Is France racist ?

Is France racist ?

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As France is seeing a massive increased of racist and xenophobe violence (mostly against the Muslim population and various Mosques) after the tragedy of last week at Charlie Hebdo, a new blog post on 538 (the site founded by Nate Silver) shows a lot of data and statistics painting France (and French) as racist, plain and simple.

Seriously, just look at it. Here is a sample of the various stats:  38% of a respondents to a survey said they had a “somewhat” or “very” unfavorable view of Muslims. 75% of French think Islam is an intolerant religion.  And last but not least, the Twitter headline (more like a click bait): 56% of French don’t consider Muslims as part of society. Except nowhere do we talk about this stat in the blog post, nor did I manage to find the source for it.

All of these numbers don’t look very good for France. Along with data showing a general increase of racist attacks over the last 10 years, we could easily see the French society as very intolerant. 538 goes as far as using a picture of a woman participating to the grand march of solidarity last week and wearing a “Je suis Charlie” tag along with a gold star with “Juif” written over it (the type of stars Jewish people were forced to wear during the second world war to identify themselves).

So, is France racist? I’m not going to answer this question as I don’t really believe it’s possible or even relevant. What I want to do is show that we can find statistics like these for pretty much every country. And using statistics like these to declare that “France has a tradition of islamophobia” is more like pure bashing than serious journalism.

First of all, using the same source as 538 (a Pew survey), we see that if indeed 38% of French had an unfavorable view of Muslims, this number is 23% in the United States. A further breakdown shows that there were 12% who had a very unfavorable view of Muslims in France and 10% in the States. Right there, the difference is within the margins of error. But let’s look at other countries for the “somewhat” plus “very” unfavorable options: Germany is at 50%, Spain at 52%, Australia at 29% and Japan at 61%. Some countries fare better than France, such as Britain at 23%. Except that another survey, done in 2014, actually shows French as the one with the highest number of people with a favorable view of Muslims, even ahead of the UK. As for America, they don’t always appear more tolerant than other countries. In this poll for instance, as much as 45% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Muslims.

Overall, it really puts the 38% in France in perspective. It doesn’t justify or excuse this data, don’t get me wrong. It’s really sad to see that more than 1/3 of French people have a negative view of Muslims. But if France is guilty of islamophobia, it is far from alone.

Canada wasn’t included in the Pew survey. However, we can find other polls or survey asking similar questions. For instance, an Angus-Reid poll in 2013 found that 54% of Canadians outside Quebec had an unfavorable view of Muslims. We can also easily find unfavorable opinion about Sikhs. Or this poll showing that 30% of Canadians think Muslims have too much power in their province.

Then, let’s take a look at one of the other numbers: 75% think Islam is an intolerant religion and isn’t compatible with French values. First of all, 8% of the population of France is Muslim. Assuming that none of them would declare Islam as intolerant, it means that over 80% of the “other French” residents think this way of this religion. That is a crazy high number and I have to wonder about the framing of the question (what was the actual question asked, how, etc). We have to remember that France is one of the most secular countries in the world. They went as far as banning any religious signs from schools (and yes, that includes the crucifix). So I wonder if the 75% of French saying that “Islam is intolerant and not compatible with French values” doesn’t have a lot to do with that (i.e: the fact that Islam has very visible signs such as the Hijab), especially since we don’t find even remotely similar numbers regarding Judaism (which goes against the claim of 538 that France is racist and anti-Semitist). But I have to admit that this stat doesn’t look very good for France. However, I can’t find direct comparisons to other countries.

Finally, let’s go back to racism in itself. Measuring racism or islamophobia isn’t easy. You can try to ask people if they consider themselves racist. Surprisingly, you do get a significant number of people admitting so. In France for instance, 35% label themselves as racist. This is similar to the number of Americans who admit a race bias. Not sure how to interpret this number. Some people will obviously be reluctant to admit that. We know this (hey, if people in Quebec can hide the fact they will vote Liberal, you can be sure some will never openly admit being racist!). For instance, pollsters in France always have to correct for the Front National as some people simply lie and don’t want to admit supporting this party (since this party is seen as anti-immigrants or just racist at times). Also, is it a good or bad thing to see people admitting they are racist? In particular, is it worse than if people hide it? I’m not sure what the correct answer is. A lot of Canadians point at Europe and France for having parties like the FN (or any other extreme right wing parties). I never considered the important presence of right-wing extremism as a good thing, but at the same time, I can argue that they at least exist and are part of the debate. Some people are racist in any society. These people won’t go away simply because you don’t listen to them or don’t give them a party to vote for or represent their ideas. But that’s clearly off-topic for this blog post.

Other ways or questions are sometimes used to measure racism. For instance, using the World Value Survey, France does appear more racist than the USA, Canada or countries around France, with as many as 22.6% of respondents in France declaring they wouldn’t want somebody from another race as neighbor. In Canada, it was only 2.2% and 4% in the States. At the same time, 11% of Canadians said they wouldn’t want a Muslim as neighbor (question not asked in France or the States). And let’s not forget that questions like these can be hard to translate and that can have an impact on the results.

What I wanted to show in this section was that data about tolerance, racism or how Muslims are perceived can be very volatile. In one survey France is very intolerant while in the next one, this is actually the country with the most people with a favorable view of Muslims. On top of that, you can’t look at the numbers without comparing to other countries. When you do that, you see that absolutely no country is free of racism, xenophobia or, in the Western world, islamophobia. To use this data to claim that France is racist or has a history of racism, anti-Semitism or islamophobia is being dishonest. You’d expect better from a data-driven website such as 538.