Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking
since the 1960s
The French and the British hold different views of race and racism, but it is not always easy to go beyond ready-made explanations to understand precisely why. In Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s, Erik Bleich, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College, Vermont, offers to compare the evolution of race policies in France and Britain since 1945 through an insightful account of the different conceptions and policies adopted in each country. Bleich’s starting point is simple: why did two comparable neighboring nations faced with similar problems of immigration, integration and racism (after W.W.2 both slowly became multicultural nations) come up with radically opposed solutions to treat them? Since there is no plain answer, Bleich sets out to investigate the matter by focusing on the laws (how they were born, what they provide for) which in both countries helped shape the initial terms of the modern debate over race and race relations.
The first chapter is devoted to the various theoretical approaches which may help understand the differences in public policy. Chapters 2 to 4 analyze the history and content of the various antiracism laws in Britain, while chapters 5 and 6 do the same for France. Chapter 7 attempts to offer an explanation for the differences, using the concept of “frame,” “a set of cognitive and moral maps that orient an actor within a policy sphere” [p. 26], i.e. ideas formulated in a certain way and according to personal circumstances as much as by cultural criteria by those who actually brought about the pieces of legislation. Chapter 8 accounts for the recent developments of race legislation in both countries.
This study documents particularly well the fact that one specific element marked the issue at the precise moment when it became prominent, which up until today has profoundly affected the way the issue is debated in each country. In Britain, it was the influence of the United States in the 1960s, in France it was anti-Semitism right after the war onwards. Ever since then, the context and the terms of the debate, as well as the laws have been only lightly altered. As a result, each nation thinks about racism in a specific way. But although each person has his or her “own particular configuration,” when it comes to race, groups and sometimes whole societies may share similar a common frame, “if enough elements of the frame are shared” [p. 29]. Bleich makes it clear from the outset that those who were directly responsible for the laws are paramount (“a core group of significant actors must be operating” [p. 32]), and so he tries to identify both the ideas and the “actors” to understand the particular shape of the local institutions.
Although the impact of the 1958 Nottingham and Notting Hill riots, seen as “racial events” pitting black immigrants against white “natives” must not be underestimated [p. 60], Britain’s watershed was the 1965 Race Relations Act, which heralded “a significant philosophical departure from reigning British policy” [p. 35] which until then had been colour-blind (all citizens are equal before the law), by forbidding “access discrimination” based on skin colour in certain public places. In addition, lawmakers did not make racial discrimination a crime, preferring to rely on conciliation (through “the first domestic race institutions in post-war Western Europe” [p. 62], such as the Race Relations Board, aka RRB) and if that was not enough, on civil law [p. 52]. Originally, the Labour leadership was favourable to criminalization, but a group of active lawyers lobbied the government into modifying the bill to reflect the US civil approach, after personally seeing in America that it was almost impossible to obtain convictions using criminal procedures [pp. 52-55]. In spite of the unquestionable level of racial intolerance which existed in Britain at the time, and although a fair share of Labour’s core voters were receptive to anti-immigration rhetoric, later embodied by Enoch Powell, the law was passed in a Labour-Conservative consensus, which only the radicals in each party criticised.
Interestingly enough, the issue of discrimination was largely detached from that of immigration which split the political chessboard along partisan lines [pp. 90-91]. From then on, British law and institutions recognized colour as a defining factor. The words themselves were also directly imported from the USA—the term “race” itself was deemed fit to describe the British context and became tacitly accepted as reference. The Race Relations Act “created and implanted perceptions among actors that British problems were close parallels to American problems of race and racism” [p. 61].
Still under the pressure of progressive lobbyists, the 1968 Race Relations Act (chapter 3) widened the scope of the law to employment and housing, and strengthened the powers of the RRB, but it stopped short of mentioning religious discrimination, while Northern Ireland was left out of the scope of the law [p. 97]. Bleich emphasizes the role of Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, who was keen to push his liberal agenda of the “civilized society,” and foresaw the issue of second-generation immigrants [pp. 70-72], and of newcomers such as antiracist “civil associations” [p. 65]. The emphasis was on the need to maintain social order” [p. 73] and avoid a US-style scenario of racial confrontation. The issue remained depoliticized as a free vote was allowed in the Commons [p. 83], in spite of Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech a few days before. The late 1960s saw “the birth of race as an autonomous policy sphere” [pp. 73, 84-85]. The 1976 Race Relations Act went a little further, allowing litigants to go straight to a civil court without filing a complaint with the RRB first, which had little power of enforcement and redress, and often took months to make a ruling. The definition of discrimination was also widened to include indirect discrimination, whether intentional or not [p. 101], and allowed a “soft form of affirmative action, known in Britain as positive action” [pp. 101-102]. “Group-equality logic” was introduced although quotas were not [p. 105] and “no incentives were offered to induce [positive discrimination] action” [p. 107]. The law was thus slowly but moderately amended. As a matter of fact, courts have always stuck to a very restrictive interpretation of the anti-discrimination laws [p. 108].
Reading the chapters on France, one automatically feels the differences with Britain. Central to the analysis is the historical birth of the anti-racist debate in France where the word “race” is anathema, largely because of its use by the Nazis and the Vichy regime during the war. Any public policy attempting to integrate the recognition of groups defined as race or along racial lines would be stillborn because of this historical burden. Incredible as it may seem, the word race was omitted until the final version of the 1972 antiracism law [p. 137]! The history of French antiracism is well documented, in particular the influence of the MRAP [pp. 121-122], a left-wing antiracist association which influenced the terms of the debate by focusing largely on anti-Semitism and on declaratory racism (racist words and writings), more than on access racism (jobs, housing etc.), which makes it fundamentally different from the British situation. Its leaders, many of whom were Jewish lawyers, were concerned by the potential rebirth of anti-Semitism in the post-war years and lobbied the government for years to pass a law that would make crimes of anti-Semitic oral and written statements, as well as acts [p. 122].
If the 1972 law was passed in a consensual atmosphere by a right-wing party, it was much broader in scope than the British 1965 RRA. It banned “expressive racism,” i.e. hate speech, criminalizing racial defamation and provocation to racial hatred or violence; it outlawed “access racism,” i.e. discrimination in employment and in provision of goods and services by public employees or private citizens, which also became criminal offences; it allowed the state to disband groups that promote racism; and it gave to non-governmental anti-racist associations the status of "civil parties," a legal role as partners in fighting racism, permitting them to instigate and to take part in court cases of racism, even if they have not been subject to direct attacks [p. 136].
In some way this exemplifies the core differences between France and Britain. The former opted for sweeping principled legislation and confrontation, the latter for a step-by-step approach, practical laws and conciliation. France did not appeal to either administrative machinery of conciliatory procedures nor to civil law, and remained completely alien to the American, and for that matter to the British, contexts, which were not even evoked in the legislative debate [p. 141], probably because they were perceived as unfit to French circumstances, which dictated finding indigenous solutions. Thus France’s institutions and laws have remained colour-blind (the French explain this by their Republican tradition and their distinctive “laïcité” [p. 156, note 48]) and insensitive to “affirmative action.” While Britain keeps racial statistics (“ethnic monitoring” [pp. 109-110]), France does not (it is even illegal to do so [p. 145]).
The rise of the far right Front National in the 1980s stripped the debate in France of its aura of consensus and a new law was deemed necessary. The 1990 “Gayssot law” expanded France’s anti-racist institutions in three ways. First, historical denial of the Shoah was made totally illegal (until then only the apology of the Shoah had been punishable). Secondly, parties convicted of racist crimes can be deprived of some of their civil rights such as the right to run for public office. Finally, the law mandated an annual report on the topic, published by the National Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH). Although some of the steps taken were deemed controversial at the time the legislation was passed—notably the ban on Holocaust denial and the power to deprive individuals of their civil rights. On the whole these institutions have been widely accepted in French political circles and society [p. 142].
Bleich concludes that it is largely “lived experiences and discourses in Britain and France (which) are central sources of race frames” [p. 189]. As a matter of fact, in both countries, the minorities themselves played little if any role in the passing of legislation (to be compared with the United States where black people were at the vanguard of the civil rights movement).
In accessible terms, although the theory might not always be clear, Bleich provides an interesting comparative survey of race policies in France and Britain and tests his hypothesis successfully with facts and attention-grabbing anecdotes.