Identity Politics In France: A Reading List

The stereotypical caricature of France is one of haute cuisine, fashion, romance, and beauty. It’s steeped in tradition. Desirable. Iconic. A convenient image that stands up to the certain je ne sais quoi that has people around the world positively swooning for La Ville Lumière.

These four articles cut through this oversimplified archetype of French culture and shed light on the very real issues affecting the Francophone world today — from identity politics to immigration, race to secularism. Because there’s far more to talk about than Emily In Paris and the mythologized, stick-thin, lipstick-wearing, baguette-eating Parisian woman (*gasp*).

Be the kind of Francophile who, yes, can appreciate French perfume and fashion and gastronomy (as you should), but who also has a more nuanced understanding of this storied country. An understanding that peeks behind the veil.

Yasser Louati, Medium, October 2019

Yasser Louati’s essay is a comprehensive look at how structural racism developed in France, a country with the largest Muslim minority population in Europe. With a focus on the manufactured “Muslim problem” that has been making headlines and raising questions around the world for decades, Louati sheds light on “how hostile ideas materialized in the willingness to reinterpret constitutional principles such as the separation of church and state, or access to citizenship in order to legalize discriminatory policies leading to a de facto second citizenry for French Muslims.” From the inception of legally-enshrined secularism (or laïcité, which is defended by some as a way to keep all religion out of public life and criticized by others as a way to target observant Muslims) to the 2004 law prohibiting religious symbols in France’s public school systems (Islamic headscarves, Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and Sikh turbans included), this essay is the perfect primer on identity politics in France.

Mira Kamdar, The Atlantic, November 2020

In response to the beheading of a middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, on October 16 (committed by a man enraged by Paty showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo), French president Macron vowed to uphold the core values of the French Republic by continuing to staunchly defend freedom of expression. But the laws in question, writes Mira Kamdar, threaten to render France into a far less free country than it is now. The first, which targets on-campus student protests at French universities, includes a provision criminalizing gatherings that “trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment” with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. The second — a global security bill — includes provisions that criminalize the publication or sharing via social media of police images unless all identifying features are blurred. No live streaming or investigative reporting and, thus, no accountability. The third entails assigning all French children a tracking number, the goal of which is to enforce compulsory attendance in public or government-recognized schools, effectively wiping out homeschooling and unaccredited religious schools, which Macron fears undermine the values of the French Republic. “The liberty that Macron so vigorously defends,” writes Kamdar, “and for which France has sacrificed so much, is being legislated away, bequeathing to a future, more authoritarian leader a powerful set of anti-democratic tools.”

Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, July 2020

In keeping with the tenet of universalism — which was born of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, and holds that each human being enjoys the fundamental rights of equality and liberty — it remains illegal in France to collect demographic data on race. This colorblind ideal, however, falls short in reality, writes Norimitsu Onishi, who argues that it’s “run its course.” French society has become more diverse and discrimination more entrenched, all of which is amplified by the new ways of thinking about race in the public discourse following the killing of George Floyd. Black French, writes Onishi, have challenged universalism by a “racial awakening” bolstered by the pop culture of the United States — a trend that some perceive as a part of the broader “Americanization” of French society that risks fragmenting the country’s founding principles.

Karina Piser, World Politics Review, November 2020

“What it feels like is, the government wants to create one kind of French person, with the same mind, and the same culture,” writes Karina Piser in a recent essay on World Politics Review, which outlines the seemingly “impossible job” facing teachers today. They’re tasked with educating students about fundamental republican values in order to successfully integrate Muslims into French society. The goal? Improved social cohesion as a bulwark against radicalization. However, when the values in question are shrouded in politics, it’s hardly conducive to pedagogy and often clashes with the notions of free expression that French leaders ardently defend.

NYC-based writer with an appetite for all things French. Focused (primarily) on the intersection of food, culture, & identity.

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