A three-part series looking at the history of France’s black community and their long struggle for recognition.
In May 2013, France’s National Assembly successfully voted on a bill to remove the words ‘race’ and ‘racial’ from the country’s penal code.
French President Francois Hollande ran on a platform promising to eliminate the word ‘race’ from France’s constitution. But critics were quick to point out the disparity between constitutional reform and actual practice.
Between one and five million French citizens claim African or Caribbean heritage. These numbers are, however, estimates, as population censuses do not recognise race.
For over a century, black immigrants, though never officially identified as different, were treated as ‘others’.
Even today, of France’s 577 members of parliament, only five are black.
This three-part series tells the story of blacks in France – a long history of segregation, racism, protest, violence, culture and community building – from the turn of the 20th century until the present day.
Episode 1: Conflicting identities
The first episode of this three-part series looks back on what it meant to be both black and French in the decades before France’s African colonies achieved independence.
The colonial empire is in black and white. It’s an empire where the slaves, subjects or natives are black, and the master is white.
Christiane Taubira, French Justice Minister
The first generations of African immigrants pioneered the fight for rights in France during the latter part of the 18th century. They were mocked with racist caricatures and campaigns depicting them as savages in need of civilising.
Black people became quite a spectacle in white France. They were paraded around the country in shows for whites to marvel at. And ‘Chocolate the black clown’, who was kicked when he misbehaved, became a popular symbol of colonialism.
For some, France meant freedom. African-American athletes, like cyclist Major Taylor and boxer Jack Johnson, competed in Paris because segregation in the US prevented them from doing so at home.
But for others, it was a death sentence.
When World War I broke out, France needed the support of African soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of black men joined France’s war efforts by working in factories and on the frontlines – thousands died after being promised French citizenship.
But when the war ended, blacks were excluded from peace negotiations. And black people living in France fought for decades to be both black and French.
Episode 2: The battle for social justice
The second episode of this series reveals the ongoing struggles of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to achieve rights, form communities and have their contributions to French society recognised.
When you leave the Caribbean, there’s no doubt in your mind that you’re French. But when you arrive in Paris you’re not French anymore; you’re black.
Lilian Thuram, former professional football player
During World War II, Africa once again answered France’s call to battle, but this time the motivation was different. Black soldiers were not just fighting for France; they were combating the racist ideologies of Nazi Germany.
But while France and the allies defeated the Axis with the help of black soldiers, the war for social justice was only gearing up across the French colonial empire.
In 1945, during France’s post-war elections, blacks saw their first major victory. More than 60 overseas deputies were sworn into France’s National Assembly. One year later, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and French Guiana became French departments following 300 years of colonial rule.
Departmentalisation, and then President Georges Pompidou’s decision to establish the Office for the Promotion of Migration in the early 1960s, opened a door between France and its departments. Almost 200,000 blacks immigrated to French cities in search of education and work.
But they faced poverty, racism and segregation. And they struggled to gain acceptance in cultural, academic and social realms of French society.
Episode 3: The immigration problem
The last episode of this series focuses on the extreme racism and discrimination black immigrants faced during times of economic hardship and through political shifts in post-World War II France.
There’s the reality of people who have a hard time imagining that blacks and Arabs are citizens in their own right.
Rokhaya Diallo, writer and campaigner
The 1973 oil crisis quadrupled the price of oil. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) embargoed oil exports to countries that supported Israel in the War of Yom Kippur. France, like many other western nations, was hit hard by the price increase and plummeted into a recession.
Immigrants became the band-aid solution to France’s economic problems. The government set a goal to encourage 500,000 foreigners to return to their countries. African immigrants who stayed were forced from slums into hostels where they were further segregated and ghettoised.
Opposition to immigrants festered and, by 1977, more than half of France’s citizens said they wanted to see immigration numbers decrease.But Africans joined workers of other nationalities in protest. A four-year rent strike spread across the country’s hostels. And then in 1981, the newly elected President Francois Mitterrand promised to regularise 130,000 undocumented workers.
The government shifted its focus from mass migration of unskilled labour to skills training in the former colonies.But many questioned France’s paternalistic attitude towards the independent African nations. And despite some change, racism and hate crimes against black people escalated.From protests and marches to music and dance, this is the story of how black people born in France fought for equality in the face of discrimination and how they used culture as a tool to empower generations.