Fabrice Olivet talks to TalkingDrugs about race and drugs in France

Fabrice Olivet is a french harm reduction activist.  Since 1996 he has managed  ASUD, a NGO  agreed by government to represent drug users interest in French the health system.
Graduated in history, he is a polemist engaged in several debates regarding the 'French identity'.

Publication : La Question Métisse ( the mixed people case) , Mille et une Nuits, Paris, 2011

Q1. Why is talking about issues related to race and ethnicity so difficult in France and what impact does that have on challenging discrimination?

France is strongly attached to a myth of republican equality, realised in the Human Rights Declaration of 1789, which condemns any form of discrimination based on race or religion. This principle allowed to the revolutionary government of 1794 to be the first Nation in the World to abolish slavery, a measure that was repealed by Napoleon, years later.

This myth of a republican form of government which we call universalism, faced many deadlocks, notably during the colonial expansion where the majority of the subjugated peoples were deprived of the French nationality. However, it has permitted to France to assimilate many waves of immigration since the end of the 19th century: East European Jews, Italians, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and recently North African French - the repatriates of Algeria -, Mediterranean populations, Jews, Maltese, Italian-Spanish.. All these ethnic groups have been successfully integrated in French society without forming real, different, segregated communities.
The issue of race has been dominant in French history but has very often been hidden in silence. Our famous author known as Alexander Dumas was the son of an African military officer during the revolution, the officer Dumas. The National Assembly possessed many representatives of colour, even a Minister of the colonies in 1917, during the War. One well known theorist of the superiority of the white race is the Comte Edgard de Gobineau, whose writings are very popular in Germany until 1945 ( along with the writings of Houston Steward Chamberlain, an English).

Anti- Semitism became the cause of almost a civil war between 1898 and 1904, during what the French call the ‘Dreyfus Case’(‘Affaire Dreyfus’). These events lead France into building a forced judicial corpus that forbids any public reference or insinuation in any public document to colour or ethnicity, religion and even more to race.

This system has been globally operating until the end of the 60’s, when many workers belonging to ancient African or Asian colonies arrived in France and shaped one important part of the French population (but officially impossible to count them). The immigrants, totally French, as in France the right of the ground is applied (coherent with an ideology of universalism), have suffered racism, social exclusion, confinement in isolated suburbs very far from the centre- real ghettos-, all these happening in terrible contradiction with the written Constitution rules. This contradictory tendency, involving on the one side the universalist and humanist theory but on the other side discriminatory practices led to a hard-to-resolve paradox.

We know that French people of colour and French Arabs are numerous in prisons, are struck by unemployment, are the main social services beneficiaries, are mainly inserted in society as consumers and are involved in drug trafficking networks, but we are legally incapable of proving all these data statistically. This true schizophrenia promotes some old rooted fascist traditions, that are built upon the evident hypocrisy of the official egalitarian discourse and   serve the interests of the Far Right Party (‘Le Front National’).
Conversely, these ‘republican’ laws, which do not allow the ethnic groups to stand up for themselves, to claim a specific identity or even face up to the discriminations of which they are the victims, prevent all communities -except for the Jewish community due to historical reasons- from constituting themselves into an interest group, into networks of action and a fortiori into a lobby.

The unanimously praised work of Michelle Alexander on the New Jim Crow, is simply impossible to be repeated in France because of legal restrictions.  

Q2. In the absence of good statistics, in your judgement do you think there is much difference in the rates of drug use amongst different communities in France?

This is a difficult question, as we are incapable of knowing the exact statistics of the immigrant populations coming from Africa. In addition, the statistics on drug use in France are very random. The issue of drugs and immigration in France is an issue surrounded by many myths and fantasies, just like in the US or the Netherlands. We do not know whether the HIV epidemic among the injecting drug users during the 80’s and 90’s affected more the suburban cities.  All that we are aware of is that these zones were struck by the wave of heroin back in those decades. We possess statistical data for those zones because the residences of the people infected by HIV have been tracked down. We also know today that the majority of gangs associated with various violent incidents related to the control of the drug trafficking of cannabis are mostly comprised of young African immigrants.

However, many other signs suggest that the big majority of illicit substances are sold, bought and consumed by the middle class  ‘young whites’, simply because they have much more economic ease than other disadvantaged groups and are obviously less harassed by the police. The overrepresentation of people of colour with regard to drug use undoubtedly needs to be investigated in the levels of their incarceration and the numbers of police controls. Factors such as victimization caused by discrimination matter much more in their big presence in statistics than actually being involved in high levels of drug consumption.

Q3 Does stigma pose a greater problem for Black and other ethnic minority people in France?

The main stigmatisation in France weighs more on Arab communities, more specifically on Algerians, who are very numerous in France due to historical reasons, and always affected by the bilateral effects of the Algerian war of independence, whose effects have not been erased yet. The terms ‘Arab’ or ‘noir’-=black,-, are sometimes hard to be pronounced in public, despite the context. Instead, some other  more or less hypocritical phrases, such as ‘young people from the suburbs’, or even words taken from the French slang, such as ‘rebeu’, or the English term ‘black’ for people of colour tend to exist.
It is undeniable that since the decolonisation, the people of colour have been suffering from a form of racism, racism particularly aggressive and violent. This form of racism led to a rise of the nationalist party (‘Le Front National’) to 18% at the last presidential elections, making it the third political power in France, alongside the two big dominant political parties, the left-wing and the right-wing that traditionally share the power.

This particularity of a supposed readjustment of the populations of colour to the ‘republican model’ is often put forward by the racist attacks coming from high profile personalities of the political arena, attacks that usually never become explicit. The Islam and the frequent bias that stigmatise the Arab communities in general, but also the true self -mutilation that contribute to the absence of ‘ethnic’ statistics only feed fantasies and illusions. To sum up, the ban on making explicit reference to the colour in statistics has never prevented a form of oblique, non-direct racism from appearing in the media, in humoristic sketches or in political interventions. On the contrary, all the ‘communitarian’ initiatives that try to prove the illusionary dimension of a republican universalism which is put into the test in the existence of more and more ghettos in the suburbs, are understood and assimilated as a paranoiac discourse or, even worse, as a form of national betrayal.

Q4 Does drug law enforcement disproportionately impact upon Black and other ethnic minority people in France?

Certainly, everything makes us think that people of colour undergo much more police controls, more body searches, more humiliations, more violence, higher levels of incarceration, and the motor for all of this is the use or the possession of narcotic drugs as an unbreakable butterfly net. This is a clear situation shown in a research led by the Open Society Foundation, concerning the face control in France, which inexplicably did not leave aside the issue of "drugs" among the motives behind questioning.

I personally remember many police controls where my skin colour was a reason of sarcasms, then a reason of violence, the whole being considered as the natural extension of my breach of the drug laws.

Q5 Are there increased barriers to accessing harm reduction services for France’s ethnic minorities and do you think they might have higher HIV/AIDS rates relating to injecting drug use than is normal in France?

This schizophrenia undoubtedly created a dramatic situation during the HIV epidemic among drug users, but this epidemic has been jugulated since 2000. The generalization of risk reduction in France and more importantly the liberal providing of substitution treatment medicines was enough to eliminate the drug users from the HIV statistics (at the moment there are less than 4% new cases),  including the immigrant origin population.

Unfortunately the memory of an hecatomb, "misunderstood", "taken hard" and especially never recognized by the authorities  keeps on feeding feelings of frustration, often ambivalent, among the French population with immigration origins. In the new suburban ghettoes of the big cities, heroin is actually being considered as a dangerous substance and injection as a degrading practice. In many cities, a true drug-addicts chase has developed, led by the youngest, despite or because of the fact that in certain neighbourhoods all families had to lament deaths caused by overdoses or HIV (victims including a cousin, a brother, a son or an uncle... the girls being less represented in this segment of population).

At the same time, what is striking is that the suburbs of the french cities were connected with the international drug trafficking networks during the 80s, when the wave of heroin was at its peak. It is sure that heroin has been controlled but neither the traffic nor the networks have. On the contrary, it is the resale of cannabis and that of the cocaine at a lesser extent, which actually structure a part of social relations in these neighbourhoods. This was an unimaginable situation in the 70s for example, when the suburban areas, mostly inhabited by first generation immigrants or people coming from overseas (Antilles etc..) were peaceful zones of a relative social and ethnic mixing. Much worse, the level of violence associated with the control of the drug markets, is proportional to the inflation of profits, generated by the drug trafficking. Several recent murders i in Marseille. illustrate this.

The growing social division between the French populations, coming from the ex-African colonies, included Maghreb and the republican ideal, widely exceed the question of drug policies. Yet, two factors seem to be in favour of the necessity of being particularly interested in the intersection of the two issues:

  1. Like in the USA, but with a completely indifferent public opinion, the state racism, the racism of the police forces and that of certain categories of the judicial apparatus have given rise to impunity, hidden behind the 'war on drugs’, without any voice being raised to denounce an endemic evil, which risks, in the long term, to literally trigger the explosion of the republican consensus.
  2. Today, the role of the drug trafficking in the ‘parallel’ economy of the suburbs, obliges us to revise our drug policies. Otherwise there is a risk to see France, leaning towards a Mexican like scenario, which progressively corrupts the elected local body of representatives and the police forces.

The institutional blindness, generated by the prohibition of the existence of ethnic statistics in France-  the last symptom of which is the president's Hollande initiative to ban the use of the word race from the Constitution-  is actually counterproductive in the fight against racism. This fiction, shaped by good republican intentions, has become a smoke-screen, which allows, on the contrary, the expression of all forms of racism, without having to justify themselves, in the light of scientific investigations, concerning the level of discrimination suffered by certain..’races’ . Banning the use of the word race to struggle against racism is completely inappropriate.  It is usual for the advocates of anti-racism to revel in a truism: human races do not exist, it is scientifically proven.  Try then to explain this ‘self-evident’ fact to millions of people who are stopped, searched and arrested every day, simply because they are not white....The war on drugs offers a unique motivation to continue widening the gap among races.

Edited and Translated by Stefania Morozini