Beyond Invisibility


The French have an interesting concept of what constitutes racism. It consists basically in the notion that mention of race is, well, racist. One result is a color-blind public policy that does not recognize racial groups, focusing instead on inequities associated with geography and class. Another is that French civil law does not address discrimination in employment, housing, education, and provision of goods and services.

This absence of modern civil law addressing racial discrimination is remarkable, because the Code Noir of 1689 long determined all aspects of life of enslaved and free Black people throughout the French Caribbean. The Code Noir was extended to Louisiana in 1724. And we in New Orleans still live in the shadow of the old Black Codes. Blacks in France seem to me to live in a different kind of limbo. Nominal citizens who once were slaves and, more recently, colonial subjects, they are guaranteed no specific protections under the law.

Until World War II, France remained a white European nation. In the years following the war, the government recruited large numbers of European immigrants to help rebuild the country in the post-war and post-depression periods. The second largest country in western Europe, France is not quite the size of Texas. It has a population of 60 million -- the combined populations of Texas and California -- and shares borders with nearly every nation of western Europe. The 1993 creation and recent expansion of the European Union have increased the sense of borderless-ness. And there is heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in France these days. In political speeches and corner shop conversations alike, one hears a steady stream of complaints against "les émigrés et les chômeurs" (immigrants and the unemployed).

The Afro-francophone population is not, however, an immigrant population. Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as Asians and other people of color from France's numerous colonies and territories, began arriving in the late 1940s. The mostly male population worked as laborers or low-level service industry employees. After a decade or so, they began bringing their families, or else married and had children there. By that time, they had already made the change in status from colonial subjects to French citizens.

French national identity is historically situated in the achievements of the Revolution and the primacy of the French language. French people are the inheritors of the Revolution. Francophone people are those conquered and "adopted" through slavery and colonial aggression. For those of non-French origin, integration is necessary. And "integration" here means full and exclusive adoption of French identity.

Black immigrants from the colonies in Africa and the Caribbean were seen as problematic, their dark skin, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual heritage making integration into French society less plausible. They were and are perceived as a threat to national identity. By the 1960s, however, France was already a multi-racial nation. Creeping fears of loss or contamination of the French identity have been consistently manipulated by the right-wing National Front (FN) political party, which openly preaches against immigration. In contemporary French parlance, the term "immigrant" invariably indicates lower-working-class people of color. Francophone blacks, no matter their citizenship status, are generally perceived and referred to as immigrants.

In 1974, the French government enacted its Zero Immigration policy. Aimed specifically at restricting "minority" immigration, the new policy simply suspended immigration. Exceptions included highly skilled workers and people seeking asylum. And European Community members remained welcome to come and go at will. Which populations did Zero Immigration effectively exclude?

Further restrictions then came in the form of "nationality codes." As of 1986, children born to foreign parents on French soil would no longer automatically have French citizenship. Such children could, upon reaching the age of majority, themselves apply for French citizenship. A 1993 amendment then made it necessary also for one parent to have lived in the country for a minimum of five years at the time of the child's birth. The popular explanation was that the bill was intended to prevent pregnant women from arriving in France to give birth and gain citizenship. It was really a heightened attempt to prevent African immigrants from achieving citizenship.

Although the nations of French colonial Africa all gained independence in the 1960s, France retains eight overseas "former" colonies with a combined population of more than three million. These are the Départements et Territoires d'Outre Mer or, DOM-TOM. The DOM-TOM include Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean; French Guiana in South America; Réunion and Mayotte off the southeast coast of Africa; St. Pierre and Miquelon in the north Atlantic; and French Polynesia (including Tahiti) and Wallace and Futuna Islands in the South Pacific. Under slightly different political categories, France has other holdovers from its colonial heyday.

Departmentalization in 1946 brought about the absorption of former colonies into the French Union and, purportedly, extended citizenship to them as of 1948. With the exception of Haiti, which achieved independence in 1804 after its decadelong revolution, slavery in the French Caribbean had ended a century earlier, in 1848. It was at the urging of poet and then-mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique, Aimé Césaire, that departmentalization and creation of the DOM-TOM came. Three years later, he was already regretting it.

The problem has to do not only with the kind of invisibility about which African-American novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, but with active and aggressive erasure. One of the most quoted passages from Césaire reads in part, "in France people spoke of a civilized world and a barbarian world. The barbarian world was Africa. Š Therefore, the best thing one could do with an African was to assimilate him: the ideal was to turn him into a Frenchman with black skin."

In the United States, sustained political agitation by African Americans brought about a grudging integration and, more importantly, a body of laws against discrimination in employment, voting rights, housing and education. The only form of integration practiced in France is assimilation, which requires the sublimation and denial of ethnic, racial and language identity other than French. The same programs of assimilation used under the French colonial regime were merely extended into the post-colonial period. The difference is that race would no longer be officially recognized. That being the case, there is no legal protection against racial discrimination.

Again, there are two exceptions. Hate speech inciting racial violence is, in theory, punishable under criminal law as of 1972. And it is a criminal offense to deny the existence of the Holocaust. Since the penal code carries a greater burden of proof than does the civil, however, few such cases have ever been carried forward.

One of the three largest exporters of Africans into slavery in the New World, France was second only to England in the number and extent of its colonial holdings in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. Yet slavery and colonialism are strangely absent from national identity, memory and recorded history.

Thus, race relations in France today are about what they were in the United States in the 1940s and '50s. What is missing is the attendant hue and cry of Afro-francophone people, who greatly fear being branded racist for bringing up the topic. An example, which would be humorous were it not so pathetic, is a young man I met while lecturing at the Université de Metz. In completing his dissertation on African-American novelist Ralph Ellison, he has come to a difficult pass. He feels it absolutely necessary to write about a lynching scene from an Ellison short story, but is afraid that his dissertation committee will brand him a racist if he does. This, of course, would have a negative impact on his completion of the degree. Can I advise him on how to do this so that his professors -- all of whom are white -- will not accuse him of being racist?

Part of what makes this young man so interesting to me is that, in a literary tour of universities over a fairly broad geographical area, he is one of only two students I met -- at two different universities -- who are African or of African descent. (The other is a young African-American woman from Georgia.)

It is with great self-control that I explain to him that not only is his writing about race in and of itself not a racist act, but in an environment where he is the only black, he doesn't come anywhere near possessing the required credentials for being racist. He finds my definition of racism as the power to control and subjugate on the basis of race both "enlightened" and, sadly, "original." We exchange email addresses and agree to stay in touch.

I am frustrated to the point of anger by his fear that his degree, and subsequent livelihood, could be threatened by his formal discussion of race in a literary work that specifically treats that topic. This threat -- and his genuine and urgent fear of it -- is the real instance of racism here. Color-blind public policy notwithstanding, and Black Codes no longer on the books, les nègres here remain silent, out of sight and in line.

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