In a long piece on the National Front, Susan Dominus interviews the mayor of Fréjus, National Front politician David Rachline:
I recalled a conversation we had earlier in the day in his office, when I asked him to describe the racial makeup of his high school. “I never count French people based on their origins or their religion,” he said. “I always just consider French people as French.”
It was strange to hear this liberal sensitivity from Rachline, of all people. He advocates the death penalty for rapists.
But Rachline’s deflection on the question of race was not at all surprising to Vincent Pons, a French academic I met in Paris the next day. Pons, a campaign expert — a company he founded provides technological support to candidates — reminded me how difficult it is to map basic American assumptions onto the French political landscape. “In France, officially, we don’t have race,” he said; it is illegal, for example, to ask about race or religion on any government form. “We just pretend that race does not matter, but it’s this crazy thing — of course it matters,” he said. “There are no statistics, so you can make no policy around it. But even if you tried, you’d be accused of making too much of race.”
Citizenship in France is supposed to confer complete equality, but the National Front, and many French all over the political spectrum, believe that privilege comes with the expectation of strict assimilation — no head scarves in school, no race-based interest groups, no questioning of the baby Jesus in the galette, no balking at the school’s lunch of roast pork. When it comes to laïcité, the differences between those on the left, the right and the far right are sometimes most apparent in the varying hostility with which they deliver remarkably similar views.
I'm pretty sure this see-no-evil policy on race and religion in France is on its last legs. Just about every non-Frenchman recognizes the absurdity of pretending race and religion don't matter, and a growing number of the French are seeing it too. The politics are interesting, though: the National Front seizes upon the irrelevance of race to avoid accusations of racism, and the left believes ignoring race serves its interests as well, especially since members of ethnic and religious minorities are almost certainly overrepresented among prison inmates and welfare recipients. But the other side of the coin is that without reliable statistics, there is no way to reliably quantify the level of racial discrimination in French society. So far the left seems to have concluded that framing discussions in non-ethnic terms brings more benefits than drawbacks, but I wonder how long that will hold out, especially as the French left watches the Front National gleefully seize on the see-no-evil policy.