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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pascal Blanchard "Les noirs ne sont pas des victimes permanentes"

by Marie Barbier

"Blacks Are Not Regular Victims”, French Historian Says

Translated Wednesday 16 November 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Historian Pascal Blanchard has just published la France noire, trois siècles de présences (Black France, three centuries of richly varied presence) [1]. This beautiful work is the result of several years’ research inspired by Anglo-Saxon « black studies”; the authors’ aim was to incorporate into the mainstream narrative of French history a component that has been the object of much prejudice, the more so for being little known.

A collective of historians, some of whom are renowned specialists of African history, decided to tackle a sensitive issue: the narrative of three centuries of the blacks’ presence in France, under the editorship of Pascal Blanchard, historian and researcher at the Communication and Politics CNRS laboratory.

HUMA: Is there such a thing as black history in France?

PLANCHARD: There is none. There is a history of men and women who proclaimed their black identity or were perceived as blacks. Let’s remember General Mangin’s ‘black force” in 1914-18, the “Negro movements” in the interwar-years, the Conference of the Negro race in 1919, or the black intellectuals at the Sorbonne. All these existed and therefore call for a narrative. Is the enterprise legitimate? The question is worth asking even if I find it totally preposterous. Nobody objects to a narrative of the history of French Jews or Bretons. It’s only French people that ask this question. In the United States, in Spain, in Holland, in England, in Italy, this kind of narrative is not illegitimate. But we French people make no effort of this kind because we are the French Republic and we think our principles of equality will be readily implemented as a matter of course. A white male can hold that kind of view, a black man knows that the motto of equality inscribed on the pediments of our public buildings does not apply in our daily life. Just because some people think it is illegitimate to speak about the presence of blacks in France, their history sinks into oblivion; it is not taught. Who knows that in 1904 a black Jaurès was vice-president of the National Assembly? Or that fifty years ago a black man presided over the Senate? Ethnic diversity is part of our common experience; there is no necessity to invent a new system. Today we have only one overseas deputy [2] and so we have moved backward. A regression over twenty years is meaningless, but over three centuries and a half, the course of history can show a tidal ebb and flow.

HUMA: How can you say this history is overlooked when there have never been so many commemorations as there are today. Isn’t that paradoxical?

BLANCHARD: What do you remember of the Overseas Commemoration year? Or of the fiftieth anniversary of African Independences? These are non-commemorations. Because the State chooses not to integrate this history into our present, this colonial history has not yet been assumed or digested. Japan excepted, France is the only old colonial power that is incapable of building a museum of colonial history. There are as many as 22 museums for clogs in this country but zero museums for colonial history! We have not yet entered the era of a shared history. We cherish myths about a fantastic Africa. Every time we are at a loss what to do with Africa, we have the Senegalese infantry march down the Champs Elysées, as in 1919, 1939, and 1989 when Jean-Paul Goude was in charge of the parade. [3] It’s the Banania myth [4]. There surely are other ways of telling our common history…

HUMA: Why didn’t we develop “black studies” in France as Anglo-Saxon countries did?

BLANCHARD: For five years now “postcolonial studies” and “cultural studies”, after being long marginalized, have been back. Researchers like Achille Mbembe, Françoise Vergès, or Nicolas Bancel went abroad but their works are now coming back. All the diasporas have written down their own histories. In England, Paul Gilroy’s book Black Britain is the repository of that memory. In the United States, about forty books have been devoted to it. In France it is time we told a story inscribed in French history for four centuries. It gives one pride and the assurance of one’s legitimate presence on a territory that has its dark and its bright spots. We must learn our common history anew.

HUMA: You maintain that the history of black people in France has been built on myths, like the myth about the Senegalese infantry men…

BLANCHARD: The question is whether the black troops were used inordinately in order to spare the white troops. Global statistics on black troops on the front is meaningless. The Malagasy worked in the factories while the West Indians were in the Dardanelles. You need to compare the separate figures for regiments in order to establish that there was no lethal “overconsumption” of the black troops. It is legitimate to raise the question philosophically: what have black fighters to do with a European conflict? But that does not mean they were used as cannon fodder. Also, to raise that question implies that a West Indian was not a regular Frenchman. Under the Third Republic, being ready to die for France was one of the major elements for naturalization. In the First World War, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus case [5]. Jews became army volunteers in order to prove that they were French. The infantrymen grew into a myth because they gave Africans the impression they had some legitimacy. But this myth also suggests that there have been only victims in the history of French Blacks, and that is just not true. Theirs is not just a history of suffering.

HUMA: For author Alain Mabanckou, who wrote the preface to your book, blacks cannot forever “claim the exclusive privileges of victimization”. Does this mean that too much noise is made about slavery and discrimination?

BLANCHARD: This narrative is not just a history of victimization, even in slavery. All the talk is about the poor Negro in his chains, but what about the runaway slaves that rebelled! Black immigrants in France will be similarly assimilated to the exploited black street-sweeper. What about Paulette Nardal who opened one of the greatest intellectual clubs in Paris, or Jean-Baptiste Belley, the first black deputy, Al Brown, the boxing champion. Blacks are NOT regular victims. The generations of Malians that came to work in France from the 1950s left their country in order to support the villages: it’s a social history, not a history of victims. Which was the greatest workers’ movement after May 1968 in France? The five year-long strikes in the immigrant workers’ homes in order to be considered tenants.

HUMA: Another common prejudice that you explode is that black immigration is recent.

BLANCHARD: West-Indian immigrants arrived in the eighteenth century. There were 25,000 black people in France at the time, half of them freed and half of them slaves. There was even a black legion during the French Revolution that was sent to fight in Vendée [6]. Just fancy a legion of black soldiers, with the knight of Saint Georges at their head, putting down the Vendéens’ uprising because those Vendéens were not revolutionary enough in their opinion! If you ask people when blacks were expelled for the first time, they think of Pasqua [7], not of Napoléon Bonaparte. Which stands to reason since we never learned it at school and, above all, have not integrated it into our collective conceptions. We do not think of immigration as a long process. If you tell French people there’s every chance they have a black ancestor, they will laugh. But if your family has been French for twenty generations, the odds are that out of your 260 ancestors, one was a native of Africa, Haiti, or San Domingo.

HUMA: Can we talk of a black identity in France today?

BLANCHARD: No, there are dozens of identities that do not add up to a collective identity. Gaston Kelman and Christiane Taubira do not entertain the same views, fortunately! It’s as if there were just one white identity. Black identity is a racial fantasy. What is real enough is the cultural heritage that is emerging in such and such a country. That fact is very obvious in the US where a common history is shared: the struggle for the abolition and Martin Luther King are part of the cultural heritage shared by all Afro-Americans. This phenomenon is developing in France’s popular districts. West Indians have one advantage over immigrants from the Maghreb or from Asia, namely that they are present in the media: Omar Sy, Harry Roselmack, Audrey Pulvar, Yannick Noah, Marie Ndiaye, and so on. This fairly rich panel provides an effective model of success stories. These figures play a major part; they give the feeling that it is possible to succeed in this society even if one is black.

HUMA: What are the main issues at stake for French blacks today?

BLANCHARD: Among black West-Indian populations, groups are getting organized like the CRAN (Representative Committee of Black Associations), or, marginally, les Indigènes de la République (the Republic’s Natives). There have always been African, Caribbean etc. associations in the social, cultural world. In politics, there have been candidates who have stood for overseas-departments, like Christiane Taubira. Today, Stéphane Lozès (the CRAN’s president) will stand in the presidential election with the slogan: “Do not vote white.” [8]
All this is quite new in our Republic; we are entering an almost experimental era. For twenty years, the “visible minorities” have emerged in Leftist political parties, whether with Fodé Sylla [9] or Harlem Désir [10], but integration into these political parties is still pretty tough. Some are considering setting up black caucuses as in the United States. Some will choose to go it alone in the political fight in order to figure in the balance of forces, others will rather infiltrate existing parties. The great novelty, today, is the dispersion of political affiliation: blacks, Asians, Arabs vote for the Right and for the Left indifferently. For a very long time the Left assumed that these electors naturally belonged in its camp, but that era is over. They will vote for the Right, some even for the Far-Right, because they are ordinary French people, with their dark and their bright spots. The “natives’ era” is about to end. It will be no longer possible to assume that when it has earmarked three pence for baskets, the Left has done its job. We on the Left need to prod our political parties.

French people are basically reluctant to accept as a matter of course that the French team includes eleven Blacks and Arabs. In the national sub-conscious a French person is first and foremost a white. Maybe ours is the generation that will live through the transition towards a multicultural society. We are the most mixed-race country in Europe, the country where there is the greatest rate of mixed-race marriages: it’s our culture, our history. But in the suburbs we reproduce the model of the colonial town, with a white centre and a native periphery. All this will produce extremely varied political reactions, and new social mutations.

[1Éditions La Découverte, November 2011.

[2Christiane Taubira, deputy for French Guayana.

[3On the 14th of July of that year the Bicentenary parade was staged by Jean-Paul Goude.

[4A well-known ad for Banania chocolate, banana, and cereals drink from 1915 (with a patriotic flavour!) till 1967, since then much criticized for its distinct colonial flavour, showing a smiling young black Senegalese infantryman, recognizable by his uniform hat, saying childishly over a fuming cup: “Y’a bon Banania!”. For more information and discussion see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banania

[5An epoch-making and highly symbolic case that lasted from 1894 till 1906 under the Third Republic. Captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian and a Jew, was wrongly accused of being a traitor to his country in the pay of Germany, the neighbouring foe, by racists who had planted fabricated evidence against him. This was denounced by Émile Zola in a famous article entitled “J’accuse!” in 1898. The furor between the two camps reached its peak in 1899. The war between pro and anti Dreyfusards, as they were called, was a deep social and political conflict which divided families and friends, and lasted until Dreyfus was cleared by the Cour de Cassation in 1909.

[6The war in the Vendéee, a region south of the Loire river, initially a typical peasant revolt sparked off by the mass conscription voted in 1793 to defend the Republic, opposed groups of villagers around their royalist local landowners and chaplains and the Republican army. For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_the_Vend%C3%A9e

[7The so-called Pasqua-Debré laws were voted in 1986, 1993, 1997 under right-wing governments with a view to regulating and restricting immigration.

[8A pun on Fr “vote blanc” (literally ‘white vote or ballot’) which is a blank ballot, and the “racial” meaning of the adjective (i.e. do not vote for a white candidate).

[9Historic leader of the famous anti-racist association SOS Racisme

[10A successor, now spokesperson for the Socialist Party.

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