Is It Better to Be Black in France or America?

Racial prejudice is deeply rooted in the United States, where many Whites reduce Black people to their slave heritage. This attitude is not shared in France, as the bulk of slavery took place far from the mainland. However, the reality for today’s French Africans is far from idyllic.
A White bartender waits on Féral Benga, a Senegalese dancer, model, and icon of the Harlem Renaissance, at a Paris cabaret around 1950. This scene would have been unthinkable in the United States. © Adoc-Photos/Corbis/Getty Images

In the late 1950s, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a Minister of State in the Fourth Republic, was in New York representing France at the United Nations. The former Ivory Coast politician was accompanied by his chief of staff, a high-ranking, almost stereotypical White official, who decided to take the minister to Harlem one evening. The pair went to a bar for a drink and the Black waiter, who had naturally never heard of Houphouët, could not believe that a Black man could be a government minister in a White country. In Paris, this would not have surprised anyone.

This little story is a good illustration of the situation of African Americans and Black people in France. Whether in Dallas, Chicago, Salt Lake City, or even New York and Los Angeles, many Whites see Black people as descendants of slaves. This attitude is not shared in France, as the bulk of slavery took place far from the mainland and left little trace in the collective memory. This could be seen as a contrast to colonization in France. This more recent chapter in French history is more ambiguous, and its somewhat positive aspects – education and fighting major epidemics – clash with abhorrent practices such as forced labor, expropriation, and countless forms of violence.

Legal Segregation

Everything has been said about African American artists’ delight at discovering Paris in the early 20th century. They felt they had been granted a freedom that was inaccessible in their own country. And they were right. For a whole century, starting in the aftermath of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery voted by Congress in 1865, racial segregation enshrined in law dictated the lives of Americans in the South. Blacks and Whites lived separately, from buses and schools to hospitals and public spaces. While segregation was a reality in colonial-era France, it was never dictated by the law. There were never train cars or elevators reserved for Whites in Paris or Marseille, as was the case in the United States until the 1960s. Despite their small numbers, Sub-Saharan and West Indian students mixed freely with their White counterparts. Beautiful friendships developed, including between Léopold Sédar Senghor and Georges Pompidou, who studied together at the Louis-le-Grand high school in the late 1920s. Simply observing the numbers highlights another difference between the two countries. According to the latest estimates, there are some 42 million African Americans in the United States, making up 12.7% of the total population of 330 million people.

American jazz pianist and bandleader Count Basie with his fans in Paris, 1954. © Bettmann/Getty Images
Up until the 1960s, most public places in the United States, like this streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City, were segregated. © Russell Lee/Library of Congress

Comparisons are difficult, as French law forbids the collection of ethnic and religious census data. The countless children born of both Black and White parents offer another obstacle. How should French West Indians with both White and Black ancestors be classified? Through extensive cross-referencing, and if we consider that almost all inhabitants of the French overseas regions (Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana, and Mayotte, known as départements et territoires d’outre-mer, or DOM-TOM) are Black, we can come to an approximate figure. There are roughly 5.5 million Black people in France, of which 2 million live in overseas French regions, with the other 3.5 million living in mainland France. Within this latter group, 2.5 million are of African heritage while the other million are descended from DOM-TOM citizens. This number makes up around 8% of the total population. By comparison, the United Kingdom – a country with a similar colonial past to France – is home to some 3.5 million Black and mixed-race people, roughly 5% of the population.

The origins of their respective Black communities is another difference between the two countries. The first slaves arrived in the British colonies of North America in the early 17th century. By the end of the century, their numbers had grown to almost 800,000. In 1900, the population had increased tenfold, and in 1950, there were more than 15 million Black people in the United States. And while there were Black people in France as far back as the 16th century, there were no more than 5,000 in the mid-17th century. It was only after 1960 that their numbers shot up, with the arrival of some half a million people from the West Indies and Réunion, followed by hundreds of thousands more from Sub-Saharan Africa (mainly Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Mali).

The American Paradox

In contrast to the United States – and the United Kingdom – Black figures quickly played major roles in French political life. Portrayed in a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet, a slave by the name of Jean-Baptiste Belley from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was a member of the National Convention from 1793 to 1797, then the Council of Five Hundred under the Directory. A century later, a whole group of Black elected officials from the West Indies, including the Guadeloupean Hégésippe Légitimus and the Martinican Joseph Lagrosillière, entered the French National Assembly.

Many other names have gone down in history. One such example is Louis Guizot, born in Saint-Domingue in 1740 to a Huguenot colonist and a slave on the island. Elected mayor of Saint-Geniès-de-Malgoirès in the Gard département in 1790, he was also the first “person of color” to occupy a post as municipal magistrate in France. Some years later in 1914, Blaise Diagne was the first Black representative from Sub-Saharan Africa. He also became the first African to hold a ministerial position after being appointed to the Ministry of the Colonies in 1931. Under the Fourth Republic between 1946 and 1958, some 52 representatives from Sub-Saharan Africa sat at the National Assembly. After 1955, each ministry included at least one Black member, and there were four in Félix Gaillard’s government from November 1957 to April 1958. How many French people are aware that, for many years, the second most important figure of their country was Guianese politician Gaston Monnerville, the president of the Senate from 1958 to 1968?

Hégésippe Légitimus was elected representative of Guadeloupe in 1898. © M. Rol/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Of course, following the American Civil War, many Black politicians were elected in the South. Mississippi even sent two senators to the Capitol. But Black people were quickly excluded from the national political playing field through pernicious legal loopholes. It was not until 1928 that an African American, Oscar Stanton De Priest, was elected to the House of Representatives. (In the U.K., it was not until 1987 that the first four Black members of parliament joined the House of Commons.)

Fascinated by the success of African American artists and athletes, many Black people in France cast an envious eye over their U.S. counterparts. Previously reserved for Whites, the American dream machine has expanded to include ethnic minorities since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. However, this idyllic vision was brutally shattered by the recent succession of police violence and killings, showing that nothing had really changed in the Land of the Free.

France: A Shining Example for the United States?

In Rumeurs d’Amérique (2020), French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who has lived in the United States since 2002, offers his personal, must-read perspective. In his eyes, “compared to Black Americans’ fight to be recognized as full citizens, the struggle in France has taken the lead.” What’s more, the situation hardly improved – far from it – during Donald Trump’s presidency. Not only did Joe Biden’s predecessor have few words of kindness or compassion for Black victims of police violence, he even applauded certain White supremacists.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, following the death of Keith Lamont Scott, an African American man killed by a Black police officer on September 20, 2016. © Jason Miczek/Reuters

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body – it is heritage,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his deeply moving book, Between the World and Me (2015). Being Black in the United States means living in constant fear. What is referred to as bavures policières, or “police errors,” in France is a systematic practice in the U.S.A., with African Americans emerging as the main victims. They are three times more likely to be killed by the police than White people. And when they are not slaughtered like animals, they are thrown behind bars. According to data from the Pew Research Center, Black people made up 33% of the prison population in 2018. As succinctly summarized by sociologist Hélène-Yvonne Meynaud, we have shifted from “the prisons of slavery to the slavery of prisons.”

Many French Africans who live or have lived in the United States report feeling the same. You are consistently made to feel Black in America, while in France and in Paris in particular, you can forget the color of your skin. Aside from certain low-income neighborhoods where young people of Sub-Saharan and North African descent are in a permanent battle with the police, most Black and West Indian people can walk the streets without fearing unfair treatment by the police.

However, the situation is far from perfect. While racism is not openly expressed except on social media, it is still present – albeit insidiously – in daily life. Disgusting insults such as “sale nègre” have been replaced by paternalistic, patronizing behaviors. The signs of rejection may be less brutal than before, but race-based arrests and police stops remain an inescapable reality.

Persistent Discrimination

French Africans and African Americans do have a stark similarity in their experience of socioeconomic exclusion. According to the Economic Policy Institute think tank, the average income of Black American households (41,692 dollars as of 2018) is around half of that in White households (70,642 dollars). In France, figures from INSEE show that some 45% of homes in which the head of the household is of African descent are under the poverty line, compared to less than 25% for the overall population.

We can’t stick our heads in the sand. Racial discriminations persist and weigh heavy on modern French society. Although all sectors are now accessible, people of “ethnic diversity” – an elegant euphemism to describe non-Whites – continue to find themselves limited by the racial glass ceiling. The more senior the level of corporate hierarchies, the fewer the number of Black employees. A Black upper class is undeniably developing, but it has little in common with the African American elite, which began with free Black people during the slavery era, before expanding with the Civil Rights movement and affirmative action.

French filmmaker Ladj Ly promotes diversity in French cinema through the Kourtrajmé film school. © Léa Desjours
Cameroonian author Léonora Miano won the Prix Femina in 2013 for her novel Season of the Shadow. © Antoine Doyen

Despite everything, progress has been made, and the media is one such example. There are now very few French television channels without Black anchors. Culture is another sector in which Black people are playing an increasingly major role. And not just in music. Along with Omar Sy, whose iconic character, Arsène Lupin, in the successful Netflix series has confirmed his status as an international star, a vast number of actors, comedians, dancers, stylists, designers, and Michelin-starred chefs have won the hearts of the French public. Not to mention filmmakers such as Ladj Ly, who directed the hard-hitting social drama Les Misérables. Literature is another sphere seeing the rise of Black household names. From Ahmadou Kourouma, Marie Ndiaye, and Léonora Miano to Alain Mabanckou, Tierno Monénembo, and Scholastique Mukasonga, writers with Sub-Saharan heritage (more so than DOM-TOM citizens) have been winning awards – particularly the Prix Renaudot – for the last twenty years.

Be that as it may, Black people are still terribly underrepresented in the institutions of the French Republic. There are very few ministers and politicians, and not a single mayor of a major city in 2021. When can we hope for a French Obama?

Listen to France-Amérique director Guénola Pellen and Dominique Mataillet, a journalist at France-Amérique and La Revue and the author of this article, on the radio show Le débat du jour (in French) on RFI on April 29, 2021, from 1:30-2 pm EST (10:30-11 am PST).

Article published in collaboration with La Revue – Pour l’intelligence du monde and RFI in the May 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.