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Idea-Vs.-Reality For African Immigrant Families In A ‘Post-Racial’ France

French flags
Quinn Dombrowski

The relationship between racial identity and national identity is a contentious subject in France.

France’s National Assembly voted in 2013 to remove any references to race from national legislation, and French President FrançoisHollande has asserted his belief that racial distinctions have no place in French society.

University of Oklahoma sociologist Loretta Bass calls this attitude toward racial issues the “Ostrich Policy.”

“People are assumed to be French, and if you’re French, you’re assumed not to have a color of your skin,” Bass says. “There is no mechanism in place to [effectively] monitor social integration.”

But she argues Hollande’s idea of a post-racial France doesn’t reflect the everyday experiences of France’s African immigrant population. They live in “another France,” which Bass explores in her 2014 book African Immigrant Families in Another France.

In the French public education system, the sons and daughters of African immigrants are told they enjoy the same rights as any other citizen.

“But outside of the books, in practice, that’s really not what they feel,” Bass says.

Instead, she found that immigrant families live in isolation from the rest of French society, leading many to face an identity crisis.

“From young people I would hear, ‘I’m French on the inside, African on the out.’,” Bass says.

It’s particularly true for the roughly 1.8 million people, easily identified by their dark skin, whose families immigrated to France from Sub-Saharan African countries. Bass maintains that in France “[being black is] a special category, definitely … Over and over again in my interviews, people would talk about the puissance de la peau … ‘the power of skin’.”

That mans many of the children of Sub-Saharan immigrants are treated as outsiders by the rest of French Society and have internalized a sense of otherness.

“They have internalized this otherness so much because people continue to ask them, ‘Where are you from? No, really where are you from?’ And so then they say, ‘I'm from Africa.’,” Bass says. “I had one woman tell me, ‘My kids have not even been to Africa. But you ask them where they're from, and they'll tell you they're from Guinea.’”

These divisions have implications beyond the personal identity crises of many immigrant families. Bass says the hardships immigrant families face contrast what they learn to be French national values of “liberty, equality … and fraternity.”

Instead, they’re relegated to the social and economic margins of French society. According to Bass, the unemployment rate for men aged 20 to 35, is 25 to 40 percent: more than two to three-and-a-half times higher than the French national average of 11 percent. As these young men look to escape such marginalization, some, like those responsible for the January 7 attack on French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo turn towards extremist terrorist groups.

“These young men who don’t have jobs and who are socially excluded … they want respect; they want to be part of the social fabric,” Bass says. “So they’re going to go for an option, some pathway, to reach that.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Loretta Bass, welcome to World Views.

LORETTA BASS: Thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Thank you for being here with Joshua and me today to talk about your book, titled Another France, a book about African immigrant families in France. Can you just start by telling us what drew you to this topic? And what do you mean by “another France?”

BASS: Okay, well, I'll take the first part first. And that's that I came to this project sort of organically and serendipitously because I was doing research for over 10 years on child labor in West Africa with a French-speaking population. And I was interested in how child labor is connected to a household economic strategy. And what I found over the course of time is that more and more families had a migrant in Europe who was sending remittances back to Africa. So, it was a research clue. And so then I pursued that clue to France. So, that's how I became interested in this topic. And then…

GRILLOT: And you followed it to France because that's where these families that you were working with in Senegal were migrating – to their colonial home, I guess. Is that kind of how you followed that clue to France?

BASS: Right. So they have this thick relationship of the French language, and so that's a natural place for step migration to take place. So, one person from a family will make that trip to France and then send money back to help support that family unit in Africa. So, that's kind of how it came about. And then thinking about that, I was like, "well, gee, how do I start doing research in France to follow this next piece of the story?" And so I submitted a proposal to the Howard Foundation asking them for enough money to go to France for a year with my family: husband and two kids. And I submitted it, and then like a month later there were riots just north of Paris, in an immigrant suburb. And it just went gangbusters, this riot did, because it lasted three weeks and it spread to 300 towns in France. And it even spread to other immigrant towns in other European countries. And so then I got a nice email one day that said, "We're going to fund you to go to France for a year and take your family."

GRILLOT: And obviously those riots were reflective of this concept of “another France.”

BASS: Definitely “another France.” Yeah. And I actually have an interview with a woman that really inspired the title of my book. This woman is coming from the Ivory Coast, or Côte d'Ivoire, and she has one child. And she moved to France about five years ago when,  in the Ivory Coast, they had a civil war that broke out. And so she was part of a political migration. She says:

As an African, you have to insist and demand your rights. I used the same roads, the same stores, but I live in another France. We are different physically, and they know my race by my name and skin. Someone in my Bible study who has a 13-month-old got her baby a place in the public, subsidized daycare center. She's French and white. I put my daughter on the list when I was five months pregnant, and now she is 18 months old. I still do not have a place. Why is this woman in front of me? When I ask if there's a space for my daughter the authorities say, "Madame, the places are taken."

So this is exemplary of this “other France” that Sub-Saharan Africans are facing today.

JOSHUA LANDIS: What percentage are Sub-Saharan Africans rather than North Africans. We all know about North Africans. But what are the percentages?

BASS: Well, it's hard to get hard numbers, but I have seen an estimate that one in seven children in France has either a migrant mother, father, or both. So that gives you an idea of sort of the prevalence of immigrants in general. And these immigrants are coming from Eastern Europe as well. About eight percent of immigrants are coming from Turkey. But when you just look at that Sub-Saharan African piece, it's three percent of the total population today is counted as being of Sub-Saharan African decent. That's about 1.8 million people.

LANDIS: Wow. So that's quite substantial.

BASS: It is, mm-hmm.

LANDIS: And how is their experience different from people from Eastern Europe, or the Northern Africans who are tan or brown instead of being black? Is blackness a special category in France? Or does it resemble the other communities?

BASS: It's a special category, definitely. Over and over again in my interviews, people would talk about the puissance de la peau. And that's just, in French, "the power of skin". And they would say that. From young people I would hear, "I'm French on the inside, African on the out." So, they identified with these core values, that are French, of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, fraternity. But on the outside they're affronted on a daily basis with this "othernesss" that they experience. There are children and young people that I interviewed that are French citizens by birth and they grew up in France, and they have internalized this otherness so much so because people continue to ask them, "where are you from? No, really where are you from?" And so then they say, "I'm from Africa." I had one woman tell me, "My kids have not even been to Africa. But you ask them where they're from, and they'll tell you they're from Guinea.”

GRILLOT: Because it's apparent on the outside that they're not from France, even though they might be born there. I think that's what's really interesting about your work, Loretta, is that you actually give voice to the people that are facing these experiences, these first- and second-generation immigrants who [have parents that] immigrated, but they [themselves] may be born in France, as you you were just mentioning, and the kind of inequality that they're facing. But I think that question of identity is one that's really important. The way you put it, this "power of skin" and that they're French on the inside but African on the outside. I can't imagine how that must feel. To feel that you don't really belong in your own home, but yet you don't belong in the place where your ancestors came from, either, and the identity crisis in some ways that that may lead to. Did you find that? It sounds like the quote you even read leads us to believe that they just don't know what to do about this as individuals, as human beings. That's troubling, right?

BASS: Yeah. So, in their secular education in public France, they're taught that they have full rights. But outside of the books, in practice, that's really not what they feel. Socially, they're isolated. They live in suburbs for the most part, these working-class suburbs that were constructed after World War II. And they had vibrant factories. And with de-industrialization after 1970, a lot of these factories shut. So then you have working-class, native French people, some who were still there, but you have significant immigrant populations that are also there. And it's economically despondent; it's a very deprived area. When you look at these suburbs, when I think about these suburbs, you look at the employment rate in France today, it's 11 percent. You go to an immigrant suburb and, for young men between the ages of 20 and 35 years of age, you're looking at an unemployment rate of 25 to 40 percent. So they're economically excluded. And when I think, in just the last week, with ISIS, and – I don't know if you guys have been following these figures coming out of the European community – that you have a lot of fighters who are actually European citizens. And so when I think about those figures –of seven- to nine hundred estimated coming from France, or 500 from Britain, or another 400 from Germany – I think about these immigrant communities, which are North African and Sub-Saharan African. And predominately, when we think about the ISIS angle, you're really talking about mostly North African. But what happens when we think about this issue and the spread of terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa? Will these young men who don't have jobs and who are socially excluded, what are they to do? I mean, they want respect; they want to be a part of the social fabric. So they're going to go for an option, some pathway, to reach that.

LANDIS: In America we see the same effects: ghettos. Black Americans have had a very difficult time; the unemployment rate amongst black youths is terribly high, imprisonment rate, disaffection from society, different culture occurring, language differences. And yet, black Americans have been in this country longer than almost any of the white Americans. How different is the French experience from the American experience? Is it really the same? Or is it substantially different because France is different?

BASS: France is different. That's the bottom line. That they're not going to monitor integration of ethnicities and race through the French Government. Whereas in the U.S., after the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, we developed the current population survey to actually monitor the Voting Rights Act. So, we have in our country, along with the legislation, we monitor racial integration. And maybe it's not always the best of news, but it gives us something to work for. In France right now, there is no mechanism in place to monitor social integration in an effective manner. The way people are counted, even if you were to get a number, it's a complete underestimate, because you lose people in the second generation. People are assumed to be French, and if you're French, you're assumed not to have a color of your skin.

GRILLOT: So is this what you're referring to in your book, about the "Ostrich Policy"? That basically they don't have a policy to monitor these things?

BASS: Exactly.

GRILLOT: That they're basically just sticking their heads in the sand? But I wonder: how much of this can really be even dealt with in terms of policy and monitoring? I mean, even Joshua's comments here indicate that, even you have a system of law and oversight to deal with these things, social integration, but this has more to do with culture and the way people are treated in general. How can you even legislate that or oversee that in terms of government action and government policy?

BASS: Well, I would say that when I think back to what I've read about the 1960s, because I was born in the late 60s, that we are much more integrated. And we actually have a black middle class in this country, and it's a substantial black middle class. We've elected – twice – an African American male to the highest position in our country, as our leader. Those are pretty significant shifts in a society in just 50 years, I would say. So I would say that affirmative action policies passed in the 1960s have been extremely effective. Sure, there are people who have not made it on that bus, so to speak...

LANDIS: But America is an immigrant society from a long time ago. We've been doing this for a long time. We're good at it. We came two-by-twos instead of having a sort of national identity as somebody, and then have foreigners come in. Maybe, and maybe I'm wrong about this, but big immigration in France is a post-Second-World-War thing. A post-colonialism thing. For the United States, it's been going on since the beginning of this country. Perhaps the interracial big immigration has started in the last hundred years, but in France it's much newer. And to what extent are the problems just sort of "teething problems" of having to deal with this as a new immigrant-receiving country?

BASS: I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Joshua, [laughs] in terms of this question. That they are relatively new at dealing with social integration. But, when comparing to the U.S., the French really celebrate their own immigrant history. Most of that is a European immigrant history of people who do look like them and act like them after two generations. Whereas we don't have that with the Sub-Saharan African migrants. And even with North African migrants there are still characteristics that are called out. And in my book, I had also interviewed, among young people, North Africans as well as Sub-Saharan Africans to kind of tease out that, for Sub-Saharan Africans, you just can't separate immigrant status from a racial status. They are intertwined and inseparable. But, to the French credit, they're a country that has a national museum for the history of immigrants. And you can go there, in Paris, and you can learn all about their immigrant history. So, I think they're ready to celebrate their history. I think the next step is to welcome the immigrants that are there, and perhaps cheer them on.

GRILLOT: Well, Loretta, thank you so much for being with us today to share your perspective on this very important and eye-opening issue in France and elsewhere. So thank you.

BASS: Thank you.

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