What Does ‘Being French’ Actually Mean?
If citizenship is about making our collective voices heard, no one should be left behind.
That's the word former French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently associated with Black people.
Days before this, a national newspaper depicted a Black MP as a slave; French journalist Judith Waintraub implied a young Muslim woman that shares budget-friendly recipes on Instagram was, somehow, linked to 9/11; and French MPs walked out of the National Assembly earlier this month when student unionist Maryam Pougetoux appeared before them with a headscarf on.
Today, you might think these events are merely terrible examples of contemporary racism in French society.
But, for many of us, they represent more than racist acts. They point to a larger trend: the trend in which people define what it means to be a legitimate French citizen — and even more than that, they point out what it means not to be.
When Waintraub connected a French woman to the worst attacks the West has ever known, she effectively framed her as an outsider to the French Republic. Similarly, MPs refusing to hear the political demands of a French citizen like Pougetoux because of her religious beliefs is tantamount to denying her right to participate in her own country's political life.
Both women had valuable advice to offer on how to alleviate poverty in their country — yet their voices as citizens weren't heard.
But what is citizenship if not making your voice heard?
The answer to this question lies in the very definition of what it means to "be French."
On the surface, French citizenship symbolizes a common unity based on the three principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity (liberté, égalité, fraternité), all enshrined in a political system that is known as Republicanism. In theory, this model aims to guarantee the same rights to all its citizens, regardless of their identity, religion, or race.
As such, race and religion are both taboo in France. The government doesn’t collect any racial data, and the word "race" was taken out of the Constitution in 2018. Similarly, religious affiliation cannot be expressed publicly. The rationale behind this idea is that only one race exists — the human race — and that any mention of hyphenated identities would reinforce hierarchies between French citizens.
And while this universalist and overly secular view of equality might appeal to many, its consequences are far worse than intended. Denying race doesn’t make racism go away, just like insisting that "being French" takes precedence over any other identity — religious or otherwise — won’t magically instill a sense of belonging in all French citizens.
In fact, insisting that minorities fit into this seemingly neutral and secular mould is precisely what generates exclusion. Recent events may have made this problem more apparent, but this isn’t a novel issue.
Over the past few years, French identity has been continuously instrumentalized to exclude minority groups — particularly children of immigrants and Muslim women. The ideals of secularism and equality are frequently invoked to condemn the so-called "inability" of immigrant minorities to "integrate" into French society, even if they've often been here for generations.
Such is the paradox of the modern definition of "being French": one could be French on paper, yet constantly reminded that they will never be truly French because of who they actually are. French citizenship ideals ironically re-create the same barriers and hierarchies they intended to eliminate by forcing them to go unacknowledged. This view of citizenship leaves no room for the expression of diversity; it perpetuates a form of racism inherited from colonialism under the guise of universalism and equality.
Here’s the thing: ignoring a problem won’t make it go away — but facing it could.
And for this to happen, it is essential to confront and acknowledge how colonial history continues to shape the current understanding of French citizenship. Being French isn't about blindly adhering to universalistic and colour-blind ideals for the sake of "equality." It's about acknowledging that these principles are deeply flawed, and about fixing them — together.
This means letting people express their identities freely and acknowledging that French people of colour — many of whom are children of immigrants from France’s former colonies within North and West Africa — continue to suffer from systemic racism at the hands of the State. This also means addressing the fact that French Black and Arab people are 20 times more likely to be checked by the police, and that 70% of Muslim women bear the brunt of sexist forms of Islamophobia.
Perhaps, one day, our leaders will hear these concerns — concerns that their most marginalized citizens have been voicing for decades. Addressing these issues would mean accepting the fact that systemic racism causes a range of problems such as poverty, unequal access to education, and much more. It would also mean that the very people disproportionately impacted by these issues would be given a seat at the table — at the National Assembly in France and within other key institutions around the world.
Until then, "being French" will remain nothing but a meaningless attempt at creating unity to the detriment of a perpetual "Other."