The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion France’s dangerous move to remove ‘race’ from its constitution

A man waves a French flag during a gathering in Lyon, France, on Nov. 16, 2015, to pay tribute to victims of terrorist attacks in Paris three days earlier. (Reuters/Robert Pratta)

Rokhaya Diallo is a writer, journalist, filmmaker and TV host for BET France. 

In France, race doesn’t exist.

French people are raised to believe that there is only one race: The human race. Race is understood as biological, so mentioning it is to assert that there are hierarchies between human beings.

That is why the word “race” in the French constitution has been subject to debate for more than a decade. Its first article states: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.” During his 2012 presidential campaign, François Hollande promised to remove the word race from the constitution. From his point of view, race does not exist and, therefore, should not be mentioned in any official text.

A few days ago, a commission of lawmakers working on the revision of the constitution unanimously agreed to remove the word from the founding text of our republic. On Thursday, the alteration was unanimously adopted by the National Assembly. Former prime minister Manuel Valls, now a National Assembly deputy affiliated with President Emmanuel Macron’s party, promptly said he was “proud to vote with emotion for the removal of the word race from our Constitution.”

If this debate had occurred 20 years ago, I probably would have supported such a change. As a young French woman, the word race horrified me.  I had good reasons for rejecting the word. To me, the only reference of a regime that would categorize its population by race was Nazi Germany and the translation of its racist measures into French laws during the collaboration. Given that history, erasing any mention of race in the public sphere appeared to be a reasonable solution to prevent racism.

But then I started to engage in anti-racism work in France. Through my study of social science, I came to understand race as not just a biological difference but as a social construct producing social effects. Of course, blacks, Arabs, whites, Asians, Roma — we all belong to the human race. But history has created racial categories that still have an impact on the lives of those who descend from people who were enslaved and colonized. Being black today means inheriting the imagery of blacks that was invented centuries ago. That former status doesn’t have any legal ground now, but its consequences still operate every day.

France sees itself as the promoter of the universal and colorblind philosophy that was supposed to protect us from racial tensions.

But the reality of the country of enlightenment is different from the claimed ideal. France has the largest population of Muslims, blacks and Jews in Europe. However, we don’t have ethnic statistics in the national census, but the law allows researchers and statisticians to collect such data for the purpose of studies as long as the subjects remain anonymous.

According to a study by the Defender of the Rights organization, young French blacks and Arabs are 20 times more likely to have their identities checked by police than the other groups of the population.

France is marked by significant territorial disparities. French overseas citizens, most of whom are nonwhite, are hard hit. For instance, in Guadeloupe, a French island in the Caribbean where most of the population is black, 57 percent of young males are unemployed. In some areas, where descendants of immigrants live, unemployment can be as high as 50 percent. Among young people from impoverished “banlieues,” or suburbs, where a large part of the population is nonwhite, the unemployment rate is 2½ times greater than the national average, according to France’s national agency on equality. From estimates, 60 percent of inmates in France are Muslim despite the fact that Muslims make up about 10 percent of the population.

Racism is not addressed in a structural way in France. And that is because race is not addressed as something tangible. How can a country seriously fight racism, if race is not handled even as a fictional category? If race does not exist, racists do, and they act based on the belief of the existence of categories. So getting rid of the word will not work as a magic trick that would suddenly make racism disappear.

Making the word race taboo will not change anything in the lives of people who are affected by racism. It will deprive scholars and activists of a powerful tool to study the implications of racism. And it may lead to the criminalization of those who dare use that word; attempting to classify someone by race can be grounds for a lawsuit. Denying the existence of race means denying the reality of racial discrimination.

The constitutional framework has a deep impact on the policies that are defined by the government. And there is nothing more dangerous than a country that refuses to see its most obvious issues. France is not a fantasyland away from the rest of the world. Race exists, and it affects our lives every day.