- “What Will Happen to All that Beauty?” Black Power in the Banlieues
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PARIS—When the veteran American activist Angela Davis took to the stage at a community center in Saint-Denis, a banlieue in northern Paris, on May 8, 2015, the 1,000-strong audience erupted in applause. Davis smiled broadly and started speaking in fluent, lightly accented French, but then stopped, “I just landed and need a couple of weeks to retrieve my French—so I’ll switch to English.” The former Black Panther described her political trajectory, how she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s, headed north looking for freedom, and then made the journey across the Atlantic. “Escaping racism in the U.S., I was certain [End Page 5] I would find freedom in Europe, especially in France—with its liberté, égalité, fraternité. So I made my way to France, but instead of the freedom I sought, I found racism linked to colonialism. I did not find freedom in France, but I did find solidarity with Algerian liberation and with African liberation.” The crowd cheered. “In France I found Frantz Fanon and internationalism,” continued Davis. She spoke for 40 minutes about structural racism, state violence, and her relationship to France. In closing, she told the hundreds of youths, of mostly North and West African descent, “this is a time of renewed consciousness of racism and of the role of anti-Muslim racism in shaping racist violence.”
Davis was speaking at the 10-year anniversary of the founding of Les Indigènes de la République, the Natives of the Republic, a political party that began organizing in late 2004 after the passing of the headscarf law. “The discourse on race in France is pathetic. The Muslim organizations are timid. The Socialist Party won’t talk about race,” said Houria Bouteldja, the spokeswoman for the the Natives. “We wanted to start a movement to defend France’s postcolonial populations, so we created a party called the Natives of the Republic.”
The Natives see France’s urban crisis, and the plight of minorities in the banlieues, as a new chapter in a colonial story that has yet to end. The term indigène in the party’s name refers to the legal system, Le Code de l’indigénat, that was used to rule native populations in France’s colonies. Instead of intégration, the Natives Party manifesto calls for the “decolonization” of France, meaning that public and private institutions should reflect the country’s changing demographics. The movement aims to mobilize French citizens of postcolonial origin: North Africans, West Africans, Antillians, Jews, Muslims, and Asians.
“We were helped by events. When we launched the party in early 2005, our manifesto emphasized the continuity between colonial racism and the discrimination minorities face in France today,” Bouteldja said. “A few months later, the 2005 riots started, and the French state responded by enacting state-of-emergency laws not used since the Algerian War. The government’s response pretty much validated our position, and we got more support.”
May 8 is a historic date for the French Republic. May 8, 1945, is Victory Day, when Charles de Gaulle announced the end of World War II. It is also the day the French colonial army killed hundreds of demonstrators in the Algerian town of Sétif. The Natives usually mobilize a mass march on that day to remind France of its colonial past. On May 8, 2012, for instance, the day after François Hollande was elected president, thousands of youths marched through the neighborhood of Barbès in northern Paris. Students wore shirts with statements by Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire (and carried placards with the faces of slain African leaders Thomas Sankara, Steve Biko, and others). Activists from the Brigade Anti Négrophobie, dressed in black uniforms and combat boots, and members of the Natives Party held up black and yellow posters that read, “Colonial crimes: Sétif, Guelma, Madagascar, Tiaroy [sic], Cameroon, Deir Yassin” and “WE are here because YOU were there.” The annual rally, organized...