Though his reputation among blacks and Arabs in France is showing ever-so-slight signs of wear and tear, US President Barack Obama remains a powerful symbol for French citizens of colour. France24.com takes a closer look.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Anthony Borval, a black Frenchman of Caribbean descent, was elated.
“It was intense, I felt almost American,” the 29-year-old office manager confided. “Obama indirectly sent us a message that anything was possible, a message of hope for minorities in France, where it’s difficult for us to succeed.”
Four years later, as Obama spends the end of his tumultuous first term fighting a tough re-election battle against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the US president is still a hero for Borval. “His victory taught French people of colour to believe in ourselves,” he said. “Today, I still feel great pride that an African-American is running the world’s superpower.”
While Obama’s reputation among these segments of French society may be exhibiting slight signs of wear and tear, the man remains a powerful symbol for France’s citizens of colour. Many of them say the election of the 44th US president has changed things, in small but significant ways, at home.
Though the number of French blacks or Arabs is unknown (race-based statistics are illegal in France), these populations are nonetheless estimated at a respective five and seven million – comprising roughly 19% of mainland France’s 63-million total. Most are descendants of former French colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as former inhabitants of French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Until recently, however, French political, media and corporate spheres have been almost exclusively white. Only one of France’s 577-member National Assembly was a minority until June legislative elections swept nine more into office. Of 36,000 city mayors, blacks and Arabs can be counted on one hand. In February, comedian Omar Sy became the first black man to win a Best Actor award at the Césars (France’s equivalent of the Oscars). And when a major French TV network hired its first black anchorman, Harry Roselmack, in 2006, it was front-page news.
‘Symbol’, ‘miracle’, ‘role model’
Though Sy and Roselmack are well-liked figures, it is Obama who puts stars in the eyes of many French minorities. And according to Pap Ndiaye, a historian and professor at Paris’ School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Obama’s four years in office have not diminished that spell. “He remains extremely popular among French minorities,” explained Ndiaye, who has written widely on both African-Americans and blacks in France. “Most don’t follow his domestic policies closely enough to have an opinion. But they have noticed key changes Obama made in terms of ending wars and adopting a more open tone toward the rest of the world.”
“To me, it was like a miracle when he won. We all celebrated as if it was our own president,” said Salah Majeri, a 43-year-old social worker of Tunisian origin, on a late-summer day outside the Blagis housing project south of Paris. “It made me appreciate Americans. And he’s still a symbol of success around here.”
There are notes of detachment here and there. Nadir, a 20-year-old of Algerian origin, shrugged at the mention of Obama. “It was a big step for Americans, but honestly, what do I care?” he said. “I live in France. Is Obama going to find me a job here?”
Perhaps more common than that bluntly pragmatic view is a sense among some French minorities that Obama is an admirable figure who has not fully lived up to his promise. Aziz Senni, 36, is a Moroccan-born Frenchman who founded an investment fund specialising in economic development in the “banlieue”. Like many people of colour in France, Senni says he was captivated by Obama’s rise and impressed with Americans for voting a black man into the White House just decades after the civil rights movement.
An ‘Obama effect’, but no French Obama
One thing most French minorities agree on is that Obama’s election was a wake-up call in France. “Ten years ago, no one in France thought it was a problem that the political class was entirely white,” explained historian Ndiaye. “Obama’s candidacy accelerated the realisation that we had a problem.”
Rama Yade, a Senegalese-born French politician who initially served as former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s junior minister for human rights, concurred that Obama’s election indeed “revealed how incomprehensibly behind France is in terms of diversity in the political sphere”. That lack of diversity is “shocking, shameful, and discredits us on the international stage,” she said.
That change has not gone unnoticed. “There’s definite improvement. Political parties are making an effort,” Senni said. But he also added: “France is slow to evolve. Contrary to its reputation, it’s a conservative country, in which differences are often perceived as threats.”
French mistrust of multiculturalism has deep roots: since the French Revolution, the country has clung to the notion that a common French identity could override differences in race and creed. The problem, according to Ndiaye, is that “Frenchness” has not always been as inclusive in practice as it is in principle. “After France’s colonies became independent, France thought of itself as essentially white,” the historian stated. “And many French people feared that immigration from former colonies would cause the republic to be fractured.”
The result is a theoretically colour-blind country in which close-knit ethnic and religious groups are often viewed warily, politicians avoid referring to specific communities of voters, and disdain for affirmative action (known here as “positive discrimination”) is common on both sides of the political aisle.
Many of France’s minorities, though encouraged by increasing diversity in French public life, remain pessimistic about the future. “Things are getting better, though I’m convinced I’ll never see a black president in France while I’m alive,” Anthony Borval said.
In the meantime, Borval will be tuning in to the US election in November, because it “feels relevant” to him.
“He can’t change everything,” Borval offered. “But I continue to think Barack Obama is the man the United States needs for the next four years.”
Date created : 2012-09-07