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  • Writer's pictureLa Xixa

The situation: the Multi-layered identities in France

As part of the project preparation each 1000 Layers Project partner contributed with relevant information about the local contexts to provide insights of the types of identity conflicts that might be affecting young people in their territories. To understand local dynamics that will most likely have an impact on project development, we focused on six relevant areas:

  • presence of multi-layered identities

  • inter-group tensions and othering

  • approach to interculturality

  • presence of victimhood narratives

  • inter-group interactions

  • Multi-layered identities


All groups could benefit from multi-layered identity understanding - even dominant ones. For example: disabled, women, men, Muslim people, LGBTIQ+, foreigners’ communities, etc. Workshops could be done in mixed context (open to different social groups), although some groups could benefit much more from ‘non-mixed environments’ (“en non-mixité”: exclusive to women, to people of colour, to handicapped people, etc.). It does make sense to gather around the same identity characteristic (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.) in order to feel more secure, speak freely about the multiplicity of everyone’s identities – and without having to defend yourself about the characteristic for which minorities are often being excluded from the majority group.

In the specific French context, there are legal limitations about ‘non-mixed’ meetings. For example, exclusive groups to one gender are accepted while spaces reserved to a specific race are legally forbidden, considered as being ‘communitarianism’ by policymakers. In France, addressing specific needs of particular social groups (such as ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’) are a taboo and the state considers dangerous to name and discuss about specific race debates and issues in the public space. They consider that the acknowledgment of specific identities can lead to discrimination.

Inter-group tensions and othering

We define the practice of ‘othering’ as when specific characteristics / identity elements are charged with very negative associations to justify prejudice. This phenomenon can even drive to discrimination. In France, several specific communities and individuals can have such negative representations. Possibly the most stigmatised identity is connected to Islam, more particularly Muslim people whose attire reflects their religious beliefs. Muslim men wearing traditional clothing are associated to fundamentalism, radicalisation and possibly to terrorism, and are therefore considered as a potential threat, while Muslim women are being criticized for ‘being submitted to men’ when they wear the hijab (veil.) This example can illustrate the French republican universalist ideology about women emancipation and the laïcité (secularism) law: there is a deep suspicion towards anyone who manifests in the public space (in their outfit or communication behaviour) that they belong to a certain religion. We remember the episodes two summers ago when women wearing burkini could be undressed in the name of public morale.

Also, disabled people are very excluded, and they are obviously non visible since the public space is not adapted to them.

It is also commonly denied that a constellation of several minority identities would result in new forms of oppression and discrimination. The concept of ‘Intersectionality’ is still quite unknown outside of university contexts. We can think of mostly transwomen of colour who are sex workers who are regularly subjected to attacks and murders.

In France many particular identities are being minimalized / erased in order to privilege the common idea that we are all French, regardless of our colour, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. We often delete our belonging to a community for preserving Equality and the idea that we are all one, we have the same rights and opportunities.

The ‘othering’ phenomenon is not named in France (atériser is rarely used as a concept) even if it exists. “Ethnicisation” is used in academic circles to describe the phenomenon of explaining behaviour through cultural identity rather than economic factor or situation. “Construction d’altérité” would be an expression more familiar, again in academic or intercultural fields.

Approach to interculturality

The French context is characterized by an assimilationist system: making the members of different communities assimilating the majority group. Thus, if there are no differences between groups, inequality has no room to exist, we delete them – in theory. Therefore, there is no official intercultural policy in France. However, intercultural education and community education are quite present within non-governmental initiatives (NGOs, association, etc.) as a method and a pedagogy.

Victimhood narratives

Usually in France, victims and ‘victimhood’ discourses are perceived quite negatively. We identify different kind of reactions: (1) victimhood claims are rejected by being diminished and seen as a differentiation and narcissistic strategy. Often, they would be criticized for developing an individual strategy to make oneself special, different and to get under the spotlight. (2) Victimhood claims are also perceived as a threat to the social order and values of society. In that way, victims are usually accused of communitarianism. (3) Moreover, victims usually encounter strong reprobation for ‘asking too much’ and that they should be grateful already for what they get.

As victim communities we identify women – often white – who are heard in the French media. Also the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (yellow jackets) are visible and tell themselves as victim of the capitalist system. Thus, most of them are part of the low income community. Nevertheless, the ones who are heard are not necessarily the most vulnerable. Other communities are not heard in media, not identifiable, but they are more subject to victimhood. For example, young Arabic and black men, because of toxic masculinity within a patriarchal system and racism combined, are pulled/pushed away from the educational system and then from a social existence and visibility in media. In contrary, Arabic and black women have to be “saved” and thus are more visible.

Strategies that promote multi-layered identity could benefit those communities. But first and foremost, it is necessary to revalue their minority identity perceived as negatively for the moment. Indeed, the multiplicity process would not delete the inequalities.

Intergroup interactions

As said before, group borders are not recognized officially in the French context. Thus, it makes it difficult – almost impossible - to identify yourself to the minority group’s characteristics you correspond to. Thus, contacts between groups are also difficult to identify.

On an individual scale, there are intergroup contacts but they are not named. Moreover, this induces some different individual identity strategies. One of those is a situational identity strategy: according to your context you give up parts of your identity to avoid exclusion and mingle within the majority. This illustrates a systematic homogenisation process within – even minority – groups: in a LGBT group, a black person would be put apart because of his skin colour and the claims that come along with his multiple overlapping identity.

Also, there are non-profit organisations that carry communities’ claims, but they do not appear within the official political discourse.

Finally, there are imagined contacts between communities in the media, but this are rare and usually very stereotyped and judging. They often reproduce and legitimize the power relationships, instead of deconstructing them.

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