June 17, 2008
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
NY Times Permalink http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/arts/17abroad.html?ex=1371355200&en=e70845f307c06910&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink
A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
PARIS — When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. “Barack Obama,” he said. “Obama tells us everything is possible.”
A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Mr. Obama is “stirring up high hopes” among blacks here. Even seeing the word “noir” (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.
Meanwhile, this past weekend, 60 cars were burned and some 50 young people scuffled with police and firemen, injuring several of them, in a poor minority suburb of Vitry-le-François, in the Marne region of northeast France.
Americans, who have debated race relations since the dawn of the Republic, may find it hard to grasp the degree to which race, like religion, remains a taboo topic in France. While Mr. Obama talks about running a campaign transcending race, an increasing number of French blacks are pushing for, in effect, the reverse.
Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Mr. Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it’s high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.
This black consciousness is reflected not just in daily conversation, but also in a dawning culture of books and music by young French blacks like Youssoupha, a cheerful, toothy 28-year-old, who was sent here from Congo by his parents to get an education at 10, raised by an aunt who worked in a school cafeteria in a poor suburb, and told by guidance counselors that he shouldn’t be too ambitious. Instead, he earned a master’s degree from the Sorbonne.
Then, like many well-educated blacks in this country, he hit a brick wall. “I found myself working in fast-food places with people who had the equivalent of a 15-year-old’s level of education,” he recalled.
So he turned to rap, out of frustration as much as anything, finding inspiration in “négritude,” an ideology of black pride conceived in Paris during the 1920s and 30s by Aimé Césaire, the French poet and politician from Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who became Senegal’s first president. Its philosophy, as Sartre once put it, was a kind of “antiracist racism,” a celebration of shared black heritage.
Négritude and Césaire are back. When Césaire died in April, at 94, his funeral in Fort-de-France, Martinique, was broadcast live on French television. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his rival Ségolène Royal both attended. Just three years ago, Mr. Sarkozy, as head of a center-right party and not yet president, supported a law (repealed after much protest) that compelled French schools to teach the “positive” aspects of colonialism. The next year, Césaire refused to meet with him. Now here was Mr. Sarkozy flying to the former French colony (today one of the country’s overseas departments, meaning he could troll for votes) to pay tribute to the poet laureate of négritude.
That said, as a country France definitely sends out mixed messages. “Négritude is a concept they just don’t want to hear about,” Youssoupha raps in “Render Unto Césaire” on his latest album, “À Chaque Frère” (“To Each Brother”). A regular short feature on French public television, “Citoyens Visibles,” hosted by a young actress, Hafsia Herzi, celebrates French artists with foreign origins.
At the same time, it’s against the rules for the government to conduct official surveys according to race. Consequently, nobody even knows for certain how many black citizens there are. Estimates vary between 3 million and 5 million out of a population of more than 61 million.
“Can you imagine if French officials said, ‘Well, we’re not sure, the population of France may be 65 million, or maybe it’s 30 million’?” declared a somewhat exasperated Patrick Lozès, founder of Cran, a black organization devised not long ago partly to gather statistics the government won’t.
When he sat down to talk the other morning, the first two words out of his mouth were Barack Obama. “The idea behind not categorizing people by race is obviously good; we want to believe in the republican ideal,” he said. “But in reality we’re blind in France, not colorblind but information blind, and just saying people are equal doesn’t make them equal.”
He ticked off some obvious numbers: one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs.
To this may be added Cran’s findings that the percentage of blacks in France who hold university degrees is 55, compared with 37 percent for the general population. But the number of blacks who get stuck in the working class is 45 percent, compared with 34 percent for the national average.
“There’s total hypocrisy here,” Léonora Miano said. She’s a black author, 37, originally from Cameroon, whose recent novel “Tels des Astres Éteints” (“Like Extinguished Stars”) is about race relations as seen through the eyes of three black immigrants.
“For me it was really strange when I arrived 17 years ago to find people here never used the word race,” Ms. Miano said over coffee one afternoon at Café Beaubourg. Outside, African immigrants hawked sunglasses to tourists. “French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.”
“The Black Condition: An Essay on a French Minority” by Pap N’Diaye, a 42-year-old historian at the School for Advanced Study of the Social Sciences, is another much-talked-about new book here. “We are witnessing a renaissance of the négritude movement,” Mr. N’Diaye declared the other day.
The surge in popularity of Mr. Obama among French blacks partly stems from the hope that his rise “will highlight our lack of diversity and put pressure on French politicians who say they favor him to open politics up more to minorities,” Mr. N’Diaye said. “We in France are, in terms of race, where we were in terms of gender 40 years ago.”
He laid out some history: French decolonization during the 1960s pretty much pushed the original négritude movement to the back burner, at the same time that it inspired a wave of immigrants from the Caribbean to come here and fill low-ranking civil service jobs. From sub-Saharan Africa, another wave of laborers gravitated to private industry. The two populations didn’t communicate much.
But their children, raised here, have grown up together. “Mutually discovered discrimination,” as Mr. N’Diaye put it, has forged a bond out of which négritude is being revived.
The watershed event was the rioting in poor French suburbs three years ago. Among its cultural consequences: Aimé Césaire “started to be rediscovered by young people who found in his work things germane to the current situation,” Mr. N’Diaye said.
Youssoupha is one of those people. He was nursing a Coke recently at Top Kafé, a Lubavitch Tex-Mex restaurant in Créteil, just outside Paris, where he lives. Nearby, two waiters in yarmulkes sat watching Rafael Nadal play tennis on television beneath dusty framed pictures of Las Vegas and Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. A clutch of Arab teenagers smoked outside. In modest neighborhoods like this, France can look remarkably harmonious.
“Césaire is in my lyrics, and I was upset when people misinterpreted what I wrote as anti-white because négritude is the affirmation of our common black roots,” Youssoupha said.
Ms. Miano, the novelist, made a similar point. “There is no such thing as a black ‘community’ in France — yet — partly because we have such different histories,” she said. “An immigrant woman from Mali and another from Cameroon view the world in completely different ways. You also shouldn’t think there isn’t racism among blacks in France, between West Indians and Africans. There is. But ultimately we’re all black in the face of discrimination.”
Then she smiled: “Too bad I forgot to wear my Obama T-shirt.”