In an attempt to unite the French people, France has branded itself a ‘colour-blind’ nation when it comes to race; stating that human nature is not influenced by culture. Whilst this intends to serve the principles of equality, the question at hand asks whether it achieves that result?

France’s recent steps to make the country safer appear to undermine this agenda.


France’s initial success

France’s intention to combat racism seems to have turned from action for change to the need for silence. But how did France end up countering racism with incompatible solutions?

Following the aftermath of WWII, France was viewed as a safe haven for Jews. The country provided a place of refuge. Whilst millions of Jewish lives were taken by concentration camps, around 330,000 escaped to shelter, making France the country with the highest survival rate in Europe for the Jewish population. Post-war France also experienced a surge of new cultures, which included individuals coming from African nations. This triggered new discussions about race. 

As the years passed, France developed policy solutions to handle racism within its diverse communities. One such piece of legislation was the 1978 law that banned the collection and computerised storage of race-based data. This aimed to show the country’s willingness to not view race as a key factor in its decision making. In the eyes of the world, France was seen as revolutionary compared to America — which only established Affirmative Action in the 1980s. 

France’s outlook towards race was therefore initially viewed as refreshing, mainly due to the foundations of its  1958 Constitution. This emphasized: ‘equality for all regardless of origin, race or religion’. The country stayed on this path towards equality for some time. The 1981 ‘Zone of priority’ provided educational resources to disadvantaged areas, along with the 2003 ‘Lellouche Act’ that authorised tougher penalties for racism, antisemitism and xenophobia.

With all these anti-racist measures, France was certainly on the right track to abolish racism within its borders.

So why didn’t this happen?

The decline of France’s colour blindness

Whilst France began with a passion to support its colour-blind agenda, subsequent policy solutions did not age well. The world grew, opinions changed, and the internet became the centre of race-related discussions. As past solutions proved inflexible and inefficient, their temporary value deteriorated with the onset of the 21st century.

The 1978 ban on ethnic data collection gradually did more harm than good. The lack of education about the diverse culture of France’s population meant that it did not know its own people. Eventually, the opportunity to be aware of racism was restricted and stifled.

In actuality, France has been experiencing brutal racism for years. In 2002, crime statistics identified race as the main factor of crime. This showed that 62 per cent of all crimes were of an anti-Semitic nature, with the number rising to 74 per cent by 2003.

Social media provides visibility

Racially motivated crime began to be more visible as connectivity and reach grew.

The 2016 death of a Malian-French man, Adama Torre, at the hands of a French police officer sparked fury. Crowds in France gathered, questioning how a country with legislation that aimed to penalise racially motivated crime could ignore a death at the hands of those sworn to protect its people without prejudice.

As anger grew, voices began to be raised at the country’s silenced racism. The most potent example of this is perhaps France’s muted Islamophobia. In the 20th century, France gained respect for its handling of racially driven issues. But as the incidents grew in visibility, so it became clear that priorities had changed. 2011 was a defining year for Muslims. The French Prime Minister, Francois Fillion, made France the first European country to ban full-face veils in public. There it was. A country that once stood by its constitution, was now directly bypassing its stipulation on freedom of religion.

This negative treatment of Muslims continues today. As of 2021, France is set to introduce a bill to ban the hijab. If passed, the country’s former triumphs will be significantly undermined. It also questions the sincerity of the current government to continue the fight against racism.

The day France shifted from making solutions to creating obstacles to silence its people, is the day its endeavour to strive for equality died.

In theory, the concept of being colour blind sounds excellent. But in practice, it strips people of their race and the identity it gives them. The ‘colour-blind’ mentality is outdated, encouraging naivety about the presence of colour and race in the world.

Rather than turn a blind eye to colour, it should be embraced. Whether we want to admit it or not, race exists and has a place and purpose. We should respect this.