More than six months have passed since last fall's violent urban riots, and France finds itself engaged in another parliamentary debate on the integration of immigrants. The right wing, which advocates a “chosen immigration,” and the left, which anticipates a “disposable immigration,” share a firm belief in French Républicanisme, a social contract that owes much to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's fantasy of an irresistible general will overcoming particular interest.
Républicanisme, the French ideological equivalent of the American dream, proposes that a universal citizen, abstracted from social and economic conditions (whether residential, religious, ethnic, or racial), engages in a direct relationship with the state. It reciprocates by downplaying the role of such identities in the political process. In so doing, the state rejects what it perceives as political balkanization and identity politics as incompatible with the realization of the common good. The main flaw of this near-sacrosanct ideal of Républicanisme is that it inhibits the use of anti-discrimination laws. Even while studies repeatedly reveal widespread discrimination in France, few people are motivated to seek legal redress. The first report of the new anti-discrimination authority shows that only 1,800 claims were filed in 2005, and that only 600 have been followed by action.
The frustration and resentment expressed by French minorities is largely caused by the contradiction between a fantasized equality and real-life discrimination. Yet, there is nothing inevitable in this sorry state of affairs.
Over the last few months, developments have opened new perspectives. Last November, the first federation of “Blacks of France” was created, bringing together blacks who are French citizens by birth, because they were born in French overseas departments such as Martinique and Guadeloupe; black youth of the second generation, often from Sub-Saharan Africa, who become citizens when they turn 18; and other blacks, who have a range of backgrounds.
Another positive development was the appointment in March of the first black prime-time anchor on the most widely watched television channel. Only a few weeks ago, the cover of an influential newsmagazine read “Us, Blacks of France” and featured Keyza Nubret, a French black woman manager.
Not surprisingly, this colorful France (estimates vary between 2.5 million and 5 million for the number of blacks in France) is made visible outside of the realm of the Republican state. May 10, the commemoration day of the abolition of slavery, was marked by tensions between the austere gravitas of the Republic and the wish of most black associations for more lively ceremonies.
Still these events signal the official entry into the French public sphere of an interest group whose “groupness” is based on shared ascribed characteristics—a minor earthquake in the French political landscape.
Sadly, since this welcomed wind of change has started to blow, the academic world has remained intriguingly silent. With the exception of a few courageous souls, what still marks so many members of the French intellectual class is their overall commitment to the ideology of Républicanisme and its ideal of assimilation. While Paul Gilroy's “There Ain't no Black in the Union Jack” had a palpable effect on debates about what Englishness means, France has yet to produce an intellectual of comparable influence. Only by coming to terms with their own cultural imperialism will French intellectuals contribute to the challenges of better incorporating the members of minority groups into the French polity. Only then will they live up to the powerful (Sartrian) tradition of the engaged intellectual.
The slowly emerging reality of a colorful France does not mean that the principles of French citizenship are to be thrown overboard and that ethnic quotas have to be instituted everywhere from prime time to public service. Rather, it means that representation matters, and that France cannot prosper if it continues to deceive its immigrants by promising equality while delivering segregation.
Michèle Lamont is professor of sociology and African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. She is also a faculty associate of the Weatherhead Center. Éloi Laurent is an economist at l'Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques in Paris and a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.