France’s Constitution Is Blind to Race. Does That Make It Racist?

professional headshot of Jean Beaman

By Lydia Wilson July 7, 2023 France is experiencing violence that is making headlines around the world. Public property has been destroyed; cars have been burned, shops looted and many hundreds injured. Thousands have been taken into custody, but nothing is stemming the anger triggered by the death of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk on June 27, shot at point-blank range by the police after a routine traffic stop. It has been widely described as rioting, and I didn’t hesitate to call it that when I began researching for this article. But once I started digging down into the causes and consequences of the actions, considering the police, the politicians and those taking to the street to express themselves, this word began to seem loaded. Indeed, it came to symbolize the very issues at the heart of the unrest spreading across the country, illustrating one of the inherent contradictions of French politics. … There is another factor in the reluctance to collect data on ethnicity and religion. “The origins of France not collecting ‘ethnic statistics’ date to the Vichy Regime during World War II,” Jean Beaman, sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me. “By using racial categories, Jews in France and in French colonies in the Maghreb were rounded up and deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland,” she explained. “Race has ever since been seen as dangerously divisive.” Boutros agreed, citing France’s collaboration with the Nazis and the French police building databases of French Jews. “This part of French history is still very much on people’s mind in discussions about collecting racial statistics,” she told me.