PARIS – Apparently, this is a powerful message against racism: a black woman will join, for the first time, other luminaries buried in the French Pantheon. But by choosing a US-born figure – artist Josephine Baker – critics say France continues a long tradition of speaking out against racism abroad while obscuring it at home.
While Baker is widely regarded in France, the ruling highlighted the gulf between the country’s official doctrine of colorblind universalism and some increasingly vocal opponents, who argue that it has masked generations of systemic racism.
Baker’s entry into the Pantheon on Tuesday is the result of years of effort by politicians, organizations and public figures. More recently, a petition from Laurent Kupferman, an essayist on the French Republic, gained ground, and in July, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Baker would be “pantheonized”.
“The times are probably more favorable to resonate the struggles of Josephine Baker: the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, her role in the French Resistance,” Kupferman told The Associated Press. “The Pantheon is where you enter not because you are famous but because of what you bring to the civic spirit of the nation. “
His appointment was hailed as uncontroversial and seen as a way to reconcile French society after the struggles of the pandemic and last year’s protests against French police violence, as the murder of George Floyd in the United States made echo of incidents in France involving black men who died in police custody. .
Baker represented France’s “universalist” approach, which sees its people as ordinary citizens and neither counts nor identifies them by race or ethnicity. The first article of the constitution states that the French Republic and its values are considered universal, ensuring that all citizens have the same rights, regardless of their origin, race or religion.
In 1938 Baker joined what is now called LICRA, a prominent anti-racist league and long-time advocate of his entry into the Pantheon.
“She passionately loved universalism and this France that doesn’t care about skin color,” LICRA President Mario Stasi told The Associated Press. “When she arrived from the United States, she understood that she came from a ‘communitarian’ country where she was reminded of her origin and ethnic origin, and in France, she felt totally accepted. “
Universalists pejoratively call opposing anti-racist activists “communitarians”, which implies that they place community identity before universal French citizenship. Radical anti-racist groups, meanwhile, argue that France first needs to take into account systemic racism – a term that is contested here – and the specific oppression suffered by different communities of color.
The term “communitarian” is also used to describe American society, which counts race in official censuses, academic studies and public discourse, which is taboo in France and considered to reduce people to skin color.
For Rokhaya Diallo, French commentator on issues related to race, “universalism is a utopia and a myth that the republic tells about itself and which does not correspond to any past or present reality”, she said. declared to the AP. “For blacks and non-whites, the Republic has always been a space of inequality, of otherness through the processes triggered by colonization.
Lawyers, activists and academics have recounted discrimination in police violence, housing and employment in France, particularly against people of African or Arab origin. Universalists say it is not a structural part of French society, however, identifying racism as a moral issue and not enshrined in the state.
Kévi Donat, a black French guide who gives tours of black Paris, said Baker is the “most controversial” figure he puts forward in his tours, in part because she first gained fame. in France for dancing in a banana belt that “played into the stereotypes around Blacks and Africans.
“Sometimes Josephine Baker used to say ‘in the United States there was racism, (but) all these black Americans were welcome in France’, which means that we are ahead, that we are not. don’t have this problem here, ”Donat said.
Baker was among several prominent black Americans, especially artists and writers, who found refuge from American racism in France after the two world wars, most notably the famous writer and intellectual James Baldwin.
But Françoise Vergès, a political scientist on issues of culture, race and colonization, said “symbolic gestures” like putting Baker in the Pantheon are not enough to put an end to racial discrimination in France.
“In 2021, even though it is morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives,” she said.
In addition to her stage fame, Baker also spied for the French Resistance, paraded alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, and raised what she called her “rainbow tribe” of children. adopted from all over the world.
For the Stasi, president of LICRA, her “fight is universalist, so nationality in a way does not matter. … It fits perfectly into the (French) fight for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.
“Of course there was racism in France, but it was not institutionalized like in America during segregation,” Kupferman said.
For Vergès, this obscures France’s own history of racism and colonialism, which includes a brutal war with Algeria, a former French colony, when it fought for independence from 1954 to 1962.
“It’s always easier to celebrate people who are not from your country,” she said. “It avoids questioning your own situation at home. ”
Verges explained that moving abroad for anyone can offer some protection against racism, simply because locals see you as different anyway, more American, French or Nigerian than black.
“The racism of a country is related to its own history,” said Vergès. “There are also French blacks in the United States who find it less racist than France, because being French protects them from being treated like black Americans. “
Baldwin, the American writer, noted the same thought in a 1983 interview with French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
“In France, I am a black American, representing no imaginable threat to French identity: indeed, I do not exist in France. I might have a very different story to tell if I was from Senegal – and a very bitter song to sing if I was from Algeria, ”he said.