France Faces a Colonial Legacy: What Makes Someone French?





Semou Diouf, holding a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood amid the noisy games of checkers and cards in the dingy ground-floor common room of a crowded tenement building and pondered the question of why he feels French. "I was born in Senegal when it was part of France," he said before putting the pipe in his mouth. "I speak French, my wife is French and I was educated in France." The problem, he added after pulling the pipe out of his mouth again, "is the French don't think I'm French." That, in a nutshell, is what lies at the heart of the unrest that has swept France in the past two weeks.

The concept of French identity remains rooted deep in the country's centuries-old culture, and a significant portion of the population has yet to accept the increasingly multiethnic makeup of the nation. Put simply, being French, for many people, remains a baguette-and-beret affair.

Though many countries aspire to ensure equality among their citizens and fall short, the case is complicated in France by a secular ideal that refuses to recognize ethnic and religious differences in the public domain. All citizens are French, end of story, the government insists, a lofty position that, nonetheless, has allowed discrimination to thrive.

France's Constitution guarantees equality to all, but that has long been interpreted to mean that ethnic or religious differences are not the purview of the state. The result is that no one looks at such differences to track growing inequalities and so discrimination is easy to hide.

"People have it in their head that surveying by race or religion is bad, it's dirty, it's something reserved for Americans and that we shouldn't do it here," said Yazid Sabeg, the only prominent Frenchman of Arab descent at the head of a publicly listed French company. "But without statistics to look at, how can we measure the problem?"



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


jp a pinzuti - 11/15/2005

in inner Paris what is the proportion of "commodity stores" run by " frenchmen of arab descent" ? the rise in the number of small businesses successfully owned by "minority" french-persons is a clear sign that the situation may not be as "simply catastrophic" as the present banlieue riots may indicate

Subscribe to our mailing list