© Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains no. 59-62 (1988) 141-147


Robert BIRT

When one mentions Paris, France, diverse images, ideas and myths arise in the mind of the hearer. People think of fine arts and fine foods, Left Bank circles of artists and writers, joyous music and outdoor cafes, and a general atmosphere of refinement and free thinking tolerance.

Paris is called the city of light and beauty, of "high culture" and free spirited cosmopolitanism. French culture is deemed the apex of Western (and thus by white standards "world") civilization.

And, of course, France lauds itself as the land of liberty, equality and fraternity." Even in philistine, anti-intellectual America, intellectuals often describe France as the "most civilized" country in the world; a society far too sophisticated for anything as crude as racism. None are more convinced than the French that France is too civilized to be racist.

Such is the myth of France, a myth so potent that even some of the Blacks whom I met there are actually seduced by it (although a cursory reading of Frantz Fanon or a look at French conduct in Algeria and other colonies should be enough to disabuse one of such illusions). Perhaps, one need not be unequivocally opposed to all myths. All societies seem to need their social fictions; and many myths, when taken with a grain of salt, are at least unharmful. But when societal myths conceal (and thereby aid and abet) an ugly and oppressive social reality; when they serve as social blinders that promote complacency in the midst of tyranny; when they even serve at times to disarm the victims of the concealed reality; then those myths become mortal dangers whose threat to life and freedom must be exposed to all concerned. The myth of France as a tolerant, color blind society void of racism and governed solely by the principles of the Enlightenment and the 1789 Revolution, has become especially dangerous in so far as an increasingly violent racism (mainly against Blacks and Arabs) is currently fuelling a home-grown French fascist movement – the National Front.

The myth of a non-racial, libertarian France is also dangerous because of its deceptive semblance to truth, especially for visitors from white Protestant-ruled societies (like the U.S.A and South Africa) where racism has traditionally taken more extreme forms, and where racial polarization among people is more obvious. When an Afro-American arrives in Paris, he may initially find the French racial scene bemusing. There appears to be an ease of social interaction among Blacks and Whites that is unimaginable in even the most liberal and cosmopolitan of America's [PAGE 142] cities. A deceptive appearance of racial harmony prevails that can bewitch the unwary. There has never been a system of legal Jim Crow segregation. France has not traditionally had (though this may be changing) anything like our polarization between Black ghettos and white suburbs. One is struck by the absence of distinctively Black or white schools, churches or neighborhoods. Apparently, no legal prohibitions have ever been placed on interracial marriages or relations, nor is there an obvious tradition of tolerance towards such relations. In contrast to America, where such relations are still primarily elite, middle or upper class affairs, they appear to be common practice among the general French population. In short, France seems like an integrationist dream, an assimilationist paradise.

But walk the streets or ride the subways of Paris, read on the walls French racial graffiti, and suddenly the assimilationist dream is jolted. "Mort aux nègres" ("Death to the niggers ! "). On a wall in the Sorbonne, one of Europe's most prestigious universities, I read : "Nègres fils de singe". ("Niggers are the sons of apes."). On boulevard St. Michel, someone even wrote in English : Arabs go home ! Or, again in French : "Mort aux bicots ! " ("Death to the Arabs ! ")

This summer, I frequently observed Africans being snubbed and Arabs cursed. In one case, another Afro-American and I had to threaten to depart (with our beloved American dollars) from a French bistro to prevent the owner from expelling an African laborer who accompanied us. I have read in French papers and heard in French conversation reports of numerous arbitrary arrests, beatings and even killings of Blacks and Arabs. When interviewing Africans, I learned of their complaints about subtle forms of social ostracism, job discrimination and police harassment on at least two occasions I observed police in subways arbitrarily stopping, searching and aggressively interrogating Black passers-by. I recall one incident in the Latin Quarter where I observed for several minutes police stopping every single Black person leaving the subway or heading for a train. I was myself stopped by police who rudely demanded identification, and began to become red with embarrassment upon discovering my U.S. passport. They insisted that their actions had nothing to do with racism, that they were only taking measures against the dangers of terrorism. I observed that Blacks were being terrorized by them. Moreover, I indicated that the rising tide of white violence against people of color did not seem to cause the police to randomly stop or interrogate whites indiscriminately. Who then, are the "terrorists" ?

But these are relatively mild affairs. Gradually, Paris is developing impoverished "quarters" of Blacks and Asians which increasingly resemble our ghettoes. The Belleville district easily reminds one of Harlem. Blacks (at least from the French West Indies) do seem relatively integrated into French society, but primarily on the lower levels. The small [PAGE 143] Afro-French middle class seems, even more than the Afro-American middle class, an elite with privileges and no power. Black Africans are often brought to France as contract laborers, herded into drab hostels ("foyers"), and subjected to rat-infested dwellings. They can normally expect a life of toil or vagrancy, and they lack political rights. Those who come as students are regulated by identity cards and virtually deported from the country upon obtaining their degrees. The more acculturated West Indians fair somewhat better, but commonly in a position of social inferiority to whites. Arabs are likewise ghettoized and disfranchised.

They, too, tend to be contract laborers with few rights and no security.

In addition to economic degradation, the growing Third World population now faces a rising tide of racist violence. A number of Blacks and Arabs have been killed by French racists. Some have been beaten, others shot, and some cast into the Seine river. An Arab student was killed by police during last December's student demonstrations. Blacks and Arabs have been killed by police in connection with simple traffic violations. They are often interrogated or arrested just for being on the streets, or for any arbitrary reasons the police may have. They are often subject to violence by ordinary Frenchmen, as I once observed during an incident (in Les Halles region) when a man shouting "Sale noir ! " ("Dirty Black ! ") began tossing glass objects at an African student. The spread of neo-fascist groups naturally multiplies these acts of violence. Meanwhile, the conservative government of Jacques Chirac ignores the killers, or aids them through its own racist rhetoric and propaganda against the immigrants.

A clearer picture of France's racial crisis and its fascist movements requires a brief review of its history. French racism is not new. It can be traced to the era of the slave trade, to slavery in the French West Indies, and French colonialism in Africa and Asia. But the current racial crisis begins with the huge immigration of Black Africans, West Indians and Asians since world War II, and the contemporary economic crisis. After the war, a devastated France needed to rebuild itself. But it also needed cheap labor to accomplish this. From its exploited and impoverished African and Asian colonies and ex-colonies, the French government actively recruited Black, Arab and yellow labor in large numbers. The labor of these desperately poor immigrants could be had at such severely low wages, and under such brutally exploitative conditions, as few white workers would tolerate. Like America's Blacks, they constituted a pool of the cheapest labor, last hired and first fired; persons compelled to do the dirty work which whites refuse. Naturally, they could also be kept socially (as well as economically) at the bottom of European society.

Now, the government usually thought of these immigrants as temporary "guest workers" who would be sent home after serving their term of labor. But the immigrant population grew by leaps and bounds [PAGE 144] over time. Blacks alone now number at least two millions in France, and possibly in the hundreds of thousands in Paris.

First came the single male workers seeking a better life in France. They remained and began to bring their families. As their families settled in, a new generation of Black and Asian children emerged. As these began being raised completely in France, the Third World communities entrenched themselves, making unlikely any massy exodus back to their native lands. A few thousands became millions, and many whites began to fear a general "invasion" by non white elements. French workers were frightened by possible competition from these cheap laborers, whom they increasingly saw as threats to whites' jobs. The French lower middle classes resented competition from small African and Asian enterprises. Intellectual chauvinists have bemoaned the alleged danger to the "integrity" and "purity" of French culture supposedly threatened by these thronging millions of unassimilated Third Word peoples with their strange languages and customs.

Even the struggles for African and Asian independence has perhaps inadvertently aided the growth of racism in France. For after decolonization – especially after the Algerian Revolution – over a million right wing white settlers returned to France en masse. These so-called "pieds noirs" ("black feet") who resemble our bigoted Dixie "rednecks," preferred to leave Algeria than to remain as mere equals (not white "masters") in the new nation. Often poor and despised themselves, they still received psychological gratification as members of the conquering white "master race" in Africa, and also material benefits from possession of land taken from native owners. These reactionary white migrants have also grown rapidly in number, and presently constitute one of the finest popular bases for French neofascism. They resented France's loss of Algeria, and bitterly detest the growing Black and Arab populations.

The tensions associated with an often violent decolonization, the massive influx of Blacks and Asians, the return of right wing racist pieds noirs, would probably not alone cause the present acuteness of France's racial crisis without the economic crisis. The international crisis of capitalism has fuelled right wing racist movements in both Europe and America. With about 11 % unemployment in France, and sustained impoverishment of the French working and middle classes, there is a tendency to seek a scapegoat to blame for the troubles. That tendency in France (as in America) is to blame the economic distress of whites on the even more distressed peoples of color. This racial scapegoating also tends to receive its political expression in racist, neofascist movements.

Too often one finds "enlightened" Frenchmen trying to dismiss the dangers of fascism as the vain imaginings and sick dreams of a lunatic fringe. Repeatedly, I heard Frenchmen tell me that violent attacks against Blacks and Arabs are the actions of a minority of sick criminals. [PAGE 145]

That authentic French culture is imbued with the tolerant humanism of the Enlightenment and the radical democratic egalitarianism of 1789. They would say that racists who attack nonwhites are mere hooligans, and definitely unrepresentative of the French tradition of tolerance and liberty; that French racists are a mere minority, not even "real" Frenchmen since "true" Frenchmen are not racists.

Now aside from the obvious question-begging involved in this line of argument, there is also evident an ostrich-like attitude of complacency and blindness to facts. The fascistic National Front has already won (since the 1984 elections) about 12 % representation in France's Parliament. This party is led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man known to have been guilty of the electric shock torture of a prisoner during the Algerian Revolution, and to have been convicted for compiling and dissemination of a record of Nazi war songs. He and his party advocate the deportation of Blacks and Arabs. The National Front has been guilty of beatings and shootings of numerous Blacks and Arabs, almost weekly according to one writer. There have been numerous reports of mysterious bombings or burnings of Blacks 'and Arabs' homes, of which the National Front is suspected. Attacks have even begun against white liberal and left parties and associations, with a member of the Socialist Party reportedly killed by a Front member. Also, the Front's propaganda pictures immigrants as dirty "vermin." Blacks are sometimes described as apes or criminals, and Asians as reptiles. Hence one finds both the dehumanizing language which Nazis once directed against Jews, and the violent hooliganism once practiced by Nazi Brownshirts.

It is true that the National Front and other fascists are not a majority. But neither were Hider and the Nazis at first. Like Le Pen's National Front, Hitler's Nazi Party was also dismissed as crackpots who were not to be taken too seriously. Like the Nazis, the National Front is growing and recruiting vigorously among French youth. They are finding support among middle class shopkeepers fearful of sinking into the lower classes. Fascism also appeals to poor Frenchmen by giving them an artificial sense of personal worth often denied them. It teaches them that however poor they are, they are superior to any Black or Asian, simply by virtue of being white Frenchmen. The extreme right is potentially serviceable to the privileged upper classes in so far as its simplistic racial ideology conceals from subordinate classes complex socio-economic problems which require radical democratic solutions (which are obviously not in the interests of the privileged). Whites can enjoy the comforting myth of a monolithic white French nation in which all are a part regardless of social class.

This growing fascist movement presents a particular threat to Black and Asian rights in view of the upcoming presidential elections of April 1988, and the government's plan to "reform" France's nationality [PAGE 146] code (possibly this Fall). The present code allows children born in France of immigrant parents to become citizens at age 18 unless they renounce citizenship. France's conservative government wants to institute a more restrictive code whereby immigrants' children would have to apply for citizenship, The request would be subject to administrative inquiry; and citizenship could be refused if the children are "insufficiently assimilated" in French culture, if possessed of a jail record, or perhaps for lacking a job. Of course, African and Asian children could not (even if they so desired) become so completely French as whites may require. Higher unemployment and poverty among nonwhites encourages higher crime and jail records; and the racism of French police and courts can guarantee that both innocent and "guilty" nonwhites are more likely to be arrested and jailed. Hence right wing "reforms" could provide an easy justification for mass deportations of Blacks and Asians.

Not surprisingly, Le Pen and the Front have taken a special interest in this issue. Moreover, Le Pen is the only person who has already declared his candidacy in the elections. His program advocates that immigrants lacking I.D., jobs, perfectly clear jail records, should be deported. If elected, he would essentially prohibit immigrants' children from becoming citizens. French jobs would be given only to whites (while immigrants are deported for joblessness), and immigrants would receive no social security. They would also be denied the benefits of French social legislation (which includes national health insurance and State funds to educate one's children). Since these rights are guaranteed by France's constitution, Le Pen's program would totally disfranchise and disinherit peoples of color, virtually declaring them unconstitutional.

Now, this does not come as a surprise from a man who regards racial and cultural pluralism as a disguise for the "conquest of Europe by the Third World." But where is the organized opposition to this movement which vows to "cleanse" France of " The African scourge" ? Opposition exists primarily in the form of predominantly white or multiracial and-racist movements. One finds practically no independent Black movement, or leadership such as we are accustomed to in America. Most of the Black (and Asian) population is one or two generations old, and has not had time to build a "civil rights" or "Black power" tradition. Perhaps, the rich cultural and ethnic diversity among them has been used by others to create divisions and block the emergence of a unified Black movement. One often detects acute tensions between African Blacks and more assimilated West Indians. No rigid French tradition of Jim Crow or apartheid exists to galvanize Blacks; and the French policy of assimilation definitely discourages a common sense of identity or peoplehood.

While more overt racism may change this, there presently appears to be no "Black" movement. [PAGE 147]

France's antiracist movement consists of a number of organizations and activists. There are left wing student groups which protest racism in France and apartheid in South Africa. The declining French Communist Party has organized anti-racist protests, though some of their members have reportedly catered to racist sentiments during elections. Mitterand's Socialist Party also opposes racist violence, but is now a minority in a right wing Parliament.

Currently, the most influential of antiracist organizations is probably a group called "S.O.S". It was formed (apparently as a youth movement) in November 1984, in response to the parliamentary successes of the National Front and expanding violence. It launched demonstrations with the slogan "touche pas à mon pote !" (Don't touch my buddy !") in direct opposition to attacks inflicted on immigrants. S.O.S. protests quickly drew support from thousands of French youth. They held an antiracist concert in June, 1985 (during my first visit to France) at the Place de la Concorde, which drew 500,000 people. They also participated in a "marche des Bœurs" in December, 1985 and other events through 1986. Between September 1986 and March, 1987 S.O.S. organized struggles against the "reform" of the nationality code, which included a large demonstration this past March. This past June S.O.S. organized another antiracist concert outside Paris' city limits (after their gathering was forbidden within Paris).

In opposition to proposed "reforms" of the nationality code, S.O.S. proposes that all persons born in France should receive French citizenship regardless of their racial or cultural heritage. S.O.S. argues that immigrants should have the right to citizenship without surrendering their own cultural heritage. In short, S.O.S. rejects assimilation as a condition of citizenship. And in response to the international scope of racist, neofascist movements, S.O.S. is expanding to other European countries. They are even exploring the possibility of forming a branch in the U.S.A. Of course, it is impossible to predict the future of this growing antiracist movement; but its widespread popularity among French youth suggests that France's oppressed peoples of color are not without allies, and that the reactionary racist should not expect to achieve hegemony in France without a monumental struggle with the country's progressive forces.

Robert BIRT, PH.D.
Texas A & M. University