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France, Race and Drugs: An Overview

Fabrice Olivet is a long-time activist for drug policy reform. Since 1996, he has led the association ASUD (Auto Support des Usagers de Drogues), an association approved by the State to represent people supported in the care system for questions relating to addiction.

A historian by training, he is also a polemicist engaged in several debates relating to “French identity”.

Publication: The Métisse Question, Thousand and One Nights, Paris, 2011

Why is it so difficult to talk about issues relating to race and ethnicity in France? What are the impacts in the fight against discrimination?

France is strongly attached to the myth of republican equality, materialized in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, which theoretically recognizes neither races nor religions. This principle also allowed the revolutionary government of 1794 to be the first state in the world to abolish slavery, a measure which would be repealed a few years later by Napoleon.

This republican myth, which we call universalism, has encountered impasses, notably during colonial expansion where the majority of subject peoples were excluded from nationality. However, it has allowed France to assimilate several waves of immigration since the end of the 19th century: Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians, Spaniards, Poles, Kabyles, Portuguese and more. recently French people from North Africa – repatriates from Algeria – mainly composed of Mediterranean populations, Jews, Maltese, Italian-Spanish… All these ethnic groups were able to successively blend into French society without constituting a real community in the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the term.

However, the racial question is very significant in the history of France, but often overlooked. The writer Alexandre Dumas was the son of a black general of the revolution, General Dumas. The National Assembly had, from the end of the 19th century, several black deputies and even a Minister of the Colonies in 1917, in the middle of the war. For the record, one of the best-known theorists of the superiority of the white race is Count Edgard de Gobineau, whose writings enjoyed great popularity in Germany until 1945 (together with one of his disciple, Houston Steward Chamberlain, an Englishman).

Anti-Semitism almost caused a “quasi” civil war between 1898 and 1904 during the Dreyfus Affair. These events led France to build a binding legal corpus which prohibits alluding publicly, or in any administrative document, to skin colour, religion and even less to race which is considered an almost medieval aberration.

This system generally functioned until the end of the 1960s, until the arrival in France of many workers from former African or Asian colonies who settled in the territory and today form a significant part of the population (but officially impossible to count). The children of immigration, French in their own right (because France applies the law of the soil in line with its universalist ideology), have suffered from racism, social exclusion, confinement in suburbs far from the centres, real ghetto, all this in total contradiction with the letter of the constitution.

This double reverse movement, universalist theory versus discriminatory practice, led to one of the most difficult French paradoxes to resolve.

We know that French blacks and Arabs are the most numerous in prison, unemployed, beneficiaries of social services, inserted as consumers and above all suppliers in drug trafficking networks, but we are legally unable to prove all of this. statistically. This veritable schizophrenia only benefits the National Front – heir to the fascist traditions of the 1930s – which rides on the obvious hypocrisy of the official egalitarian discourse and denounces the dangers of immigration for French identity.

Conversely, these republican laws which prohibit ethnic groups from being counted, from claiming specificity or even from counting the discrimination of which they are victims, prevent any community – with the notable exception of the Jewish community for historical reasons – from forming an interest group, an active network and even more so a lobby.

Michelle Alexander’s unanimously acclaimed work on the New Jim Crow is simply impossible to reproduce in France for legal reasons.


Considering the absence of relevant statistics on the subject, in your opinion, do you think that there is a big difference in the rate of drug consumption between the different communities in France?

This is a difficult question, precisely because we are unable to know the statistical contours of populations of African and North African immigrant origin. Furthermore, statistics on drug use in France are very uncertain. The subject “drugs and immigration” is, as in the United States and in many other countries such as Holland, a subject of fantasy and heartbreak. We still do not know if the AIDS epidemic among drug injectors in the 1980s and 1990s caused more devastation in suburban cities. All we know is that these areas were hit by the heroin wave of those years. There, we have statistics because they concern the places of residence of the patients in care. In the same vein, we know today that the vast majority of news stories linked to armed clashes between gangs for the control of cannabis trafficking take place between young people from North African or African immigration.

However, many other indications suggest that the vast majority of illicit substances are sold, bought and consumed by the “little white people” of the middle classes, quite simply because they have much more financial means and are much less harassed by the police. The over-representation of coloured populations in terms of drugs is undoubtedly to be found rather in their level of incarceration, the number of police checks and perhaps also in their low proportion of health care for questions related to use. These are much more explicit factors in the discrimination of which they are victims than in their supposed level of consumption.


Is the stigmatization of blacks and other ethnic minorities significant in France?

The main stigmatization in France weighs on the Arabs, and more particularly on the Algerians who are very numerous in France for historical reasons, and still affected by the bilateral effects of a still undigested Algerian war. The terms “Arab” or “black” are often difficult to pronounce in public whatever the context, for the benefit of more or less hypocritical periphrases like “suburban youth” or even words taken from city slang like “rebeu”, or for people of colour, the Anglo-Saxon term “black”.

It is undeniable that “coloured” populations have suffered since the end of decolonization from a particularly virulent form of racism which contributes to keeping the National Front alive at around 18% in the last presidential elections, which makes it the third largest political force of France, just behind the two institutional parties of left and right which have always shared power.

This particularity of the supposed unsuitability of populations of colour to the “Republican model” is often highlighted by racist attacks emanating from leading political figures, without ever being explicit. Islam is often the appropriate bias to stigmatize Arabs in general, but the real self-mutilation represented by the absence of “ethnic” statistics is not left to feed the fantasies. To summarize, the ban on making explicit reference to skin colour in statistics has never prevented the most outrageous racism from expressing itself in the media, comedian sketches or political interventions. Conversely, all “community” initiatives which attempt to highlight the illusory character of republican universalism in the face of the ghettoization of the suburbs are assimilated, at best, to a paranoid discourse, at worst, to a form of national treason.


Does drug enforcement have a proportionately greater impact on black and other minority ethnic people?

Certainly. Everything suggests that populations of colour undergo more police checks, more body searches, more humiliation, more beatings, more incarceration, all by exploiting the use or possession of narcotics as “indestructible butterfly net”. This is a situation perceptible in the investigation carried out by the Open Society Institute on facial checks in France which, inexplicably, did not isolate the item “drugs” in the reasons for arrest.

I personally remember numerous police checks where the colour of my skin constituted a factor in sarcasm, then physical violence, all being considered as the natural extension of my violation of the legislation on narcotics.


Are there growing obstacles for ethnic minorities in accessing medical assistance and monitoring services? Do you think that these populations suffer from a higher rate of AIDS contamination due to drug injection compared to the general population?

This French schizophrenia undoubtedly created a dramatic situation at the time of the AIDS epidemic among drug users, but this epidemic has been contained since the early 2000s. The generalization of risk reduction in France, and mainly the provision very liberal use of substitute medications was enough to eliminate drug users from AIDS statistics (less than 4% of new cases at present), which includes populations of immigrant origin.

Unfortunately, the memory of a massacre, poorly understood and poorly experienced, and above all never recognized by the authorities, continues to fuel often ambivalent feelings of frustration among French populations with immigrant backgrounds. In the new ghettos in the suburbs of large cities, heroin is today considered a disqualifying product and injection as a degrading practice. In many cities, we have seen the development of real “drug hunts” led by younger people, despite or because of the fact that in certain neighbourhoods, all families had to deplore at least one death from AIDS. or overdose (cousin, brother, son, or uncle… girls being less represented in this population group).

At the same time, it is striking to note that the suburbs of French cities were connected with international drug trafficking networks at the time of the heroin wave of the 80s. Of course, since then, the heroin has declined but not the traffic or the networks, quite the contrary. It is the resale of cannabis and, more secondarily, of cocaine which today structures part of the social relations within these neighbourhoods, a situation unimaginable in the 1970s for example where suburban towns, mainly inhabited by first-generation immigrants were peaceful areas of relative social and ethnic diversity. Worse, the level of violence achieved for market control is proportional to the inflation of profits generated by trafficking. The recent murders perpetrated in Marseille are an illustration of this.

The growing divide between French populations originating from former African colonies, including the Maghreb, and the republican ideal goes far beyond the question of drug policies.

However, focusing on the intersection between these two issues seems particularly interesting for two reasons.

  1. As in the United States, but with complete indifference from public opinion, the state racism of the police forces, and of certain categories of the judicial system was able to be unleashed with impunity under the cover of “fight against drugs”, without any voice being raised to denounce an endemic evil which risks in the long term literally exploding the Republican consensus.
  2. Today, the considerable place taken by narcotics trafficking in the parallel economy of the suburbs forces us to review our drug policies, at the risk of seeing France fall into a Mexican-style scenario which gradually contaminates elected officials’ local authorities and police forces.

The institutional blindness generated by the ban on “ethnic” statistics in France – the latest symptom of which is the desire of President François Hollande to constitutionally prohibit the use of the word race – is today counterproductive in the fight against racism. Steeped in good republican intentions, this fiction has become a smokescreen which on the contrary allows all forms of racism to be expressed without having to justify themselves in the light of scientific investigations into the level of discrimination suffered by certain “races”. Banning the use of the word race to combat racism is like breaking the thermometer to stop the fever. It is common among proponents of anti-racism to boast of a truism: human races do not exist, it is scientifically proven. Go explain this evidence to the millions of people arrested every day, simply because they are the wrong skin colour… The war on drugs offers a unique opportunity to continue to drive a wedge between the races.

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