- Africa and France: Postcolonial Cultures, Migration, and Racism by Dominic Thomas
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013; pp. 344, $28.00 paper.
This book uses a skillful application of comparative literature methodology to analyze the transnational and entangled histories of France and Africa in the so-called age of globalization. Divided into ten chapters, the book touches on a vast range of interrelated topics, including museology, migration, racism, the study of law, and what is known in some circles as postcolonial literature. Within a context dominated by the growing belief that a "widespread erosion of the fabric of French society" (4) is underway, Thomas's well-crafted analysis offers a penetrating insight into xenophobia in its various guises. By the same token, it underlines the importance of critical social theory to grasp the complex interaction between the past and the present. In particular, the scholar's approach allows us to see how imperialism, and especially its legacy in the form of postcolonial racism, have (re)shaped both the geopolitics of the Franco-African world and twenty-first–century identity politics in metropolitan France. Although the focus of the book is on sociocultural realignments in the Hexagon as a function of the disquieting legacies of French imperial history, the processes that the scholar critically maps out can be said to be a pan-European phenomenon (7).
In many ways, the book is a radioscopy of contemporary France in the age of globalization, especially during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. Acting as a historian who relies on an interdisciplinary toolkit, Thomas shows compelling continuities between the heydays of colonialism and the postcolonial present. It can be argued that nothing better exemplifies this idea of permanence than the well-informed discussion of museology and museological practices throughout major former European imperial metropoles today. From the collections of the Quai Branly Museum (Paris, France) to the objects at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium), and even some of the displays at the British [End Page 204] Empire and Commonwealth Museum (Bristol/London, United Kingdom), it is as if the ghosts of the past were refusing to stay behind, preferring instead to lay claim to and inhabit various sites of memory in the heartland of Europe (16–22). Thomas clearly wants to emphasize the often underappreciated point that colonialism and racist attitudes (and before them, slavery) are constitutive elements of French (and European) history. Equally important in Thomas's argument is the place of (im)migration in the constitution of French identity. Although officials such as Nicolas Sarkozy (or most politicians of the French far right) might think otherwise, the fact remains that migrant people within the Hexagon and from across the empire have always contributed to the making of France. In this regard, the critique of the museological approach of the Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration (National Center for the History of Immigration [CNHI]) is illuminating because "rather than inscribing migration in everyone's genealogy, this genealogy is problematized by the insistence on the post-nineteenth-century experience, that is, as a supplement to a pre-existing national identity" (47). Just like Jacques Chirac's Quai Branly Museum, Sarkozy's CNHI ended up creating dis-illuminating, if outwardly pedagogical, spaces for the othering of immigrant experience because the project was restrictively framed "around the concept of 'French identity'" (43).
Thomas suggests that the ways in which the French state has dealt with the legacies of colonialism are a prominent aspect of postcolonialism in the Hexagon. In a sense, the ghosts of the past have come to haunt present-day France in the form of institutionalized racism and xenophobia. This is best epitomized by the set of repressive initiatives (known as Sarkozy's Law), one of which required public schools to teach about the positive contributions of colonialism. The creation of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Co-Development in 2007 is part of the same reactionary policymaking that so characterized the Sarkozy administration. In tackling these issues, Thomas patiently highlights the contexts and arguments that led to the formulation and adoption of schizophrenic...