France’s racial spring

France doesn’t have even have a word for blackness in its own language, which can only be because the concept is not compatible with the republican mindset
Photo: Bastian Greshake Tzovaras

History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots. – Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

A generation of Afro-French people who have long experienced erasure by the universalist myth is rising up. The demonstrations of spring 2020 underlined the need to examine the blind spots in French history and question the flaws in the republican ideal, and ultimately to build a shared, truly universalist narrative that reflects multiple perspectives. Far from disguising secessionist inclinations, the struggles of these emerging anti-racist movements reflect a very real demand being made of the French Republic.

"A Season in Hell" is a long-term series presented by Ricochet in partnership with the Brussels office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. The co-published series examines the current political conflicts and social movements in France.

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My name is Mame-Fatou Niang. I am a film director and a professor and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. I am Afro-French. In my country, France, claiming a hyphenated identity is a sure way to rile people up. “The French Republic is one and indivisible — you can’t combine identity with a race or a religion!” “That’s just a sad, crude invention that you’ve copied from American racial politics. Your Afro-Frenchness threatens France’s integrity.”

But I was born into a family with Senegalese roots, weaned on the French Republic and raised in the cultures of the Black diaspora: I am, quite simply, Afro-French. As an expert on Black issues in France, I strive to explore and express the Black French experience through my academic research and artistic output.

In the 15 years that I have been working on these issues, I have never seen anything like the turmoil that swept through France following the death of George Floyd. Many journalists, researchers, activists and artists with whom I am acquainted feel, like me, that we are witnessing the emergence of something completely new; that we are seeing history in the making. The public debate that ensued in the eight weeks following Floyd’s death forced France to confront a series of questions that it could no longer avoid answering. The issue that generated such heated discussion in the first half of 2020 was that of French identity and its component parts, the history of this identity, and how race fits into a whole series of questions: Who is French? How was France’s national memory formed? How have historical definitions influenced contemporary processes of integration into or exclusion from the French national community?

A look back at eight weeks that have (hopefully) transformed how France looks at race

May 25, 2020: On a sidewalk in the city of Minneapolis, a white police officer presses his knee against the neck of a handcuffed Black man on the ground. Until his last breath, the man on the ground, George Floyd, begs the officer for his life, repeating: “I can’t breathe, man. You gonna kill me.” Images of Floyd’s tragic death soon spread around the world, his final words becoming a rallying cry against racism and state violence. With tensions already running high because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” became a recurrent feature of headlines worldwide.

Any time race does end up being debated, minorities are rarely given the chance to set the agenda.

In France, George Floyd’s death triggered the biggest anti-racism movement in contemporary history and laid bare the racial divides long hidden by discourse emphasizing the country’s republican values. The sordid murder of this African-American man opened the floodgates for denunciations of institutional violence; these were expressed through the activities of such bodies as the Comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama (Truth and Justice for Adama Committee), named for a 24-year-old Afro-French man who died in police custody in 2016. Demonstrations were held in several French towns and cities at the urging of the families of victims of state violence. Alongside the protests organized by the Adama Committee, which have regularly involved tens of thousands of people, actions were undertaken at the instigation of the families of Gaye Camara, Ibrahima Bah and Sabri Choubi, all of whom were Black French or Arab French and all of whom lost their lives following encounters with the police.

As part of a movement on a scale never seen before, these protests dominated the national news and drew responses from politicians at the very highest levels. Although my work is widely distributed abroad, in France itself I have often come up against a barrier blocking the promotion of materials that, to this day, are viewed as secessionist or excessively focused on a single community. Yet in just a few hours, I saw this barrier fall away. My phone was inundated with calls from French media representatives eager to invite me to their studios or write pieces for their newspapers. Other experts in French racial issues were in similarly high demand over this period, resulting in substantial representation of French people from minority backgrounds — a sign of the changing times.

France’s republican ideal and ‘race blindness’

Quite apart from their success among the people, the primary achievement of these protests lies in the way they forced racial issues to the forefront of public debate for almost eight weeks. This achievement is all the more remarkable given how scrupulously France avoids dealing with the issue of race, except when forced to do so by a sudden crisis (like the 2005 riots or the 2015 attacks). Any time race does end up being debated, minorities are rarely given the chance to set the agenda. (I am thinking in particular of the ‘great debate’ on French national identity launched in November 2009 by Éric Besson, then minister for immigration, integration, national identity and co-development under President Nicolas Sarkozy. Paralyzed by its failings and plagued by racist abuse, the initiative came to nothing.) From a French republican perspective, race simply does not exist, and national institutions emphatically deny that it has a hand in social inequalities. Principles handed down from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution fostered the idea of a nation founded on a contract between a community of citizens, citizens who embody and defend a set of values and ideals.

Even though the 21st century has revealed these beliefs to be flawed, France still clings to its core principles. And while the country is officially colour-blind, its silence on racial issues haunts our day-to-day lives. This silence has become an integral part of France’s media, art and academic scenes, shaping its language and writings on its national memory and history. Thus, the ever-so-verbose French language lacks terms to describe the legacy of France’s imperialist past. While English provides a substantial contingent of words, using them only fuels suspicions that it is not just the words, but also the issues, that have been imported from the English-speaking world. If our beautiful language, which both underpins and reflects our national identity, has not even taken the trouble to come up with a word for blackness, this can only be because the concept itself is not compatible with the republican mindset. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The protests and demonstrations of spring 2020 emphasized the need to scrutinize the blind spots in our history and question the flaws in the republican ideal

The silence on racial issues is all the more deafening in the academic world. Our universities and research institutes are teeming with centres dedicated to African-American or African studies, yet we are still awaiting the creation of France’s first department of Afro-French studies. Furthermore, the prevailing discourse represents colonization and slavery as American institutions while omitting to mention their history in France — quite the exercise in selective amnesia.

Practically all of us watched Gone with the Wind and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when we were young, but how many of us heard the epic tale of the rebel Solitude, who led a slave revolt in Guadeloupe? Why do we find it easier to associate slavery with picking cotton in Alabama than with harvesting sugar cane in the West Indies? Though French schoolchildren are well versed in the horrors of the Jim Crow era and the achievements of the civil rights movement (Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are household names in France too), how many of them have ever heard of Toussaint Louverture? How many know that Haiti was once a French colony? This denialism forms the basis for a form of everyday racism that is not even recognized as such by those who practise it, due to France’s interpretation of the word “racism” and its treatment as an abomination only found in other countries. Racism, according to this interpretation, means apartheid-era South Africa, KKK sabre-rattling and massacres of schoolchildren in the favelas of Rio, but cannot be associated with France, the country of the Enlightenment and the cradle of human rights.

In a seminal lecture delivered in 1882, Ernest Renan developed the idea of collective amnesia as a fundamental factor in a nation’s creation and survival. In Renan’s view, a group’s existence is rooted both in a shared heritage and in a consensus regarding the historical facts that are to be preserved in its collective memory:

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality.

If a coherent collective identity is to emerge, contentious episodes must be forgotten. This approach explains the erasure of race as a concept, despite the central role this concept played in the development of modern Europe. France’s reluctance to deal with the legacy of its imperial past both underpins its selective amnesia and provides a solid foundation for institutional racism. The protests and demonstrations of spring 2020 emphasized the need to scrutinize the blind spots in our history and question the flaws in the republican ideal, with an eye toward producing a shared, truly universalist narrative that reflects multiple perspectives.

‘Universalist’ anti-racism versus ‘racialist’ anti-racism: the war of words engulfing France

The events of this historic spring have highlighted the existence of two opposing camps: on the one hand, the ‘universalist’ or ‘republican’ anti-racists, and on the other, the (scorned and despised) ‘racialist’, ‘indigenist’ or, in the words of President Emmanuel Macron himself, ‘separatist’ anti-racists. With so little being done by conventional anti-racist organisations such as Licra and SOS Racisme, and in light of the surge of new movements with solid roots in working-class neighbourhoods, in social media and in the hearts and minds of France’s young people, public discourse has begun painting this new form of anti-racism — anti-racism 2.0 — as public enemy number one, deeming its rise as much of a threat to the French Republic as the white supremacy it claims to combat. Since it stirs up spectres from the past, anti-racism 2.0 is said to undermine the very foundations of our society and infect them with the poison of identitarianism. Politicians and the media are joining forces to sound the alarm and decry the dangers of a burgeoning racialization imported from the United States.

I am part of a generation of French people who have long experienced erasure by the universalist myth.

This futile clash between two forms of anti-racism throws into sharp relief the post-colonial melancholy gripping France: the inability to come to terms with our country’s history and as such accept the present that was born out of that history. It also testifies to the denial of our long racial history and the impact of this collective amnesia on the very French production of racialized identities, which were later swept under the carpet by the universalist establishment. My France is not Colbert’s France or Napoleon’s France, so why should it be viewed through the same lens, namely that of a fossilized system of universalism in which, it is claimed, there is no racism. Instead of taking a long, hard look at itself, my country prefers to hide behind an ideal underpinned by ossified republican values. Why should I be forced to live in a world where universalist dogma and blind adherence to an ideal are considered substitutes for reality? In this world, universalism preserves such a degree of innocence, ignorance and arrogance that there is little room for the Other. These are the very convictions being challenged by the popular protests of spring 2020.

The focus on working-class neighbourhoods and the linking of social issues with police violence as their common denominator testify to a desire to address the real challenges facing a crisis-stricken France. This spring, victims of police violence took to the streets alongside refugee support organizations, healthcare professionals, LGBTQI+ movements, environmentalists, feminists, students’ and citizens’ organizations and an array of other left movements. Anti-racism 2.0 effectively marks both a break with a left that has been unable to speak to the hearts of working-class neighbourhoods and the first time that the issue of state violence against racialized bodies has served as a unifying factor for different social struggles.

I am Afro-French. I am not some poor imitation that washed up on France’s shores in the context of post-colonial migration to a European “promised land.” My story is also the story of France since 1659, the year the city of Saint-Louis was founded at the mouth of the Senegal River, going on to act as a core piece of the French Empire from the 17th to the 20th century. If we are to lay the foundations for a fairer society, this story must be told. In this sense, the democratization of the universal, represented by the emerging anti-racist movements, is one of the major projects to be undertaken by the new France.

I am part of a generation of French people who have long experienced erasure by the universalist myth. Far from disguising secessionist inclinations, our struggles now reflect a very real demand that we are making of the French Republic.

Mame-Fatou Niang is an associate professor of French at Carnegie Mellon University. Her most recent book, Identités Françaises (Brill, 2019), examines Afro-French identities, and the works of female writers of the banlieue. Mame has also co-directed Mariannes Noires, a film in which seven Afro-French women investigate what it means to be Black and French, and Black in France.

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