France’s Colonial Narratives

In France, comedy has been deployed in a range of race-based films tackling subjects from slavery – Case Départ (Steketee, Eboué and N’gijol, 2011) – and institutional discrimination – Intouchables (Nakache and Toledano, 2011) – to everyday racism – Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu? (de Chauveron, 2014; 2019) – with the sub-genre gaining the title la comedie communautaire. These films reframe social divisions, largely rooted in systemic racism, by reimagining ‘buddy movie’ politics through their narrative focus on the forced integration of seemingly incompatible characters. Emerging at a time of far-right populism, la comedie communautaire foregrounds racist language and caricatures in order to prove their illogic – an approach which has proven commercially successful at home but made international distribution problematic.

While France and the US take very different approaches, both now have leading ethnic minority directors focused on the narrative restoration of memories previously excluded by Hollywood’s ‘history of white vision’ (Courtney, 2005: 4).[1] Dramas like Hors la loi (Bouchareb, 2010) and Indigènes (Bouchareb, 2006) interrogate the French-Algerian colonial relationship, while the main comic drive of Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au bon Dieu? (de Chauveron, 2014)like Get Out (Peele, 2017) – is the danger that the white familial home holds for black characters.

In France, while the 21st century focus on la politique de la mémoire yielded such internationally acclaimed films as Caché (Haneke, 2005), Indigènes,[2] La Graine et le mulet (Kechiche, 2007) and Entre les murs (Cantet, 2008), critics of racial consciousness associate it with ‘hypermnesia’ (Winock, 1995), a state of abnormally vivid remembering associated with trauma, and/or race-based separation [communautarisme]. Fiona Barclay (2013) writes that the new millennium signalled a high point in commemoration and memorialization in France, illuminating the ways in which contemporary France has been shaped by glorified memories of empire (and its loss). Just as America continues to grapple with the so-called ‘culture wars’, France has been gripped by ‘memory wars’ since the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1998. French conservatives, such as former president Nicolas Sarkozy, assert that the colonial period is over and call for a focus on the present-future rather than the past, viewing excavations of colonial brutality as a form of masochism. In a 2007 speech, Sarkozy declared: ‘Repentance is a detestable fashion  …  only to accuse the nation, which is the ultimate form of self-hatred …  to hate France is to hate oneself’ (cited in Barclay, 2013: 5).[3] He also used this speech to reiterate Hegel’s 19th century argument that Africa has no history, thus denying the existence of education, science or indeed civilization on the continent prior to European invasion.  At the 2017 G2O summit, French president Emmanuel Macron labelled Africa’s challenges as ‘civilisational’, thus denying France’s role in contemporary African politics as well as the legacies of colonialism and enslavement. Yet in February of that same year, as a presidential candidate, Macron gave a speech in Algeria where he spoke of a reconciliation of memory, describing colonization as a ‘crime against humanity’. Indeed, while the official narrative still celebrates the imperial past (and defends neo-colonial practices such as control of the CFA franc), former presidents Sarkozy and Hollande have also criticised France’s colonial role, particularly in Algeria, calling it unjust and brutal. Yet this concession to the truth regarding atrocities committed in the name of colonialism is often mitigated by a nostalgia for the same. For example, as a presidential candidate, Macron noted the modernizing, positive influence of colonialism through medicine and education, and condemned the treatment of the pieds-noir (white colonial subjects) by the French state, thus seeming to deny the centrality of race and racism to colonial practice.

The testimonies of black actresses presented in the 2018 book ‘Being Black is not my Profession’ [Noire N’est Pas Mon Métier] prove the damaging endurance of racial prejudice in France both on stage and onscreen. Due to France’s Republican ideology, which led to the removal of race from the constitution in 2018, quotas cannot be imposed and the lack of data makes it difficult to address racial inequality. There are significant divides between established anti-racist groups who believe that the Republican approach has produced social unity, and groups with younger cohorts who argue that free speech and universalism has enabled anti-black and Islamophobic practices. What is clear to both groups however is that post-racial politics cover over the ‘deep disconnect between the scientific status of race as a created concept that has no biological basis and the social reality of the common ideas and practices of race… [which] still have a very real impact’ (King O’Riain, 2014: 264). The mass demonstrations held by the Black Lives Matter movement in France, demanding justice for those who have died in police custody, such as Adama Traoré, show the urgent need for structural change in order to finally deal with the impact of racism, colonialism and slavery on contemporary society.

[1] Rebecca Scherr writes about ‘the implicit whiteness of U.S. cinema’ (2008: 3) noting that the industry always reverts to a normative discourse of ‘“whiteness” or “white vision” as the dominant film lens’ (2008: 11). While there have been significant gains in recent years due to movements like #OscarsSoWhite, data analysis from USC’s Annenberg Institute show that representational inequality in terms of race, gender, disability and sexuality remains a significant problem.

[2] Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and five Césars, Indigènes won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a César for best screenplay. Yet, it was entered into the Academy as an Algerian rather than a French film.

[3] Charles Forsdick (2007) marks 2005, the year of widespread banlieue riots, as the start of a ‘postcolonial turn’ in French culture. In this year, the government introduced (and later retracted) a controversial legal clause instructing teachers to stress ‘the positive role of the French presence in its overseas territories, particularly in North Africa’ (cited in Barclay, 2013: 7). This, along with the creation of the Ministry for Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-Development (2007–10), can be read as an attempt to control the national narrative and deny the legacies of slavery, colonialism and institutional discrimination which were gaining public interest at the time. Fiona Barclay (2013) notes that the government’s approach deemed the contributions made as well as violence suffered by colonised subjects, and the systemic, structural inequalities faced by their descendants, irrelevant to contemporary France.


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