A Racial Awakening in France, Where Race Is a Taboo Topic

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A report by Norimitsu Onishi for The New York Times.

With an eye on the United States, children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are bringing race into the public discourse, in a perceived challenge to France’s universalism.

Growing up in France, Maboula Soumahoro never thought of herself as Black.

At home, her immigrant parents stressed the culture of the Dioula, a Muslim ethnic group from Ivory Coast in West Africa. In her neighborhood, she identified herself as Ivorian to other children of African immigrants.

It was only as a teenager — years after the discovery of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, “The Cosby Show” and hip-hop made her “dream of being cool like African-Americans’’ — that she began feeling a racial affinity with her friends, she said.

“We were all children of immigrants from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Africa, and we are all a little bit unlike our parents,’’ recalled Ms. Soumahoro, 44, an expert on race who lived in the United States for a decade. “We were French in our new way and we weren’t white French. It was different in our homes, but we found one another regardless, and that’s when you become Black.’’

Besides fueling heated debates over racism, the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis has underscored the emergence of a new way of thinking about race in the public discourse in France, a nation where discussion of race and religion has traditionally been muted in favor of elevating a colorblind ideal that all people share the same universal rights.

That ideal has often fallen short in reality, especially as French society has become more diverse and discrimination remains entrenched, leading some to wonder whether the universalist model has run its course.

Today it is being challenged perhaps most vociferously by the many Black French who have gone through a racial awakening in recent decades — helped by the pop culture of the United States, its thinkers, and even its Paris-based diplomats who spotted and encouraged young Black French leaders a decade ago.

To its opponents, Black and white, the challenge to the universalist tradition is perceived as part of the broader “Americanization” of French society. This challenge risks fragmenting France, they say, and poses a threat far more central to the modern republic’s founding principles than familiar complaints about the encroachment of McDonald’s or Hollywood blockbusters.

Even those Black French who have been inspired by the United States also consider America to be a deeply flawed and violently racist society. In France, people of different backgrounds mix far more freely, and while Black people occupy fewer high-profile positions than in the United States, like all French citizens they enjoy universal access to education, health care and other services.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Paris this month. A group of protesters raised a banner for Babacar Gueye, a Senegalese man fatally shot by the police in 2015.

“When I consider both countries, I’m not saying that one country is better than the other,” said Ms. Soumahoro, who has taught African-American studies at Columbia and now teaches at the Université de Tours. “For me, they’re two racist societies that manage racism in their own way.”

Most of France’s new thinkers on race are the children of immigrants from the former colonial empire. Growing up in households with a strong sense of their separate ethnic identities, they gradually began to develop a shared sense of racial consciousness in their neighborhoods and schools.

Pap Ndiaye — a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies as an academic discipline in France with the 2008 publication of his book “La Condition Noire,” or “The Black Condition’’ — said he grew aware of his race only after studying in the United States in the 1990s.

“It’s an experience that all Black French go through when they go to the United States,” said Mr. Ndiaye, 54, who teaches at Sciences Po. “It’s the experience of a country where skin color is reflected upon and where it is not hidden behind a colorblind discourse.”

The son of a Senegalese father and a Frenchwoman, Mr. Ndiaye is a “métis” in the French context, or of mixed race, though he identifies himself as a Black man.

His views of the world and himself were a radical challenge to the French state. Rooted in the Enlightenment and the Revolution, France’s universalism has long held that each human being enjoys fundamental rights like equality and liberty. In keeping with the belief that no group should be given preference, it remains illegal to collect data on race for the census and for almost all other official purposes.

But the unequal treatment of women in France and of nonwhite people throughout its colonies belied that universalist ideal.

“Universality could work easily enough when there weren’t too many immigrants or when they were white Catholics,” said Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the United States. “But faced with Islam on one side and Black Africans on the other, this model has evidently reached its limits. And so the debate is that on one side is this universalism, which is a beautiful ideal, but on the other is how to say at the same time that, yes, it’s not working.”

Tania de Montaigne, a French author who has written about race, said that Black French will fully integrate only through the rule of law and citizenship. Emphasizing a racial identity, she said, would make Black French perpetual outsiders in a society where the overwhelming majority aspires to a colorblind universalism.

“They say that there’s something, wherever you are in the world, whatever language you speak, whatever your history, this Black nature endures,” said Ms. de Montaigne, 44, whose parents immigrated from Martinique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “But that’s exactly how you make it impossible to become a citizen, because there will always be something in me that will never be included in society.”

In the United States, many immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean or Asia develop a shared sense of race and grow acutely aware of the role of race in America, a country where it is part of the daily conversation.

Rokhaya Diallo, 42, a journalist who is also one of France’s most prominent anti-racism activists, said she became aware of a shared sense of race only after she became an adult and often found herself the only Black person in an academic or professional setting. She grew up in La Courneuve, a suburb of Paris known as a banlieue, in a building with mostly immigrants from France’s former Southeast Asian colonies.

Rokhaya Diallo, who founded an anti-racism organization called “Les Indivisibles” in 2007, visited the United States in 2010 to learn about “managing ethnic diversity in the U.S.”

Race was never talked about. But fleeting images of Black people on French television struck a chord in Ms. Diallo, whose parents came from Senegal and Gambia. Like many people of her generation, she loved a children’s television series called “Club Dorothée.” But she could never forget an episode — a colonial trope — in which the host, a white woman, is boiled alive in a caldron by three Black men.

“I’d talk about it with my brother,’’ Ms. Diallo said. “We weren’t able to put it in words, but I remember how it annoyed us — cannibals, stupid Blacks, things like that.”

By contrast, American shows that were broadcast later in France, like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or “The Cosby Show,’’ showed Black people who were “comfortable in their skin,” Ms. Diallo said, adding, “The only positive images of Black people that I saw came from the United States.”

Thanks to a U.S. government program, Ms. Diallo, who founded an anti-racism organization called Les Indivisibles in 2007, visited the United States in 2010 to learn about “managing ethnic diversity in the U.S.”

Ms. Diallo is one of several high-profile individuals who took part in the U.S. program, a fact that has contributed to fears, especially among French conservatives, of an “Americanization’’ of French society.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris began reaching out to ethnic and racial minorities in France after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of a global push to “win hearts and minds.”

The embassy organized educational programs on subjects like affirmative action, a taboo concept in France, drawing nonwhite French audiences for the first time, said Randianina Peccoud, who oversaw the outreach programs and retired from the embassy last year.

Ms. Peccoud, who is from Madagascar, a former French colony, also identified grass-roots leaders like Ms. Diallo in the banlieues — often eliciting angry reactions from French officials and fueling enduring suspicions.

“They were afraid that people in the banlieues would start to be a little aware of their own situation in French society,” Ms. Peccoud said.

The visits to the United States, organized around themes like community organizing in Chicago and diversity, also gave participants an introduction to an alternative vision of society.

Almamy Kanouté, an actor, activist and leader in the ongoing protests against police violence in France, in Fresnes in the Paris suburbs where he grew up and lives.

Almamy Kanouté, an actor, activist and leader in the ongoing protests against police violence in France, visited the United States in 2011 to learn about policies toward new immigrants. In Minneapolis, he met a French-speaking man from Laos whose roots were acknowledged despite his becoming an American citizen — in contrast to France’s assimilationist policies.

“Here, they want us to melt into a single body and put aside our cultural diversity,” said Mr. Kanouté, 40, whose parents are from Mali and who appeared in “Les Misérables,” the Oscar-nominated film. “With us, that’s not possible. We’re French, but we don’t forget what makes us whole.”

For younger Black people in France, their awareness of race partly grew out of the work of the older generation. Binetou Sylla, 31, a co-author of “Le Dérangeur,” a book about race in France, said she vividly remembers buying the first edition of Mr. Ndiaye’s “The Black Condition,” which helped established Black studies in France, and “had devoured” it.

Another co-author, Rhoda Tchokokam, 29, grew up in Cameroon before immigrating to France at the age of 17. While her racial awareness emerged in France, it evolved in the United States, where she went to study for two years, watched all of Spike Lee’s movies and discovered the works of Toni Morrison and Black feminists like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde.

“When I started meeting Black people in France, I started broadening my outlook a little,” Ms. Tchokokam said. “I still didn’t think of myself as Black because that’s a long process, where today I define myself as Black politically. Back then, I started becoming aware and when I arrived in the United States, it’s in fact there that I was able to put it in words.”

 

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