Friday, November 11, 2005

Street Violence in France

One of the assigned texts in the African History survey course
that I took as an undergraduate at Duke in 1967 was Mannoni's
Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. The
irony of this passage from Mannoni was powerful:

"France is unquestionably one the least racialist-minded
countries in the world; also colonial policy is officially
anti-racialist. But the effects of the colonial situation
inevitably make themselves felt, so that a marked racialist
attitude appears side by side with the official attitude and,
indeed, in spite of it. Even the administration officials,
although they apply France's pro-native policy humanely and
conscientiously, are nevertheless subject to the psycho-
sociological laws, and unless they are men of exceptional
calibre, come to adopt attitudes of which are coloured with
racialism. Those outside the administration, of course, have
no appearances to keep up."*

Was not France's participation - in slavery and the slave trade;
in colonialism with its repression, theft of natural resources,
and brutal forced labor; in the use of colonial soldiers in its
wars, often as cannon fodder; and in the cynical and
paternalistic manipulation of its neocolonial heirs - a racist

Are we really to believe that a country that is "one of the least
racialist" in the world could nonetheless perpetrate more than
two centuries of racist actions vis-à-vis African and Arab peoples?

Are social programs and make-work economic programs that do not
directly address French racism, and its causes and effects, really
an effective answer to the "street violence?"

French institutions, including both government and press, did not
hesitate to take the US to task for racial segregation during the
"Jim Crow" era and for the racism unmasked by Hurrican Katrina in
and around New Orleans - and rightly so. France should not benefit
from a "pass" when the legacy of its own racism is exposed by the
recent émeutes.

It is time to stop "whistling past the graveyard." It is time for
France to begin to rid itself of the artfully crafted and elaborately
maintained hypocrisy that it is a "non-racialist" society that
occupies the moral high-ground from which to castigate others. It is
time for France - like the US, like Brazil, like South Africa, and
many others - to face up to its profound and permeating racism and
to engage the long-term process of ridding itself of this burden.
Unless it does so, the "street violence" is likely just the opening
act of a long drama.
* O. Mannoni, _Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of
Colonization_, (New York: Praeger), 1965, p. 110
Copyright © 2005 Kelly J. Morris