‘Je suis Ahmed,’ Charlie Hebdo, and France’s elephant in the room: race

Race rally in Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Recent events in Paris – the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement and the hostage situation at a supermarket near Porte de Vincennes – committed by terrorists with ties to Islamic extremism, have sparked concerns about the presence of Muslims in France and their perceived incompatibility with western society.

Already there have been more than 50 reported anti-Muslim incidents since the terrorist acts, and likely more will occur as Islamophobia continues to rise in France (and throughout western Europe).

While people blame the religion of Islam for the terrorist attacks and decry how Muslims in France (estimated to be about 6 to 8 percent of the total population) are transforming their society, what is not being discussed is a subject hardly ever talked about in France – the role of race and racism.

Invisible France

French society does not officially acknowledge race and ethnicity as meaningful identity categories. The government census, for example, does not have a place to indicate race or ethnicity so research institutes, like the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, have filled in the gap through large-scale quantitative studies.

As a sociologist who has lived and conducted research in France, my findings on second-generation North African immigrants who are middle-class reveal that race does very much come into play. And even though race and ethnicity are not “officially” recognized in France, many of my subjects feel marginalized solely because of their North African origins, or because they are not white.

What color is your heart? Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Take the case of one of my respondents, Nadia, an executive manager at a social services agency who is 49 years old and of Algerian origin. She was born and raised in Paris yet feels her place in France is continually questioned by others because of her North African origins. When she was a child, she remembers people commenting that she should “return to your country,” and making other derogatory remarks. She thought there would be more acceptance as she grew older, but she thinks people notice ethnic differences more and more today. She senses that they still do not accept her as a citizen of France.

“I see it clearly every day that there are small marks or indications [of differences]. I believe it is because France has not addressed certain problems in its past, it has not always acknowledged its past,” she explained.

Similarly, Said, a 30 year old doctoral student of Algerian origin, explains that although he feels French,

“what is certain is that in the eyes of others, we are not always seen as French. The problem is that people have to see me as French. If I say yes, I am French, I am French. But I cannot get into a nightclub. I submit my CV [in order to obtain employment], I don’t receive any response. I am discriminated in [terms of] housing, and then at that moment you are in fact telling me that I am not French, all these problems mean that I am not French.”

This ethno-racial marginalization has been documented in various quantitative studies as well. In a 2012 Human Rights Watch report in France, the majority of North African-origin individuals identified police checks as a major problem: individuals of North African origin were about five times more likely than “whites” to undergo “pat-downs.”

History plays a role

It is impossible to discuss cultural differences in French society without discussing France’s colonial history in the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) and how that influences how descendants of that colonial history are treated within France.

France’s relationship with the Maghreb began with the colonization of Algeria in 1830, of Tunisia in 1831 and of Morocco in 1912. Tunisia and Morocco remained under French control until 1956. Algeria would become independent only in 1962, after a bloody war whose impact on the French psyche has been compared to that of the Vietnam War in the US. The violence of that war - and the systematic use of torture by the French military (that only was officially confirmed many decades later) - continues to cast a shadow today. Even the number of those killed remains contentious: 250,000 according to French historians and 1.5 million according to Algerians.

It was World War I that first brought immigrants from these French colonies en masse to France for work. They were expected to only be temporary residents, often settled in the outlying banlieues, or suburbs, of major cities because of the presence of cheaper housing and factory employment. More than half of the immigrants who arrived before 1974 came for employment-related reasons. Another third came to join their husbands or family. My respondents are descendants of this population.

Islamaphobia is not just about Islam

Part of why Islamophobia is such a problem, I would argue, is not the large number of “radical” Muslims in France (and throughout Europe), but rather that religion stands in for racial and ethnic difference in a society that refuses to grapple head on with these differences.

My interviewees who do not identify as practicing Muslims nonetheless feel different from other French citizens because they are not white. (In fact, what research shows is that many French Muslims value being French as much as they value being Muslim.)

I argue that it is easier to mark difference based on religion because religion is something one chooses, as in choosing to be Muslim. But it is harder to confront individuals who are seen as different simply because of their ethnic origin – in other words, individuals who are French and not “white.”

The current situation in France is not about minorities failing to integrate themselves; rather, they are not accepted as French by their fellow citizens. A case in point perhaps being French soccer officials’ attempt in 2011 to have informal quotas for non-white youth players.

French President and family of slain officer, Ahmed Merabet. Francois Mori/Pool/Reuters

‘Je suis Ahmed’

While not overlooking race and ethnicity, we must at the same time remember that Islamophobia is a form of racism – one that sees certain individuals as too culturally different to ever be fully accepted as part of the mainstream.

This point is clear when we consider Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim and Algerian-origin police officer who was one of the victims of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. He was someone who is just as French as the other victims; he was a Muslim and who fought to defend the French motto of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, yet is rarely mentioned in the news reports of the events.

The international slogan, “Je suis Charlie,” has been more popular than the slogan, “Je suis Ahmed,” especially in affirming a sense of community within France. When we consider the lack of attention given to the plight of France’s racial and ethnic minorities, it’s not hard to understand why.