THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Single Community?

Christiane Taubira and the Debate Over French National Identity

by Piper French

Illustration by Celeste Matsui

published February 12, 2016


Barring any unforeseen circumstances, individuals with dual citizenship who are convicted of terrorism in France will be soon stripped of their French nationality with the guilty verdict. Known as déchéance, or forfeiture, this law will likely be written into the constitution later in February and is a symbolic response to the latest round of terrorist attacks in Paris, which have left France under a state of emergency since November. It has garnered widespread popular support (a poll conducted by international news channel BFMTV found 94% in favor) and conservative acclaim (the far-right party Front National [FN] has supported such a measure for years) but split the liberal political establishment in half, pitting President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls against many who believe the bill runs counter to French values. The fiercest opponent of all: French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who resigned her position rather than be forced to defend the bill in Parliament. In an interview with Algerian Radio, Taubira denounced the bill as posing a “fundamental problem in terms of national rights by birthplace, to which I am firmly attached.” At a news conference, she told the press: “I am choosing to be faithful to myself, to my commitments, to my fights.” 

 

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It is only fitting that the catalyst for Taubira’s departure was a question of citizenship. Born in French Guiana, a former colonial territory that is currently one of France’s five overseas departments, Taubira has advocated for the rights of citizenship, as well as a more inclusive definition of French nationality, throughout her political career. Indeed, her resignation has put the spotlight on France’s complicated, often paradoxical relationship with its own sense of national identity—what it means to be French, and who is allowed to claim that title. It is a question that has plagued France since its inception as a republic based on Enlightenment values in 1792. The country has rewritten its nationality laws “more often and more significantly than any other democratic nation,” writes immigration historian Patrick Weil. During its long and shameful colonial period, France attempted to export a sense of shared culture and identity in order to make of its African, Asian, and Arab colonial subjects “typical French citizen(s)” who were “expected to be everything except in the color of his skin, a Frenchman,” according to historian Michael Lambert. Though skin color didn’t entirely preclude access to this shared national identity, it was seen as an obstacle, a detractor that had to be counterbalanced. And though France’s colonized people were offered full French citizenship under the law, historian Julian Jackson writes in The Other Empire that an actual sense of belonging “was always receding…the colonial populations treated like subjects, not citizens.” 

When it comes to immigrants in metropolitan France, many of whom arrived from France’s colonies, the country has always practiced a policy of assimilation rather than integration: newcomers are expected to adapt or conform completely to French norms and values. Former President Sarkozy, arguing in a 2011 speech that multiculturalism had failed, said: “If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you are not welcome in France. We have been too concerned with the identity of the person who was arriving, and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.” And yet France’s commitment to this notion of a single community is belied by the many social and political barriers that prevent newcomers to France from accessing such a community in the first place. Immigrants are often sequestered in HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré), rent-controlled housing towers in banlieues on the outskirts of city centers, subject to exclusion and discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives. And though they are expected to erase visible traces of difference from their bodies—notably in France’s laws banning the display of “conspicuous” religious symbols—the large majority of immigrants to France cannot mask that ultimate mark of difference, the color of their skin. 

In adherence to its conception of single community as national community, France does not account for racial difference on its census; as such, there is no way of knowing the exact demographics of the country. But though there may be no de jure segregation or distinction among races, national identity is wielded in subtler ways to reassert the otherness of people of color in France.  A research team backed by the Open Society Institute concluded in 2011, “you can be of any descent, but if you are a French citizen you cannot be an Arab” – multifaceted identities are “ideologically impossible” in France. In an interview conducted with Al Jazeera as part of a larger meditation on France’s relationship to its Black citizens, Guadeloupean soccer star Liliane Thuram offered a personal anecdote of the ways that Frenchness is often seen as incompatible with dark skin. “You leave the Caribbean, there’s no doubt in your mind that you’re French,” he said, “But when you arrive in Paris you’re not French anymore; you’re black.”

 

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There has been ultra-nationalist political activity in France since the Dreyfus Affair, the late 19th century political scandal that split France in two and lead to the creation of the French far-right. Still, parties such as the Front National, whose members regularly engage in xenophobic and racist rhetoric that occasionally crosses the border into illegal hate speech, have seen a surge in popular support in the last decade. The FN, which was founded on a reactionary platform by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, has always been attempted to further narrow the already slim parameters of French identity, wielding it in order to exclude nonwhite French citizens and withholding it from arriving immigrants altogether. It received almost no support for the first decade of existence, and was politically unpopular at the close of the 20th century during the creation of the European Union, a moment of increased unity across Europe. However, the party has enjoyed a recent increase in favor due to a number of factors: recent backlash against the E.U. and the concept of multiculturalism itself, the threat of increased immigration from Syria and elsewhere, and the terrorist attacks that rocked France last January and November. France is currently under an indefinite state of emergency, and though déchéance is the type of law characteristically promulgated (and actually first conceived of) by the FN, it was most recently proposed by the Socialist government in power. PM Manuel Valls, echoing Sarkozy’s speech in 2011, defended the controversial bill by saying: “You are French because you adhere to a community.” Committing an act of terrorism, he reasoned, excludes you automatically from that community—as long as there is another community that can claim you. The déchéance law would only strip French citizenship from those French citizens who also hold a second nationality. Though this provision, a practical necessity, was ostensibly included in order to quell fears that anyone could be left stateless, it carries a more insidious message. The elimination of French identity and citizenship rights will only be a threat for those who hold some other claim to national identity as well—overwhelmingly, the very people who already find themselves on the margins of French society. For the three million dual nationals in France, most of whom have never and will never engage in terrorist activity, it is a reminder that their claim to their own national identity is more tenuous than ever.

 

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Though President Hollande has been forced to the right on the issue of déchéance by fears of seeming too soft on security, many members of his party have spoken out against the déchéance bill and all that it represents.  No critic was more strident than Christiane Taubira. The ex-Minister of Justice has spent her career fighting to make the legal definition of Frenchness more inclusive and encompassing, and she frames her resignation as just another step in that fight. She began her career organizing for Guianese liberation from France in her hometown of Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. She ran briefly for president of France in 2002, exhorting the “need for government to address the concerns of people of color, women, and others who have been excluded from the mainstream political systems,” but only received 2.3% of the vote. Other notable accomplishments include the passage of a 2001 law denouncing slavery as a crime against humanity, which now bears her name. 

Taubira’s attempts to expand the boundaries of Frenchness also extend beyond the bounds of race and nationality: In 2013, she introduced and backed the eventually successful law that legalized gay marriage, which she believed strengthened French society by “granting the simple recognition of full citizenship to homosexual couples.” Still, her political career is informed by a deeply personal struggle: In 2013 Taubira told the New York Times, echoing Liliane Thuram, that she “became black in Paris.”

And inevitably, Taubira has been hampered by the very problem that she has devoted her career to grappling with. The limits of her efforts to propagate an inclusive and diverse understanding of Frenchness are clearly visible in the nature of the criticism directed at her. She is targeted by politicians, civilians, and the media alike, and their criticism tends to be constructed along exclusionary lines, attacks on Taubira’s identity rather than her politics. 

The irony here is clear. After all, Taubira is a skilled orator who often speaks extemporaneously and quotes French poets and scholars in her monologues. She is a stylish dresser, a mother of four who rides her bike to work. Her colleagues have lauded her for her elegance, charm, and grace. In theory, she embodies many classically “French” virtues. Still, she is denied Frenchness again and again. Often, the language used against her is coded—a subtle reminder of Taubira’s origins and race that reassert her otherness in French society. Her support of the bill that named slavery a crime against humanity lead to accusations of “playing identity politics.” In response to her vocal support for the gay marriage bill in 2013, protestors switched their chant from “you are beat, families are in the street,” to “you are beat, the French are in the street,” a characterization that Taubira interpreted as “a message of exclusion.” She told the New York Times: “I don’t believe there have been other protests, or that it would be conceivable that a protest address another minister” with such a slogan. 

Other times, criticism of Taubira has veered into openly racist territory. Most shockingly, a 2014 Charlie Hebdo cover depicted Taubira as a monkey—a misguided attempt at satirizing another newspaper, the rightist Minute, whose cover had contained two sophomoric banana and ape puns in reference to a photo of a grinning Taubira. (In an unconnected incident, this colonial-era racist trope was employed by a minor FN politician, who called Taubira a “savage” and said she would “prefer to see [Taubira] swinging in a tree than to see her in government.”) 

Even the criticism of Taubira that isn’t explicitly racialized tends towards the vitriolic, far more so than that directed towards her (now former) colleagues in the Socialist party. It’s unsurprising, if disheartening. Not only is Taubira politically and ideologically at total odds with those on the far right, she herself represents everything that the Front National and many others detest and fear about the supposed direction France is heading. The mixed, integrated multiculturalist society that the FN dreads is made manifest in the form of one fierce, diminutive Black woman who was born in a former French colony but fought her way to the heart of the political system in Paris. 

But Taubira not only represents a vision of France that is frightening to many. In many ways, she is an embodiment of the paradoxical nature of French identity itself. Of the double violence of a nation that willfully colonized vast swathes of the world but refused to name and accept as their own the people caught up in the colonial system. Of a society that sees brotherhood as integral to its value system, but rejects its Black and brown brothers and sisters over and over again in favor of a theoretical idea of fraternité that doesn’t account for the realities of racial difference. Of a culture that claims to define membership by literary and cultural connaissance, but ultimately delineates belonging on the color of one’s skin rather than one’s ability to quote Proust at whim. Of a country founded on secularism that applies a law banning the display of obvious religious symbols to the bodies of women wearing veils but not men wearing yarmulkes, nor people with crosses around their necks. Of a national ideology centered on the idea of universal and inalienable human rights, which may soon begin to bypass this inalienability by disowning those convicted of certain crimes from the body politic, effectively eliminating their right to possess rights at all. 

 

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“Who gets to be French?” Karl E. Meyer asked in an eponymous 2012 New York Times article. This question is perhaps more easily answered negatively. In the eyes of many, Christiane Taubira does not, despite her values and many years of service to the French people. The subject of Meyer’s piece, perpetrator of the Toulouse killings Mohammed Merah, did not—he was denounced by the French Parliament in the wake of the attacks as having “nothing French about him but his identity papers.” Soon, others convicted of terrorism under France’s new laws will not even have those identity papers. Then again, they have never really gotten to be French in the first place.  

 

PIPER FRENCH B’16.5 n’est pas française.