Lessons from France

Brima Conteh on race and French politics.

By Tram Nguyen Mar 21, 2006

Born in Sierra Leone and educated in the Ivory Coast and Morocco, Brima Conteh emigrated to France in the early 1990s. “I came over and the conditions here launched me,” he says of his journey from translator to political activist and consultant on minority issues. In 2000, he founded the Paris-based Diaspora Afrique (www.diasporafrique.org), which works to promote political, economic, cultural and social exchanges among people of African descent. The organization is building a network to lobby for the African diaspora within the European Union. They also conduct campaigns to educate and create political consciousness around the legacy of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
In the wake of a national crisis, Conteh discusses the role of race in French politics and why ethnic minorities need to “create a space for us to speak for ourselves.”

What were the causes of the uprising?
There was a recent report from the intelligence agency that said this riot has nothing to do with religion. It’s a social crisis. It has to do with jobs. It has to do with recognition, with people feeling not part of this society. They have seen others who worked hard, had gone to school and never been given any chance to do what they want to do and it’s hard for them. So this was a revolt.

It’s a very strong influence of things happening in the English-speaking world. Young people are very tuned to hip-hop culture. This is also a generational conflict also. The yearning by the young people to be accepted for what they are, to have access to jobs, better housing, better facilities. The movement in itself was never organized. It was more an outcry.

The riots were no surprise. It was written everywhere on the walls. The rap groups had already been rapping for years about “set Paris on fire.”

What for you has been the most upsetting part of the government response  to the uprising (which included declaring a state of emergency measure derived from colonial law in Algeria)?
You need to understand the dynamics of the National Front (France’s right-wing party) to understand why the government responded that way to the riots. You have to go back to the last election. You have to understand the entrenchment of the National Front in the political landscape in France. Any changes to improve conditions of minorities in this country will run counter to this entrenchment. So they will resist it. Unless you have an upsurge of resistance and civic participation from the minorities themselves.

There’s a very strong historical and ideological confusion within the left here. The issue around class and race dynamics is not clear. That’s why you have a very lukewarm response from the left. Many of them supported the declaration of the state of emergency. There is a denial of the existence of racism. You have from the left people who are very strongly opposed to the idea that racial discrimination exists. They see these race-based models as not serious or useful models.

Can you explain more about the role of the extreme right in French politics?
What [Jean-Marie] Le Pen (founder of the National Front) said when he started out was simple. He said it matters not whether his party makes 2, 3 or 10 percent in the elections. What matters for now is to see that their ideas enter the mainstream political debate. And within the space of 10 years he has achieved that. Now he doesn’t say much. It is the mainstream politicians who are talking about polygamy. Chirac when he was mayor of Paris was talking about the noise and odors of immigrants. Even progressives were calling us “little savages,” saying send people back, saying France cannot take in all the wretched of the earth.

So with that Le Pen has built a paradigm that makes it extremely difficult within it to think of doing something in terms of improving conditions without looking to the extreme right. He has created a kind of net or trap in the political landscape.
Who are your allies in fighting for racial justice in France?
I don’t believe there are any serious allies. The alliances are built to drag minorities into mainstream parties—once you are there, you don’t exist. There was a very big political void during these riots—people should ask themselves where were the political parties? It was a serious crisis, which they don’t want to admit. The issues around minorities are not dealt with. The question is about recognition, and I think many in the French establishment have not come to terms with the idea of recognizing cultures, diversity, and so forth. And that’s why some of the youth were very much on a rampage because they are not considered.

These young people have multiple identities—they are French, their parents are from north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, linked to the latest technology but also entrenched in their traditional African bearing. I remember pointing out young men on the street to a reporter. I said, check this young man out—he’s got Nike on his feet, jeans, over his body a Muslim gown and a baseball cap. And he’s Black, his parents are from sub-Saharan Africa. This change in identity structures—that has to change this country. I believe this country has to cope with diversity.

In France, there is an attitude that has to do with the old glory of France, where you have elegance, savoir faire. It goes beyond art of living. It goes to a culture enshrined. If anybody comes from outside, you are told to integrate, to try to be what the “French” are—integrate into the French model. So the production of these alternative cultures, let’s call it that, it’s threatening to those who believe there is a distinct French culture and model of integration.

What have been the limits of France’s colorblind policies?
It’s not considered appropriate to classify people into races. It’s meant to be colorblind, you are a human being—that’s the theory. In practice, it’s completely different. Some people from the French left supported colonialism. I think there is a tradition there that most leftists are blind to issues of minorities. The construction of what is considered Frenchness, along with the strong opposition to things coming from the U.S. and the English-speaking world, is such that they cannot accommodate the idea of minorities constructing their own identities. The question of internationalism is not there.

What do you hope to see happening next?
This situation with the cités has been going on for 30 years, so the question is, are they serious really about bringing about change in these areas. What I’m hopeful about is that in the civic society there are many people out there who think this should not happen, and these young people will see that the only way out is a political solution.

Recently, when [France’s interior minister] Nicolas Sarkozy was planning to go to Martinique, the threat of demonstrations was so huge that he had to cancel his trip. The people in Martinique said we are Arabs, sub-Saharan Africans, we are all together the wretched of the earth—and they refused to receive him. That’s a big, big slap. So this gives us hope that resistance is possible to improve situations in time.

What role do you see for your work and Diaspora Afrique?
We as African people are scattered all over in strategic areas, and I think there is a need to connect. In 2001, I was preparing to go to the World Conference Against Racism, and I used that experience to go out and see who was doing what. After the conference, I decided to go on a tour to meet brothers and sisters in Europe to see how communities lived, their aspirations and problems.

Today we are in 19 countries, and we are still going out there. We want people to understand each other first and what they want to achieve together. We copied, in fact, what the people of African descent in Latin America are trying to do—they started before us. I think we can safely say there are a couple of million people of African descent in Europe. Our work has been to map the African diaspora in Europe in its current state. We do a lot of information gathering. We try to see how we will connect the diaspora. 

What do you think of how Blacks were affected by Katrina?
Before the riots in France, there were a series of fires in places where you have Africans living—in dilapidated buildings in the heart of Paris. Up to 50 Africans died in these fires, in the heart of Paris. And in the space of four days after, we heard about Katrina.

We had a couple of African Americans who wanted to come over to see us during the riots, and the first question we asked them was, “We want to know what you’re doing about Katrina.”

Even in France, people say, look the U.S. this and that—the U.S. is seen on a different level despite the racism. But people started asking questions, if you have these big Black American stars, what the hell is happening over there?

What can progressives in the U.S. learn from the situation in France?
What they can learn from this is that the struggle for emancipation, for the full recognition of our rights as people of color all around the world, that struggle is facing new challenges today in the sense that you have highly sophisticated conservative governments taking place around the world.

The other thing is that the leaders of these communities should keep in touch with the younger generation because part of what happened here can be partly analyzed as a generational gap.

Also, it’s important to have a rapid response. The powers-that-be are quick to point to Islamist terrorism or any other problems they perceive with our communities to discredit what is taking place. So we have to work toward having structures and organization, because one or two groups can’t do everything.