Originally published on the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section on Jun 14, 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron has hit the ground running on his promise of an inclusive government, naming a cabinet of ministers across the political spectrum and backgrounds. Half of his cabinet is also made up of women — including the premier cabinet position of defense minister; the cabinet also includes a former black female Olympian as minister of sports.
Still, racial inequalities and xenophobia are pervasive in France. Macron was soundly criticized last week for making a joke that mocked the plight of citizens from the small African nation of the Comoros for taking the kwassa kwassa, a small fishing boat, to try to get to the neighboring island of Mayotte — a French principality that was a part of Comoros but repossessed by France after independence. The Comorian government has made public statements demanding an apology, and there have been large protests from the significant Comorian population in France, especially in Marseille and Paris.
Macron has used progressive rhetoric, stating that he is in favor of inclusive, open borders and reinvestment in the European Union. But his proposed initiatives leave much to be desired on issues of domestic equality for France’s ethnic minorities. During the run-up to the election, Macron pledged to recruit approximately 10,000 more police officers in response to the increased frequency of terrorist attacks in the past two years. However, this effort comes at a stark cost to disenfranchised, lower-class immigrant populations of France that have had adversarial relationships with law enforcement.
In the past year alone, the French police have come under fire twice from immigrant communities in the maligned banlieues and high-rise towers in the outskirts of Paris for aggravated police violence.
On July 19, 2016, Adama Traore, a 24-year-old son of Malian immigrants, died under suspicious circumstances mere hours after being taken into police custody for not having proper identification. Subsequent calls for justice by the community at-large and his family have largely resulted in recrimination, with two of Adama’s brother’s, Bagui and Youssuf, having been sentenced to several months in prison for threats and violence toward officers after attempting to demand answers at a city council meeting last November.
On the heels of this tragedy, 22-year-old Theo (whose surname has been protected) was allegedly sodomized by French police forces on Feb. 2 after being stopped for simply being in a large group. (French prosecutors later alleged there were suspicions of drug activity in the area.) While he survived, Theo underwent major surgery to repair the tearing from the assault, which was initially reported as an accident of his own doing. The weeks of protesting and organizing that broke out after these two incidents — and a subsequent bevy of arrests — brought a tragic awareness of the disregard for the lives of young men and women of color in France by the police. For them, the prospect of an increased police force doesn’t bring comfort, but rather increased fear and distrust.
According to reports, anywhere from 60 percent to 70 percent of the French prison population is of Muslim and of immigrant African descent, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks have been committed by French citizens. There is no indication that this trend will go away under Macron; instead, his move will increase pressures on African immigrants rather than finding structured initiatives that will actually address France’s security issues.
Macron may have positioned himself and his cabinet as progressive knights in shining armor to push France forward — but for minorities and people of color, his proposed initiatives reflect a continued disenfranchisement and dismissal. While progressivism is by no means a zero-sum game, it would behoove the new leader of France to ensure that any initiatives improve the status quo for the country’s minority populations instead of reinforcing it. Doing so would require coming to terms with the reality that racism in France can be just as institutionalized as in the United States.