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L’affaire Marianne stirs French racial angst

Blacks in France look to the African-American experience as they mobilize against republic's discourse of colorblindness

February 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

In France, Marianne is a national symbol of democracy and reason, a personification of the goddess of liberty. She was the subject of Eugène Delacroix’s famed 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People.” Marianne’s image adorns postage stamps and government stationery, and her bust is often seen in public buildings. She is generally depicted as a young white woman wearing a soft cap pulled down over her forehead. 

But in 1999, Frémainville, a small town 50 kilometers northwest of Paris, became the first municipality in France to have a black Marianne. The sculpture, which sat in the City Hall’s marriage auditorium, was chiseled by artist Claude Vallet to commemorate the abolition of slavery and the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the last 16 years, couples got married with the black Marianne looking down at them. But that changed late last month, when Frémainville’s mayor, Marcel Allègre, who took office in May 2014, replaced the statue with a white version of more traditional inspiration.

Socialist politicians and human rights activists protested, saying the eviction of the black Marianne was not good for national unity as the republic reels from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. “She certainly represented something but not the republic,” Allègre retorted. He added that the black Marianne was a good symbol for the end of slavery but asked on what grounds she should be raised to Marianne.

France is understandably jittery. Since the Paris shootings, an 8-year-old boy has been questioned over his “support for terrorism.” On Jan. 20, the rapper Saïdou of the band Z.E.P. went on trial accused of reverse racism for a song in which he says, “Fuck France and her colonial past.” With the global spotlight on Paris, there is some grandstanding among politicians aiming to protect the republic’s image.

Conservatives took exception to Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ comments acknowledging the existence of “ghettos” and “apartheid” in France. For example, former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is planning a political comeback, said he was appalled by the prime minister’s “erroneous” choice of words. Similarly, Allègre removed the black Marianne from City Hall partly to undo the legacy of his leftist predecessor Maurice Maillet, who was the town’s mayor for 25 years until last March.

But l’affaire Marianne transcends the current moment and touches on broader issues, including the changing complexion of France and the growing political mobilization by minorities.

The French government does not recognize communal identities; citizens of all backgrounds are expected to espouse a French national identity based on civic values and to break with any racial, ethnic and religious attachments. But minority groups are increasingly contesting this discourse of colorblindness, from Muslims questioning the country’s radical secularism to Afro-French activists calling for American-style policies of affirmative action and racial classification.

As blacks in France mobilize, they will continue to look to the African-American experience for inspiration.

The Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), an advocacy organization founded shortly after riots in 2005, has taken the lead in calling for the return of the black Marianne. “Either we live in a white and racial republic and Marcel Allègre is right, or we live in a diverse republic and the mayor Frémainville is wrong,” CRAN spokeswoman Thiaba Bruni said last month. CRAN has submitted a letter to the Association of French Mayors asking that the next official bust look like “a black, Arab or Asian woman.”

Louis-Georges Tin, the head of CRAN, went even further, likening the removal of the black Marianne to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. The reference to the Klan has provoked further anger since CRAN has already been accused of importing divisive American-inspired race politics to France. 

For the last decade, French politicians and commentators have complained that the U.S. Embassy in Paris has been interfering in government efforts to integrate its minority communities, either by offering financial assistance or providing training in diversity management to young French leaders. Documents published by WikiLeaks brought U.S. involvement in European race politics to light. “The French media remains overwhelmingly white,” one cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris noted, comparing France to a pre–civil rights America. “Among French elite educational institutions, we are only aware that Sciences Po has taken serious steps to integrate." 

Previous U.S. initiatives to inspire a civil rights movement in France have been controversial. In 2009 then–U.S. ambassador to France Charles Rivkin caused a stir when he appeared at Villiers-le-Bel, a Parisian suburb, for the the unveiling of a mural for Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of children of African and Arab descent stood around the diplomat and sang “We Shall Overcome.” It was part of the State Department’s efforts to export U.S. race policies to Europe. But France refuses to acknowledge group identities or collect ethnic and racial data. In fact, it was partly in reaction to U.S. pressures to introduce such demographic research that in May 2013, President François Hollande banned the term “race” from the French Constitution and the country’s laws, saying it has no scientific basis.

And yet CRAN continues to call for affirmative action and ethnic and racial statistics in France. The organization says blacks and North Africans are discriminated against as groups and should be granted minority status. On Jan. 22, CRAN unveiled an ambitious plan of action at the National Assembly in Paris, calling for a truth and reconciliation committee to examine France’s colonial crimes. It also announced plans to open branches in Senegal, Benin and Gabon and to look into becoming an affiliate of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

As blacks in France mobilize, they will continue to look to the African-American experience for inspiration. In what has become something of a tradition, Afro-French activists are now celebrating Black History Month, in face of grumbling from the political right. The kerfuffle over Marianne’s color is a harbinger of things to come. 

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of “Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture,” a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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