Todd Shepard comment et pourquoi Éviter le racisme: causes, effets, CULTURE, 'SEUILS DE TOLÉRANCE' OU RÉSISTANCES? LE DÉBAT FRANÇAIS ENTRE 1954 ET 1976

Seminar of February 1st 2012

Todd Shepard is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.  His research work bears on France and its colonial empire in the twentieth century.  He is particularly concerned with the intersections between the history of imperialism and the histories of state institutions, national identity, and racial and sexual issues.

His first book, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), was translated into French as 1962. Comment l’indépendance algérienne a transformé la France (Paris: Payot, 2008; forthcoming in paperback, early 2013).   He is currently preparing two works.  The first, La France, le sexe et les Arabes, 1945 à 1979 (already under contract with Payot), explores the importance and the role of the representations of male “perversion” in post-1945 political debates.  The second, Affirmative Action and Empire: “Intégration” in France (1956-1962) and the Race Question in the Cold War World, bears on a series of innovative programs implemented by the French Republic within the context of the Algerian War that were aimed at correcting forms of discrimination suffered by the “Muslims of Algeria.”

comment et pourquoi Éviter le racisme: causes, effets, CULTURE, 'SEUILS DE TOLÉRANCE' OU RÉSISTANCES? LE DÉBAT FRANÇAIS ENTRE 1954 ET 1976

               In the last years of the Algerian war French officials made plans to use government resources to encourage Algerian artists and Algerian cultural production. This was an extension of a policy shift that concerned how the French Republic aimed to bring all Algerians into the French nation. This turn from “assimilation” toward “intégration” was first announced in 1955.  A late 1960 note to the ministry of Culture argued: “Il conviendrait dès lors, afin de compléter cette œuvre de promotion humaine, d'envisager des mesures semblables dans le domaine culturel, qui en Algérie, offre une richesse de possibilités jusque-là insuffisamment mise en valeur....”. Let us note immediately what these last words implied: previous French policy had contributed to impeding this  “richesse de possibilités” from fulfiling its potential. It is based in this certainty that the note proposed to pursue this goal using some striking and wide-ranging “moyens: 1/ Accession et promotion à titre exceptionnel de Français musulmans d'Algérie dans les emplois [du ministère de la Culture]....  Eventuellement des réserves d'emplois pourraient être prévues dans la proportion de 10% pour les  recrutements sur titre, ou par concours”. As the note’s title indicates this quota policy, widely applied in diverse French administrations between 1958 and 1962, was named “promotion exceptionnelle” (and the quotas termed  “réserves”). If the use of réserves was typical, the proposal innovated in calling for “5/ Création dans les établissements d'enseignement relevant du Ministère d'Etat de chaires ou  postes d’enseignement spécialement orientés vers la mise en valeur d’une culture spécifiquement algérienne (littérature, musique ou chant, par exemple) d’inspiration arabe, berbère, israélite ou française, ou plus spécialement méditerranéenne”.1

               Almost twenty years later, a report produced at the demand of le Service d’information et de diffusion du Premier Ministre on the “motivation des Français à l’égard des travailleurs immigréstargeted anti-Algerian racism as a particular problem and affirmed that questions of representation are central to efforts to combat it. This study relied on a qualitative analysis of a series of interviews (individual and group) that l’Institut Pierre Besis had conducted to propose a series of  “moyens d’actions”. At the center was a section on “REVALORISATION DE L'ARABITE” that included proposals such as: “Imposer à la télévision un présentateur d'origine arabe”; “Placer quelques arabes sympathiques dans des spots publicitaires pour des produits de grande consommation”; and “d’une façon générale lors de tous les jeux, débats, émissions de variété, essayer d'introduire quelques Arabes: il faut progressivement montrer aux Français que ces gens-là existent”.2           

               To make sense of these documents, it is necessary to recognize both that each was examplary of widely discussed plans and policy décisions and they indicate, against conventional wisdom, that certain French governments (notably in the Fifth Republic) engaged energetic efforts to fight against racism, identified as key factor in the production of inequalities and social problems. These French policies, it is worth noting, were typical of an international discussion that traversed the Atlantic, one linked to post-1945 technocratic and social-democratic reformism and that relied on statistical studies. En dépit d’une boulimie médiatique et d’excès universitaires, la France fut la première nation occidentale à entreprendre une mesure du racisme, fléau qui a été analysé comme un empêchement à tout effort d’imaginer et de poursuivre l’égalité; la  Ve République a poursuivi ce combat contre le racisme en essayant à la fois de chiffrer le racisme et d’ancrer des réponses au racisme dans ces chiffres. Between the first years of the Fifth Republic and the first years of the Giscard Presidency, the most worrisome subjects were the same: Algerians. So too was the use of social scientific tools in order to displace claims to explain (and fight) racism that targeted racist ideologies, the efforts of racists, or racist intentions. What was prefered, in both moments, as the basis of analysis and the object of intervention were social structures.

               Yet from this shared logic, two very distinct approaches to fighting racism coalesced in the late 1950s and the mid-1970s. We can see this in the above examples, for each makes radically different claims about what représentation will do; selon le premier, il s’agit de combattre les effets de la discrimination en s’efforçant de donner à ceux qui en ont souffert une partie des postes et aides dont le racisme les avait privés ; selon le second, il convient de changer le regard des “Français” sur l’Arabe.

               Pendant la Guerre d’Algérie, une nouvelle approche de la lutte contre le racisme s’efforce d’imposer l’égalité en surmontant les effets du racisme auquel étaient confrontés les Algériens de la part des Français: l’intégration passe alors par des études chiffrées pour démontrer que la discrimination existe dans les faits et il est prévu en retour, comme dans la proposition citée plus haut, l’inscription de “réserves” chiffrées et obligatoires pour surmonter les effets de cette discrimination de fait. Entre 1968 et le milieu des années 1970, en revanche, l’émergence du concept du “seuil de tolérance” traduit un retour à la lutte contre le racisme par ses causes. Celles-ci ne relèveraient alors pas d’une idéologie ou de présupposés racistes contre lesquels il faut se battre, mais de mécanismes.

               After World War II, the embrace by the Nazis and their allies of racial categories and racist definitions had made rethinking empire imperative. Linked to this, the types of racially-charged (or simply racist) explanations that all modern empires had relied on to explain their control of other peoples now seemed untenable, at least in public. This discursive shift was clearly visible during the Algerian Revolution. From the first months of this fight for national independence many French commentators who sought to avoid what they saw as Algeria's secession did so by arguing that what was at stake there was not the worldwide problem termed colonialism, but a set of overlapping domestic problems. Algerians, they proposed, were not colonial subjects yearning for statehood, but French citizens whose exclusion from the nation resulted from racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination (with the latter notably less important). To give Algerians the types of economic and social possibilities available to other French citizens, these people argued--as well as make Algerians feel they were French--it was necessary to take into account what currently defined them as different. This understanding anchored a new policy approach to making Algeria French, which developed under the name of integration.

               The recognition that Algerians had suffered from French racism distinguished French integrationism from previous French claims to unite colonial subjects to France, such as “assimilation” or “association”. Since the nineteenth century, French republicans and leftists had ardently insisted that any official recognition for categories of French citizens based in fallacious concepts such as “races” or “ethnic groups” was, itself, racist and could only be part of a reactionary politics. To talk about racism, in this perspective, risked causing racism. The Algerian Revolution catalyzed a shift, as French integrationists proved willing to use laws and policies to redress the measurable effects of what was named “discrimination” on one category of French citizens: Algerians.

               Rather than repeating the legal fact that “Muslims” had “legal equality”, integrationist measures began, as a 1959 report summarized, from the "Constat […] que l’égalité de droits n’étaient pas traduite dans les faits ".3 Jacques Soustelle, the governor-general of Algeria between early 1955 and early 1956 explained the importance of this shift with the claim that "Bannir toute discrimination à leur détriment n’est pas tout: il ne faut pas hésiter, le cas échéant , à en établir à leur avantage, car la véritable équité oblige, quand un plateau de la balance est trop léger, à le charger pour rétablir l’équité". According to Soustelle, "la souveraineté française n’est pas menacée, bien au contraire, si le fellah vit plus largement ou si le préfet s’appelle Belkacem". Integrationists such as Soutelle affirmed that even policies that rejected biological or scientific understandings of “race”—as French policies did—still could have racist effects. These could be measured and combated.

               It was in the integrationist context of measuring the effects of discrimination that the concept of “seuil de tolérance” first took form in official discussion.   A study that examined the restrictions on the percentage of Algerians that various French hospitals had put in place, for example, asked hospital administrators to give the “Pourcentage optimum par rapport au total des malades, seuil au-dessus duquel se posent des problèmes de cohabitation”.4 Yet the seuil de tolérance would take on a new importance in the 1970s.

“Combattre les causes plutôt que les effets”, 1969-1977

            Whereas the concept of “seuil” had appeared as an proof of the existence and effects of racism, which could be countered, the 1970s saw the “seuil de tolérance” emerge as a cause of racism. When in fall 1974 the new Giscard government sought to highlight its fight against racism, the novelty was “de combattre les causes plutot que les effets” --with one key official writing that “Cette volonté d'affronter les problèmes d'une manière nouvelle pourrait être rendue publique et constituerait en soi un geste remarqué ”--and the “seuil de tolérance” was the cause they were most attentive to.5 As a 1971 report summarized “aucune possibilité d'adaptation n'existe lorsqu'il y a une trop grande concentration d'immigrés en un même lieu. The “possibilité d'adaptation in question was that of both immigrants and French.  As numerous left-wing critics at the time and subseqent scholars note, attention to the “seuil meant that racist statements, acts, or organizations, were considered of little importance.6 Racism, from this perspective, resulted primarily from transgressing  “seuils de tolérance (the “seuil differed between housing, éducation, and public services) that, for its proponents, were objective and measurable. A 1969 analysis spoke of a “seuil objectif de tolérance à la pénétration étrangère” that produced effets “mécaniques”; more common was the insistence that the supposed “seuil had been “l'objet de mesures empiriques”, which proved that “Au-delà d’un certain seuil se manifeste un phénomène de ‘rejet’ . To fight the causes of racism, then, meant avoiding such a situation.7

               One of the key limits to such claims that “au-delà d'un pourcentage de population étrangère, toutes ethnies confondues, de 15% des réactions défavorables se font jour”, however, emerge clearly in the cited 1973 report. For it immediately noted that “Encore faut-il considérer que ce pourcentage doit être minoré s'il s'agit d'une population à dominante maghrébine".8 Many other reports made clear that even this category would be better defined as Algerian. This explains why a quantitative study of “motivation des Français à l’égard des travailleurs immigrés” led to an affirmation that “revalorisation de l’Arabité” was a necessary response.

               Besides the shared logic, in which reliance on quantification and social science displaces explicit ideological intentions or racist actors in favor of structures, or “mécaniques”, it is also remarkable that, in both moments, efforts to examine (and fight) racism were presented as distinct from colonialism. While integrationist planners recognized the specificity of French rule in Algeria, they sought to disconnect it from other colonial situations; in the 1970s, efforts to deploy the “seuil de tolérance” struggled to avoid dealing with the specific history of France and Algeria, preferring “universal” claims about “outsiders”. A parallel failure to explore how central colonialism, writ large, and Algeria, more specifically has been to the republican history of France perhaps explains why, although historically incorrect, so many scholars and politicians continue to pretend that the French Republic is outside of, rather than in dialogue with, efforts across the post-1945 West, whether in the US or the UK, to fight racism.


1. Note au sujet de la Promotion exceptionnelle des Français musulmans d'Algérie dans le domaine culturel, fin 1960/début 61, F.bleau/AN: 19830229, art. 3 1b.

2. “Motivation des Français a l’égard des travailleurs immigrés: Test de Moyens d’Actions” Rapport préparé par l’Institut Pierre Besis à la demande du service d’information et de diffusion [du Premier Ministre] (22 mars 1976), CAC: 19960405/11.

3. Centre des archives contemporaines, Fontainebleau, France (hereafter, CAC) 19770391/3, Mission d’études RE, “La Participation des Français Musulmans à la Fonction Publique ”, July 6, 1959, pp. 1-16 +annexes; p. 4.

4.“Enquête sur l’admission et le séjour des FMA dans les établissements hospitaliers publics et privés” CARAN F 1a/5060/ “Action sociale en faveur des musulmans dans les hôpitaux”.

5. Government anti-racism was meant to complement its joint policies of suspending legal immigration and committing itself (although committing very few resources) to improving the condition of immigrants already in France. Together, these claimed to end anti-immigrant sentiments. Direction de la Population et des Migrations, “Information du public et lutte contre le racisme” (Paris 10 septembre 1974), 3, in CAC: 19860269/11.

6. Pierre Sommeville, Direction de la Réglementation, “Enquête sur la situation de l’immigration” (Paris, 14 septembre 1971), 32, CAC: 19960134/12.

7. H Vidal, Sous-direction, Mouvements de “Eléments pour une intervention devant" (12 novembre 1969), 3, CAC: 19950493 /6; Michel Massenet, “Les problèmes posés par l'immigration (Séance du 4 Juin 1970 de l'Academie des sciences morales et politiques)”, 243, CAC: 19960405/1.

8. Service de liaison et de promotion des migrants, Cabinet  préfet de la Région Rhône Alpes, “La population étrangère dans la région Rhône-Alpes” (mai 1973), CAC: 19930317/16.