Something that has stuck me since coming to France is the frankness and easiness with which people dispense racially-charged drivel. White French people from housewives to professors to men on the street seem to see no problem in labeling a whole immigrant population as cheap or sexually promiscuous or unhealthy or ruining the economy.
First, a quick primer in the racial composition of France.
France has for a while had a lot of migrants coming from nearby European countries, namely Portugal, Spain, and Italy. But, other than language differences, these populations can assimilate rather easily. The omnipresence of the EU has certainly moved this along, with everything from currency to health insurance transferring over with basically no problem.
There’s also apparently a sizable Eastern European immigrant population, notably from Turkey, Poland, and Romania. I don’t know much about this population.
Since decolonization during the Cold War, France has had a lot of migratory movement from its former colonies, notably black people from western Africa (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, etc.), Arab people from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, etc.), and Antillean people from the Caribbean (Martinique, Haiti, etc.). The common path for getting to France for these immigrants was first sending over a father/husband to work in France, then, after a few years, sending over the rest of the family. This led to men assimilating okay, but women often stayed home to focus on family and home, staying strongly connected to their home cultures and languages.
France urban planning is such that in big cities, the residential areas in the centre-ville are pretty well-off. The city centers are also centers of commerce, so those living nearby profit from being close to many employment opportunities. A lot of black, Arab, and Antillean French people live in the banlieues or suburbs (nothing at all like cookie-cutter American soccer-mom developments), sometimes in government subsidized housing projects called HLMs (“osh-ell-emms”) which have become centers of poverty and crime.
Because of these divisions, a lot of the suburbs have terrible schools, which make the process of assimilation into French society even harder for youth. Mobility is often another added burden on people from the suburbs because, to gain access to the real employment opportunities, it is necessary to use public transportation, which has both cost and time restrictions. These walls to economic success and assimilation just perpetuate the problem, making social mobility harder and harder to attain.
So there is often a very physical boundary between the white, gentrified city centers and the non-white suburbs, which, I think, makes it easier to make generalizations about those groups.
Back to the topic at hand––talking about race. So far during my week here in France, I have already witnessed several instances of blanket racism which have struck me as very inappropriate. A school administrator told us in a meeting to look out for sexually hungry Arab men in the streets and to avoid the Romanians at train stations. Young white men walking on the street laughed and made dog-barking noises at a trio of black teenage girls. A mother and housewife told me to avoid Arab market vendors’ produce and that the only reason McDonalds is so popular in France is because of those people from the banlieues. (The rest of France, I suppose, is too fancy and high-class to eat a 2 euro hamburger.)
Maybe this can be attributed to a larger French tendency toward frankness in speaking and comportment; however, I can’t help but feel a link between this patronizing, Othering behavior and the behaviors that justified colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. This sort of psychological colonialism seems to exist at almost every level of French white society, that is, it doesn’t seem to be dying away with the WW2-era grandparents: it seems to be living on in French youth.
It really scares me to see such overt racism, but then it just makes me wonder if the American convention of “I’m a racist, but I’m an enlightened individual so I won’t talk about it” is any better.