France is not necessarily more racist than other countries. By my observation, it is less racist than the United States but more subtly racist than Britain.
The appointment as Education Minister of an eminent black historian – and, worse, a historian of “blackness” – has exposed the crude, ethnic prejudices of the French Far Right and parts of the French Right.
It has also pointed to the gyrations, and hypocrisies, of believers in France’s official-unofficial state religion: the faith in a single, “secular, indivisible” Republic in which all citizens are “equal before the law”.
Since 2018 the French constitution has denied the existence of race. The word was excised from the first article of the constitution of the Fifth Republic on the grounds that we are all human beings and the idea of “race” is itself racist.
For this same well-intentioned reason, it has been illegal to gather race-based statistics in France since 1978.
Do you want to know how well black children fare in the state school system? Or how well off on average are black people in France? Whether they are more likely than white people to be unemployed? Or sent to jail?
You are forbidden from knowing any of those things. If you collect and publish such statistics (with some exceptions) you can be jailed for five years and/or fined up to €300,000.
Pap Ndiaye, the new education minister, thinks that that rule is wrong. It conceals social realities, he says; it also feeds the fantasies of racists.
Equally, he opposed the removal of the word “race” from the French constitution. Race may not exist scientifically, he says, but racial prejudice or racial awareness does. So long as that is true, black and brown people need to be constitutionally protected.
Ndiaye also believes that, in certain circumstances, positive discrimination in favour of racial minorities is justified.
He helped to write a report on the Paris Opera, which suggested that the almost total absence of non-white faces – and bodies and voices – from the big French opera and ballet companies could only be remedied by direct action.
Since his unexpected appointment as education minister last Friday, Ndiaye’s opinions have been used, and misused, by the Right and Far Right to paint him as a “racialist” or a “communitarian” or an “indigenist”.
To give just one example, here is a tweet from Philippe de Villers, supposedly the face of the more respectable end of the Catholic ultra-right but now a fellow-traveller of the xenophobic Eric Zemmour.
La nomination de Pap #Ndiaye à l’Education nationale est un tournant historique : le racialisme est au pouvoir. Emmanuel #Macron est passé à la phase suivante : il a pactisé avec l’ennemi de l’intérieur qui veut nous décoloniser et nous coloniser.
— Philippe de Villiers (@PhdeVilliers) May 24, 2022
“The nomination of Pap Ndiaye to Education is a historic turning-point. Racialism has taken power. Emmanuel Macron has moved to the next stage: he has surrendered to the enemy within which wants to de-colonise us and colonise us.”
This is absurd but not surprising. The French Right – not just the Far Right – always has trouble accepting intelligent, strong-minded, black people in government. Christiane Taubira, when she was justice minister from 2012-7, had bananas thrown at her, not by Lepennists but by young Catholic opponents of gay marriage.
However, Ndiaye’s appointment has also provoked disquiet on the ultra-Republican, ultra-secular Left. Jean-Pierre Chévènement, the former Socialist interior minister, says that the education minister’s published views are incompatible with his new job. The state education system is, Chévènement says, is supposed to promote the ideal of France as an “indivisible” Republic.
That’s fine as far as it goes. The secular and indivisible state is important to French national identity. It is often misrepresented abroad (especially in Islamic countries and in the liberal part of the US media).
The French secular state is a guarantee of equality and freedom of worship. It’s also a guarantee of the freedom to be different, so long as you don’t deny that freedom to others.
I believe Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to check the advance of radical, separatist forms of Islam, although sometimes clumsy, are justified. Whether they should include clamping down on the “burkini”, I’m not sure.
Should the Islamic bathing “onesy” be considered a threat to women’s rights or an assertion of the right of some women to dress, or undress, differently?
And yet Pap Ndiaye is also right. France’s well-intentioned secular state religion does sometimes help to hide the kind of discrimination that it is supposed to abhor.
There is an institutionalised hypocrisy in banning racial statistics because all French people are equal, when they plainly aren’t. There is also an institutionalised hypocrisy in denying that there is institutional racism in the French police.
President Emmanuel Macron may well have chosen Pap Ndiaye for electoral-tactical reasons. He may hope to blunt accusations on the Left that he is “racist” and that he cares little for the struggles of the multi-racial, inner suburbs.
He may have thought that it was time to step away from the radical secularism of his former education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, and his interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.
It is a courageous and exciting appointment all the same. Education, especially in the multi-racial “banlieues” and rural, white France, is one of the biggest challenges facing this government and future governments.
French people of all races should wish Ndiaye well. He made a good start by visiting the college in the western Paris suburbs where the history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an Islamist terrorist in October 2020.
During his visit to Conflans-Saint-Honorine, the new education minister promised to uphold the “universal” values and the promise of opportunity-for-all offered by the “indivisible” French Republic.
He didn’t say so during his visit, but Ndiaye’s previous writings suggest that “universal” and even “indivisible” can, and should, encompass difference and recognise discrimination.