OPINION: New education minister has already given a lesson in France’s race problem

After just one week as Minister for Education, Pap Ndiaye has already provided us all with an education in French attitudes to race, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: New education minister has already given a lesson in France's race problem
France's Education and Youth Minister Pap Ndiaye (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

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.

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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.

“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?

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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. 

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‘A good thing’ for footballers to express values, says France’s PM

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne - speaking in Berlin - said that footballers should be allowed to express their values, amid controversy over FIFA's stance against the 'OneLove' armband on the pitch.

'A good thing' for footballers to express values, says France's PM

“There are rules for what happens on the field but I think it’s a good thing for players to be able to express themselves on the values that we obviously completely share, while respecting the rules of the tournament,” said Borne at a press conference in Berlin on Friday.

Germany’s players made headlines before Wednesday’s shock loss to Japan when the team lined up for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths after FIFA’s threat to sanction players wearing the rainbow-themed armband.

Seven European nations, including Germany, had previously planned for their captains to wear the armband, but backed down over FIFA’s warning.

Following Germany’s action, Wales and the Netherlands have since come out to say they would not mirror the protest.

Borne’s visit to Germany was her first since she was named to her post in May.

Following talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the two leaders signed an agreement for “mutual support” on “guaranteeing their energy supplies”.

Concrete measures outlined in the deal include France sending Germany gas supplies as Berlin seeks to make up for gaping holes in deliveries from Russia.

Germany meanwhile would help France “secure its electricity supplies over winter”, according to the document.

France had since 1981 been a net exporter of electricity to its neighbours because of its nuclear plants. But maintenance issues dogging the plants have left France at risk of power cuts in case of an extremely cold winter.

The two leaders also affirmed their countries’ commitment to backing Ukraine “to the end of” its conflict with invaders Russia.