As the Black Lives Matter movement spilled from the United States into the French streets, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted a poll in late June to ask French voters how they perceive the police and racism in their country. Despite the increasing media coverage of police brutality in France in the last few months, we found that a majority (51%) of French voters have a positive view of the police in France.
The question appears to follow broad party lines: a vast majority (82%) of those who voted for François Fillon in the 2017 Presidential elections express their support for the police against only 28% of those who had voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Despite an overall positive outlook towards police forces among the French public, respondents are more split when it comes to assessing how most people in France view the police. Indeed, a difference of just two-points separates those who think the French public has a positive view (39%) with those who think most people have a negative view (36%).
The presumption that French citizens are averse to police enforcement may be a legacy of the Yellow Vests (Gilet Jaunes) movement and the more recent strikes against President Macron’s proposed pension reform. In both instances, images of flash-ball injuries and police violence against protesters have filled the French media landscape, sparking outrage amongst French viewers.
Many have indeed speculated that President Macron refrained from directly commenting on the Floyd case as a means to avoid having to discuss the matter of police violence in France. Instead, he sent Interior Minister Christophe Castaner earlier this month to announce that chokehold arrests would be banned in France. The ban, a move designed primarily to calm ongoing protests, has infuriated police unions who protested against the so-called police bashing. Many in the police forces have indeed reminded the government that they stood on the forefront of clashes during the Yellow Vests and the pension reform protests.
Protests and counter-protests have thus brought the issue of race and police brutality to the forefront of political debates in France. The highly polarized nature of the debate is reflected in our finding as French respondents are divided when asked whether they believe that France is or isn’t a racist society. A plurality of respondents answered that France is not a racist society (39%). However, around a third (34%) of respondents answered that France is a racist society.
Similarly to perceptions of police enforcement, answers follow broad partisan lines: indeed, those who voted on the right side of the political spectrum in 2017 – Fillon or Le Pen – are more likely to reject the idea that the French society is a racist one than those who voted on the left side – Mélenchon or Hamon. A large plurality (44%) of those who voted for Macron in 2017 believe that France is a racist society.
What French respondents broadly agree on, however, is that the situation surrounding race and ethnicity in France is different to the situation in the United States.
Interestingly, however, a plurality of respondents in the younger segment of the population (18-34) answered that the situation across both sides of the Atlantic was similar, reflecting the overwhelming presence of young people in many of the anti-racism protests across the country. It may also be the result of increased mediatization of the issue, particularly on social media.
Likewise, we found an important generational divide when asked whether racism against black men, women and children was a major problem in France between the 18 to 44 age group and the 45+ one. Notably, well over 60% of those above the age of 55 answered that racism was not a major problem in France.
Lastly, as calls across the United States and Europe have urged to dismantle statues of public figures who were involved in racial injustices, France struggles to address its own colonial past. In particular, the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert – Louis XIV’s Minister of State and writer of France’s slavery code – in front of the National Assembly in Paris has been the cause of many debates. A strong plurality of French respondents, however, disagree that Colbert’s statue should be taken down (47%).
In line with our previous findings, answers were again split along party lines with 70% of those who voted for François Fillon in 2017 answering that the statue should remain at the Bourbon Palace. Those who voted for Macron in 2017 are, by contrast, more divided over the question with 34% answering that the Colbert’s statue should be taken down and 32% that it should stay in place.
In-between details over the lifting of lockdown restrictions in his latest address to the nation, President Macron has taken the opportunity to condemn racism and violence in France. Backtracking from his controversial comment in 2017 that colonialism was a “crime against humanity,” however, Macron insisted however that France would not erase its past and take down any statues. Our findings suggest that the French public broadly agrees with him.