By Morgan Carmellini
May 10, 2021
Energized by the echo of Black Lives Matter, French protests against police violence and racism reached new levels last summer. As Assa Traoré, now a national figure of the fight for racial justice, claimed resonance between George Floyd’s killing and the death of her brother in police custody, elected officials took a strong stance in reaffirming that comparing the two events was impossible. ‘France is not the United States’, declared ex-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Behind this assertion is a popular French belief that, while the American nation is prone to systemic racism due to the legacies of slavery, French acts of racism only fall under the category of individual behaviour. France, somehow protected by its Republican ideal that disregards differences in order to ensure equal treatment, would be spared from institutional forms of racism.
At the heart of this firm denial lies an even firmer resistance to the language of race. Embedded in a universalist tradition, the persistent dominant narrative at play in French politics rejects race as a valid analytical concept to read national inequalities (Mbembe 2005; Fassin 2006). In that matter, French socio-demographer Patrick Simon (2020) points out that ‘the disqualification of racial categorizations is at the heart of the French equality model based on colorblindness’. This framework does not prevent French society from being racialized (Mazouz 2017; Talpin 2021) and fragmented by long standing post-colonial issues (Bancel et al. 2005; Mbembe et al. 2010; Rigouste 2011), as exposed by the rising body of literature on racial studies in French social sciences. Rather, emerging from this ambiguous position is a form of systemic racism within which racist and discriminatory acts exist without explicit reference to race.
While the issue remains under-explored in France, certain facts point to structural racial discrimination, especially when it comes to the police. A 2017 report published by the state civil liberties guardian concluded that young Arab and Black men are 20 times more likely than White men to be stopped by police. In 2020, web media Streetpress revealed the existence of a private police Facebook group of 8,000 members where hundreds of racist messages are exchanged daily. As videos reporting police brutality against racial minorities multiply on social media, countless sources suggest this is just the emerging tip of the iceberg.
Critical studies of the police in the national landscape (Fassin 2013; Gauthier 2015; Slaouti & Jobard 2020) provide evidence that racialization, understood as the process of differentiating on the basis of race, is a key element in French police work. In his examination of police interactions, Didier Fassin described encounters with the institution in French housing projects work as “pure power relationships” (2013:87) where racial minorities learn inequality and injustice. Likewise, Fabien Jobard (2002) pointed to the necessity of looking at racial signifiers that constitute ‘police clientele’ – individuals the police believe warrant special attention and particular surveillance measures. Uncovering the mechanisms at play behind this component of French policing offers powerful insights into the architecture that sustains structural racism within French society. In a country characterized by deep racial inequalities, but where the state asserts with confidence that it treats all citizens equally, the work of the institution illustrates how the two Janus faces of the République can exist simultaneously: the police materialize the silent awareness of racial classifications (Costa Vargas 2004), while leaving the colorblind narrative unchallenged. Placing my work in the line of the previous studies that applied a racial lens of analysis to the French world of policing, I will explore this argument through some observations I draw from an ethnographic exploration conducted within a police station of Seine-Saint-Denis in June of 2020.
Police and the République:
racializing the imagined community
In my conversations with police officers, racism is reduced to the notion of prejudice and understood as a morally aberrant ideology (Cosquer 2018:106-107), which contributes to minimizing the phenomenon. As charges of racism are virulently rejected on the basis that racial inequalities would not exist in France, race apparently becomes at the same time an impossible topic and a constant – though implicit – presence in police discourses. Discriminatory paradigms are maintained without explicit reference to race, but through a pervasive mobilization and racialization of the Republican frame.
Indeed, officers seem to comprehend the French social landscape through a series of binary interrogations referring to the République: who is – and who isn’t – Republican; where is – and where isn’t – the République. Although the meaning of ‘République’ remains particularly elusive, the semantics suggest an ideal of moral rightness that remains forever out-of-reach for inhabitants of the Banlieue (Moran 2011). Police officers present themselves as the embodiment of the Republican idea, while residents from Seine-Saint-Denis are constructed in opposition to it. Police manipulation of this rhetoric is a first step in the production of racial difference within the frame of French racially-blind citizenship. It serves to qualify or disqualify individuals and create distance between police officers and the individuals they police. It is used to formulate unspoken yet implied layers of citizenship along the lines of race. Sometimes, this truth comes to light, even in the presence of outsiders like me. As an officer told me:
‘The Seine-Saint-Denis lacks Republican landmarks. How can you be French, if you don’t have Republican references? You simply can’t … Black and Arabs living here, maybe they were born in France, but their immigrant parents couldn’t teach them the references!’
The mention of race in the second sentence reveals what the first had left unsaid: incompatibility with the République and thus, being French, designates racial categories, here indivisible from their spatial quality.
The implications of this construct are multiple. For policing, it suggests police officers have a clear racial awareness of the social body. They play a significant role in giving racial meanings to the Republican narrative, along with artificially preserving and promoting its race-neutral façade. In this process of racialization, paradoxically, there is no contradiction between the universalism and the racism of the République: the latter can be used both to invalidate racial classifications and produce them. For French citizenship, it indicates a tacit symmetry between the national identity’s construct and the notion of whiteness. This is a starting point to begin reading the racial hierarchies at play in French society, and the mechanisms reproducing them. For French citizens, this rationale translates into the material existence of racial inequalities. Incompatibility with the République allows certain citizens to be redefined as punishable. This is a narrative that justifies police choices and informs the daily exercise of their discretionary power.
Police and Politics:
tacit agreements, material outcomes
Grasping the racialized and racializing component of French policing is key to framing the underpinning dialogue between police and political power. Between both exists a consensus understanding of French racial significations that explains how the previously established dynamic feeds into structural racial discrimination. Indeed, public concerns identified by elected officials take on a strategic racial meaning when pointed out to the police and translated into the practice of their work. Sociologist Didier Fassin (2010:74) hinted at a similar mechanism when he described the ‘tacit agreement’ that exists between the state and the police. In his words, ‘one that allows the former to express political choices without saying so, and the latter to hear them, without appearing to do so’.
I witnessed this mechanism as I engaged in a conversation with a police officer from the local anti-crime squad. Passing by a spot of Seine-Saint-Denis that had just been renovated, the officer told me: ‘X’, it’s really nice now … all clean, new … and with the new exhibition centre, it brought different people … . We try to keep the kids from here off this place. So it stays like that, and people like you can keep coming.” As I ask him what he means by ‘keeping them off’, he follows:
‘It’s one particular request of the Mayor. Every now and then, the Mayor calls the police chief, and he’s like “ask your guys to take a ride to X, make sure they’re not messing around”. Sometimes they come, and it’s true that they bother, they’re noisy etc. … So, it’s not like there is any particular offense … like … what’s the offense? But, we find one. […] We wear them out, so they’re fed up and they don’t come back’.
Within this scene, it becomes difficult to deny the racial undertone of the conversation, as both the Mayor and the officer refer to local youth mostly belonging to racial minority communities. From this perspective, law-enforcement becomes a strategic resource for the government and local officials. Police have the ability to deploy an arsenal of legal means to criminalize the local youth, responding to political incentives. At the same time, practices such as racial profiling end up being legitimized by the interaction between police and politics. Through this pernicious mechanism, race is silenced and the colorblind narrative is preserved.
Although in this case this process happens informally through the regular and private phone calls of the Mayor, it unfolds at many levels, trickling upwards and informing the meaning of national policies. For example, the recent creation of the Everyday Security Police by President Macron was used to deploy additional police forces within territories designated by the term ‘Republican Reconquest Neighborhoods’. This political classification points at certain Banlieues and housing projects referred to, in the French public debate, as ‘lost territories of the République’. The denomination possesses a strong and negative racial connotation in the public imagination, suggesting a process by which immigration issues got inscribed in the spatial context (Dikeç 2007). Just as the local Mayor could point at specific locations and groups without having to make vocal racial references, the government is able to indicate to the police territories that have a pervasive racial signifier, while eluding the latter – here, through the use of the Republican semantic.
The observations offered above aim at sketching a reflection on the role played by police in materializing French racial dynamics, and how the latter reveals the paradoxes sustaining the colorblind edifice of a racially fragmented country. As it invites further investigation, the ethnographic gaze here captures “mechanisms of general signification” (Fassin 2017:8) within the French setting. Far from being devoid of racial awareness, France is in reality deeply crossed by racial understandings of the social frame. Behind the Republican rhetoric lie racial meanings that materialize in the institutions and produce systemic outcomes. In this process, police are a crucial piece of the puzzle. They inscribe the racialization of national references into the social world through their powers, while, at the same time, securing the universalist façade that allows France to maintain a discursive ‘blind eye’ on racial inequalities.
Morgan Carmellini is a research intern at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (Paris). She will be a PhD Candidate in Human Geography at the London School of Economics (LSE) from September 2021, and holds a Dual Master’s Degree in Urban Policy from Sciences Po Paris and the LSE. She conducts research on police, comparative race relations, and whiteness in France and Brazil. You can follow her on Twitter @Morgancarmelli1
 Here, the term is understood in relation to critical race theories. To quote Steve Martinot (2010:11), ‘In the hierarchy of “race”, one group racializes another by thrusting them down to subordinate levels in a dehumanizing process. (…) Hence, to racialize and to humanize stand opposite each other.’
 Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest department in mainland France, and the one with the highest concentration of individuals with an immigrant background. In the last decade it has come to crystalize the political and racial concerns embedded in French society. The police have been a key institution in the regulation of this Banlieue, characterized by a long trajectory of conflictual police-citizens relationships. Here, the term Banlieue refers to a specific French reality: a historic urban process that has led to the formation of French inner cities. Although it can be translated as ‘suburb’, I keep the original word to reflect the social meanings associated with it (for more references on the matter, see for example: Balibar 2006).
 The municipality’s name has been anonymized to protect research participants’ identity.
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