“What do you consider yourself?”
“Probably a liberal.”
“Oh well, you know we say that the American left is about the same as the French right.”
– an excerpt from a recent meeting I had for a group project.
I’ve had various opportunities through my Legal Studies curriculum and my Speech Team experience to engage with and listen to interesting, thought-provoking scholarship about our country’s problem with race. These experiences have changed the way I’ve viewed politics in the U.S…. but I’ve always wondered how one might compare that to France. At Northwestern, my French classes have made occasional allusions to the most important moments in French race relations – the Algerian War, the riots of 2005, the current migrant crisis – which have given me the small lenses into the Fifth Republic’s own racial problems.
Obviously, a reference, 25 minutes of class time, or one news article of required reading does little to truly depict how one country’s political axes compare to another. And while I’ve always heard comparisons between France and the USA that insist on French’s free-spirit liberalism, I’d rarely had the chance to get a more nuanced understanding of how the societies’ politics map on to each other, and I’d hoped to get a sense of this at Sciences Po.
That’s exactly what happened in one of my classes last week, when we discussed the documentary Noirs en France, which (obviously) focuses on the recent history of black integration and experience in France. What immediately struck me in the ensuing discussion with our course professor was the discussion of “affirmative action.” In our discussions of how to remedy the effects of past discrimination, our professors and presenting students immediately used the word “quotas” when discussing American affirmative action. Being the defensive American I am, I immediately took the opportunity to shoot my hand up and clarify that “ACTUALLY, quota systems are explicitly illegal and have been ruled as such in multiple forms – ‘affirmative action’ in higher education only takes the form of ‘holistic admissions’.” The professor remained firm. In his argument, since American universities nonetheless kept racial statistics of incoming classes, the usage of any race still constituted a sort of divisive “labelling” and “quota.” To me, this was insane. A simple awareness of racial statistics is in no way the same as explicitly delineating quotas, and numerous cases have established that college admissions must only consider race as a holistic factor (which, by the way, tends to help minority representation in a way that not doing so has failed to remedy).
This instance reminded me of another event from course a few weeks ago, when my pro-European history professor, who appears to be tout à fait left in her national outlook, mentioned that she was about to say something “politically incorrect” before merely acknowledging some current political tensions and stereotypes between the French, Germans, and British. Her use of the term struck me as bizarre, but not completely novel. I had heard before, and have heard since, French adults say that they might not be “politically correct” when discussing politics when, to my eyes, they’re simply acknowledging frank interests and actions in a political or national situation. That is, it seems that there’s a French conception that “political correctness” means avoiding even the discussion of difficult subjects or frank political differences (where, again, I would define it as simply a manifestation of not calling people what they don’t want to be called, or perhaps setting boundaries for language we use to discuss difficult subjects. But that’s another subject).
I’m sure that to a French person’s eyes some of my political views might seem odd. For one, France doesn’t like to keep racial statistics; nowhere in the Noirs en France video or presentation did we discuss statistics of average racial wealth, educational achievement, or even presence in educational achievement. So, when we were discussing racial demographics in Paris for another of my classes, there was a notable lack of, well, real demographics and maps of race. Our discussion focused on hearsay and general observations of where were the “African” and “Asian” quartiers. Those in my classes ardently argued that under la République, each citizen was no more than a citizen, and so such statistics are only divisive. Yet for me, the first thing I think of is the extraordinarily low number of (visually apparent) black, Asian, or Arab students I see at Sciences Po outside of the exchange population. I can’t get over the feeling that such an aversion hides patterns of discrimination that we haven’t even thought to study, but I’m sure another student might not be able to get over the feeling that such study in and of itself would damage the république’s guarantee of equality.
What’s so interesting to me is that both of these strains have seen French liberals making arguments I would more expect to see from an American conservative. The basic insight is in no way novel – “Wow! French people think differently about politics than us!”. But it’s much more complicated than the simple “the French right is the American left” cliché. The French “république” has a different poids than the American “republic,” the idea of “le libéralisme économique” is about the inverse of a Democratic “economic liberal,” and most importantly, conceptions of how a political space should operate are grounded in different axes. The American left isn’t the French right; they’re two entirely separate coordinate systems that demand a nuanced conversion.