- Neither Color-Blind Nor Color-Conscious:Challenging French Universalism in the Plantation Colonies of the Antilles (Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries)
But, what is a black?
And, first of all, what color is his color?—Jean Genet, Les Nègres2
What is it like to live by attempting to valorise and defeat the marginalization of the variety of Black subjects and to really begin to recover lost histories of a variety of Black experiences, while at the same time recognizing the end of any essential Black subject? (. . .) It is the politics of recognizing that all of us are composed of multiple social identities, not of one.—Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”3
Since the 1990s, the public debate on the “republican model of integration” in France has generated countless controversies. These have been particularly intense when dealing with immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, but also with their descendants born on French soil and thereby French citizens. The latter are the most severely hit by mass unemployment, by the territorial and social segregation that affects banlieue residents, and by discriminations in [End Page 189] employment and housing.4 Paradoxically, with migrants, they are the explicit or implicit addressees of a dominant social discourse that requires them “to integrate,” and even to give proof of their “integration,” not only in a social sense but also in a cultural one. Confronted with the persistence and worsening of the social inequalities that hit these French citizens of non-European origin, critics are increasingly pointing to the crisis and even the failure of the “French republican model of integration.”5 Similarly, both in France and abroad, the abstract universalist “model” of French citizenship is being sharply denounced as a trick of “racist reason” by which the white majority perpetuates its political, social, and cultural domination over non-white French citizens.6
Thus, the entire civic ideal of a universalist nation, daughter of the French revolution, is being radically called into question by the demographic transformations of an increasingly heterogeneous European society—which comprises populations with different ethnocultural origins and religious affiliations now designated under the politically correct label of “diversity.”7 In this context of profound political and social discontent, activists and scholars are increasingly interrogating the sociogenesis of discriminations in France and the colonial past begins to come under scrutiny: social inequalities and the fragmentation of contemporary French society are thus being interpreted through the prism of a “colonial fracture.” In brief, the problems of the present are said to result from the same symbolic schemes that shaped colonial hierarchies in the former French empire.8 In addition, the resounding riots of October and November 2005 not only intensified old debates on the relevance of resorting to ethnic statistics within the governmental administration and in the social sciences, but they also generated within the scientific community heated discussions on the paradigms of social analysis in France.9 Though they do not enjoy consensus, some scholars now express the need to complement a class-based analysis—so dear to the French critical tradition—with one that deploys ethnoracial categories as can be seen in the work of their North American colleagues.10 In parallel to a growing interest in postcolonial studies coming from the English-speaking world, publications on the “black question” and political action aiming at the symbolic recognition of “French Blacks” are multiplying. These, in turn, according to some authors, reinforce “the ethnicization of France” as well as the “return of race” as threatening the principle of equality before the law inscribed in the French Constitution.11
Surprisingly, some of the postulates underlying these debates on the limits and divisions of the nation reveal the relative uncertainty of the specifically national and historical references on which they are based. By focusing on some of the key aspects of the political trajectory of French citizenship in the plantation colonies of the Antilles, I would like to offer a critical counterpoint to a number of unquestioned assumptions that permeate these discussions, hoping to prompt thereby a re-interrogation of some of the terms in which racist inequalities in France today are being...