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Are the French racist? Are the French racist?
by Joseph Gatt
2020-07-27 10:42:15
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Title is provocative. The short answer: most French people are not racist. But, a lot of French people are “race conscious” and more so than in most of Europe and North America.

I'll discuss race issues in France here using anecdotes.

When I chat with British, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or even Russian friends, we usually discuss academia, school, work, life, food, you name it. Race, ethnicity or religion tends not to be discussed. In those circles, ethnicity is not discussed explicitly, nor is it discussed implicitly.

fra0001_400Same thing in Israel. A lot of people think Israel is a racist nation. But if you go around and chat with Israelis, you'll discuss work and education and culture and life, and race and religion will tend not be discussed implicitly or explicitly.

Now of course you have many Arab nations where it's Islam this and Islam that. And in Arab nations, your religion and ethnicity will be at the center of the discussions, either implicitly or explicitly. That is, many Muslims, especially in the Arab world, in Pakistan or Afghanistan, will bring the topic of Islam up every five minutes. Indonesians and Malaysians tend not to have this thing, but the rest of the Islamic world does.

Now to the French. Almost every time I meet the French for a cup of coffee, here's what tends to happen. We enjoy a nice cup of coffee, and I discuss life, culture and other topics with them. I'm just being myself, being natural.

When my French friends and I part ways, here's what tends to happen. They'll send me an email (or a Facebook message or something) that says this: “look Yossi, I'm from a small French town” and the sous-entendu or the understatement is something along the lines of “Yossi, you are lucky enough to be Jewish and smart, I'm just a small town secular Catholic kid, don't judge me for that.”

Now here's where it gets interesting. I used to be an under cover Arab (or Berber) in France. And a lot of times, the response to my “intellect” (if you want to call it that) was... the silent treatment. People just ignored me! Plain ignored me! People used to pretend not to know me, not to notice me, and to look away when I talked. Sous-entendu “a smart Arab, one who is self-confident and knows what he's talking about... now that can't be.”

What do I mean when I say that most French people are not racist, but are “race conscious.” In private, the French tend not to mind friends of all backgrounds, nationalities, religions, you name it. That is the French will ask you for your phone number (if they think you're nice enough) and will invite you for a cup of coffee or a chat. In private.

In the public sphere, where their colleagues or classmates see all the action, some French people could behave slightly differently. That is if you are Black or an Arab or East Asian or South Asian or something, the French could be very good friends with you in the private sphere, but the minute the crowd sees you, they will pretend not to know you. Or at least they will start behaving awkwardly with you. The minute the crowd disappears, they go back to hugging you tight and being warm with you.

This rule applies to the “Catholic” French but also to the Jewish French population. When I was in France, some Jews knew I was Jewish, others mistook me for an Arab. There was this one Jewish girl (the niece of an A-list French actor, who was religious at that) who despite mistaking me for an Arab was being super flirtatious with me (in private). But again, even among French Jews, once you hit the public sphere, they will tend to avoid hanging out with other minorities.

Now what do I mean by “race conscious”? I mean that if you meet the French in private, and that you are a minority, say an Arab or an Indian or something, which “Arab” or “Indian” or “Chinese” label is going to “stick” with your French friend for many, many years, perhaps a lifetime. That is your French friend is going to ask you a lot of questions about your ethnicity, and is constantly going to remind you about your ethnicity.

Now this “label” can be offensive to some ethnic minorities who are trying hard to assimilate in France. That is you could have second or third generation Arab immigrants, who perhaps never visited any Arab nation, who are probably not even Muslims, and yet the French will insist on defining them as “Arabs.”

Is there discrimination at the job level? I think, sadly, the same rules apply almost everywhere when it comes to job discrimination. If you're trying to get a job as a nurse or a teacher, you probably won't face huge discrimination hurdles. Same goes for IT and computer science jobs. But if you're trying to get a job in sales or marketing or consulting or law or public relations (or any job that involves interacting with the public) you will probably face HUGE discrimination hurdles, and perhaps even racism on the job.

Then there are economic factors and there are “racial ghettos” or urban areas in the suburbs with high concentrations of immigrants that have their share of ethnic gangs and drugs and what not, but that's another story for another day.

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