Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture

By Alex Hughes; Keith Reader | Go to book overview
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Racism has changed considerably over the last fifty years. The major transformation is the change from modern forms of racism, underpinned by the concept of the biological hierarchy of races, to postmodern forms, underpinned by the concept of cultural difference.

Since the war, scientific theories of the hierarchy of races have been discredited and 'race' itself, as a means of categorizing human groups and understanding human behaviour, has been delegitimized. However, the delegitimization of 'race' has not brought about the disappearance of racism. Today, racism in France tends to take the form of the stigmatization of groups defined in cultural rather than biological terms, and through the discourse of their difference and incompatibility, rather than their inferiority and their need to be assimilated or eradicated.

This change can be related to the crisis of modernity in contemporary Western democracies brought about by the growing awareness of the relativism of Western values, the development of post-industrial and post-national forms of organization of society, the globalization of communications and culture, and the rise in new forms of identity formation based on ethnicity. In France, the crisis is perceived as a breakdown in the traditional processes of integration (through schools, trade unions, political parties, etc.) leading to the fragmentation of society and the creation of a new 'space' for the clash of ethnic/cultural particularisms (Wieviorka 1991). In this climate of cultural relativism, the notion of difference is used both for the purposes of individual and group identity, and for the stigmatization of others.

Probably the two most significant examples of contemporary racism are anti-semitism and anti-immigrant racism. In general, anti-semitism today differs from its modern genocidal form in that it involves an increase in symbolic violence aimed at cultural signs of Jewishness. Hence, the increase in recent years in the desecration of Jewish graves (the most-publicized example of which was the incident in Carpentras in May 1990), the desecration of synagogues, anti-semitic graffiti and tracts, and revisionist history denying the Holocaust.

The same might be said of the racism associated with new forms of immigration from North Africa, for here too visible signs of cultural difference (headscarves, mosques, ritual slaughter) are the object of racial violence. In this case, cultural difference is conflated with that of national difference: nations are viewed as culturally homogeneous entities whose distinctive identity is threatened by mixing and infiltration. The debates around immigration and national identity are the major areas through which this racism is expressed. Clearly, Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National is the most prominent exponent of this form of racism, but the ideas are not confined to the fringes of French political and social life.

The use of code words as a means of stigmatizing certain groups (immigration, national


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Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture


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