The Issue of Minorities and French Politics
by Sharon Cornet
Cross-Cultural Perspectives - SOC 315

Professor: Sharon Gerczyk
November 30, 2009

        Politics in France affect its citizens, and the latter also molds the former through time and its political systems.  Minorities, however, are not always as influential in French politics as are the elite, middle or upper classes.  The working and lower classes face disadvantages and sometimes feel out of touch with their place in political society.  Heirarchy is also complicated – although associatively – with the Left, Right, and Centrist positions in the political scene.  It is apparent to most on both the inside and the outside of French culture, that the faces and nature of what it means to be a minority takes on the multi-colored shades of the rainbow, and most are unwelcome (and will stay that way for some time) in French political society.  

        Before going into the issue of minorities, it is important to cover the foundation of past and current French politics.  Based on 1997 political predictions, which were reaffirmed in 2003, the polarized Left and Right were hypothesized to become more tripartite, with a third dimension of Far-Right being prevalent.  Although the Far-Right would not overcome the Left-Right polarization, it is considered, by Grunberg and Schweisguth (2003), to be “dramatically more xenophobic, more punitive and more anti-European than the other electorates”(p. 331). 

        According to Evans and Ivaldi (2008) the extreme right votes in France are and have been motivated by “unemployment, crime and immigration,” and are thus predictable (p. 137).  A forecasting model is planning on being developed for “electoral support for the Front National and Jean-Marie LePen” based on these issues (2008, p. 137). 

        France’s multi-party system, although with a centrist majority, still breaks down into parliamentary election seats, which in 2007 had these final numbers for the seats (Roskin, 2009, p. 115):


Union for a Popular Majority (UMP)         313 seats

Socialists                                                  186 seats

New Center                                                22 seats

Communists                                                15 seats

Greens                                                          3 seats

National Front                                              0 seats

            Interestingly, the National Front (a conservative and racist party) gets “a protest vote for president but no parliamentary seats” (Roskin, 2009, p. 114).  This is ironic considering the fact that France is a split society, based on its political culture and history; the conservatives tend to be Catholic and Gaullist, with the liberals/radicals being anticlerical and socialist (Roskin, p. 122-23).  Each side mistrusts the other, which is a trend that this author will go into more detail later.  Governmental structure in France is fairly complex despite its north/south and Catholic/anticlerical delineations.

        The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd (EIU) published a short synopsis in an article called France: Political Structure, which broke down the legal, electoral, and governmental systems in the Republic of France (EIU, October, 2009).  The French 1958 Constitution is under the Codified Roman law system, while the legislature includes universal suffrage, and is bicameral, with a Senate and National Assembly the latter having a two-round system of voting (EIU, October, 2009).   The Head of State is the President and serves for a term of five years (whom is Nicolas Sarkozy, since 2007), while the legislative and executive powers remain separate (EIU, October, 2009).  The Council of Ministers is the head of the latter of these powers, and the President chairs there, and traditionally is the one who both appoints and may also dismiss the Prime Minister.  France is typically a centrist oriented country, with the current government being a “right-of-centre government” even though there are six political parties (EIU, October, 2009).

A month before this information was published on France’s political system, the EIU also wrote France: Key Developments, that due to his high ratings so far with French citizens, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans for the year 2010 are moving forward in his “programme of incremental structural reforms(Economist IU, September, 2009).  The social program reforms are to be in the tax system, government, and in welfare, particularly because of “social instability,” and because unemployment is expected to rise despite the slow recession emergence (EIU, September, 2009).  A new carbon tax, which the public is opposed to, should still provide overall gains (for the public, not the government) due to the demise of the 2010 local income tax.

The carbon issue deals directly with global ecology, France’s green party (who in 2007 won four seats in the elections for the legislature), and the political pressure towards each country’s responsibility for greening the earth (Roskin, 2009, p. 148).  Although none of the major political parties are anti-nuclear (there are 59 nuclear power plants in France), there is still some division among the French on this issue.  This is why Sarkozy did not apply the carbon tax to electrification, since 79% of France’s electricity is from nuclear power – a zero carbon producing industry (Roskin, p. 148).  Despite all of this, it is not just the pressure from outside of France that is causing some political and social upheaval, but it is also pressure from within France. 
       Outsiders have blamed French culture as being cold and impersonal.  A political science teacher, Steve Taylor, from El Paso, Texas, whom had traveled to France one time spoke with this author about his trip.  Mr. Taylor said that when he went to the gas pump and needed help, a man at another pump treated him quite rudely, leaving him with a sour taste in his mouth about the friendliness of French culture.  He did not know if it was due to his lack of knowledge of how to use the pumps, or if it was how he looked (although he is Caucasian), or if the maltreatment was due to his foreign accent.  Although one certainly cannot – and should not due to stereotyping – base the entire French culture on this single event, there are some aspects to French culture that lend some support for this type of negative experience according to non-French or different classes of people. 

Part of this apparent anti-social phenomenon can be explained by the “face to face” fear that is instilled within the French from a young age.  According to Roskin (2009), the quote above is called “l’horreur du face-a-face” and is “one of the basic characteristics of French culture” and is why “some tourists find the French unfriendly” (p. 127).  The French don’t mean to be unfriendly; they just simply aren’t shallow enough to trust complete strangers upon first meeting, or to become so personal too soon with people outside of their family, or to step outside of the structured system that they have been enculturated into (Roskin, p. 127).  For the many who do not fit these ideals in daily practice, or are even simply neighbors, they are simply shrugged off or rebuked as being “the other” (“les autres”), which is a term used mostly by the Vaucluse in southern France, who tend to be more mistrustful of people who are non-family (Roskin, p. 121).   However, this old trend is slowly diminishing due to modernization.

Social class and minorities (whether foreigners, immigrants, farmers, or other) appear to go hand in hand in France.  Education, French politics, and the political parties are also separated along these lines, dividing each respective group into its “correct” position in the hierarchy.  Even the French-born who have had a long family history in France, and have been educated in standardized French culture, still find tensions due to “privatistic attitudes” based on the “outward conformity and inward freedom” that comes through the formal educational system (Roskin, p. 124).  The rich have boarding schools, and middle and upper class children have opportunities that the working and lower class do not, including the very selective “Great Schools” for college level studies.  Correct speech is also important in education because, Roskin says, “the French are maniacs about their language” and those with disadvantages in education and language “have lesser chances at higher education” (p. 125). 

What direction education takes you is also important.  Prestigious positions and careers win out over the working class and agriculture.  France has supported a major food industry, especially through farms.  The major population of France in the past dealt in agricultural work, but in the last decade or more these highly productive people – farmers who have been producing a good portion of the world’s produce, including wines – are being considered as a minority group. 

So now, rural sociologists are having new insights into the images and ideologies of French society and agriculturalists, which appear to be a paradox (Hervieu, 2008).  Two figures in French myth include the Catholic farmer and the Republican peasant; however, Hervieu (2008) states that “farmers are not sure how to refer to themselves: ‘peasant’ at an exhibition or demonstration, ‘farmer’ on their lands, or ‘head of enterprise’ in the political arena.” (para. 1).  The Republican response and associated peasantry occurred between 1870-1880 due to food and agricultural failures.  It was the modernization movement at the end of WWII that began the association with “farmer” and a more collective mentality (Hervieu, section 2: “The Farmer”, para 1).   However, this change in perception was still somewhat associated with the ''extraordinary means of oppression” regarding individual farming (Hervieu, section 2: “The Farmer”, para. 17).  French farmers, even in modern times, are often considered minorities.

        People who immigrate to France are also minorities, and have trouble defining themselves, or finding equality within the French political system.  Major waves of Britons have been moving to France, and purchasing property there, due to the open policies indicated by the European Union (EU), which allows movement within the borders of the EU.  A case study in Normandy, and fieldwork with around 20 households of Britons in France were assessed from almost 20 years ago, which together paint a picture of the current “Franco-British relationship” (Drake and Collard, 2008, p. 214). 

        The results of the Drake and Collard study showed that people of different ages, social classes, and backgrounds came to France with dreams of living rural, and owning a business or a farm.  Many had to find work outside of these areas, and unemployment, plus little or no language skills made this change particularly difficult.  One couple ended up with plans to move back to their homeland, and called themselves “economic refugees” who would have to go back to Britain defeated, living with family, and unable to buy property in the UK due to high prices and unavailability (Drake and Collard, section 7 “Reality Bites”, para. 7).  Others fared better, although faced similar problems at one time or another.  Some of the money they made in their businesses and farms (such as running a cider farm) had to come from other immigrants (neighbors) and tourists as customers.  The romantic notion and “image of France … in turn appears to be driving some French in the opposite direction” (Drake and Collard, p. 234).

        Immigrants from Briton have the language barrier to cross; however, there is a rise in Muslim immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, who also have a religious barrier as well. France has the greatest amount of Muslim immigrants than any other country in Europe, and President Sarkozy appointed Yazid Sabeg (born in Algeria) to work on anti-discrimination policies for these ethnic minorities (Fofana, 2009, p. 11).  Sarkozy also wants Sabeg to implement affirmative action programs in a style similar to the United States.   This has caused a social and political cleavage effect, which has caused splits even within minority defense and human rights groups.  The challenge will be in accomplishing this goal while still keeping to the French republican ideologies and traditions (Fofana, p. 11-12).

        Racial identities and how they’ve been dealt with in France and the USA have usually been seen as being from opposite viewpoints.  However, both of these countries have had a slight convergence in social and political aspects, with racial identities and ethnicity being recognized more as inhibitors of citizenship by French analysts (Bleich, 2008, p. 166). 

        A 10-year old debate has been brought back to life on whether “ethnic categories in statistical surveys” should be introduced in France (Blum and Guerin-Pace, 2008, p. 45).  Opposition is strong on both sides of the issue, with potential consequences in both social and political realms.  The authors (Blum and Guerin, 2008) advocate that there are better ways for discrimination measuring and countering (p. 45). 

        Determining just how many registered immigrants there are, and what fertility and birth rates are can be difficult in France due to EU rules.  Overall fertility rates in France remain both stable and are high at almost two children per household, despite the fact that trends are similar to other countries in Western Europe.  After WWII the family policy spilled over into the 1980’s, only slightly altered to incorporate more women into the work force.  Today, having 2-3 children in France is widely accepted (Toulemon, 2008, p. 503).

        Youth immigrants in France have to deal with the political nature of their national identities.  Although they were born in France, and/or raised in France, and identify themselves as French, they are stigmatized nonetheless.  An ethnographic study was explored on Muslim girls of African origins, and how their nationalistic education, social structures, and cultural race perceptions were transmitted (Keaton, 2005, p. 405).  

        Patrick Simon (2003) investigated the question about a possible “second generation” of immigrants’ children (born from the immigrants who moved to France in the 1950s and 1960s) , which has been a recent concern concerning social mobility, the job market, and visibility due to racial and ethnic discrimination (Simon, p. 1091).  A survey on family history from 1999 provided data on which this article was based, and incorporated 380,000 individuals, with an analysis on immigrant offspring from Turkey, Morocco, and Portugal.  Mobility, is suggested by the data, is either hindered or encouraged, dependent upon discrimination or education, respectively (Simon, p. 1091).  This is good data, but still limited in scope when it comes to the rest of France.

        Demographic data on minorities and the political pressure to remedy the areas that are lacking is a cyclical and ongoing problem.  France will not be able to properly account for its minorities in any particular area (race, religion, socio-economic status, and so on) until political action and supporting laws create the necessary niche to implement the proper counting of minorities, and the problems associated with being a minority in France.  It is apparent to most on both the inside and the outside of French culture, that the faces and nature of what it means to be a minority takes on the multi-colored shades of the rainbow, and most are unwelcome (and will stay that way for some time) in French political society.  In order for a reversal of this trend to take place, not only for minorities, but also for France in general, then reforms will be needed. 



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