Sylvain Pattieu is a lecturer in history at University of Paris 8. He is the author of several books written and published in French. Emmanuelle Sibeud is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris 8. She is the author of several books written and published in French. Tyler Stovall is the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University. He is the author of a number of books, including White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea. Their newest book, The Black Populations of France (Nebraska, 2022), was published this month.
A Historical Mosaic
Sylvain Pattieu, Emmanuelle Sibeud, and Tyler Stovall
In November 2014 a staging of the performance art program Exhibit B by the South African artist Brett Bailey at the Théâtre Gérard Philippe in Saint-Denis outside Paris provoked a series of lively debates. A petition and several demonstrations called for banning the performance, claiming it was degrading to Black people. Some groups like the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade mobilized energetically against the exhibition, whereas the CRAN (Representative Council of Black Institutions) showed itself more prudent, sensitive to the argument of freedom of expression advanced by the defenders of the exhibition.
This episode illustrates the sporadic way that the question of Blackness has erupted in public space in France. Further, the groups that have championed this concept that have not succeeded in making themselves durable spokesmen for it. For example, the creation of CRAN in 2005 was opposed by French Caribbean associations, and the organization was never able to establish a hegemonic position over questions of Blackness. Contrary to the United States, where the history of slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement has created a strong common heritage, the Blacks of France have no unified linear history with which they can identify.
To say this is not to minimize the importance of Blackness as a social and political issue in France. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 sparked a powerful protest movement across France; on June 2 tens of thousands marched in solidarity in Paris. The movement reflected participants’ sympathy and empathy, as French Blacks protested their own abuse at the hands of the police. The movements of the summer and fall of 2020 thus underscored the transnational character of Blackness and antiracism in France, illustrating the fact that Black life in France embodies both difference and solidarity. To understand fully Blackness in France one must mobilize several diverse histories: those of colonialism, immigration, and the creation of the nation’s overseas departments. Scholarly research will enable us to weave together these different pasts: that is the goal of our book.
Although Blacks have lived in France since before it was France, the African presence there dating back to the Gaul of the Roman Empire, France’s Black history centers around the early modern and modern era. France played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade that brought Europe, Africa, and the Americas together from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries; its colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was by the time of the French Revolution the wealthiest plantation economy in the world. In the late-nineteenth century the French conquered a huge empire in sub-Saharan Africa that endured until 1960. By the early years of the twentieth century Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean had begun to create small settlements in metropolitan France, a phenomenon that increased dramatically after World War II. At the same time, small numbers of African Americans, in search for both opportunity and an escape from American racism, settled in Paris, bringing jazz and other aspects of Black American culture to France.
Today France probably has the largest Black population in Europe. No one really knows that exact number thanks to the refusal of the French government to acknowledge the existence of racial difference as a social reality by collecting demographic statistics on it, but some have estimated a Black population of three to five million. Sizeable communities exist in major French cities, especially Paris, and since 2005 Blacks in France have had their own central organization, the CRAN. The majority are people of African origin, but there is also a sizeable population from the French Caribbean living in the metropole. If one adds to this total the overwhelmingly Black populations of France’s Caribbean overseas departments, over a million people, one finds that nearly one out of twelve French men and women today are Black.
In spite of these contemporary numbers, the history and historiography of Blacks in France has been fairly limited compared to that of Blacks in the United States. One school of research that brought these two histories together is the study of African American expatriates and exiles in Paris. The pioneering work of literary scholar and Anglicist Michel Fabre on Richard Wright followed by numerous studies of the great Black American chanteuse Josephine Baker inspired a school of writing on Black Americans in Paris. Historians used this approach to consider diasporic and transnational perspectives on Blacks in both France and the United States and the relationship between them. Other historians began writing about different aspects of Blackness in France, investigating the nation’s colonial past and postcolonial present. Studies as diverse as William Cohen’s The French Encounter with Africans, Marc Michel’s L’Appel ‘à l’Afrique, Alice Conklin’s Mission to Civilize, and Tzvetan Todorov’s On Human Diversity have all considered the history of race and Blackness in the context of French imperialism, national identity, and universalist ideology. Beyond historiographical approaches, several social scientists from fields like sociology and anthropology have considered contemporary manifestations of Blackness in France, often focusing on questions of immigration and the rise of Black communities in the ghettoized banlieue surrounding Paris and other French cities. Literary scholars have built on the work of Michel Fabre, exploring the interplay of literature, race, and identity in modern France.
Taken as a whole, these works represent a substantial body of scholarly literature. It nonetheless remains true that the use of the concept of race, understood as a cultural and social fact rather than a biological one, remains in its infancy in French research. However, the publication in 2008 of Pap Ndiaye’s book La condition noire had a major impact on both scientific and public debates. In this book, both an extended essay and a synthetic work, Ndiaye reviews the state of research on the history of Black populations in France and calls for the further development of this research field. Ndiaye also develops the idea that the Black populations represent a minority in French society, whose existence is shaped by the experience of being Black in a majority white society.