Present and Futures of Afro Activism in France



In France, racism structures all social relationships between white people and people of color. Unequally shared and distributed resources are operative in all aspects of employment, housing, health, recreation, and representation both in politics and the media. The population of Black people in France is higher than any other country in Europe. These communities are primarily comprised of people from West Africa and the so-called “outre mer” (overseas), which includes Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, La Réunion and, more recently, Mayotte. Political activity in Black communities, which I call “Afro,” has a long history in France’s hexagonal territory as well as in its (neo) colonies. However, before diving into a specific discussion of forms of Afro activism, it is important to make a distinction between a purported anti-racism that, in actuality, defends the interests of white supremacy, and an anti-racism that defends the interests of people of color. The stakes of this opposition are far from pitting “a white people anti-racism” against “a people of color anti-racism,” it is one that is multi-dimensional and must account for factors such as the relationships to state and market (whether they are considered partners or enemies), the composition of those who run things within the group (white people or people of color), and the specific form of racism being described (individual or systemic). These two different forms of anti-racism have significant differences in means, power, and (il)legitimacy. Afro militancy is relegated to the camp of illegitimacy along with movements against Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism, where speaking out is mocked, initiatives are demonized, and actions are met with repression.

Of course, the politics carried out by each Black community are impacted by their specific conditions and context. That Afro political space is fragmented, then, comes as no surprise. Many contradictions, tensions, and differences of interest span across Afro political space. The primary fracture concerns the way Black populations have been divided into categories of “overseas” nationals who have French nationality and migrants, or children of migrants, who are marginalized by violent immigration policies. As we will see, however, even the many points of tension do not prevent periodic upsurges of united movements that, at times, result in political victories. I call for the idea that the multiplicity of cultures, nationalities, and trajectories of African and Afro-descendant populations in France is not irrelevant to the idea of a Black or Afro political subject in France. But for this argument to hold any persuasion, we must first rid ourselves of the African American referent where the elaboration of Black struggle was formed upon the idea of a subject unified by the shared history of slavery, cultural context, and national status. In France, the Black political subject is constructed precisely within the emergent contradictions of the different modes of managing populations racialized as Black, whether African or Caribbean.

I suggest placing Afro activisms into four, non-mutually exclusive categories whose distinctions point towards trends that are shared across categories to varying degrees:

Black mobilizations challenge anti-black racism, beyond national or cultural distinctions by explicitly posing the “Black question.” Whether it’s through the rallies and boycotts against perfume maker Jean Paul Guerlain who made anti-black remarks during an interview on a national television channel in 2010, rallies against artist Brett Bailey’s human zoo installation Exhibit b in 2014, actions against traditional pastries that make caricatures of Black people’s features and hair, or various actions against local forms of blackface such as Dunkirk’s “Night of the Blacks” (which was opposed on the spot by the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) and the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade (BAN)), these mobilizations all share a self-positioning in reaction to what is perceived as degrading or humiliating for Black people as a whole. Even if the spontaneous and short-lived nature of these actions does not lead to sustainable political perspectives, we can still take note of its victories: Guerlain was sentenced by the courts for racial abuse and was removed from office, Exhibit b was deprogrammed in some theaters, and some traditional pastries were removed from the market.

(Pan-)African mobilizations directly refer to the current events of Françafrique and “overseas” neocolonialism. These mobilizations are “Pan-African” because they are conceived of in a logic of regional or continental unity, as observed in a renewal of actions against the French franc currency (CFA) between 2017 and 2018 in many French cities. The struggles of the International Movement for Reparations (MIR) and demands for justice regarding the trans-Atlantic slave trade can also be included in this category because they connect African and Afro-descendants of the Caribbean around precisely the history that has separated them. Similarly, the multiple activities of the Pan-African League-Umoja (political café, UMOJA Day, trainings, etc) centering the stakes of the African continent in the politicization of Black people living in France. While some mobilizations span across more than one national context, many others exist in a specific national logic and context. This is the case, for example, when it comes to demonstrations against the French military policy in Mali. Two further examples complicate things: protests against the genocide in Congo and mass protests against slavery in Libya in late 2017. Both of these cases refer to national situations, but for which Blacks mobilized for African unity. Very clearly, questions of the Congo and Libya (although ephemeral), have not remained restricted to Congolese communities and even less confined to Libyan communities, who are not very numerous in France. As stated by the Afrofeminist collective MWASI on the need for an African internationalism in their recently published book, Afrofem (2018) — the Congo is a central Pan-African issue for the coming decades.

United anti-racism mobilizations take up instances of racism that do not exclusively affect Blacks but all people of color. Often these struggles are connected to issues of immigration and within low-income neighborhoods, such as actions against police violence, the lack of resources in residential areas, issues related to migration status, the repression of migrants, etc. The two Marches de la dignité (2015 and 2016), the Marche des solidarités (2017), and the cortège de tête (black bloc) on March 26, 2018 by the Adama Committee (formed after a crime of the police against Adama Traoré) are some examples of recent highlights where the objective was to unite all post-colonial immigrant populations on common issues. The progress of these struggles is mounting and one notable success is the imposition of the racial question in the extreme left’s agenda — even if it has not taken place without difficulty.

Union mobilizations are those in which Black people struggle against labor exploitation without necessarily positioning themselves as Black. Examples of this are numerous and as old as the presence of African workers on French soil, concerning many sectors of most junior wage earners. The year 2018 saw particularly important media coverage of the struggles led by African immigrants in the cleaning industry. For example, a strike launched by ONET employees responsible for cleaning up France’s national state-owned railway company (SNCF) railway stations brought the degrading conditions, low wages, and harassment suffered by African workers to the fore. In activist circles, this has at once forced the extreme left to confront the race-class link again, and on the Afro side, it has made it possible, in the context of the wider social movements of 2018, to reflect on the necessity of thinking about the Black condition in material terms, that is to say by analyzing the links between the Black condition and the racialization of labor.

Since the 2000s, the category of “Black” mobilizations has largely been taken to be hegemonic in Afro activism, and conversely, those who are more unionist have become less and less associated with “Black” or “Afro” political identity. If the betrayals of the labor movement towards African workers can explain for this, one must also interrogate the ways neoliberalism has transformed Afro activism such that culturalist approaches now override materialist approaches and class centered politics. Nevertheless, the sum of the sheer range of issues testifies to the dynamism of each struggle and movement. Afro activism does not exist in political isolation and is certainly subject to attacks by Emmanuel Macron’s policies and politics. Evidence for the intensification of those struggles is suggested by legal victories, confrontations within the left, gains in media coverage, and the strong politicization of issues specific to the African continent — and hopefully, with each mounting outcome emancipation draws nearer. But, it is important to remember that emancipation in a capitalist system requires the abolition of exploitation, which is why it’s urgent that we return to Black Marxist and Pan-African analysis.