The Limits of Republicanism

The response to Charlie Hebdo shows French republicanism’s blindness to structural racism.

Olivier Ortelpa / Flickr

A few days after the horrific attacks that left seventeen dead in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in a kosher supermarket, and in the streets of Paris, the prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, declared war on “terrorism, jihadism, and radical Islam.”

As he explained in an impassioned speech to the National Assembly on January 13, this was a war that would be fought on three fronts: internationally, by bolstering France’s participation in the “global war on terror,” especially in Mali and Iraq; nationally, by reinforcing the security and surveillance arsenals in an effort to track down potential radicals especially on the Internet, in schools, and in jails; and ideologically, by upholding, now more than ever, “the Republic and its values.”

Laïcité, laïcité, laïcité,” repeated Valls as he praised the “spirit of the Enlightenment,” liberty, equality, fraternity, and “this mix of dignity, irreverence, and elegance” that characterize France, “the incarnation of the universal.”

According to Valls, the first response to these traumatic events was border patrolling, in both a practical and a metaphorical sense. As he made clear, “exceptional situations” required “exceptional measures,” many of which have, in fact, already been put into place, leading to a series of arrests and investigations.

Valls’s speech, however, was also representative of a particular intellectual protectionism that has flourished in France over the past two weeks. The message is clear: these terrorists attacked the Republic and what it holds most dear — secularism and the Enlightenment — and so we need to fight them with the same transcendental and apparently self-evident tools: more secularism, more universalism, more republicanism.

Join the “sacred union” and march alongside Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ali Bongo, and Sergueï Lavrov — none of whom can exactly be called leaders in the fight for the freedom of expression. Don’t ask too many questions and don’t overanalyze: either you are for or against the Republic, for or against fanaticism, for or against freedom. And most importantly, be Charlie.

Over the past two weeks, this policing of ideas has taken different shapes, in the media, in blogs, and in social networks. In particular, I have been troubled by the numerous appeals to a form of national authenticity apparently required to comment on these events. There are many examples of this position, but here are a few: “Letter to my British friends”; “The Globalization of Moral and Intellectual Confusion”; “On not understanding Charlie: Why so many smart people are getting it wrong”; Unmournable Frenchies; “What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and Racism.”

While the arguments in these pieces are not the same, they share a number of themes. Many of these critics are angered by what they perceive as the fundamental hypocrisy of the “Anglo-Saxon press” (if there even is such an entity) that celebrates freedom of speech while refusing to republish the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

French writer Caroline Fourest criticizes Obama for missing the “great republican march” and for bringing up the problem of Muslim integration in France. Similarly, she chastises Jon Stewart for noticing that the recent arrest of the openly antisemitic comedian Dieudonné highlights the inconsistencies of France’s policy on freedom of speech.

Most notably perhaps, these commentators seem particularly upset by the American or British insinuation that the content of Charlie Hebdo might indeed be read as racist and, consequently, that one may condemn the murders without embracing the identificatory universalism that Valls and others have called for.

I wonder what credentials one must have to be authorized to speak about France: is it simply French nationality or an understanding of the French context in which these events took place? If it is the former, then those accused of “incoherent Anglo gloating” because they have tried to grapple with the complexities of race and religion in France are in good company.

After all, Robert Paxton was accused of not understanding the history of the French right when he suggested that the Vichy regime did not simply succumb to German pressures but collaborated actively with the Nazis. Todd Shepard was criticized for applying an “American framework” to French history when he exposed the limits of republican universalism through his study of the Algerian war. And Joan Scott was attacked for being “deaf to French feminism” when she located the “DSK Affair” within a longer tradition of French resistance to sexual equality.

But for now, let’s bracket national protectionism, read these French commentators generously, and assume that they are simply asking American critics to provide more context when they discuss Charlie Hebdo.

To be sure, Charlie Hebdo was not a monolithic entity, and its politics evolved significantly from the 1960s to the present. Moreover, taking into account the specifics of France’s political culture, history, and society is crucial, especially in light of the notoriously dehistoricized accounts that followed the attacks, of which George Packer’s piece is a particularly great example.

But what, then, is the important context necessary to analyze Charlie Hebdo? Analysis of course should not serve to excuse or absolve the perpetrators, and certainly not to blame the victims, but rather, to try to understand — at least as much as we can — why these three young men, Saïd Kouachi, Chérif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly, all born and raised in France, targeted this particular publication.

For example, Olivier Tonneau, claiming to speak “as a Frenchman and a radical left militant” mentions three contextual factors. Charlie Hebdo could not possibly be racist, he argues, because its main target was the Front National and the Le Pen family; because it attacked all religions, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims with “the same biting tone”; and finally, because it “fell well within the French tradition of satire — and after all was only intended for a French audience.”

Tonneau concludes:

This being clear, the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme rightwing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly attack Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. And to me, the one question that this specific event raises is: how could these youths ever come to this level of confusion and madness?

I pause on Tonneau’s argument because I think it is symptomatic of a large part of the French left — the republican left, the left embraced by Charlie Hebdo and by Valls — this left’s profound inability to think about race. It is this inability, or perhaps this unwillingness, to mobilize race not as a biological or cultural reality in the way the Front National treats it but as an analytical category that can bring to light relations of power, that is at the root of this cross-Atlantic confusion.

Race and ethnicity are not recognized in French politics because republicanism assumes that we are all equal before the law, that all particularisms (race, religion, sexual orientation) can and should be abstracted, privatized, and neutralized in the public sphere. Rather than citing Voltaire again and again, the proponents of this republican model should have in fact cited Rousseau. Within this framework, private interests are always suspect and the general will is always universal and always good. It is this abstract universalism that undergirds France’s official policy of intégration.

Abstract universalism has had a series of practical and political consequences, far too many to list here. It served, for example, as an important justification for the 2004 law banning “conspicuous religious symbols” deemed to violate the explicitly secular and neutral space of the public school. These symbols (which included the hijab) were taken to represent an unsurpassable attachment to a private interest, a stubborn refusal to abstract one’s difference in order to participate in common life, or le vivre-ensemble.

The question, of course, is whose privacy can be abstracted and whose remains forever too concrete. As many scholars have pointed out (Mayanthi Fernando, Paul Silverstein, John Bowen), Muslims have been caught in the contradictions of French secularism for years.

Within the framework of French republicanism, it is thus perfectly legitimate to talk about racism as a dysfunction in the system but not about race itself. This is where the terms can get confusing and where an additional contextual clarification is important. As Tonneau and others have pointed out, Charlie Hebdo was indeed “anti-racist” if by anti-racism we mean a willful disavowal of racial differences and experiences for the purpose of assimilation into the public sphere.

This particular understanding of anti-racism has guided the policies of many organizations designed to fight discrimination, including la Ligue des droits de l’homme, the LICRA, the MRAP, and SOS Racisme. SOS Racisme, for example, was born in the aftermath of the famous 1983 “marche des beurs,” to combat the explicit racism of the Front National and to ensure a better integration of immigrants and their children into the French social contract.

Often, these activists worked within the government, sometimes on the Left, sometimes on the Right. The point was not to question the republic or to examine how its colonial history might have led to a particular configuration of racial relations in France.

Unfortunately, the National Front and the Le Pen family do not have the monopoly on French racism; non-white French citizens face systematic discrimination in schools, in the workforce, and in housing, and suffer from higher rates of incarceration, just to mention these fields.

But it is very difficult to propose concrete measures to fight against structural racism when it is illegal to collect racial statistics, when race is immediately called an “American import,” when it is said to simply not exist in France. Don’t name it and perhaps it might go away.

In the US, this is called “color blindness,” and although this philosophy has many local supporters (including many within the Supreme Court), it is not a value that is usually associated with leftist politics — at least not since the 1970s.

I am not interested in arguing about whether Charlie Hebdo was or was not racist but rather in pointing out the shocking blindness to race (and, for that matter, to gender and its complicated intersections with race) in discussions of the recent events.

No, it is not the same thing to make fun of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims given the different power positions that these groups have occupied historically and today. No, race and religion cannot be separated so easily.

French history offers many examples that suggest that the two categories are often collapsed, especially in moments of crisis. France was, for instance, the first country to emancipate its Jews with this model of abstract universalism. As the count of Clermont-Tonnerre famously put it in 1789: “we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

Yet, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, this abstraction was routinely “filled with content” as Jews were racialized and scapegoated during the Panama Scandal, the Dreyfus Affair, and of course, the Vichy regime. Caricature played a key role in this process. Édouard Drumont, the founder and editor of La Libre Parole, a self-avowed socialist — and often called an “anarchist” — also ridiculed intellectuals, politicians, Germans, Masons, and “liberated women.” Yet, nobody would claim that in the particular context of the Dreyfus Affair, targeting Jews was “equal opportunity.”

As I see it, there are two ways to interpret this history. The first is to claim that these events (along with colonialism, denying women the right to vote, outlawing gay marriage) were “dark episodes” of French republicanism and that what we need is a perfected and more inclusive universalism, one that would uphold justice and guarantee true equality. This is the position of Valls, of the anti-racist French left, and of the many of the you-don’t-understand-us critics who have attacked the analyses of Charlie Hebdo.

The other approach is to suggest that abstract universalism has always — not historically but structurally — necessitated particularisms and that perhaps it is time to think about power more generally and abandon the fantasy of a republican unity that never actually existed. This is what many on the critical left have been asking for: a true democracy that does not stifle difference and that can accommodate the complexities, conflicts, and divisions that exist in French society today.

It is not a movement imposed by American academics nor is it an appeal to a facile political correctness. Rather, it is a call from activists and scholars within France who are refusing the blackmail of universals and who have argued, for many years now, that words (and images) are important, that strategic essentialism can be politically useful, and that republican racism must come to an end.