How France’s recent riots reflect a growing racial consciousness among its black and north African population, influenced by the US and the work of Education Minister Pap Ndiaye, a historian who challenges France’s colourblind ideal.
A fter Bastille Day, it’s worth re-examining the state of France. Its latest wave of unrest has subsided but the most interesting aspect of this bout of troubles is just how bad it was and how much more “American” than in 2005.
In fact, the seven nights of mass riots in cities across the country and even in overseas French territories, including French Guiana, underlined a paradox: too little has changed since 2005 in terms of systemic racism in France but a great deal is very different compared to 2005 about the way black people and those of north African origin in working-class neighbourhoods see themselves.
There is a reason a police officer’s killing of 17-year-old Nahel on the outskirts of Paris has been called “France’s George Floyd moment”, not just internationally but by Le Monde. The newspaper drew the parallel in an editorial:
“Leaving aside the completely specific American racial context, the events are reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man suffocated by a white Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.”
It’s debatable how much one piece of writing and one man has had to do with the altered level of racial consciousness in France.
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I refer, of course, to Emmanuel Macron’s education minister, a historian called Pap Ndiaye, whose groundbreaking La Condition Noire: Essai sur une minorité française (or The Black Condition: an essay on a French minority), was published in 2008.
Mr Ndiaye, the son of a Senegalese father and a white woman, is mixed race but visually black and identifies as such. He has said that he only realised his blackness (and the black condition in France) while studying in the US in the 1990s.
“It’s an experience that all black French go through when they go to the United States. It’s the experience of a country where skin colour is reflected upon and where it is not hidden behind a colourblind discourse.”
The reference, of course, is to France’s colourblind ideal and its sunshine belief that all people share the same universal rights irrespective of the brutal reality of racial discrimination.
Mr Ndiaye has led efforts to establish black studies as an academic discipline in France despite some complaints that such a field represents a lamentable “Americanisation” of French society because it pushes the charged issue of race and religion into public discourse.
But for all the bemoaning, the genie seems to be out of the bottle and France may be further along than it realises in its racial awakening.
Consider this. In 2009, Mr Ndiaye delivered a public lecture titled The Emergence of ‘French Blacks’ at Florida State University. It’s notable that his visit from Paris appeared to have an official blessing because it was arranged in concert with the French embassy in Washington, D.C.
Then, in May last year, Mr Ndiaye was appointed education minister. The move, right at the start of Mr Macron’s second term, was surprising not just because the government was made up mostly of right-wing and centre-left ministers but because of Mr Ndiyae’s outspokenness about the need for France to confront violent episodes in its colonial past. He told the Associated Press in 2021:
“The French are highly reluctant to look at the dark dimensions of their own history.”
Accordingly, his elevation seemed to recognise not only the persistent social inequalities in France’s school system but the need for the government to be mindful of the effects of colonialism and issues like race relations.
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At the time, historian Pascal Blanchard told AFP that Mr Ndiaye’s years as a professor at the elite Sciences Po University in Paris had done much to move the national conversation along:
“In the field of history, he is someone who has been innovative and able to show a new way of understanding the past… In a diverse society, it is important to have someone who is attentive to diversity.”
In all sorts of ways then, France may be increasingly American and I don’t mean McDonald’s.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Medium and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 July 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
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