As a French citizen of African migrant origin, this question concerns me personally. It also concerns more than 10 million women and men, young and old, who have left their country to live in France for various reasons. Some people or their parents fought alongside those of ‘French origin’ against the German occupation and in Indochina. For others, it is the French State that encouraged them to come in the 1960s because of the country’s economic needs. Others still came to France fleeing terror or dictatorial and tyrannical governments and/or wars supported by France.
Whether they came as adults or as children, or were born here, African immigrants have one thing in common:
(1) They come from formerly colonized countries and are always the most feared, scorned, depreciated migrants and carry with them negative images dating back to slavery and colonization.
(2) They are all victims - to varying degrees of course - of exploitation, experience difficult living conditions, are subjected to police repression (based on their physical appearance), and are stigmatized.
‘Where are you from?’ This is the question you cannot escape in France when you are Black or Arab. Moreover, it is the first response after ‘Hello’ in a benign conversation.
Having an origin or otherwise is not the problem. The problem stems from the consequences of this question: it indicates that the person who is asked is primarily considered as a ‘foreigner’ before being French. It reminds Blacks and Arabs that they have another ‘home’ than France. It is a devastating question for the French West Indian (Antillais) – a very harsh question for young people born and having grown up in France, who know only France as their country.
This situation tells us that, in the French national collective unconscious, French nationality and skin color are linked. The whiter you are, the more French you are!
In Imperial culture, Colonial culture, Postcolonial culture, Nicolas Bancel, Pascal Blanchard and Sandrine Lemaire show how France’s colonial past continues to have a profound impact in various areas: international development with Africa (coopération), policies on immigration and integration, or even in ‘humanitarian’ policy, tourism, mass culture or/and debates on collective memory.
This hypothesis is supported by the writings of Karl Marx. He studied the interaction between the past and the present, and the role of the inherited social imaginary through which borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’ take shape: the weight of the past similarly explains how postcolonial immigrants are treated today, and how their economic, social and political marginalization is legitimized: they are a people reduced to their identity as workers. The emergence of mass unemployment and of various precarious socio-economic statuses since the 1980s has taken place on the basis of this form of domination in which immigrants (Black and Arab) constitute the ‘dominated among the dominated’. Everything seems to have happened as if the ‘French citizens of colonial origin’ have inherited their place in society from their parents.
Two situations can currently be seen in France:
(1) The existence of xenophobic stigmatization in an exacerbated form for those people having recently arrived in France.
(2) Racist images which crystallize deep-rooted representations concerning Blacks and Arabs. This can be seen with the renewal of generations and the emergence of people of postcolonial migrant origin with their roots in France. One example: on their arrival in France, immigrants from Italy, Poland, Armenia, Portugal, Spain, etc. were certainly victims of xenophobic discourse and discriminatory measures comparable to what postcolonial immigrants suffer today. But the situation is not the same for their children, and even less grandchildren. Only the descendants of postcolonial migrants are condemned to the absurd but politically telling epithet ‘second’ or ‘third generation’.
In effect, racism can be defined as the widespread and definitive insistence on real or imaginary differences to the benefit of the accuser and the detriment of his/her victim, in order to legitimize an assault or some privileges. It displays the following characteristics:
· the ‘essentialization’ and naturalization of ‘cultural differences’ (including reference to Islam);
· The ‘moral disqualification’ that these differences contain, and
· The theorization and production of the ‘indigenous subject’ as the ‘body of exception’ framed by specific devices such as in Algeria with the Sénatus-Consulte law of 14 July 1865.
Postcolonial racism is therefore not a mere survival of the past. It is thus a permanent, systemic and institutional production of the representations inherited from slavery and colonialism. These representations are then reformulated and reinvested under the terms ‘integration’ and ‘insertion’: politically, such terms serve to produce ‘lower-class citizens’, ‘subjects’ who, although they are not foreign in the legal sense of the term, are nonetheless not treated like French citizens.
The following quotes show that racism has its roots in French political philosophy:
‘Finally I see men who appear to me superior to these Negroes, like these Negroes are to monkeys and the monkeys are to the oysters and other animals of this species’ (Voltaire, Treaty of Metaphysics, 1734).
‘It is there before you, this block of sand and ash, this lifeless and passive heap that since six thousand years preclude universal walking this monstrous Cham stops Sem by its enormity, Africa. What earth is that this Africa! Asia has its history, America has its history, Australia itself has its history, which dates from its beginning in the human memory. Africa has not the history; something of a legend, large and obscure, wraps it up’. (Victor Hugo). These words have been adopted recently by Nicolas Sarkozy in Dakar (Senegal).
‘Nature made a race of workers. This is the Chinese race of a dexterity of wonderful hand without hardly any sense of honor; govern it with justice by taking it for the benefit of a such a Government ample dower for the benefit of conquering race, it will be satisfied; the earth workers race, is the nigger : be for him good and human and everything will be in the order; the masters and soldiers race is the European race. Can each one do what he must do and everything will go all right. We aspire, not to the equality, but to domination. The race of foreign country should become a country of serfs, agricultural day labourers or industrial workers. It is not to remove inequalities among humans, but to amplify them and make it a law.’(Ernest Renan).
How to resolve the current social situation is also presented in colonial and racist terms, with biological and/or culturalist explanations given such as those by the prominent intellectual Alain Finkielkraut and others, who have spoken of a lack of hard work, and unfamiliarity with ‘Republican values’ or ‘modernity’.
In November 2005, during the urban riots, a government minister declared that the ‘young people living on the poor estates’ are not employed because of their ‘social misbehavior’, which behavior is supposedly caused by their parents’ polygamy!
The recent declarations by Bruce Hortefeux (Interior Minister) to the young Arab activist from his own party (UMP) are not far from those of Georges Frèche (Parti Socialiste) or what Alain Finkielkraut said about France’s national football team, or the claims of Manuals Valls (Parti Socialiste) that ‘there are many foreigners here’. In any case, they constitute a serious infringement on the dignity of Arab and Black people.
The most distressing aspect of this situation lies in the unanimous way in which leading politicians, including those from Arab or Black communities (Fadela Amara, Rama Yade) and by a minority of the Muslim community have allowed such declarations to become commonplace, and have supported them, directly or indirectly. Indignation varies according to the group concerned.
In addition to official speeches and statements in private, the systemization and the institutionalization of racism can also been read through the theme of ‘integration’, which is very present in public policy. This theme stems from slavery and colonialism. Not only does it undermine the equality of citizens to serve the cultural designs of the nation, but it also supposes that immigrants or their children cannot become full citizens unless they renounce what was known as their ‘personal status’, i.e. their identity. That is why in official speeches we expect to hear sentences or words like: ‘Islam is ill-suited to modernity’, ‘secularism’, ‘lack of efforts to integrate’, ‘women needing to be emancipated through the law on religious symbols’, ‘the need to adapt the penal measures to the new populations’; and like during colonization itself, stereotypes such as the ‘violent heterosexuality of Blacks and Arabs’, ‘barbaric peoples’, ‘urban territories to conquer or re-conquer’, etc. All this is the continuation of the agenda of the civilizing mission.
Underlining that slavery and colonization lie behind some forms of discrimination and racism in France against Blacks and Arabs is not to deny the existence of other forms of racism and discrimination, which are rooted in history and other social processes. I am not arguing that all Blacks and Arabs in France are experiencing the same situation as their ancestors. Certainly, the prefix ‘post’ marks a filiation or link. But, it also means that we are now in a different era. The main question which must be asked is: ‘who is allowed to assign names to whom, why and how’? This is the perspective from which I would like to pursue the debate.