© Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains no. 59-62 (1988) 129-140


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As inheritors of the lofty ideals and values of the 1789 Revolution, the French portray themselves as staunch and dedicated defenders of human rights and of racial equality, Yet, the historical reality hardly conforms to this widely-held belief. Racism has pervaded Franco-African relations ever since the first encounter between the two civilizations. The images formed in the course of that contact helped shape the reaction of the French towards Africans. Combined with a preeminence of technological power, those images gave the French the opportunity to play a significant role in shaping the destiny of most of the Francophone African World. The present study analyzes how these prejudices appeared and how the period of colonization contributed to crystallize this negative image in the French collective psyche.

The French developed negative attitudes towards Africans long before any contacts were actually established between France and Africa. Ideas were inherited from the classical and medieval World of Africa as a land inhabited by monsters and beastly people[1]. Another source of information available to the French were the travel accounts of other Europeans who had preceded them to the continent, notably the Portuguese. In the 15th century, a number of travel accounts by persons accompanying these Portuguese expeditions appeared in French translations. In general, these accounts reflected the writers frustration arising from the inability to understand the people with whom they had come into contact, and even reinforced the classical and medieval images of Africa.

Beginning in the 16th century, French traders plied the coast of West Africa, trading for gum arabic, ivory, gold, and slaves. However, none of these early contacts seem to have led to any particular knowledge [PAGE 132] about Africa and its people. In fact there was a remarkable lack of interest in the African continent during the Renaissance. The thirst for knowledge about people of different races was lacking during that period[2]. Thus, despite opportunities for developing some knowledge about Africa, the classical and medieval lore was allowed to stand.

In 1659 a group of Rouen traders established at the fort a mouth of the Senegal River. There they created the base for what was to become an active French involvement in Africa. Increased contacts with Africans led the French people to reflect on the nature of blacks. Merchants, travellers, officials, and others visiting Africa tried to understand the strange new world with which they had come into contact. Those early observers were struck by the Africans' physique, manners, and customs. Their accounts often lacked originality and too often fell back on classical and medieval lore about the black continent. The skin color of the Africans surprised the early French explorers as unusual, and they tried to explain how they might have become black. They ascribed the Africans color to the heat of the sun; the sun's ability to darken skin was seen as immediate. Therefore, one reason seamen purportedly were hard to recruit for voyages southward toward the equator was fear that they might turn suddenly black under the sun's rays. Differences in skin colors were attributed to differences in climate. In France, as in the rest of Europe, the color black denoted evil and depravity and, in an age that believed in symbols, a negative meaning was attached to the fact that some humans were black[3]. Therefore, the French saw the blackness of Africans as symbolic of some inner depravity.

Many theories were developed that tried to explain the differences of the black race. All these theories shared the assumption that there was something special in the creation of Africans that set them apart from white people. This special, separate creation denoted some form of disadvantage for Africans, a trait of inferiority. During that period the French, like all other Europeans, were never concerned about their own skin color, which they presumably accepted as the norm[4]. All this interest [PAGE 133] in the cause of the blacks' physique reveals a strong ethnocentric conviction that blackness indicated an anomaly of man, nature, or even God. These images of blacks created in the 16th and 17th centuries became deeply implanted in French culture and exercised a pervasive influence over later generations of the French people.

The French came into contact with the blacks in three parts of the world : in the West Indies, in the West Africa, and in the metropolis. The most significant contact occurred in the plantation colonies in the West Indies, established during the first part of the 17th century. In fact, until slavery was abolished in the mid-nineteenth century, it was not in Africa, but rather in the Antilles, that the most extensive interaction between Frenchmen and blacks occurred. The West Indies were the most important possessions in the empire, providing France with tropical staple products that in turn made up a large proportion of France's foreign trade.

The Antilles formed the hub around which French colonial thought developed. Even before the islands of Saint-Christophe, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint-Domingue had fallen under official government control, French settlers had introduced black slaves. Towards the end of the 17th century, slavery became dominant form of labor and the basis for French wealth in the Caribbean. The institutions, customs and laws that developed around black slavery in the French West Indies confirmed the inequality between the races that travellers of Africa and writers in France had already proclaimed. The social context of slavery dictated to a large degree how Frenchmen viewed blacks. Slavery was not a moral problem for Frenchmen in the 16th and 17th centuries. The ancien world had essentially accepted slavery as part of the natural order of things : the result of inequality of humans. This was regarded as a natural law, whereby stronger and more capable humans controlled those less well endowed. As a result of observing blacks in slavery, the French in the Antilles formed an essentially negative view of the African race. Such an image was nearly inevitable, since slave-owners have always assumed that their right to domination was based on physical and moral superiority[5]. [PAGE 134]

In Senegal, the desire of the small number of French officials and traders for political and commercial expansion inland, led to more liberal race relations.

Rather than practicing racial exclusivism, as in the West Indies, the groups in Senegal intermingled with ease. In fact, France even practiced a policy of assimilation – an extension of French culture. This friendly relationship between races in West Africa was highly exceptional. In terms of both the numbers involved and the impact in France, the experience in the Antilles was far more important for the French collective psyche than one in Senegal.

In the metropolis direct experience with Africans was limited to contact with very few blacks, mostly abandoned slaves and stranded seamen who occupied marginal positions. They were mostly servants, and sometimes, in port cities, were connected with the underworld of crime. Few in number, but very visible by their color, blacks were held in low esteem and were even feared.

During the 18th century, the French expansion overseas took the form of missionizing, trade, exploration, or conquest, sometimes all four occurring simultaneously in one region, as was the case in Canada. The French philosophes approach to the African was affected by a total view of man and society. Despite a belief in human equality, these thinkers, in their very eagerness to understand and classify people, developed a concept of human inequality based on climatic, cultural, and racial criteria. Their view of man was basically evolutionary. Thus the Africans were considered to be capable of undergoing evolutionary change through contact with European influences or through change of climate. It should be noted that few 18th century French travellers to Africa published descriptions of their experiences and so the image of the African held during the Enlightenment was essentially based on works published in the 17th or in the first quarter of the 18th century. Thus Abbe Prevot's Histoire générale des voyages, the first important collection of travel literature, published in several volumes from 1746 to 1759, was a compilation of the rather contradictory and mostly negative material from 17th and early 18th century travel accounts. The ideas expressed [PAGE 135] in this work had considerable influence in shaping the philosophes' attitudes toward Africans. The Encyclopédie and Count Buffon gleaned most of their information from Prevost. Count Buffon, in his Histoire naturelle, another important collection of writings on the non-European world, repeated Prevost's claim that, if an African were transplanted to Europe, over two centuries, his descendants would not only be civilized, but also be white[6].

Conversely, if whites were transplanted to Africa, the rays of the sun and the different food in hot regions would over a few generations darken their descendants and finally transform them into blacks. Since colors usually have a propensity to turn into darker shades, it would take a shorter time to transform from white to black than the reverse. In this context it should be noted that in the 18th century, the possibility that the evolution of the earth had occurred within the span of 6.000 years or so (an idea derived from the Bible) was still widely accepted. Still, according to Buffon, Africans had become blacks as a result of the tropical environment. The blackness of Africans was seen as a degeneration caused by what were regarded as unnatural ecological conditions. These climatic theories upheld the theory of a common descendent of all human races, but such a doctrine was by no means egalitarian.

The idea that all races were descendent from the same original pair and that differences were due to environmental forces is known as monogenism. This theory asserted the unity of man, but the obvious diversity that existed could best be explained by theories of degeneration. Thus, according to the 18th century thinkers, human races were unequal. The validity of monogenism seemed assured by Buffon's observation that, despite differences in appearance, all the races of man could mate with each other and thus clearly belonged to the same species. Monogenism was thus given a scientific basis apart from the authority of the Scriptures.

With no particular experience of Africa, Buffon used his literary gifts to summarize the ideas of his era, and to paint a dramatic picture of the Africans. These writings had great importance because of their wide dissemination, [PAGE 136] Diderot, in an article contributed to the Encyclopédie, the compendium of 18th century learning, described the Africans as follows :

These peoples have, so to speak, only ideas from one day to the next, their laws have no principles... no consistency other than that of a lazy and blind habit. They are blamed for ferociousness, cruelty, perfidy, cowardice, laziness. This accusation is but too true[7].

This negative opinion of Africans was very common among thinkers of the Enlightenment. As for the rest of the populace, if the literature that was aimed at them is any indication, they remained almost totally ignorant of Africa.

The Ancien Régime was a highly structured society, in which a person's rank at birth usually marked him or her for life. The idea that the aristocracy had a right to rule on the basis of its biological descendence from the German Franks who had conquered the Gallo-Romans was particularly influential before the French Revolution. Therefore, the members of the Third Estate were considered as inferior to the Nobility as a result of inherited biological traits[8]. This idea developed fully in the 17th century and became best known through the pen of Count Henri de Boulainvilliers, who wished to reassert the power of the Nobility that had been diminished by the absolutist reign of Louis XIV[9].

On the very eve of the French Revolution this argument was reversed. Abbé Sieyes wrote an apology for the Third Estate and the same time an attack on the Nobility. He did not deny the idea that the different estates were descended from different racial groups, but he drew the opposite conclusion : the nobles were traitors to the national cause because they were descended from the foreign Franks, whereas the Third Estate was descended from the true native elements of France, the Gallo-Romans. Therefore, it was the Third Estate who should rule in France[10]. Having become accustomed to ascribing social and political differences in [PAGE 137] France to race, it was only natural that the French would extend this approach to explain the great differences among the peoples of Africa.

In a decree of 1791, the coloreds in France were given all the rights of citizenship; in 1794, the National Convention forbade all slavery. But in 1802, Napoleon reimposed slavery, perhaps as a result of Josephine's upbringing by a settler family of Martinique. He even forbade blacks and coloreds to enter France. The Restoration in 18 15 and the reassertion of aristocratic privileges brought a revival of racial doctrines as the explanation for domestic history. With the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1848, slavery was abolished for good.

While the 18th century was monogenist, the 19th was polygenist, believing in the separate origin of races and their lack of affinity to each other. The most famous medical doctor in the 1850s, Paul Broca, wrote that if four-legged animals were perceived to be as different from each other as whites were from blacks, they would not be included in the same species, The anthropological society of Paris, founded in 1859, adopted this point of view[11].

Broca even claimed that the two races could not cross successfully because fewer births resulted from the mating, and those who were born, lived a shorter time and would die out by the fourth generation[12]. For Broca and his disciples, measurable physique became the foundation for all the differences perceived between African and European man[13]. The size of the skull was believed to indicate the size of the brain and, hence, of the intellect. Skull measurements showed a twelve percent difference [PAGE 138] in cranial capacity between the skull of blacks and of whites, in favor of the latter[14]. After dissecting the brain of an African, Broca even found it to be darker than the one of a white. Based on these findings, Broca and his disciples asserted the superiority of the white race. Any deviations from the norm as represented by the white race were regarded as signs of inferiority. Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, a French diplomat who travelled extensively in Africa, proclaimed that physical inferiority was accompanied by cultural inferiority. According to Gobineau, history proved that all civilizations were created by whites; none could ever develop without the help of the white race. Therefore, Africans could accomplish impressive feats only when they had been uplifted by the infusion of French blood[15].

During the end of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century, French anthropology of Africa reached new levels with Maurice Delafosse, who spent many years in Africa and was well trained in African cultures. He stated that Africans may well be technologically behind Europeans, but they were in no way socially or intellectually inferior to any other race. There was no reason to assume that Africans might not develop in the same direction as Europeans. In his work, Delafosse showed the capacity of Africans to erect complex states, economics and systems of philosophy, religions, and aesthetics[16]. However, his views did not make any significant impact on the general public, or on most of the writing about Africa. The French explorers, administrators, and soldiers in Africa retained the centuries-old view of Africans as savage, inferior peoples.

Even Delafosse in Les Nègres claimed that while blacks did not lack foresight and the ability to plan, they rather lacked will. To accomplish great things, Africans needed a strong will imposed upon them, as was being done by the colonial powers[17]. [PAGE 139]

Imperialism did not cause any reassessment of blacks, but rather helped to preserve the negative images that had existed since the earliest stages of Franco-African contact. In fact, the assertion of black inferiority paralleled claims for the need of white rule and domination over the African continent. Thus, a racial and an imperialist theme developed at the same time. The belief that the Africans would benefit from the tutelage of the French made imperialism most acceptable in France. Once the colonies were conquered, intellectual attitudes helped shape policies and methods of rule in Africa. In the 19th century, it was the aim of the French government to assimilate the Africans by integrating the African colonies with France, politically as well as culturally. This concept was a form of cultural imperialism. But the rapid expansion of the French empire during the early years of the 20th century made the policy of assimilation impractical..

The fact that the French had to deal with civilizations totally different from that of Europe, made them fall back on the racist conviction that blacks in fact were not assimilable.

Therefore, the French decided to adopt the policy of association which emphasized the need for variation in colonial practice and evolution of natives along their own lines[18].

During the Second World War, African colonies contributed a great deal to the war effort and to the liberation of France. In spite of this, traditional views of black inferiority continued. Due to the large immigration of blacks into France after independence of the African colonies in the early 1960s, existing negative stereotypes were even exacerbated. Most of these immigrants, because of difficulties in finding employment and adequate housing, lived in crowded slum conditions which created a certain contempt for them. Their situation was made even more difficult by the growing number of other foreign workers who appeared in France, especially after the advent of the Fifth Republic and the growth of the French economy under de Gaulle and his successors. The confrontation of the French people with this relatively large black population and the persistence of the negative image towards them sharpened racial feelings and revealed anti-black prejudice[19]. In 1972 a bill was passed outlawing [PAGE 140] racial discrimination in France. In order to reduce racial tensions, the government has even limited black migration into France through agreements with African countries.

Racial attitudes have deep cultural roots in France, they are the result of feeling experienced and expressed over three centuries of contact with the Africans. The image of the Africans retained by the French collective psyche is essentially negative. With the increased number of blacks in France since the Second World War, they are perceived as a threatening foreign element in French society, especially during the present depressed economic condition. However, since the passage of the bill outlawing racial discrimination, there is a much better chance for a mature understanding of the racial problem in France.

LC Box 78
Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Or 97219

[1] Frank M. Snowden, Black in Antiquity (Cambridge : Univ. Press, 1969).

[2] Geoffroy Atkinson, Les Nouveaux Horizons de la Renaissance française (Paris : Droz, 1935), p.136.

[3] Kenneth J. Gergen, "The Significance of Skin Color in Human Relations", Color and Race, ed. John Hope Franklin (Boston) : Houghton Miffin, 1968), pp. 112-128.

[4] Léon-François Hoffmann, Le Nègre romantique, (Paris : Payot, 1973), p.47.

[5] Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonisé, (Paris : Pauvert, 1966), pp.155-176.

[6] Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon, Natural History, vol.1, ed. John Wright (London : Chiswick, 1833), pp.176-218.

[7] Encyclopédie, cited in : William B. Cohen, " Literature and Race", Race and Class, vol. 16 (1974), 184.

[8] Bernard-Henri Levy, L'Idéologie française, (Paris : Grasset, 1981), pp. 97-124.

[9] André Devyver, Le Sang épuré : Les préjugés de race chez les gentilhommes français de l'Ancien Régime (1560-1720), Bruxelles : Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1973, pp. 455-464.

[10] Jacques Barzun, The French race, (Port Washington : Kennikat, 1966), pp.247-249.

[11] Paul Broca, "Sur le volume et la forme du cerveau suivant les individus et suivant les races, Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, vol. 2 (1861), 139-207.

[12] Paul Broca, "Documents relatifs au croisement des races très différentes", Bulletin de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, vol.1 (mai 1860), 225-268.

[13] Paul Broca, "Sur les proportions relatifs du bras, de l'avant-bras et de la clavicule chez les nègres et les Européens", Bulletin de la société d'anthropologie de Paris, vol. 3 (1862), 162-172.

[14] Gustave Le Bon, "Recherches anatomiques et mathématiques sur les lois de variation du volume du cerveau et du crâne", in Revue d'anthropologie, ed. Paul Broca (Paris : Masson, 1879), pp.27-104.

[15] Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, "Essai sur l'intégralité des races humaines", Revue des deux Mondes, 2e ser. 8 (1 mars 1857), 159-188.

[16] Maurice Delafosse, The Negroes of Africa : History and Culture, trans. F. Fligelman (Port Washington : Kennikat, 1968), pp. 277-281.

[17] Maurice Delafosse, Les Nègres (Paris : Rider, 1927), pp. 56-57.

[18] Raumond E. Betts, Assimilation and Association in French Colonial Theory, 1890-1914 (New-York : Columbia Univ. Press. 1961), pp. vii-ix.

[19] Jean Daniel, " Comment on devient raciste", Le Nouvel Observateur, 16 au 22 sept. 1983, pp. 20-23.