Re-contextualizing “The White Man’s Burden” to Understand France’s Recent Xenophobic Policies

On August 23, 2016, police forced a woman relaxing on the beach in France with her family clad in a blue long-sleeved tunic with black pants and a blue headscarf to either leave the beach or take off her headscarf and tunic; meanwhile, onlookers yelled “go home” and applauded the police while her daughter cried. This incident is just one example of the backlash on burkinis that began when a water park closed to only allow women covered from chest to knees. The opposition to burkinis further spread when many towns banned burkinis from their beaches, resulting in women being fined or asked to leave for wearing burkinis. The burkini waterpark day would provide an opportunity for women to observe their beliefs while enjoying typical summer activities such as going to a waterpark, which was the motive for the Lebanese-born Australian woman who created the burkini in 2004: to accommodate conservative values while still allowing observant women to swim. A local Member of Parliament (MP) voiced his concern that veils represent fundamentalists who want to control women, while the mayor of Les Pennes-Mirabeau opposed the Burkini Day because he thought it was threatening to public order. Even the French Prime Minister supported cities and resorts banning burkinis, stating that burkinis affirm “political Islam” in a public space. France has 5 million Muslims, about 2000 of which wear full veils. The burkini reveals an ideological battle in France over French identity and the influx of Muslim immigrants from France’s former colonies.

France has a unique identity, which, like all other national identities, was established in a mainly homogenous society through a perceived difference from other identities and nationalities. The origins of French identity mean that fully-assimilated French citizens possess a high propensity for xenophobia, which causes citizens to view different identities as intrinsically opposite to their own identity. “The White Man’s Burden,” a poem written during the Scramble for Africa in 1899 expressing the sentiment of the colonial time-period, stated that colonies are a burden that empires should acquire in order to “civilize” inferior, or non-European, populations. While “The White Man’s Burden” originally influenced Europe’s colonial agendas, contemporary French policies toward immigrants, particularly Muslims, demonstrate that the poem’s ideological core continues to reproduce itself in French policies, including bans on burkinis, niqabs, and headscarves, surveillance of immigrants, and assimilation efforts.

Europe began colonizing Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in a race to secure profits in the slave, sugar, gold, and spice trades. France’s colonies were mainly in North and West Africa. France continued to consolidate their colonies in the late nineteenth century in order to secure their colonial economic system. In order to do so, the French government harshly implemented their hegemony in order to maintain their oppressive system. “The White Man’s Burden” expressed the rationalization for these oppressive policies, but by 1960, French-controlled West African states had gained independence, which spurred an increase of migrants in France.

Since 1960, there have been two streams of immigration: return, consisting of those of mostly European descent, and labor migration, resulting mainly from those indigenous to former colonies. After the independence of French West Africa, most labor migrants native to the former colonies were male workers looking for employment, whose settlement in French cities began postcolonial migration to France. However, these indigenous immigrants were not well-received, in part because of their history of exploitation which helps produce current prejudices and, in some cases, the fights for independence. Thus, colonization still impacts immigrants’ lives today: indigenous immigrants from former colonies face racial or ethnic discrimination and stereotypes as a result of colonization and might view the host country with suspicion because of their history of colonization. Many immigrants therefore find it difficult to assimilate into French society, and the history of exploitation during colonization becomes a present reality in employment discrimination. Oppression of indigenous labor migrants in France has occurred since the colonial era and continues today.

Much of the present discrimination stems from xenophobic, racist, or islamophobic sentiments dating back to French colonization. One of the events highlighting this discrimination in recent French history was an investigation in 1943 based solely on immigrants’ ethnicity. The 1943 investigation surrounded a rumor in French bureaucracy that Arab cafés in Paris were playing Arabic radio broadcasts that criticized French immigration policies. This rumor incited investigations into civil status, political affiliation, nationality, and other qualities of the immigrants going to these cafés, marking the start of surveillance of immigrants in France that continues today. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, French surveillance became subtly and symbolically violent because authorities were alarmed at the perceived radicalization in the African immigrant community because of the potential to destabilize French society and politics. French surveillance emphasized control and undesirability of immigrants from former colonies in addition to understanding the immigrants and how to best assimilate them into French society. Since the 1980’s, radical right-wing parties campaigning on xenophobic platforms have grown in popularity in Europe, and these parties take advantage of citizens’ fears of threats from immigration in order to gain power and enact discriminatory legislation.

Presently, France’s population is comprised of 6% immigrants, 61% of which are from outside the EU; however, most immigrants of non-European descent remain poor due to segregated institution, failing school, low upward mobility, and racism and discrimination in employment, which are all remnants of the colonial era. France has limited immigration data since the French census or other data sources pose no questions of ethnic origin in order to adhere to France’s efforts to promote social cohesion. French citizens are generally more tolerant towards immigrants, but they demand more public order, which leads to intolerance, as they consider immigrants producing social disorder.

French colonial history has shaped the French government’s attitude toward this wave of immigration, viewing immigrants as unlikely to fit into France’s rigid society. France surveils its immigrants, as it surveilled indigenous peoples during colonial times. North African groups seek to be recognized as equal citizens instead of being viewed as natives because of their colonial history. Gaining citizenship as an immigrant from the Maghreb is difficult because of colonial history, and the colonial past is downplayed by justifying delays of granting citizenship as practical considerations. In order to obtain citizenship in France, candidates must prove they support the Republic’s values and cultural standards in public and private life. The French government uses surveillance techniques not only to understand the immigrant populations, but also to determine how to develop or alter policies regarding their presence in France and to shape immigrant communities in France. Thus, surveillance contributes to conformist policies. Xenophobic Frenchman view cultural difference as an obstacle to integrating immigrants into French culture and society.

French authorities have low regard for African immigrants because they believe African migration poses problems for a cohesive French society, illustrating the need to assimilate immigrants into French society. Authorities also viewed immigrants as apolitical and grew concerned when immigrants became more politicized, thinking that African workers were radicalizing and thus threatening French society. This thought process justified the increase in efforts to detect radical or dangerous African immigrants. Recently, the populist extreme right has taken advantage of less social cohesion and status uncertainty by creating exclusionary policies, including the recent burkini bans, the 2004 headscarf ban in schools, the 2011 “burka ban” which banned face coverings from public spaces, and the May 2016 law passed in the National Assembly, giving police and prosecutors extensive power.

The 2004 headscarf ban protected the French Constitution’s interpretation of “libérté de la réligion,” which literally translates to two possibilities: freedom from religion or freedom of religion. The French government is organized around the interpretation, freedom from religion, which is the basis for their secular policies, or laïcité. According to the French government, the headscarf ban protects France’s policy of laïcité. The 2004 law that bans headscarves also bans other conspicuous, religious symbols including wearing a turban or a cross in school. Supporters of the ban argue that France must start the notion of secularity in schools. This law was made in reaction to tensions between ethnic or religious groups in France and in order to cement ideas of laïcité. Despite the controversy of the headscarf ban, it remains in place.

Additionally, in 2011, former President Sarkozy banned the niqab in all public spaces, meaning full face coverings are not allowed in public. Some women who wear niqabs or burqas are essentially under house arrest because they are not allowed to go outside wearing niqab or burka but value it such that they will not appear outside without it. Exemptions from the face-covering ban include motorcycle helmets, face masks for medicinal reasons, and traditional face coverings such as for carnivals or religious processions. One woman filed a claim that the ban violates her rights and freedoms, but the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2014. With the face-covering ban in place, Sarkozy hinted at banning all headscarves in public places if he wins the French presidential election in 2017.

Other French politicians have reiterated Sarkozy’s suggestion to ban any headscarves from public places. French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has suggested a ban on headscarves for universities, asserting that the majority of the French people think that headscarves contradict French values. However, the education minister opposes this suggestion, asserting that banning headscarves would unjustly deny access to foreigners attending French universities and that university students, as adults, can independently decide to wear a headscarf. In defense of the headscarf ban at universities, Valls told a French publication, Libération, that banning headscarves would prove that Islam is compatible with the French Republic’s values and that he thinks it is possible for Islam to be compatible with the values of the Republic. Valls’ statements imply that he currently thinks that Islam is not compatible with the French Republic and its values. These statements showcase the growing xenophobic and islamophobic sentiments among government officials, which both reflect and are reflected in the public opinion towards similar policies. Islamophobic sentiments trigger oppressive policies such as headscarf and niqab bans, which reflect sentiments of “civilizing an inferior population” in “The White Man’s Burden.” This poem continues to portray public and government opinions on immigration, and in this case, particularly immigration to France from former colonies in North Africa.

Triggered by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, another law, passed in May 2016, now gives police and prosecutors extensive new powers. Police can now detain a person for up to four hours without a lawyer to check his or her identity and can place someone returning from a terrorist hotbed on house arrest for up to a month, promoting racial or religious profiling and targeting those with immigrant backgrounds. Additionally, police have access to electronic eavesdropping technology that was previously only used by intelligence agencies, and prosecutors can approve phone tapping, communication surveillance, and hidden cameras to observe suspects. Police can detain a suspect for 144 hours without a charge. Opponents of the law argue that it would allow exceptional measures used for states of emergency to become commonplace and that France is trying to institutionalize extended powers for when the state of emergency ends. This law further institutionalizes the already systemic issue of xenophobia, racism, and islamophobia that are all reflections of France’s colonial past.

The large influx of immigrants to France has created a feeling of uncertainty in French society, so right-wing parties are campaigning on xenophobic platforms are gaining support. For example, the Front National makes immigrants from North Africa scapegoats, and under Sarkozy, France tightened criteria for immigration, including good language skills, minimum base of knowledge of French history, and accepting major norms and values. The idea that immigrants, particularly those with Muslim backgrounds, must be monitored and controlled as much as possible for France’s safety stems directly from the ideas put forth during the colonial era. “The White Man’s Burden” portrays opinion during colonization, and, as many immigrants in France originate from former French colonies, these sentiments still resonate today. Although much concern was placed over the burkini ban, the motivation for bans takes precedence. These bans and regulations are rooted in the dangerous and uninformed idea that immigrants, particularly those of another race or religion, are inferior populations and must be controlled and monitored.

France reproduces ideology from “The White Man’s Burden” today through new laws extending police and prosecutorial powers over targeted immigrant groups, bans on headwear, and other discriminatory and exclusionary laws. French politicians are capitalizing on the public’s fear of the “other,” or the unfamiliar, by designing xenophobic, islamophobic, and racist platforms. However, this phenomenon is not only specific to France. The United Kingdom has announced plans following its referendum to leave the EU to make immigration from India, a former colony, more difficult in order to protect business. Germany has been accused of offering money to asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin, including former colonies such as Ghana. Other European countries are experiencing similar results in terms of both elections of xenophobic parties and implementation of xenophobic policies. Recent terrorist attacks fuel these kinds of policies and xenophobic and islamophobic sentiment; however, the majority of these recent policies targeting immigrants stem from “The White Man’s Burden” ideology, portraying the need to control and civilize “inferior” populations.