PARIS, France — Throughout the 20th century, prominent black Americans came to France to escape the racism they found at home. Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Nina Simone fled the U.S. for the acceptance of France where their artistic careers thrived.
The experiences of these famous Americans, among others, buttressed the utopian view of a colorblind France where everyone is equal under the law and where race is not recognized.
For this reason, the election of Barack Obama caused some consternation among French thinkers: If their country is colorblind, how come a black president could not be elected here?
"It's interesting when I see the ‘Obamania’ of the French political elite because they are, in practice, the exact antithesis of what made Obama possible," said Dominique Sopo, president of the 24-year-old NGO, SOS-Racisme. "In the United States there is a fluidity in the political elite. In France, the idea is to bolt everything down."
There has never been a lynching in France, said historian Francois Durpaire, but the racism has been more insidious, subtle and silent. Discrimination in obtaining housing or a job is an invisible assault and more difficult to prove precisely because public discourse has always been about equality.
In the United States, by contrast, the violence of the civil rights era and beyond turned a light on the "institutional and societal violence against blacks," Durpaire said. “The best way to not fight against discrimination is to deny its existence.”
Maybe black American artists had a better life in Paris than they could have had in New York during the last century, but Tricia Keaton, a professor of African Diaspora studies at the University of Minnesota, cautioned against mythologizing their expatriate experience. Black Americans were treated differently — better in some cases — than other people of color who migrated to France.
"People will try to speak French with an American accent to signal they are another type of black, to illustrate they are not the denigrated blacks," said Keaton, who has lived between the U.S. and France since 1984 and wrote “Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion.”
Similar conversations about discrimination and equal access also surfaced three years before Obama's election, with the unrest that spread throughout France's impoverished suburbs in November 2005. After tensions outside of Paris erupted into violent clashes between the police and young adults of mostly black and Arab descent, France could "no longer claim racial high ground around racial inclusion and exclusion," Keaton said.
Studies on implicit biases show that color and assumed origins act as triggers, indicating non-belonging, Keaton said, and "this would be a barrier to an Obama in France, and a serious one."
As a 20-year-old African-American student from Maryland studying on a scholarship in France in 1966, T. Michael Peay recalls being struck by the sight of the menial laborers he encountered in Paris. They were mostly Africans — busboys and street sweepers, never waiters or salespeople — all dejected and down. He put himself in their position, he said, and was almost brought to tears.
"They were at the absolute bottom of the dregs," Peay said. "As bad as things were in the 1960s for us, we were so much better off that we had other opportunities." This, despite being a "young African-American who was coming up in a decidedly racist society."
Peay, a Harvard-educated lawyer who now heads the legal office of the U.S. mission to Unesco in Paris, marvels at the strides both countries have made. In France, the evidence, prompted in part by Obama's election, is in the conversations about inclusion, particularly of the African and Arab French who have become more vocal about discrimination. For others in France, discussions about race have become less taboo.
A hit comedy now playing in French movie theaters exemplifies the dialogue about race that historically was kept under wraps. The advertisements for “Agathe Clery” state “She is white. She is a racist. She will turn black.” Agathe is a French working girl who is racist. Then she catches a disease which turns her skin brown and she is subjected to all the discrimination that she had heaped upon others. The success of the film is a sign that the French are discussing — and laughing — about formerly taboo topics.
Since returning to live in Paris more than two years ago, Peay has noticed one thing that has not changed: People of color do not acknowledge each other the way blacks in the U.S. might with the passing glance and nod he called "an act of instinctual solidarity.”
But, he said, there have been signs of a slight shift since Obama's election. Black strangers in the street, noticing the baseball caps he usually wears — a tip-off to his nationality — seem to want to address him more. It is as if they want to say, indirectly, “I'm happy that you did what you did in the U.S.,” Peay said.
It gives him hope that change will come to France, too: "If they can do that for me, maybe they can do that for each other."