The Dilemma of Dual Identities in Black France

There are no hyphens when it comes to describing the French.

All people in France are simply French. As a French citizen, your allegiance to France trumps all other aspects of your identity. In fact, it is illegal for the French government to collect information about the racial and ethnic origin of its multicultural population on the national census, though approximately 5 percent of the country is black.

While this single identity is a source of pride in France, two post-doctoral researchers in Duke's African and African American Studies department (AAAS) are finding that the mythology of national unity covers a peculiar structure of race and racism in France.

Jean Beaman, a post-doctoral researcher in Duke's Center for Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences and the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality, takes an ethnographic approach, looking at the assimilation of people of North African-descent born in France. Dena Montague, also a post-doctoral researcher in the Network and AAAS, researches how economic issues relate to political marginalization in France.

The immigrants came from former colonies, countries such as Algeria, Senegal, Mali as well as from the Antilles, following World War II. They were expected to help rebuild France and then return but many of them stayed.

The immigrant workers were not successfully assimilated -- economically or politically -- and, despite the ideology of national unity, their children continue to be marginalized as well, Montague says.

"There are high incidences of unemployment. By policy, the police regularly target minorities, black and Arab youth, asking them to produce identity papers," Montague says. "It is common for black youth to be 'controlled,' or detained, and for some it happens daily."

In an article last year in French Cultural Studies, Montague's argues that French nationalism has become a way to delegitimize discussion about race-based institutional equity and black political agency.

Beaman has conducted interviews in Paris and its surrounding suburbs for an upcoming book, "Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in the French Republic."

All of her subjects are upwardly mobile, second-generation immigrants who are North African in origin. Pre-existing research, she says, focused on the first generation of immigrants.

Black France

Duke postdocs Jean Beaman and Dena Montague are providing new research about race and ethnicity in France.

"It was interesting living there as an African-American, to see how I was received," says Beaman, who was there when President Obama was elected into office. "The people I interviewed were excited and wondered when will France get its own version of Obama."

She said she found members of the second-generation French North African middle class -- identified by their higher educations and professional accomplishments -- to be more cynical than most.

"They had stable jobs, were well educated and had graduate degrees but felt as marginalized as their working-class counterparts. I hope my research speaks to how marginality in France is not just a class thing, but imbued with racial underpinnings," Beaman says. "I was treated differently (than black French people). I had the privilege of being an American -- yet I always carried a copy of my passport."

Montague says it creates "a sense of otherness even though many of them have not been back to Africa and only speak French." However, she says "the narrative of French citizenship is very, very strong. It is not uncommon for blacks in France to identify more as French than as black. It"s a struggle for them to talk about their racial identity, or to even consider the idea of a black community."

The ideology of national unity was challenged by widespread riots in 2005 in French suburbs where many of the marginalized populations live. The riots were an embarrassment for the political elite, Montague says.

"The political elites do not want to consider the social impacts of race," she says, so by ignoring it, they can claim racism does not exist and avoid the racial problems of countries like the United States.

French social scientists have only just begun to study social inequality and race since the 2005 riots. Montague hopes her research on political economy and inequality will add to the emerging scholarship.

"Blame for France's economic problems started to shift to immigrants in the '80s when there was a sense within the conservative party that they were a social problem," she says. Labor unions offered little protection for migrant workers. Although French schools are integrated, education does not provide intervention as black children are also discriminated against and "tracked."

Beaman felt it was important for her as an ethnographer to not bring her own understanding of race and identity in the United States to the work.

"I had expected (French North Africans) to be more critical of French identity politics but they don't want anything like American-style politics. They don't want to be othered. In their ideal world, they want to be seen as French as anyone else. I thought that was a fascinating tension," Beaman says.