March for Dignity and Against Racism in Paris



On May 8 2015, during a meeting celebrating the ten year anniversary of the “Parti des Indigènes de la République” (The Republic’s Indigenous Party) Amal Bentounsi read an appeal for a “March of Dignity and Against Racism” for October 31st. It would be organized and led by women of color, whicht in French translates as “racisées” (racialized). Bentounsi is the founder of the collective “Urgence Notre Police Assassine” (Emergency Our Police Assassinates) which brings together families of victims of police violence and has recorded between 2005 and 2015,in metropolitan France, the death of 97 individuals by the police and these are only the cases that have appeared in the media. Very few murders have been investigated and not one perpetrator of police violence has spent a day in jail. Bentounsi argued that police violence and racism were a political issue, that violence and discriminations were not the random expressions of backwards individuals but the consequences of State policies. Since the 1983 March for Equality and ten years after the revolts of 2005 nothing much had changed, she declared. Things had even gotten worse. High rate of unemployment especially for Black and Muslim young women and men, racial profiling, social apartheid, Islamophobia, Anti-Black racism, criminalization of the youth, police impunity, the absence of public services have been structuring daily life in popular neighborhoods. A women’s collective (MAFED) constituted to organize the March met regularly. From the beginning, the collective affirmed its autonomy from political parties or any other institutional organizations, among them the most well-known French antiracist associations. It also sought to overcome the fragmentation of the subalterns and made contact with associations of migrant workers, with antiracist and feminist associations, with rap singers, artists, and writers inviting then to join the March. On October 9, a public meeting brought together supporters of the collective in Saint Denis.

On October 31, 2015, thousands of people led by hundreds of women of color marched through the streets of Paris from the socially and ethnically mixed neighborhood of Barbès to Bastille. On the way, we heard the testimonies of families of victims of police violence. The March was full of energy and very joyous despite the somber topic. It was the first public demonstration led by women of color in Paris, a fact that was barely discussed in the media. As such, it was a historical event. It was also the first time that a demonstration focused on police violence as structural and on racism as permeating State institutions. The Communist Party, the Front de Gauche and Europe-Ecology-les-Verts joined the demonstration though they did on their own terms, but the institutional anti-racist organizations (such as MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship amont Peoples), League of Rights of Man, LICRA (International League Against Racism and Antisemitism) did not. Attacks from the Left and the Right shared similar arguments, it was “anti-white,” “communautariste” and flirted with suspicious Muslim figures, such as Tariq Ramadan. Though some acknowledged the impunity of police violence, they all argued that the support of individuals associated with antisemitism and the absence of the institutional anti-racist organizations were an explicit condemnation of the March’s objectives. Fewer wondered why institutional anti-racist organizations were no longer trusted, what was the nature of the crisis of trust, or why police violence was a political issue.

Francoise Verges
March of Dignity and Against Racism in Paris on October 31, 2015 / Photograph by Françoise Vergès

The March and the reactions against the March brought to light once again the fissures which have long existed in French republicanism and French feminism. For the latter, the dominating narrative is that of a heroic struggle of white women against patriarchy. There is practically no public knowledge of the struggle of enslaved and colonized women and how they contributed to women’s emancipation, and it is rare that the victories of white women in the struggle for their rights are analyzed within the larger frame of colonial and imperialist policies and of their consent to the politics of colonial dispossession and postcolonial discrimination. The whitening of women’s organizations, the racialization of bodies, white and non-white, of sexualities, rights and social life remains a point of contention. Yet, to understand French society today and its discontent, we certainly need to analyze the ways in which the French neo-liberal/imperial republican apparatus has learned to manipulate the categories of masculinity, femininity, and minority, so that they fit the objectives of the civilizing mission, of “saving women of color from men of color,” “gays from homophobic cultures,” “minorities from Nation-State.” Good vs. bad ways of being a woman or a man or injunctions of “coming out” construct a hegemonic cultural order. Veiled women have become the target of the majority of Islamophobic attacks. Women are the terrain on which battles are fought, their bodies remain a battleground. Women of color are “invited to play a ‘functional, capital role’ in the transformation of their lot,” as Frantz Fanon argued in “Algeria Unveiled” (A Dying Colonialism, 1967). All this taps into the unfinished process of decolonization of the French society which accepted, as Todd Shepard and Kirstin Ross have shown, the illusion that the historical chapter of the colonial empire was closed in 1962 and even came to believe that decolonization was of its own making. The illusion of decolonization met with the liberalization of the economy, the extension of the economy of consumption, progress in metropolitan women’s and workers’ rights, and on a global scale of the reinforcement of the European community and US hegemony. The rhetoric of saving women of color has a long history, anchored in colonialism, imperialism and post-WWII reorganisation of the world order. This is reflected in the global politics of birth control from the 1950s on, in the place given to women in programs of development to serve imperial goals (either none or an important one), in the ways female activists have been either incorporated in neoliberal democracy or attacked, tortured, killed, in the reorganization of the global division of labor with women of the South massively integrated in the care, sex, and garment industry. Women’s status which has also been used to justify the division between “civilization” and barbarism,” which has justified colonial practices and legal decisions, is being reactivated. In this context, the 31st October demonstration was of historical importance.

However, it is impossible to write about the 31st October March without considering what has happened since, the attacks in Paris that caused 130 deaths and led the Socialist government to impose a state of emergency that was immediately followed by abuse of police power, by unjustified arrests, house arrests, police raids, the criminalization of dissent, and the December 6th lead of the National Front for the first round of elections of Regional Councils. Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise. The inhabitants of working-class neighborhoods and what is called “outre-mer,” the territories in the Pacific, Caribbean, South America and Indian Ocean which belonged either to the fist colonial empire (slavery) or the second (post-slavery) have been “forgotten” by the State. It is the consequence of political choices that were elaborated the 1950s when the French State was deciding how it would reorganize its empire, its workforce, its capitalism. Though these choices have since known different elaborations, the logic of the original cartography — territories to develop and people to support vs. territories to use and people to neglect — has remained. A social, cultural and racialized apartheid was slowly created, forgotten spaces served to park poor and people of color, to dump toxic waste, to install polluting industries, they were policed but social and public services were scarce. Recent events have comforted the logic of this mutilated cartography, reinforcing the division between “smart cities” for young lovers of fun, music, social and cultural mixing and poor cities where “backward people” live. However, this division should not lead us to avoid the analysis of a rising conformism in popular neighborhoods, experienced as a rampart against colonizing practices but not without its limits and contradictions.

The 31st October March must be analyzed in the larger context of the absence of a process of decolonization in France, which has not so much led to silence as it has been argued but to repression, to “I know but all the same.” There is resistance to fully grasp the fact that modern France was shaped by slavery and post-slavery colonialism, by imperialism, and by the color line they created. The fabrication of consent, of the hegemony of racial thinking, is yet to be fully understood. Colonial history and the postcolonial present are too often analyzed within the narrow frame of colony/metropole, even though colonial history was global history and it is also impossible to understand current French republican postcoloniality without considering European politics, the mutations of capitalism, US hegemony, and the absence of any process of decolonization of French institutions, knowledge, and practices. Yet, if the “French case” of coloniality of power deserves to be analyzed as such, it is also important to look at it within the current global counter-revolution which seeks to roll back on the victories, how small they are, of women, minorities, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, workers, and peasants.

New voices are being heard who situate themselves in the genealogy of anticolonial feminism. These emergences of a “feminism of color,” whose long history in the French speaking world deserves to be explored, occur in a new social, political, economic and cultural context: the mix of neoliberalism, criminalization of discontent and militarization of social life, new forms of racial capitalism, the impact of cognitive capitalism, the success of xenophobic politics in Europe. They question State feminism and disturb a scene where the French State presents itself as the advocate of women’s rights and French republican doctrine as always having been on the side of women and minorities. They reveal the processes of racialization of voices and bodies and contest the narrative of universalist feminism.