Black, Blanc Beur: How French Secularism Suppresses Important Conversations About Race

How can France have a meaningful discussion about race if they can't even measure discrimination?

By: Jeremy Ullmann

Maher Mezahi remembers the day that France won its first World Cup vividly.

“I actually watched the final in a suburb of Detroit with my uncle,” said the Algerian-American journalist, remembering the historic victory goal.

“I swear to God, we took the Algerian flag – because Zidane had scored those two goals – and we celebrated in the streets honking our car horns, waving the Algerian flag.”

Meanwhile in France, the entire country was spilling into the streets, shouting “Zizou for President,” an homage to Zinedine Zidane, the player who scored two goals in the final round. But for French-Algerians, it was particularly significant; Zidane, as his fans called him, was the son of Algerian immigrants, and was now the pride of France.

The French media was quick to claim his victory as one for France, nicknaming the team ‘Black Blanc Beur’ (Black, white and Arab), a play on words from the French tricolour flag, pointing out that the winning team represented a “new” France—one based on social harmony in a post-racial society where anyone from an immigrant background could follow in the steps of celebrities like Zinedine Zidane, accepted as French no matter their background.

But does this speak to the actual experiences of people of colour in France?

“The nickname was made by white journalists, and forced onto the scene” says Mezahi, pointing out that many felt that Zidane’s identity was being co-opted to stand in for France healing race relations, when it wasn’t actually the case

“Could this Algerian, this French-Algerian, be the one to help mend race relations as he is the leader, and behind him Desailly, Patrick Vieira?” he continued, explaining how Zidane and the other descendants of immigrants on the team were being made into poster children for a post-racial France.

However, the reality of race relations in France is far more complex. Following the fall of the French colonial empire, France actively recruited an immigrant labour force, predominately from former North African colonies. Despite being critical in helping to rebuild the country following the end of the second world war, many of these immigrants—and their French-born children–faced severe, and systemic discrimination, perhaps most famously chronicled in the French cult classic film La Haine, which follows its own Black, Blanc, Beur trio through a banlieue in Paris, showing the brutal police brutality that many communities of colour face.

Given these realities, it shouldn’t have been surprising when the far right stated gaining power, revealing more of the racism that simmered beneath the Black, Blanc Beur slogan. National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen infamously declared that the team was ‘artificial’ and did not reflect French society.

It was a sign of how much the French media had whitewashed the issue, and ignored the real racism that many were facing. A few years later, the same team won the European Championships—but a national poll showed that one third of respondents felt there were ‘too many players of foreign origins’ on the team. It continued two years later, when Le Pen, once a far-right fringe politician, made it into the final round of the French presidential elections. It was a sign of just how divided the country had become.  

It shouldn’t be surprising that three years later, thousands of young people of African and Arab descent took to the streets after two boys from their community died while hiding from police, despite not committing any crime. The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis defined the riots as “a sign of the hopelessness of a generation of young people stuck in dismal suburbs, marginalised and jobless because of their address, skin colour or their parents’ immigrant origins.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement forces a reckoning with structural racism around the world, France is finally forced to look behind the Black/Blanc/Beur slogan and see the racism that has been hiding in plain sight this whole time.

One way that this is evident is the term “beur” itself, which, according to Camille Lhopitault, who who works as a project coordinator for the anti-racism campaigning organisation LICRA means, “the good Arab”—one without any issues, who has perfectly assimilated into French culture.

“In France, you are seen as a French citizen, not a Catholic or a Jew” she continues, describing the core principle of France’s interpretation of secularism which forbids expressing religious identity in public spaces.

“We do not even measure or have any statistics about people’s religion and race,” she continues, pointing out that while other countries are able to measure race and religious-based discrimination, this has put France that much further behind in the conversation.

“Now some people are saying it could be useful to have these statistics, to better understand our society,” she adds, saying that the lack of information can be easily exploited by the far right, who make claims about ‘millions and millions’ of Muslims without any facts.

“At the moment, it is very difficult to have conversations about race because we rarely have any statistics to support these discussions.”

Many of the newer anti-racist movements and organisations are calling out this national culture of secularism, saying that it is used to dismiss many racial injustices.

“The media plays a political role on this subject” Lhopitault continues. “We had the same reaction right after the Charlie Hebo attacks, with people together outside, stories celebrating universalism, but after two months it was over. It just is not possible in France to have this synergy and unification about race and religion.”

Is it finally the end of the Black/Blanc/Beur mentality? Many are starting to point out that despite being liberally used to describe France over the decades, it was never particularly true to begin with.

“I would have believed that slogan if it came from the actual people that lived through the discrimination,” said Mezahi, pointing out that people from these communities are rarely asked to speak about the racism that they’ve experienced.

“But when it comes through the media and from politicians it’s like, okay, maybe for you the situation feels like there’s been reconciliation. But do the people that are living through that discrimination today feel like there’s any real consolation? I don’t think so”.