Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Against French Universalism

The Times has published an interesting piece on the (re)birth of black political consciousness in France in the wake of Barack Obama's victory to become the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nominee. Writer Michael Kimmelman interviewed blacks living in Paris who have used Obama's campaign to make the case that it's high time for the French to have a public conversation about their vexed racial history and current race- and immigrant-oriented fears. For a nation that has long prided itself on forging a "color-blind" or "race-neutral" society, black French citizens like Patrick Lozès are saying, "[W]e’re blind in France, not colorblind but information blind, and just saying people are equal doesn’t make them equal."

From a purely electoral standpoint, the numbers seem to speak for themselves: "[O]ne 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." Add to this the fact that people of color constitute the majority of the poor and working-poor classes in France. Many of these people live in the impoverished banlieues of major French cities, and it was in one such banlieue, Paris's Clichy-sous-Bois, where an eruption of urban violence in the fall of 2005 forced the French to confront the reality of social inequality in their country. (It led to a lot of reactionary, law-and-order-type rhetoric too -- like the chorus of white French politicians who denounced French hip hop artists for inciting the violence.)

All of this did not come as much of a surprise to people of color living in France. When you're forced to swallow the bitter pill of assimilating into a social order which recognizes itself as "universal," you're likely to see things -- elisions, erasures, denials -- that white citizens are loathe to admit. The right-wing, anti-immigration nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen is considered to be a political anomaly in France, and yet as recent as 2002 Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential race, having commanded close to 17% of the national vote in the first round.

Even more prescient was the fact that, earlier in 2005, the government passed a law which sought to recast educational curricula on French colonialism in a "positive" light. Article 4 read that "School programs [should] recognize, in particular, the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa, and give the history and the sacrifices of the French army fighters from those territories the prominence they deserve." Perhaps more than anything else, the tone-deaf revisionism of this piece of legislation (tone-deaf, that is, to actually existing postcolonial minorities and their needs, educational or otherwise, in contemporary France) forcefully suggests that France pursues a policy of racial, class, and immigrant discrimination all under the veil of "color-blindness."

Given this recent history, one wonders whether Obama's campaign really is the primary motivation behind Lozès and others' work. A new millennial black political consciousness has been on the rise since at least 2005. While certain aspects of this political project are, shall we say, race "positive" (or positivist: a politics stemming from racial identity), as Kimmelman's gloss on négritude makes clear, the project is equally committed to a progressive, structural critique of French universalism. Novelist Léonora Miano notes, "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.”

Despite white French politicians' unwillingness to acknowledge their racial past and present, smart, edgy, and talented French hip hop artists are at the forefront in making race, immigration, and social inequality important topics for public debate and cultural activity. In a twist to the post-riots backlash against French rappers, we are now seeing similar artists insist on the hypocrisy and blight of universalism. And they're articulating this critique not in the lofty tones of politico speech but in their own words, based on their own experiences, from the standpoint of universalism's unacknowledged others. One artist Kimmelman mentions is the aptly named Youssoupha (you suffer), a Senegalese French rapper whose music translates the social disenfranchisement of people of color into political art. There's no better way to end this post than to serve up a couple of Youssoupha's songs, participating as they do in constituting a new black French political subjectivity over and against an exhausted, untenable universalism.

"Ma destinée"

"Babylone zoo"

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