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“Dualistic constructions are never adequate for the realities of social life.” [1]
“Anyone who calls into question the Republic attacks the very principles of the Nation, which was born of the French Revolution… It is precisely this equation that must be resisted. Questioning some of the Republic’s foundations can only help it sever its ties with a heritage that is ‘weighing it down.’” [2]

1Is it really legitimate to juxtapose the terms “ethnicity” and “Republic”? Would this approach not lead to a contradiction, misinterpretation, paradox, or even an insurmountable antinomy, as much in theory as in practice? [3]

2In the French political imagination, the first evokes the reign of particularities and communitarianism and, by implication, the spectre of division and of the Balkanization of French society, whereas the second returns us to universalism, to citizenship and to civic transcendence of special interests. From this dualistic perspective, our recourse to the formula Republican Ethnicity[4] could logically be interpreted as a provocation or even as a form of scientific excess, where the aim is to produce a “field effect,” out of a desire to distinguish ourselves at all costs from dominant theories on the Nation, the Republic and citizenship. Worse still, some might see in it an exercise in political subversion, aiming to discredit republican universalism and the nation state. Also, in line with this critical revelatory vein, our study could be thought to answer less to a sociological aim, than to an ideological project, as already denounced by Dominique Schnapper at the beginning of the 1990s in connection with the penchant for multiculturalism by some of her fellow sociologists and by political scientists. She notes, “Since the Second World War it has … been a criticism of the nation State, which is responsible for ‘internal colonialism,’ ideological apparatuses of State, and the exaltation of all sorts of particularities and regionalisms that sociologists have been deliberating over at length.” [5]

3Today, to a great extent, Schnapper’s criticism of the “multiculturalist excess” of the social sciences seems to us to be largely outdated, and for two major reasons. First, since it seems that the trend has been widely reversed today as multiculturalism is no longer the lens through which French intellectuals and the social sciences study society, but rather it is the “nationalist Republican lens” which has largely contributed to discrediting all pluralistic approaches to citizenship over the last ten years. [6] And second, because at the time (in 1997) the creation of the dialectical notion of “Republican ethnicity” was more in line with a sociological perspective than a theoretical perspective. We were seeking more to account for the results of an empirical survey (the forms and modes of the ethnicization of politics in France), than to defend a philosophical stance, comparable, for example, with the one initiated by Michael Walzer. [7] From this point of view, the notion of Republican ethnicity is the product of a sociological study of the French political system in the years 1980-1990 (during which François Mitterrand was president), without any pretensions to generalization and theorizing. Following on work by other authors, we sought to develop a sociological study of ethnicity[8] with empirical extensions. Our work responded less to a theoretical aim than to a desire to shine some light on the plurality of places, expressers, and producers of ethnicity who are participating, in a contradictory, competitive, or complementary way, to legitimize this process of ethnicization of politics at the heart of French society today. Although this is never clearly assumed by those involved (government, local communities, political parties, elected representatives, associations and so on), they are continuously producing ethnicity without knowing it, or rather they feign ignorance that they are doing it. This “Republican ethnicization” of politics and, more generally, of modes of social intervention (town politics being a case in point), [9] is more in line with a crisis of representation in Western democracies (“disenchantment with the magic of democracy” as Zylberberg would say [10]), born of the feeling that pluralist political systems can neither effectively hear the demands, nor respond to the deepest aspirations of citizens. In turn, this feeling of powerlessness is hastening the transformation of the issue from a social problem of mediation to a problem affecting the community. The community angle, which is an expression of movements by ethno-cultural minorities and of regionalist movements in the 1960s, gradually rose to the level of the State, and from then on became an essential element of public policies (education, town planning, security and so on): “Because it does not strictly mean anything specific, the community may become a project receptacle, an invented semantic tool. In the different institutional scenes in which it operates, the community seeks to impose itself as the norm. […] It predicts, without predetermining, the future of the institution that it denies.” [11]

4In this sense, ethnicity is not simply a minority demonstration (an ethnic expression of a state of domination, or a reversal of ethnic stigma, for instance), but also represents a legitimate political product that not only decodes social relations but also the material and symbolic rationale for public action.

“Ethnic Republicanism” as a Matrix for “Republican Ethnicity”

5In this Republican ethnicization process, an important dimension that we tended to under-estimate in our earlier work nevertheless becomes apparent and that we can attribute to the following hypothesis: The reason that Western democracies in general, and French democracy in particular, today produce so many minority groups, is because their national public structure is itself based on a more or less explicit ethnic dimension. In other words, “our universalist and individualist political culture insidiously finds itself functioning in a communitarian manner when taken at the level of the entire nation.” [12] Is radical Jacobin-type universalist citizenship ultimately the expression of a form of majority communitarianism that leads to a form of Republican naturalization (“if you are not Republican, you do not exist, or, at least, you do not have the right to speak”)? Does the theme of “Republican France” not fundamentally refer back to what Smith [13] referred to as an ethnic myth; a constructed ethnicity, certainly, but an ethnicity nonetheless, whose principles and values are supposed to illuminate the whole of humanity? We consider this kind of analytic position beneficial, as it allows us to empirically relativize the opposition between ethnic Nation and civic Nation,” [14] in order to showcase the modes of ethnicization modes that are common and inherent to all pluralistic societies, including those that, like France, make claims to abstract universalism. Zylberberg notes in this regard that


The classic distinction between the supra-ethnic nation-State and the organic culture-based State is threatened if we define ethnicity as a process of emotional mobilization in reference to a common biological, territorial, or cultural origin. Mechanisms for socialization and nationality assignment within a country rest precisely on a presumption of naturalist communalization which is signified for some by jus solis and jus sanguinis, and for others by the ability to adapt to national cultural baggage by proving that they are no longer apprentices, but have become legitimate bearers of the mysterious common identity and not merely people who respect the common law and public order […] [15]

7“Objective” and active traces of this Republican ethnicity may be found both in radical Republican Jacobin thought – which is not the least of the paradoxes – but also in Gaullism and other nationalist Republican currents.

8Michael Walzer reminds us that French civic Republicanism is, in a way the leftist version of communitarianism: “In its Jacobin phase, the Revolution is understood as an effort to establish citizenship as the dominant identity of all the French – as opposed to alternative identities that are denominational, professional, familial, or regional. Citizenship was expected to replace religious faith and familial fidelity as the central motif of virtuous conduct.” [16]

9More recently, beyond any temptation to racism, Gaullism has developed its own “theory” of the ethnic Republican nation: “In Gaullist logic,” writes Dominique Colas, “French ethnicity is realized in Republican citizenship. This organically links two contradictory and inseparable concepts of France, grouping them together in the formula according to which the French are called upon to play a central and universalizing role in history because of the ‘genius of their race.’” [17]

10Even more recently, “State Mitterrandism” was founded, in our opinion, on “a myth of reconciliation” that reconciled painful memories (like of collaboration with the Germans during World War II and of French Algeria) with minorities (immigrants and their children, women, etc.), bringing them together around the idea of the nation. The Socialist Party, fully assuming its function as the “party of the president,” played a major role in the institutional production of ethnicity during the period (1981-1995), and on several occasions positioned itself as an agent of social pacification and bearer of a central cohesion approach, which could reconcile a divided and fragmented nation. In was this connection that the Socialist Party’s perception of its symbolic function in French society becomes clear, namely the defense of national cohesion in the face of community fragmentation, but also the protection of these “minorities” in the face of growing majority intolerance and racism.

11This ethnicization of politics has manifested itself in two ways in particular. First, in the willingness of the government and Socialist leaders to promote “new elites” from the ranks of immigrants. The promotion of these “ethnic elites” within the Socialist Party, municipalities, and major media associations thus corresponded to a paradoxical injunction: not only signify the superiority, if not the performance, of the “French integration model” (Republican meritocracy), but also put in place a particular utopic mode of mediation between the political system at the center and the “dangerous new classes” at the periphery (in disadvantaged suburbs and poorer neighborhoods). Second, the ethnicization of politics has taken place through the hastening of ethnicization of city politics, in particular through a key institution, the Fonds d’action sociale (FAS: Social Action Fund), now the Fonds d’action et de soutien pour l’intégration et la lutte contre les discriminations (FASILD: the Social Action Fund for Integration and Combating Discrimination). As Moore [18] reminds us, “Republicanism is belied by public action in many areas.”

12The modes of social problem identification that are deployed by local and national institutions, rely more and more on ethnic and community registers, draped in Republican discourse. Under the guise of abstract universalism, public authorities develop culturalist readings that contribute to a “Maghrebization,” an “Africanization” – or as it would be today, an “Islamization” – of the dysfunctional aspects of French society. In summary, through a kind of fashionable incantation, Republican rhetoric paradoxically encourages an ethnicization of the social issue.

13In this way, both the discourse of Difference and the discourse of Unity call to mind and reinforce a new version of our French national story.

14Today, this dialectic of unity and of difference is not entirely absent from the upper echelons of the French State and can give rise to bitter disputes within the new presidential party (UMP) to win the legitimate monopoly on defining Republican ethnicity.[19] This Republican ethnicity has been slightly reworded compared to previous periods in terms of the emergence of an imaginary conflict between Jews and Muslims in France (and in particular of the recurring theme of “Muslim anti-Semitism”). In this respect, during the last “headscarf debate” (2003-2004) and the debates surrounding the Stasi commission, State rhetoric has acted both as a symbolic operator of national cohesion (combating and containing communitarianism as a threat to the secular Republic) and as a “fixer” between conflict-prone ethnic minorities (organize peaceful coexistence between the various cultural and religious communities). In this regard, Chirac’s approach is in line with the concept of the “ethnic, Republican nation” driven by State Gaullism: “Our flag, our language, our history: all of it reminds us of the values of tolerance and respect for others, of these battles, of this diversity that is the greatness of France… It is in order for France to stay herself that we must respond to questions and defuse tensions in our society today.” [20]

15This excerpt from Chirac’s rhetoric contains two previously referred to facets of Republican ethnicity, namely ethnicity as an expression of supposed minority currents that should be contained and/or repressed at any cost (e.g., Islamic or Islamist communitarianism), and ethnicity as a sense of belonging to a universal culture of a majority (the mythical Frenchness), the values of which embody the superiority of the “French model” (Republican secularism) compared to other “European models.” From this point of view, the theme of defending “the Republican model” reinforces what we will call an ethnolaïcité – an ethnic secularism – or a substantialist vision of secularism (Bernard Stasi spoke of the French people’s “secular instinct”). This “ethnic secularism” is quite often hidden behind universalistic arguments so as to defend what is in reality a specific notion of national identity. It must be acknowledged that if there has been any “rise in communitarianism” in recent years, it is not so much Muslim or Islamic communalism that warrants a thorough analysis as purely French communalism, which is directed at the restoration of a “mythical, pure Frenchness.” The arguments invented during the course of the debates for defending the exceptionality and superiority of “French-style secularism” are irrefutably charged with nationalist and chauvinist rhetoric.

16Mitterand’s speech, like the political practices of the current conservative majority (UMP-UDF), proves that there has not been a “split in Republican ethnicity.” What some have wanted to attribute to multiculturalist or differentialist excess on the part of the Socialist left [21] is in fact a strong trend in the French political system: the ethnicization policy in recruitment to political positions is widely followed and even amplified, as exemplified in Sarkozy’s “Muslim Prefect,” Raffarin’s North-African Minister, and the Maghrebian local bosses (“caciques”) of the UMP. However, this is increasingly based on religion, with the “imaginary Muslim” [22] tending to become the relevant target for public action.

Ethnicity, a French Republican Aporia?

17In the final analysis, there is only an apparent contradiction between the current trend of public figures to overrate Republican universalism (the hypertrophy of the abstract universal) and the tendency to completely trivialize the realities of ethnic identity in French society. These two movements, which belong to the same process of the ethnicization of social ties (or rather, of ways to read and decode these ties), sometimes manifest as the offensive and falsely reassuring celebration of a “mythical Frenchness” (“Long live the Nation!” [23]), and sometimes as anxiety, provoking and stigmatizing the “risk of communitarianism” (“Be careful of communitarianism!” [24]). Through a feed-back effect, this normalization of communitarian readings of French society, strongly encouraged by State rhetoric, [25] helps to generate new forms of positioning in the public arena for public figures from cultural and religious minorities. This positioning combines both a universalist “Third Republic” type axiology and an affirmation of their ethnicity, rebuilt on an imaginary model. Recently, we observed in some Jewish association circles (particularly in the CRIF), and also in some French “Arab-Islamic” organizations, the development of a type of rhetoric that we would categorize as “communitarian-Republican,” which skillfully combines defending the interests of the group when faced with external threats (anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and so on) with an avant-garde Republicanism worthy of Jules Ferry. However, these ethnic modes of access to the public arena are only tolerated and considered legitimate because these figures buy into the “Republican legend” [26] and promote it to the members of the group.

18In this regard, the Republicanism which claimed to emancipate the Jews in the aftermath of the French Revolution (theme of regeneration), [27] the indigenous people at the time of colonization (theme of assimilation), [28] and today’s “children of immigrants” (theme of Republican integration), appears fundamentally as an aporia: “Even when it is part of praiseworthy intentions by seeking to integrate these communities as equals in global society, while necessarily underlining at the beginning the differences and inferiority of the groups to be emancipated (as evidenced by the term employee: regeneration, improvement, reform) … emancipation remains a concession […].” [29]

19Certainly, it is possible that Republican ethnicity is merely the updated expression of the Republican aporia as described by Dieckhoff, but at the same time, it should be noted that it produces so much more symbolic effectiveness in the public arena, that it is now deeply ingrained in public debate and permanently enshrined in the routine functioning of our political institutions.


  • [*]
  • [1]
    Michael Walzer, Pluralisme et démocratie (Paris, Seuil, 1997), 176.
  • [2]
    Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard, and Françoise Vergès, La République coloniale. Essai sur une utopie, (Paris, Albin Michel, 2003), 39-40.
  • [3]
    From the formulation point of view, we are inspired by the dialectical questioning adopted by Bancel, Blanchard, and Vergès in the introduction of their book, La République coloniale. Essai sur une utopie, op.?cit., 11.
  • [4]
    Vincent Geisser, Ethnicité républicaine. Les élites d’origine maghrébine dans le système politique français, (Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1997). To our knowledge, this concept of “Republican ethnicity” had never been used prior to the publication of our book.
  • [5]
    Dominique Schnapper, La France de l’intégration. Sociologie de la nation en 1990, (Paris, Gallimard, 1991), 19.
  • [6]
    Françoise Lorcerie, “Les Sciences sociales au service de l’identité nationale: le débat sur l’intégration en France, au début des années 1990,” in Cartes d’identité, ed. Denis-Constant Martin, (Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995). See also Hugue Jallon and Pierre Mounier, Les Enragés de la République (Paris, La Découverte, 1999) and Daniel Lindenberg, Le Rappel à l’ordre. Enquête sur les nouveaux réactionnaires (Paris, Seuil, 2002).
  • [7]
    Michael Walzer, Pluralisme et démocratie,(176, op.?cit.); Sphères de justice. Une défense du pluralisme et de l’égalité, (Paris, Seuil, 1997).
  • [8]
    Philippe Poutignat, and Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart, Les Théories de l’ethnicité, (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1995) and Marco Martiniello, L’Ethnicité dans les sciences sociales contemporaines, (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1995).
  • [9]
    Damian Moore, Ethnicité et politique de la ville en France et Grande-Bretagne, (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001).
  • [10]
    Jacques Zylberberg, Introduction to the collective work, Citoyenneté et nationalité. Perspectives en France et au Québec, (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1979), 18-19.
  • [11]
    Bernard Lacroix, “le Discours communautaire”, Revue française de science politique, (vol. 24, 3, June 1974), 540.Online
  • [12]
    Joel Roman, “Le Pluralisme de Michael Walzer”, Introduction to the work by Michael Walzer, Pluralisme et démocratie, op. cit., 27.
  • [13]
    Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (New York, Basil Blackwell, 1988).
  • [14]
    Michel Seymour, (ed.), Nationalité, citoyenneté et solidarité, Third part:”La Nation ethnique et la nation civique” (Quebec: Liber, 1999), 143-219.
  • [15]
    Jacques Zylberberg, Citoyenneté et nationalité, 18-19.
  • [16]
    Michael Walzer, “Communauté, citoyenneté et jouissance des droits”, 168.
  • [17]
    Dominique Colas, “La Nation ethnique et républicaine de Charles De Gaulle,” in Citoyenneté et nationalité (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 190.
  • [18]
    Damian Moore, Ethnicité et politique de la ville, 76.
  • [19]
    The publication by Nicolas Sarkozy of the work La République, les religions, l’espérance (Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 2005), fully asserts itself in our sense in this battle for control of the expression of Republican ethnicity.
  • [20]
    Speech on the occasion of the appointment of a commission to investigate the application of secularism in the Republic (the “Stasi Commission”), July?3, 2003, available on the official Élysée site:
  • [21]
    See the political pamphlet of Rachid Kaci who, with Alexandre Del Valle, today represents the extreme right of the UMP, La République des lâches. La faillite des politiques d’intégration (Paris: Éditions de Syrtes, 2003).
  • [22]
    Alain Finkelkraut, Le Juif imaginaire (Paris: Seuil, 1983).
  • [23]
    Yves Lacoste, Vive la Nation. Destin d’une idée géopolitique (Paris: Fayard, 1998).
  • [24]
    Amongst the numerous essays or pamphlets, we cite that of Robert Grossmann and François Miclo, La République minoritaire. Contre le communautarisme (Paris: Michalon, 2002).
  • [25]
    By Chirac, Sarkozy, and the UMP, but also by Socialist opponents hoping to regain power.
  • [26]
    We borrow this expression from Suzanne Citron, Le Mythe national. L’histoire de France en question (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières/Études et documentation internationale, 1989), 15.
  • [27]
    Pierre Birnbaum thus reminds us of the continuation of the particularist citations in the career maps of senior Jewish officials in the Third Republic: “Une famille de Juifs d’État, les Hendlé”, in Histoire politique des Juifs de France, Pierre Birnbaum (Ed.) (Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1990), 73.
  • [28]
    Bancel, Blanchard, and Vergès, La République coloniale. Essai sur une utopie, op.?cit., 11.
  • [29]
    Alain Dieckhoff, “Les Logiques de l’émancipation et le sionisme” in Histoire politique des Juifs de France, op. cit., 168-169.
Vincent Geisser [*]
  • [*]
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