Friday, April 27, 2007

The French Model

Back during the height of the French Race Riots last summer, I noted the interesting irony underlying American discussion. Conservatives love to bash on France, and they love to bash on European "multiculturalism", which they blame for ails like the race riots that tore through Paris. The problem is that France, as a matter of policy, has adopted a legal mandate of color-blindness that conservatives here can only dream of. And many of the more astute commentators pointed this out, arguing that French "color-blindness" was preventing it from adequately redressing the pervasive grating poverty of its racial minorities. As a political matter, I support labeling any conservative advocate of the color-blind system as supporting "The French Model," but I think there is a serious point to be made here.

Via Workplace Prof, Yeshiva (Cardozo) University Law Professor Julie Suk has expanded on this point in a forthcoming article appearing volume 55 of the American Journal of Comparative Law. Here's the abstract:
In Fall 2005, race riots in France drew attention to differences between the French and American legal regimes for remedying racial inequality and discrimination. The riots reacted to the persistence of employment discrimination against people of North African origin. French antidiscrimination law has been unable to solve such problems because of its focus on criminal punishment of racist speech and its uncompromising commitment to race-blindness. These features embody the intersection of two historical forces: the influence of Vichy memories on French legal conceptions of racism and discrimination, and the strong republican resistance to social distinctions. Understanding this history comparatively brings certain features of U.S. antidiscrimination law into sharper focus: U.S. law imposes civil, rather than criminal liability, and is more tolerant of race-conscious affirmative action, more resistant to regulating racist speech, and more reluctant to extend antidiscrimination law to a wide range of protected characteristics. These distinctive features of U.S. law are explained by the law's reaction to the history of slavery and segregation. The different evolutions of antidiscrimination law reveal how particular forms of racism - anti-Semitism and genocide in France, and the slavery and segregation of African Americans in the United States - gave rise to two very different antidiscrimination regimes. The French contrast challenges the assumptions of American antidiscrimination law, leading to greater precision about the uniquely American commitment to race-blindness in equal protection doctrine. The stricter French model of race-blindness highlights the instability and ambivalence of American race-blindness. Comparative historical inquiry reveals that the goal of eradicating group subordination does more work in U.S. antidiscrimination law than the goal of achieving a truly race-blind society based on individual merit.

France has adopted hate-speech laws that would make many American liberals blanch--we are reasonably committed to legal protection for racist speech. And America's relatively color-conscious policies (like affirmative action) are considered by the French to be "dirty", racist, and immoral.

Can America's relatively(!) superior racial climate be explained by our greater tolerance for color-conscious policy making? It's true that other variables present themselves. It could be due to France's more closed economy. But as conservative icon Richard Posner notes, America has had its share of race riots in the 60s and 70s, in an economic climate still significantly more liberal than contemporary France. Race riots happen regardless of economic system, and the fact that they are race riots should make us immediately suspect the causes have something to do with racial policies.

What I mean to do in bringing up the French example is not to say that it is game, set, and match for a particular position. But it does allow us to realize that we're not debating this question in a void. We currently live in an America which has fitfully experimented with affirmative action and other color-conscious race remedies for about 30 years or so. We can compare that to a France which has steadfastly rejected those remedies. Where are minorities better off? Which is more just? Which is working more effectively?

Ultimately, the question presents itself: Are you in the American camp, or do you support the French model?

1 comment:

PG said...

France's hate speech laws would make *liberals* blanch, but given the conservative/ libertarian proclivity for merging liberals and leftists into a blob ("Feminists want to ban pornography!" "No, *radical* feminists want to ban porn, *liberal* feminists do not"), I imagine many conservatives would confuse the leftist acceptance of restrictions on speech with a liberal enthusiasm for same. Indeed, I wonder if this is part of the difference between French and U.S. politics; they seem to have much more of a left and a right, whereas we exist in more of a muddled middle. (Which is why I think Justice O'Connor actually was an excellent representation of American thought.)

Presumably Suk addresses one further difference: the majority's sense of the racial Other in U.S. politics hasn't changed much in the last 200 years. Though Jews were openly discriminated against socially and more quietly discriminated against legally through the operation of Christiam majoritarian legislation like Sunday closing laws, aside from Native Americans (whose legal status as Americans has always been and remains complicated) African Americans generally have been the race to which white people referred whenever they discussed race. Being neither black nor white, I've never felt quite included in American discussions about race, and I imagine that Latinos until very recently felt the same. The term "minority" in matters like affirmative action has been modified to "underrepresented minority" in order to account for the success of U.S. immigration policy in cherrypicking Asian immigrants.

France, as implied by the contrast between North African immigrants and the term anti-Semitism, is dealing with a relatively new minority for which its political and legal framework is not set up. It's difficult to get exact statistics because of the French prohibition on surveying people for race, ethnicity or religion (Ward Connerly, come on down!), but it seems fair to guess that people of non-European descent make up a much larger percentage of France's population than they did in 1958, the year the current Republic and its Constitution began (themselves having been galvanized into existence by the Algerian War of Independence, but not anticipating the full effects of France's relation with its former colonies). So we have a political and legal framework set up for one minority that stereotypically was known for academic, economic and even political success beyond its numbers, that is not prepared to deal with a wholly different minority that is of recent non-French origin and therefore is handicapped in many respects from being able to operate easily within French society (which emphasizes familiarity with the language, culture, etc.)

And then there's the complications of different citizenship laws, such that everyone born in the U.S. automatically is an American citizen, whereas France began with jus solis but restricted it as immigration increased in the 1980s, such that now children born in France of foreign parents must apply for French nationality at adulthood.