Black Citizenship Forum: On Identity and Empire: France and the Colonial Roots of Black Citizenship
You cannot simply declare yourself race free, racism free, and simply think that it will generate a race free or colorblind society.
“How do you fight racism in a land where racism obviously exists, but race is not accepted as a category?”
In this latest installment of The Black Agenda Review’s Black Citizenship Forum, Dr. Maboula Soumahoro provides a revealing and wide-ranging examination of the complexity of Black politics and identity in a French Republic still defined by its sprawling, though diminished and moribund, empire. While discussions of race in France are repressed due to an official state policy of “color-blindness,” the question of Blackness and Black citizenship is shaped by France’s colonial and postcolonial histories in the Caribbean and Africa. Soumahoro not only maps out the troubled dominions of Black citizenship in France, but also the difficult terrains of Black resistance and anti-racist struggles.
Dr. Soumahoro is associate professor in the English department at the Université François-Rabelais, Tours and the author of Le Triangle et l'Hexagone: Réflexions sur une identité noire, forthcoming in English translation as Black is the Journey, Africana is the Name. She lives in Paris. Our conversation with Dr. Soumahoro was transcribed and edited from a Zoom conversation which took place on March 14, 2021.
From your location in France, what do you see as the primary and most urgent issues concerning Black people’s relation to the nation-state? How does Black people’s relation to the nation-state shape the experience and conditions of Black citizenship?
Among the primary and most urgent issues concerning Black people in the context of contemporary France is the issue of the recognition of the very existence of Black people. To me, this shapes Black people’s relation to France as a nation-state. We are living in France under the Fifth Republic. The Fifth Republic was adopted in 1958. It states that the Republic is one and indivisible and is blind to race, sex, and religion. So there is no legal recognition of race in France. In theory, this means that They do not exist. So at times individuals or communities might (or might not) define themselves as Black. But they are not regarded, nor are they supposed to be regarded, as Black by the nation-state because in theory the Republic, the nation-state, and the government is supposed to be blind to color and to race.
But we know that racism exists. And we know that certain national institutions produce racism. Police brutality provides an easy example of how this works. The police are one of the institutions of the state. The police can be guilty of racial profiling. The police can be guilty of brutality. This profiling and brutality works disproportionately against populations of color, including Black people. Yet Blackness is not supposed to exist. How do we deal with that paradox? How do you speak of, or how do you fight, racism in a land where racism obviously exists, but race is not accepted as a category? So to me, dealing with the understanding of those terms, with the understanding of those categories–-those racial categories–-and understanding of the history of how those categories came into being is one of our most urgent issues. Otherwise, the French–and I’m talking about the “Hexagonal” French–don’t know what we are talking about. Here, I am insisting on the Hexagonal French to make a distinction between the European part of France (the Hexagon) and the other French-controlled areas: what are called the overseas territories, departments, or regions. Those territories–former colonies–were shaped by France’s racial history. Even though the same discourse of the non-recognition of race can circulate in those areas, they do not have the same valence because these territories are the products of the very history that produced this socio-racial order. For those in the Hexagon–-in the European portion of France–-it is perhaps easier to forget about that history that seemingly unfolded long ago and far away.
The acceptance of Blackness as a social, political, economic, cultural–-even simply as a racial category–-is still a contested issue. It is still unclear for “mainstream” France. We are having debates, public discussions, political discussions, parliamentary discussions around issues related to racism, for instance, that are really difficult, really hard, really complicated to carry on.
I’m struck by the fact that the Fifth Republic came into being in 1958 which is at a moment when the decolonization of France’s African territories is accelerating. And right now, we are seeing in France discussions concerning the remembrance and reconciliation of the Algerian War. I’m wondering if there is a link between this question of the presumed absence of race within the Fifth Republic and African decolonization, especially in terms of citizenship?
I think you are right about 1958. You are right to talk about the preparation and launching of decolonization, at least on the African continent, beginning with Guinea, which actually did not accept France’s plan of gradual and limited decolonization. By the 1960s we saw what was perceived as the peaceful (if not fake) decolonization schemes that were accepted by Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, and other former colonies. I think that the myth of colorblindness of the Fifth Republic is a marker of the paradox that you’ve noticed. That is, at the same time that France is dealing with its colonial reality, and transforming this colonial reality into an allegedly decolonized or decolonizing reality, we have this fabrication of a colorblind society and republic. It happens at the moment when France is still fighting in the Algerian War, a fight that would continue until Algeria won its independence in 1962. In France, this contest was so heated that there was a failed assassination attempt on President DeGaulle, an attack staged by people who were in favor of retaining Algeria in the French Republic. It is an interesting moment because the Fifth Republic seems to shape a new rhetoric, a new discourse, a new version of France as colorblind, and now, from the perspective of 2021, we would say that France has traditionally been colorblind–-when this formal story of colorblindness is only a few decades old.
“This fabrication of a colorblind society and republic happens at the moment when France is still fighting in the Algerian War.”
Before the Fifth Republic, France was not so blind about racial categories. Le Code de l'indigénat [the “native code”] was the legal system imposed on the indigenous populations of the colonies. Le Code de l'indigénat was not color blind. If you go back to the seventeenth century, if you think of Le Code Noir, the Black Code, it was not color blind. Think of La Police des Noirs–-the police of the Blacks–-created in the late eighteenth century. La Police des Noirs force was dedicated to the surveillance and control of Black populations, mainly enslaved populations, who accompanied their [white] masters and mistresses as they visited Hexagonal France from the colonies. Those people, those populations–-those slaves that were disguised as servants because slavery was illegal within Hexagonal France–-had to be controlled. They had to be policed and la Police des Noirs in the eighteenth century was the way to police them. The name speaks for itself.
What I find interesting is that the Fifth Republic, dated to 1958, is actually a novelty in French history. It is an attempt by France to become, at least rhetorically, blind to race, even though all of the history of France, and particularly the modern history of France, has shown at the level of government, of the state, of the Crown (when the monarchy existed), that there was not this insistence on and belief in colorblindness. Now we have this attempt at imposing colorblindness, but this position is problematic; it offers a problematic understanding of history and geography in France. And it is new. People talk about it just like they talk about laïcité–secularism. They proclaim laïcité but laïcité was only established in 1905.
“All of the history of France has shown that there was not this insistence on and belief in colorblindness.”
A country such as France has a millennial-long history. The modern French nation-state is centuries old. The country takes pride in the ancientness of its history. But then why do laws that were only passed in 1905 become so central to the present? Why do they become the example of France’s supposed centuries-old attachment to secularism? What is this declaration of attachment to the ancient principles of colorblindness when they were only articulated in 1958? During World War II, France was still counting Jews, giving Jews to Nazi Germany, and organizing the management and future genocide of Jewish populations at the state level.
This declaration of anti-racial sentiment, first of all, does not stop racism, and second, does not help in the management of anti-racism. You cannot simply declare yourself race free, racism free, and simply think that it is going to be performative and it will generate a race free or colorblind society. Of course, saying that does not mean that I don’t want France to be colorblind; if France is to be colorblind I want it to be colorblind–not to say that it is colorblind when it is not. I think that the ideals are great and lofty. Can we, as human beings, retrain the way we look at other human beings? Can we recalibrate our perception so how we look at others is not clouded by judgement or prejudice? Can we do that? I have my doubts. But I think it is a good idea to go in that direction. But if we are not doing it, we cannot pretend we are doing it. So don’t say to me every time there is a discussion around race or racism, “no, we’re colorblind.” We cannot just be colorblind; we have to act colorblind. And as long as we do not act colorblind, there is no colorblindness. It is not a statement, it is a practice.
Historically, class has been a constitutive part of Black citizenship formation. Yet class has often held a difficult place in discussions of race and racism. What is your sense of how class conflict -- especially the intra-racial class conflicts between the Black working classes and the Black middle classes and petit-bourgeoisie -- has emerged in France? Furthermore, is there an international dimension to this conflict, in as much as imperialism, multinational corporations, and transnational finance are remaking the local terrain of class, class conflict, and class struggle?
This is a very difficult question. In the French context there is a long Marxist tradition. There is a long intellectual and political interest in class analysis. But, as we’ve known since the twentieth century, since the first elected officials that came from the empire, we know that there has been an opposition between class analysis and the racial analysis. I think that in the French context, people who believe in class analysis think that racial analyses are drawing attention away from the real issue of class; racial analyses are not welcome. When we could say that racial analysis encompasses class; that is, race does not erase class. But for the people who believe in class, they tend to erase race. Even Aimé Césaire, in his letter of resignation to the Communist Party, was accusing the Communist Party of not being sensitive enough to the specific Caribbean, or colonial, or imperial questions. Those Caribbean, colonial, or imperial questions are racial questions at the same time they are class questions. In France, there is resistance to any interest in race based analysis. The response is often, “no, we are talking about class.” It’s like saying feminism or gender studies erases class or race. This is ridiculous. Gender analysis encompasses class and race. What I think race brings to class analysis is a level of complexity. What gender studies brings to the analysis of race or class is complexity. We have so many layers of complexity to accept and understand and deal with. But if we want to make it simple, if we want to make it one dimensional, yes, keep the analysis at the level of class. This is ridiculous. Moreover, we know that we have a long tradition of Black Marxist analysis that has been produced over the past century of people who have tried to combine the class with racial analysis.
What is the nature of the relationship of the Black French middle class to Black working classes? Obviously, this is an issue in the colonies, as it is in the United States, but is there a similar relationship in Hexagonal France?
This is an interesting question. You are right to talk about Félix Eboué. We could talk about Blaise Daigne. We could talk about all the people of African descent who have managed to access a certain level of recognition and power within the state, colonial or postcolonial. But we know that the only reason they reached this level of acceptance is because they collaborated. Blaise Daigne was in charge of recruiting the Tirailleurs Sénégalais [West African colonial army troops who fought for the French during the World Wars] among other things. This is what he did. Félix Houphouët-Boigny [first president of Ivory Coast], Léopold Sédar Senghor [first president of Senegal]–-they were preparing for the independence of their own countries. They were not radicals. Somebody like Césaire decided to remain within the Republic and accepted departmentalization [turning former French colonies into “Overseas Departments and Territories'' ruled by France]. He was the Mayor of Fort de France. He defended the interests of Overseas Departments. He was from the Communist Party. But was someone like Césaire in real conversation with people from lower classes? Did he have their interests at heart? I know that Césaire was interested in the development of the Overseas Departments and putting them on an equal footing with metropolitan France. That was his goal. He was to a certain extent the protector of the lower classes of those territories. But those territories were already so marginalized since the overwhelming majority of their populations were poor people.
In France, is there anything similar to what is happening in the United States, where many Black people place their political hopes in placing Black people in positions of power–-Black, female Vice President, a Black Secretary of Defense? Is there a similar representational politics happening in France?
No. We don’t have these representational politics because–-and it brings us back to the first question–-what is Blackness in the French context? If we look at the U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, we’ve seen on the news and the social media how she represents, at least for some, a sort of epitome of decades long, if not centuries long, strategies of Black mobilization: social clubs, women’s clubs, club movements, HBCUs, et cetera. We don’t have that legacy in France. We don’t have generations of powerful Black people who will muster enough political influence so that, even in one hundred years, they produce a Vice President–-if that’s the goal. We’re still working on it. I’m not saying it hasn’t existed, but I’m saying that Black mobilization in France has not gathered enough power.
If we look at Négritude, for instance, or if we look at the politicization of the early twentieth century–-Blaise Daigne, Senghor, Boigny, Eboué, etc. Let’s look at the territories they represented. Felix Eboué was from French Guiana. French Guiana is still a French Department. Daigne and Senghor were from Senegal. Senegal became independent in 1960, so that’s another story. Either you are talking about Senegal as a foreign state, or you are talking about Black French matters, and Black French matters exclude Senegal. If we’re talking about Martinique with Césaire, Martinique is still part of the French Republic–-of the French Empire. And are people defining themselves as Guianese, Martiniquean, Guadeloupean? Or as French people? Or as Black people. These are different categories – they don't mean the same thing. Of course people from Martinique are mostly Black, but do they understand themselves as only Black? Black is the more general category. But they might say, “We are Martinique. We are not Guadeloupe. We are not Reunion Island. We are not Guyane. We're still black but it is not the same thing.”
One of the main issues for Black people within France’s Overseas Departments and Territories is the relationship to metropolitan France. So I don’t know if this Black bourgeoisie, this Black lobbying, is strong enough to infiltrate the highest sphere of the government. I don’t know if we’re there yet. It may be in the making; there are lobby groups. But then again, these groups have to be concerned about the framing of their lobbying. It is not a good political idea in France at the moment to define yourself as Black. To get leverage, to be in a position of power, you may want to talk about, perhaps, diversity, inclusion, but you can’t talk about “Black.” Don’t say Black. If you want to win something, don’t say Black. I’m not saying you shouldn’t say it, I’m just saying that if you want to play the mainstream political game, there is nothing to gain right now by saying Black or by trying to generate a political force based on Blackness. Not today. Perhaps later on.
What are the primary issues facing Black immigrants in France? What has been the response of both the state and civil society to Black immigrants? What is the relationship of Black migration to Black citizenship?
That’s a complex question since Black immigrants embody the only moment when the French authorities will openly talk about race. They will talk about race but through nationality. If you talk about African immigrants–-and I’m not talking about Muslim immigrants–-if you hear about African immigrants you know they are talking about Black people. But the problem is that this embodied Blackness is not that of the immigrant alone. Which means that you can be a French national [from France’s Overseas Departments and Territories] and be Black but you share a body with somebody who can be perceived as the undocumented, alien, foreign immigrant that “we” [the white French] don’t want. So how do you make the distinction between those bodies? How do you police those bodies? What purpose does it serve to publicly talk about immigrants, children of immigrants, second generation immigrants? These are the instances when they talk about race. Because it is impossible to make the distinction on the basis of bodies between those Black immigrants and those Black people who are French citizens. So if we cannot make the distinction between those different types of foreigners–-the undesirable foreigner–-and those citizens of color, it means that race matters! It creates the confusion, and by creating the confusion, reveals the silence imposed on racial issues.
What I am saying here is that I can walk outside, I can be on the streets, but who is to say or know whether I am an immigrant? And if it is impossible to know for sure that I am a French national, if it is impossible to know from looking at me, it is because of the color of my skin–-nothing else. So body, and body types, talk–-they say something. So when people talk about immigration, this undesirable immigration, this Black immigration, they are talking about race. What if you are somebody from French Guiana? You’re French and you’ve been French. What if you are somebody from Martinque or Guadeloupe? You are Black. (You are mostly Black). You’ve been French for generations. But you still don’t look “French.” So what does not-looking French mean? What are we talking about? So the Black immigrants are interesting because they reveal the hypocrisy. When you have racial profiling, the police claim that they want to control, surveil, and police illegal immigration. So who do they target? Bodies. But Bodies can point to different nationalities and national statuses.
What about the question of Islam within the question? You said you were not talking about Muslims.
I’m talking about the public categories. When people talk about Africans or Black immigrants, they are talking about “sub-Saharan” Africans that they identify as Black. I’m not saying there are no Black people in North Africa, but North Africa would be associated with Islam. What I’m saying here is that if you come from Senegal, if you come from a country that is ninety-five percent Muslim, in the public sphere you are not identified as a Muslim, you are identified as a Black person, as an African. North Africa is another story because North Africa is identified as, how can I say it [laughs], Muslimia? The Land of Islam? Dar-al-Islam. So Arabs are understood as Muslims. North Africans are understood as Muslims and as such, in France, we are using religion, in my view, to again talk about a racial identity. It’s not so much about religions. You can be a Berber. You can be non-practicing or a Chrisitian Arab… but physically, if you are identified as Arab, you are associated with Islam. So this is not so much about religion; this is really about race. But we use religion, we instrumentalize religion, to talk about race. Dealing with race within the French context is never done directly. It would be through nationality, religion, immigration status–-but not race directly. People won’t say Arabs. They won’t say North Africans. They say Muslims. And I’m not talking about race, I’m talking about religion. They don’t care about religion. It’s not the issue. Religion is not the issue.
How do Black people in France view the diaspora? What do they draw on from the diaspora in thinking about forms of solidarity? What influence, for instance, did Black Lives Matter have on France?
Depending on the history, there are different levels of solidarity. For instance, if you think of the people who come from the current French empire [the French Overseas Departments and Territories], there could be solidarity expressed between people from the Caribbean who have been established within hexagonal France, and the people who have remained in Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique. That’s one form of solidarity: family and community solidarity. Then you have the people who are migrants from foreign countries who have established themselves but maintain ties and solidarity with their lands of origin. That’s another level of solidarity. And then you have a third level, one that is more contemporary: younger people who are the children of those foreign nationals or those who came from the Caribbean or other parts of the French Empire. Those people may be the ones gradually moving away from their traditional heritage–moving away from Martinique, or Senegal, or the Ivory Coast. They may understand themselves because of their location within Hexagonal France, they may understand themselves as Black beyond the nationality of their parents, and beyond their nationality within the French Empire: We’re Black–-it’s not so much about Cameroon, or Guadeloupe, or Reunion Island–-we’re here and we’re Black; it doesn’t matter.
I think those generations may be more in tune with movements, including Black Lives Matter, that take place particularly in the Americas-–beyond Europe, beyond what is going in the UK, beyond what is going on in Portugal or in Italy. There is this interest in things American, although here I am talking about the US specifically, because of the presence of the US in the French national psyche, in the French culture, in terms of accessibility, in terms of representation, in terms of music, of movies, of culture. So Black Lives Matter, of course, found an echo in France, just like it found an echo in Brazil, in Germany, in the UK, and in other places. In the specific case of France, I think that this echo was found in 2020, even though there had been other expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter from France in 2015, 2016. But 2020 was really the big display of solidarity.
“Black Lives Matter found an echo in France.”
I think it has to do with the fact that Black Lives Matter, coming from the United States, is actually convenient for the Black French. Because France is used to only covering racial issues when they take place, when they unfold, in the United States. Blackness from the U.S. is accepted in France while Blackness within France is denied. So what happened last spring, following the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent marches is this: French activists knew that France was going to largely cover the events of the US, so they used this opportunity to say, “No! This time you are going to look at France as well.” So there is an interest in things American, but this is also, perhaps–-and I don’t want to say this negatively–-an instrumentalization of the historical interest that France has had in the United States as a means of turning the eye of France to French matters.
But this move by Black French activists to link Black issues in France with those of the US has also been denounced by a certain type of French mainstream who say that our situation is totally different from the United States. They accuse these activists of “importing” things from the US. That has been the conversation. Activists have answered that by asking if the Black people killed by French police are also imported. Black people, and other people of color, dying at the hands of the police happens in France, too. You don’t have to go to the United States for that. You don’t need to import those dead people. So this is what I see in terms of different levels of solidarity.
“Blackness from the U.S. is accepted in France while Blackness within France is denied.”
An older, more direct model, and it is the place from which I come: I am still sending money back home; I am still organizing associations, cultural, political, economic associations, that are in conversation with other places, whether we’re talking about independent countries or places, territories, or regions, that are still a part of France today.
The other, younger generation, however, goes beyond the national or ethnic affiliations, recognizing themselves as Black, internationally and diasporically as Black. That generation sometimes looks at the US as an example of activism because African American history is more readily accepted and is better known than other histories. This is especially because of the long history of expatriation of prominent African Americans to France, and the celebration of that history. So France likes to say the country welcomed Josephine Baker and then she became a superstar. But Josephine Baker became a superstar because she was not French, precisely because she was not French. James Baldwin, Claude Mckay, Nina Simone, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright – there is this long tradition of celebrating prominent African Americans. And, because France is really interested in African American matters, it has become possible now for Black activists to use African American matters to discuss Black France.
What is the role of Black intellectuals–-be they academics, activists, or artists–-in helping to shape a public discussion around citizenship and national formation? Are you able to draw on a local history or tradition of Black intellectual activity that helps us make sense of the present? And as a footnote to the question, I’m curious about the impact or influence–-or not–-of the Congress of Black Writers of 1956, and if the texts produced by Presence Africaine have resonated for contemporary Black French intellectuals.
Let me begin with the second part of your question. I think the 1956 Congress, just like the 1959 Congress held in Rome, are of high importance. Presence Africaine, the journal, the publishing house, Alioune Diop -- they are all of importance intellectually. But in terms of how it is understood, known, or remembered by people who are not intellectuals or artists, I’m not sure. There is really, perhaps, a class issue; it is neither a history nor a memory that is widely, or perhaps democratically, circulated. It simply is not. All the intellectuals will know of the Congresses. The artists interested in those topics will know. The regular people, I’m not sure. It is rarely formally taught, so it is not passed down. I think it was back in 2006, precisely because of the 50th anniversary of the congress, there was a documentaryon it that was broadcast on national television. I think it was the first. And the director was an American guy. A white American guy. Bob Swaim. So I think it’s interesting that it took an American – I’m sure somebody tried to do something at some point – but the one that was able to do it, the one who was able to collect the funds, get the production going, sell it to the national TV channel, was a white American, a foreigner. And not just a foreigner from any country. I’m sure that other people thought about doing it but they were never able to do it.
To answer your questions about the role of the Black intellectuals: I would say –- and this is a very personal view –- I would say that in these days, not in the histories and the intellectual and political traditions that we already know about, in the postcolonial moment and within this Hexagonal France, this is what I’m most interested in. To begin with, I think that Black intellectuals in France have to dare to be Black. That is the first step. You can have intellectuals that are Black, but not all of them are willing to be Black intellectuals. Because declaring yourself so is very opposite to the myth of colorblindness that is being used to stifle any interesting conversation. So the Black intellectual has to be Black, unashamedly Black. To understand that they are Black, to accept, and not to view Blackness as a bad thing – as un-Republican thing, an un-French thing. You can be Black and French, don’t worry about it. You can be Black and French.
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