NANTERRE, France (AP) — The race of the police officer who fatally shot a French teenager during a traffic stop last week hasn’t been disclosed, and there’s no reason why it would be. Officially, race doesn’t exist in France.

But the death of the French-born 17-year-old with North African roots, which sent rioters into the streets, has again exposed deep feelings about systemic racism that lies under the surface of the country’s ideal of colorblind equality.

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With his killing captured on video, what could be seen as France’s George Floyd moment has produced a very French national discussion that leaves out what many Americans would consider the essential point: color.

One can’t address race, much less racism, if it doesn’t exist, according to French policy. The Paris police chief, Laurent Nunez, said Sunday he was shocked by the U.N. human rights office’s use of the term “racism” in its criticism of French law enforcement. The police have none of it, he said.

France, especially white France, doesn’t tend to frame discussion of discrimination and inequality in black-and-white terms. Some French consider it racist to even discuss skin color. No one knows how many people of various races live in the country, as such data is not recorded.

“They say we are all French … so for them, it’s racist to do something like that,” said Iman Essaifi, a 25-year-old resident of Nanterre, the Paris suburb where the teen, Nahel, was killed.

While the subject of race remains taboo, Essaifi believes the events of the past week were a step toward speaking more openly about it. She noted that the people who marched in the streets of Nanterre after Nahel’s death were “not necessarily Arabs, not necessarily Blacks. There were whites, there were the ‘vrai Francais,’” – the “real French.”

France’s Constitution says the French Republic and its values are considered universal, meaning that all citizens have the same rights regardless of origin, race or religion.

Trying to discuss racial inequality without mentioning race leads to some linguistic gymnastics. Instead of terms like Black or mixed-race neighborhoods, French people instead often speak of “communities” or “banlieues” (suburbs) and “quartiers” (neighborhoods). They’re widely understood to mean often disadvantaged urban areas of housing projects and large immigrant populations.

Amid the unrest after Nahel’s death, such nonspecific language has ranged from supportive to insulting. Nanterre’s mayor, Patrick Jarry, spoke on Monday of the suburb “in all its diversity.” A statement last week by a large police union, the Alliance Police Nationale, described the rioters as “vermin.”

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Of course there’s racism in France, some people said.

“For example, if your parents come from another country, even you are poorly accepted,” said Stella Assi, a 17-year-old born in Paris who was passing by the city hall in Nanterre. “If I were white, that wouldn’t happen.”

France’s legacy of colonialism, largely in Africa and the Caribbean, plays out in some attitudes that continue generations later. More recently, migration has caused debate and division. The result is a government that openly addresses certain issues around race, but not necessarily in relation to its citizens’ daily lives.

On Wednesday, for example, a court in France is scheduled to review a request for reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. And on a notice board in Nanterre, now scrawled with graffiti saying “Cops, get out of our lives,” a city hall announcement from May advertised a ceremony commemorating the abolition of slavery.

Ahmed Djamai, 58, the president of an organization in Nanterre that connects youth with work opportunities, recalled being stopped by police recently and asked for his residence permit. He was born in France.

“Our second-, third- and fourth-generation children face the same problem when they go out to get a job,” he said. “People lump them together with things that happen in the suburbs. They’re not accepted. So, to date, the problem is social, but it’s also one of identity.”

The stunning procession of hundreds of men who walked from a mosque in Nanterre to the cemetery for Nahel’s burial stood out in France not only because many were Black or Arab, but because even the demonstration of religious identity can be sensitive. In addition to being officially colorblind, France is officially secular, too.

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Some people with immigrant roots fear that France’s success stories of generations of assimilation under that policy are being lost amid the rioting and criticism.

Gilles Djeyaramane is a municipal councilor in Poissy, a town west of Paris. His French-born wife is of Madagascan origin. He was born in French Guiana, of parents from India, and moved to France when he was 18.

“I’m always saying to my children, ‘Your mom and dad would never have met if France didn’t exist,” he said. “I’m not at all utopian. I know there’s work to do in some areas. But we are on the right path.”

Those who knew Nahel, and some who identify with him, said it’s not fair to pretend that differences, and discrimination, don’t exist. With anger, some pointed out that a funding campaign for the family of the police officer accused of shooting Nahel already topped 1 million euros ($1.09 million).

The frustration and violence in many communities come from other issues as well, including the rising cost of living and policing in general. In 2021, Amnesty International and five other rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the French state alleging ethnic profiling by police during ID checks.

Police officers reject accusations that some single out people because of their color. Officer Walid Hrar, who is of Moroccan descent and Muslim, said that if it sometimes seems that people of color are stopped more than others, it’s a reflection of the mixed-race density of populations in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.

In rural France, with fewer people with immigrant backgrounds, police also stop people but “they are called François, Paul and Pierre and Jacques,” Hrar said.

But Mariam Lambert, a 39-year-old who said Nahel was a friend of her son, stressed the pressure of feeling that she and others, including fellow Muslims, had to muffle their identity.

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“If I put a scarf on my head … they would see me as from another world, and everything would change for me,” said Lambert, who thinks she would be insulted in the streets. She spoke on the margins of a gathering at Nanterre city hall as events were held there and across France on Monday in support of authorities and a return to calm.

Lambert mused about moving to Morocco if France doesn’t change. “There are plenty of people leaving,” she said. “Because who protects us from the police?”

John Leicester and Nicolas Garriga contributed to this report from Paris.