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Racism in a Country Without Race

'In France, it is possible to be supremely racist, all the while affirming, hand on heart, that race does not exist.' Hassina Mechaï on the sleight of hand that obscures the structures of French racism, evident in the language and tactics of the police. 

Hassina Mechaï22 July 2020

Racism in a Country Without Race

This article is part of the Global Perspectives on Policing series on the Verso Blog. You can find other articles from the series here

In front of the Porte de Clichy courthouse, the young, diverse crowd forms a human sea, nourished regularly by waves of new arrivals. Teargas surrounds the group, making it surge and swell rebelliously. Meanwhile, placards poke out from above heads. These banners are hastily and clumsily painted with moving designs, brandished by young people, many of whom say that this is their first protest. Beyond the unifying phrase #BlackLivesMatter, other words are visible: ‘I can’t breathe’, ‘In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist’. But also, ‘Justice pour Adama’, ‘Je ne peux plus respirer’, ‘Pas de justice, pas de paix’. The slogans blend French and English together.

Activist mimicry plays its part in a global performance; equally, there are singular claims for each movement. Close your eyes and open them again and we could just as easily be in Minneapolis as in Clichy. But the French police uniform, a striking wave of blue, reminds us that we are in Paris. In fact, we are at the border between two worlds: Paris and her suburbs. The crowd bridges this divide. The fate of the American George Floyd is paralleled in that of the French man Adama Traoré. One case echoes the other, they respond to one another. It’s as if the protesters were diving headfirst into the matrix of American struggles, borrowing their demands to energise their own battle.

The symbolic loan [of the American case by French protesters] could be used to imply that any denunciation of French racist crimes was a mask for the importation of an all-American race war. Was this procession, which nevertheless brought between 20, 000 and 40, 000 people together (80, 000 to 100, 000 according to the Comité Adama) reduced to decorative urban-riot confetti by the media’s mechanical shredders? Why is it that what is seen as an issue of politics and citizenship in the United States is treated as a quick news story in France? When will we stop infantilising the aspirations of working-class neighbourhoods to equality?

France, a social body without race?

It’s a truism that France is not the USA. But, it is also true that France is no exception to the racist inflammation whose fever presently boils over. We will have to examine this fever which irrupts and erupts over the body of a French society which is defined, a priori, as being without race.

In France, it is possible to be supremely racist, all the while affirming, hand on heart, that race does not exist. Race does not exist and yet, racism possesses weight, it injures and it kills. How so? What mystery and sleight-of-hand allows for both these statements which, in theory, seem impossible to combine? How can one suffer racism if the category of race, a mental and social categorisation which creates a division in the hierarchy of humanity, has not been attached to you, despite yourself? For these reasons, racism gets a bad press in France. It is erased from fundamental texts, condemned to the museum of history’s horrors.

Let’s break what is ‘unthought’ down into pieces and words that make sense. To words that capture the ‘unthinkable’ too. What is a ‘people’? If we stick to etymology, we arrive at the Latin idea of the populus. It’s simple – too simple. In Greek, the terminology is more complex, better able to discharge the notion of ‘belonging’ contained in the Latin. Firstly, we have the demos, the political unit of people; then the genos, those of common origin by birth. Finally, we have the ethnos: a people who have culture and customs in common. Otherwise known as the three ways of belonging to a social body: citizenship, nationality, identity. In France, everything is unified under the universal principle of citizenship. But here, in the French case, there is a hypothesis that needs unpicking: a slip has been made in order to encode in the ethnos all of the unequal theories and fantasies which were attached to the genos, a group claiming shared descent. In other words, up until the Second World War, inequality between the races ‘proved’ itself through anthropological approximations, obsessive taxonomies and measurements of human bodies that were judged to be inferior. As a result, this very same supposed inequality was fed by equally dubious theories about customs, morals, the so-called superiority and inferiority of different human cultures. The racialized man belonged to a social body, which itself was made to bear the stigmata of his natural, and naturalized, inferiority. From biological to cultural determination, race persisted.

You can guess the dead end this led to: race does not exist but those who suffer it are accused of creating it as they denounce it. That is, through naming it. Race is not grasped as a cause, but rather as a consequence. Race is not understood in its ethological dimension (as behaviours, actions) but rather in its teleological dimension (as a final destination). In this sense, denial returns as a form of perpetuation. An unbearable inversion is created, through which the victim becomes culpable and responsible for the racism they suffer. And an untenable silence is imposed on reality.

Downgrading, replacement and ‘OAS Syndrome’

In racist online exchanges between police officers in Rouen, published by Médiapart and ArteRadio, two points merit our attention. First, the racist language in the messages is not the simple sort, as heard in pubs and bars, lacking structure or ideology. Rather, the language used evidences a troubling theorisation of racism, one integrated within an ideological framework. In the messages, the police talk about intersectionality, the regeneration of the white race, and a deliberate strategy of racial war waged under the guise of a civil war. The war would rage, according to these police officers, until weapons were used to forcibly stop it. This is not the unreflective racism of the squaddie, but a political world view aiming at power.

Another remarkable point is the officers’ obsession with black and Arab men, who are often perceived by racists as sexual rivals for the attention of white women. The conversations could well have been those of Incels: those young single men who are so affectively and sexually frustrated. The black or Arab man appears not just as a rapist, but also as a predator who comes to seduce and filch the white woman away from her group of origin. The colonial imagination makes sense of this foundational divide.

In the phrases of the police officers, without them even having to make the link themselves, traces of a colonial genealogy clearly resurface. In French Algeria, the Arab man was also perceived as a predator and sexual rival. A rival in relation to the indigenous woman, who personified the land which had been conquered and offered to every colonist, as well as the potential predator of white women.

For these police officers, the ‘great replacement’, theorised by Renaud Camus and made the flavour of the day by so many fanatics, is already a reality. A future in the making, onto which they peg their daily life as harassed officials.

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”, wrote James Baldwin. This holds true for these officers, who are trapped alive. In them, history repeats itself in unconscious stammers. If the Americans are trapped in a history that is genocidal and pro-slavery, then it is equally true that French memory has been profoundly marked by colonialism and loss of empire. The manner in which a war is fought is imposed by the strongest. The US built itself on the basis of a genocidal colonialism of First Nations peoples. It then developed according to a model of domination based on slavery, which stratified society through colourism, or the codification of melanin. The result: American society is crippled by the fear of a massacre. Every instance of community or racial tension creates fear. Only one group can survive. The demonstrations after the death of George Floyd were accompanied by an equal flourishing of self-armed militias.

France built her Empire according to a model of colonialism in which extermination was only one way that French domination was established. French colonial extermination, equally ferocious, equally prevalent as its American counterpart, did not aim at total genocide as it was necessary to preserve a good number of indigenous people to exploit as a labour force. Only one group can dominate. This paradigm crystalised itself in Algeria, conquered in blood, defeated in blood, dominated in blood and sweat. Up until independence, which for the French in Algeria ended in a harrowing exodus and a replacement at the helm of the country by indigenous leaders. Is this why certain members of French society seem paralysed by the hypothesis of another ‘great replacement’? A replacement by descendants of those Algerians, who through their parents’ immigration became French, when the same status was denied to their grandparents? It is an ‘OAS syndrome’ [1] which springs from the fears of TV pundits and preachers, who never cease to dwell on the loss of Algeria. Why do they persist in hearing, behind the demands for equality and the denunciation of racism, threats of their overthrow? What is heard and understood is sometimes just as significant as what is actually said.

[1] The OAS (Organisation d’armée secrète) was a right-wing paramilitary group, active during the last years of the Algerian War of Independence of 1954 - 1962. It carried out terrorist attacks in both countries in the name of maintaining Algeria as a French colony.

Hassina Mechaï is a journalist based in France.

Translated by Caitlín Doherty.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on the websites Ekho and Contretemps.