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France Struggles With Its Identity As It Seeks To Heal From Paris Attacks

Last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris have given a new and harsher edge to a multigenerational debate among those in France and its capital about the role of race, ethnicity and national origin in their society.

France has acknowledged some painful aspects of its history, erecting monuments large and small around Paris that, for example, pay tribute to children and families deported by the Vichy government to die in camps in the Holocaust. But it is still struggling to come to terms with its practice in past centuries of acquiring colonies and protectorates, which led to substantial immigration from those areas when the colonies became free and produced tension very much evident today.

A substantial strain of French politics is built upon resentment of those immigrants, and those feelings have bubbled to the surface in the aftermath of last week’s attacks. Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front party and the de facto face of the nation’s political far-right, offered condolences and support to victims of the attacks before saying in a news conference, “France and the French are no longer safe. It is my duty to tell you so.” She added that the nation needed to “finally determine who are its allies and who are its enemies” and “recover the control of its national borders.” Le Pen also stated that “fundamentalist Islam must be wiped out.”

Last year the National Front won the most votes in representing France in the European parliamentary elections. The party has spoken out on behalf of keeping French jobs in the hands of ethnic French. France’s current unemployment rate is 10.3 percent.

In this atmosphere, many immigrants and their children have made it clear in public-opinion polls that they regularly experience discrimination. In 2008, France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, a branch of the federal government, completed a multiyear study of attitudes on national origin, including immigrants from former colonies and France’s Overseas Territories. Among the study’s key findings: Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Sahelian African (including Sudanese), and Turkish immigrants and their children are the least likely to feel they are considered French. (DOM refers to France’s Overseas Territories, including Guadeloupe and French Polynesia.)


The chart below is a translation of the Institute’s data in response to a survey of people from the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris and its suburbs. It provides a statistical perspective on the cultural and political debates rending France today.


Although France is now a post-colonial nation, its history of trying to run other parts of the world is a long one. At various points, its colonies and territories have included Cambodia; Vietnam; West African countries such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast; and North African nations including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The Algerian war for independence lasted for seven years, ending in 1962. Its death toll is still contested by the two countries; France says it was 400,000, and Algeria says 1.5 million people died. Hundreds of thousands of European-Algerians (“pieds-noir,” as they became known in France, most of whom had never lived in Europe) fled to France, and the country was roiled by protests including one in 1961 during which French citizens threw Algerian protesters off a bridge to drown. Yet as its former colonies and territories gained independence, through war or diplomacy, France advertised its belief in liberté, egalité, fraternité — liberty, equality and brotherhood for all — providing, if you were an immigrant, that you fully assimilated into French culture and customs.

Those immigrants came in large numbers and continue to do so. In 2013, 57 percent of the residency cards given to first-time immigrants to France were granted to Africans. (This does not take into account migration into France by citizens of other countries in the European Union.)

For many immigrants, the cultural bargain has been difficult to strike. In his 2003 memoir, “We Won’t Budge: An African Exile in the World,” Malian-born writer and academic Manthia Diawara writes about the impossibility of meeting the cultural expectations to be French and both honor and lovingly critique the immigrant Malian community (where, among other things, he encountered elders who supported clitoridectomy). A younger relative resents his bringing up the topic of racism, which of course both of them have experienced firsthand. “My nephew, like most French people, has accepted the notion that Africans and Arabs — as the last wave of immigrants in France — must work twice as hard and comply with the police when they are doing their work, as the price of their integration into French society,” he wrote.

In many ways, Diawara’s book presaged the events of 2005, when three weeks of riots between police and young people of North and West African descent devastated Clichy-sous-Bois, a low-income suburb of Paris largely populated by African immigrants. Two youths were electrocuted accidentally while fleeing the police, setting off the violence and years of subsequent soul-searching about how immigrants and their children are treated in, and treat, France. That soul-searching continues today, as the country seeks to heal.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.