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.”
With its deeply entrenched ideal of egalitarianism, emphasis on universal values, and historic openness to black American artists (like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker) during the first half of the 20th century, France has often been perceived as progressive in matters of race. But Obama’s 2008 victory had an explosive impact here, shining a harsh light on the dearth of French blacks or Arabs in positions of power and offering the country’s minorities a new source of inspiration.
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.”
Many blacks and Arabs in the Paris area live in the “banlieue”, or suburbs, in concrete housing projects that loom far from the cobblestone streets and quaint cafes of the French capital. Unemployment tends to be high in these neighbourhoods, many of which were the site of riots in 2005. But for a lot of people of colour in the “banlieue”, Obama commands respect, even if the initial excitement of his election has faded.
“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.”
That sentiment was echoed down the block by Gaëtan Seble, a 24-year-old amateur soccer player whose parents are from Ivory Coast. “For me he’s a role model. That hasn’t changed, and it’s the same for everyone I know in this neighbourhood,” Seble affirmed, gesturing toward a group of young men decked out in track suits and baseball caps nearby. “What he’s trying to do is good; he just needs a bit more time.”
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. But Senni also noted that “like all new things, time goes by, the shine fades, and there are disappointments”. He cited Obama’s failure to advance the Mideast peace process, something that has tarnished the US president’s image among Arabs around the world. “We had a lot of hope after his Cairo speech, but he’s mainly been the same as his predecessors on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Senni assessed. “That’s the reality of being an American president.”
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. Still, Yade noted, progress is underway. There were a handful of blacks and Arabs in Sarkozy’s administration, she pointed out. And in addition to the nine minorities elected to parliament in June, current President François Hollande assembled a cabinet that includes a record seven ministers of colour. 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.
According to Ndiaye, however, it is affirmative action that could eventually help France create conditions from which a French Obama might one day emerge. “Obama didn’t come out of nowhere,” he explained. “There is a critical mass of 10,000 elected black officials in America, from sheriffs to mayors to Congressmen to the president. Affirmative action helped. We need that in France.” 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.”
This article was first published on www.france24.com/en