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Aris Roussinos on the US State Department's flawed policy template for post-colonial France

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

by Aris Roussinos for UnHerd

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Aris Roussinos is a war reporter and International Relations PhD student.

Few outside observers would look at America as a model of racial harmony to be emulated. Even the American liberals who a decade ago were insisting that the US had entered a harmonious post-racial future have now decided en masse that America is an oppressive white supremacist entity whose population requires re-education, and whose entire historical legitimacy is questionable. A New York Times piece this week therefore makes for uncomfortable reading, as it shows how the US State Department, in a fit of misguided idealism, intentionally exported its divisive racial politics to Europe.

While the French state is officially colour-blind— it does not even record the racial makeup of its citizenry in its census data— this state of affairs “is being challenged,” the article notes, “by the many Black French who have gone through a racial awakening in recent decades — helped by the pop culture of the United States, its thinkers, and even its Paris-based diplomats who spotted and encouraged young Black French leaders a decade ago.”

Thanks to a US State Department program, potential French race activists were recruited and sent to America to attend courses on “managing ethnic diversity,” while in Paris “the embassy organized educational programs on subjects like affirmative action, a taboo concept in France,” a dynamic which “has contributed to fears, especially among French conservatives, of an “Americanization’’ of French society. This “risks fragmenting France… and poses a threat far more central to the modern republic’s founding principles than familiar complaints about the encroachment of McDonald’s or Hollywood blockbusters.”

French critics are right to be concerned by attempts to overlay American dynamics on a European context. The United States is a deeply unstable country, and its fractious racial politics, along with the ideological framework which underpin them, are a potent source of political division.

Scholars have long noted that European attitudes to migrant minorities follow the colonial pattern, with France adopting the colour-blind rhetoric of total assimilation and the direct relationship between the citizen and the state, and the UK continuing its colonial policy of indirect rule through local elites, here transmuted into the contentious role of “community leaders.”

Whatever their merits, these are vastly different frameworks to America’s history of enforced slavery in the Early Modern Period. Political identities centred on race are entirely alien to Europe, and attempts to squeeze our continent’s vast ethnic and cultural diversity through the narrow channels of America’s arbitrary and essentialised census categories are as dangerous as they are misguided.

Were the Russian or Chinese embassies attempting to politicise European minorities in such a way, or Saudi preachers exporting their political ideologies in European mosques, it would rightly be seen as an act of hostile and dangerous meddling in our national politics. Indeed, were the Russian or Chinese embassies working to foster a “racial awakening” in the US, the American liberal commentariat would not view their efforts fondly.

It is significant, as the article notes, that “the U.S. Embassy in Paris began reaching out to ethnic and racial minorities in France after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of a global push to ‘win hearts and minds.’” Wisely refusing to follow the US into one destructive delusion of American liberalism, the Iraq War, France nevertheless found itself at the mercy of another variant. As Iraqis can attest, American liberals are most dangerous when they believe they are helping.

Indeed, in his response to the BLM protests, Macron’s refusal to remove statues, his vivid warnings of the dangers of “separatism,” and insistence that it’s “necessary to unite around Republican patriotism” and that France is “a nation where everyone—whatever their origin and religion—can find their place” indicate that the French state has no desire to let the drifting spores of American dysfunction take root on this side of the Atlantic. Instead, American diplomats should be politely but firmly be dissuaded from exporting their political disorder to our own continent.

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