connotation. It renders France officially color-blind. Herein lies a crucial cultural difference between France and the United States.
In France, the government is not permitted to consider whether citizens belong to a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group. The concept of race is essentially ignored when dealing with the bureaucracy. The French are trained from a young age to ignore the implications of the word “race,” and acknowledging racial differences is a foreign concept.
The consequences of this attempt at a post-racial society, however, are far from ideal. The refusal to acknowledge race has, in some ways, highlighted the very differences the republic sought to erase and catapulted them to the forefront of society. Tension in the French community, especially concerning anti-Muslim sentiment, is stronger than ever. The uproar over former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ban on face covering is clear evidence of that.
So what is next for France? The conundrum presented is amorphous at best—and a bit of a contradiction. France is gifted with an undeniably rich history, in which diversity has a strong foothold. French soccer player Zinedine Zidane boasts enormous popularity with the French public, and political figures and entertainers of Arab descent and other diverse backgrounds have impressive followings of their own. Whether the people like it or not, diversity is thriving and woven deeply into French history. Its reconciliation with the country’s nationalism is the next crucial step.