France’s Post-Colonial Racism

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Now that the entire French right is scandalized about a candidate to the Presidential elections acknowledging the obviously criminal nature of colonization—even though he immediately followed that acknowledgement with a “but…” regarding police violence against the descendants of the colonized peoples—; and now that colonialist, insulting vocabulary is reappearing in this scenario —the word bamboula was deemed ‘convenient’ by a union leader and ‘affectionate’ by a renown magistrate—, it seems useful to go over France’s colonial past, and especially over the legacy it has left us. A legacy of racism and police violence.


By: Pierre Tévanian  and Saïd Bouamama / Source: Les Mots Sont Importants /  The Dawn News / February 17, 2017


Photo by Vincent Dargent/ABACAPRESS.COM / Saint-Etienne France
Photo by Vincent Dargent/ABACAPRESS.COM / Saint-Etienne France

To the question ‘Is there a post-colonial racism?’ we reply with another one: ‘How can one believe there isn’t? How can we speak of contemporary forms of racism without mentioning two of its main predecessors: slavery and the colonial system?.’

‘How can we deny there’s a profound racism in today’s world, rooted in institutions, practices, discourses and representations created in the context of the French colonial empire? [1].’

How can it be denied when, for example, opinion polls bring out a form of specific rejection —stronger and more durable— against immigrants who come from countries that are former French colonies?

These polls [2] prove that two phenomenons have taken place for several decades: on one hand, communities belonging to the most recent waves of immigration are the most despised and feared, but while the prejudices against them dissipate over time, prejudices against  migrants from formerly-colonized territories, especially from Africa, are more persistent.

When they first arrived to France, Italians, Polish, Armenian and Portuguese migrants were targets of irated discourses and brutally-discriminatory measures, which were similar in form and level of violence to the ones post-colonial immigrants [3] suffer nowadays. But their children and grand-children didn’t carry the same stigma. Meanwhile, descendants of Afro-French people still are absurdly labeled as “second- or third-generation migrants”—and consequently discriminated against.

If, like Albert Memmi writes [4], racism is ‘a generalized and definitive judgement of real or perceived differences between people, which benefits the originator and is in detriment of the target, and legitimizes some form of aggression or unequally-distributed privileges”, then there’s indeed a specific racism that has legitimized the aggression and privileges of colonies: there has effectively been a process of essentialization and naturalization of ‘cultural differences’ (especially regarding Islamism), a ‘morally’-based disqualification based on this differences, a theorization of the ‘indigenous’ as exceptions to rules, framed in some specific dispositives, most notably the Algerian Sénatus-Consulte of July 14, 1865 [5]) [6].

This culture-based discrimination was passed down from generation to generation, even after the colonies’ independences, without fading—like any system of ideas that isn’t challenged or deconstructed. It’s difficult to deny that representations of “Black”, “immigrant”, and “Muslim” people, of the “beur” and the “beurette”, still enjoy widespread circulation in contemporary French society, and not without consequences. [5] “Cultural” difference is still overvalued in French society (“they” are different from “us”) while ignoring other differences pertaining class or “personality” (“they” are all the same, and “we” all share the same “national identity”).

Nor can it be denied that this symbolic operation of differentiation and amalgamation of groups results in blatantly inferiorizing representations (in the best case scenario, “they” are seen as backward or deficient, and in the worst case, dangerous, while “we” embody “reason”, “universality”, and “modernity”). [6] Finally, there is no question that this degrading discourse serves to legitimate a situation of domination, of relegation, and of systemic social exclusion within the contemporary postcolonial space.


Systemic and Institutional Discrimination

After decades of denial and blindness, the extreme level of racism is finally beginning to be acknowledged. Moreover, many are ready to admit that this discrimination more specifically affects the descendants of formerly-colonized peoples. However, despite the existence of several studies highlighting the systemic nature of these forms of discrimination, acts of discrimination are still mostly seen as isolated mistakes due to “misunderstanding the other” or a “withdrawal into oneself”. [7] The victims themselves are even blamed at times for their alleged lack of “integration” or their “cultural backwardness”.

But what’s always denied is the fact that our society actively produces discrimination, which is entirely legal and legitimized by the very own institutions of the Republic, veiled by the official discourse of non-discrimination, which is ritually touted and at the same time violated. [8] The systemic and institutional nature of discrimination is nevertheless verifiable, and is the main similitude with the colonial relationship:

“Beyond the series of analogies that can be found in these two phenomena—historical analogies (immigration is often the daughter of direct or indirect colonization) and structural analogies (in today’s order of relationships of domination, immigration occupies the place formerly occupied by colonization)—, immigration has, in a certain way, become a system, much like colonialism was. (Sartre affirmed: ‘Colonization is a system’[9]).

Postcolonial racism is thus not simply a remnant from the past. Rather, it is an ever-evolving, systemic part of our society. Representational forms inherited from the past are continually reformulated and renewed to fit contemporary interests. Indeed, our society continues to produce “tribes” in the political sense of the term: “sub-citizens”, subjects who are not, strictly speaking, foreigners, but who, nevertheless, are not treated as real French.

In his work “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, Karl Marx studied this interaction between the past and the present, and the role played by the inherited social imaginary. People decipher their reality through this imaginary; they determine the borders between “us” and “them” and use them as the foundation for their present actions. Specifically, it was through this colonial imaginary that postcolonial immigrants were first seen in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was this imaginary which legitimized their economic, social, and political marginalization. Starting at the bottom in the most difficult and tiring jobs of the economic world, being denied any social needs that were not directly related to productive needs, reduced from human beings to a simple units of labor (and therefore neglecting their need for family life and), the injunction to be discreet and apolitical. The spread of unemployment and of job precariousness beginning in the 1980s was created against the backdrop of an order of domination in which immigrants were seen as dominated even among the dominated: thus French people from colonized territories inherited their parents’ place in society.


Culturally-biased, Output-Oriented, Depoliticized “Causal Attributions”

The colonial imaginary is related mainly to the manner in which real situations of inequality are understood. The colonizer does not deny the inequalities produced by the colonial system, but she denies its true origins: she attributes them to biological or cultural attributes of the oppressed. [10] For example, the lack of passion the colonized put in the work imposed on them is not seen in the context of the colonial relationship that imposes exhausting working conditions on the colonized while simultaneously denying personal initiative or any kind of pleasure from her labor, but it is rather attributed to the inherent “indolence” of African people or the incorrigible “lack of discipline” of the North African people. [11] One sees this same mechanism of decontextualization, depoliticization, and ethnicization today: discrimination is no longer seen as the root of marginalization, of “rage”, or of the “whatever” attitude typical in so many young people coming from a history of colonization, but as a fault of the youths themselves—a lack of “direction” or parental guidance, a “cultural” inability or incompatibility, a lack of familiarity with the “values of the Republic” or with “modernity” itself… [12] In November 2005, some even went as far as to inverse the causes and effects, by explaining that these youth had difficulty finding jobs because of their “asocial behavior”, a product of their “parents’ polygamy” !

The issue of “integration”, which continues to dominate policies targeting immigrants and their children, are a part of this culturalist, output-oriented, and depoliticized point of view. The call for integration, in fact, reduces their targets to an irreducible “cultural difference” and condemns them to a perpetual position of alienness with respect to the “national community”: the idea that an effort must be made for to become integrated presumes that they are not already integrated—one of the practical applications of this logic are the “integration questionnaires” migrants have to fill out as part of the naturalization proceedings.

Historically, the aegis of the colonial system subverted the equality of citizens to support of a culturalist definition of the Nation. In this context, the colonized could only enjoy the privileges of citizenship if they gave up their “personal status” . [13]


Integrationism: Another Form of Racism?

The word ‘integration’ also requires its targets to be reserved, discreet, in a word, invisible. Éric Savarèse has shown how the colonial view made the colonized invisible, or made them a simple mirror in which “France” could contemplate its own “civilizing” genius, while Abdelmalek Sayad has shown that this “invisibilization” has been reproduced in the sphere of immigration, where the immigrant is reduced to a position d’obligés [position of indebtedness] with the host society. [14] The situation is the same today for young French people with colonization in their pasts: they, too, are “invisible” and are also told not to stand out, to be polite and discreet, even though they have quotidian encounters where they receive with scorn and social injustice. All efforts to make themselves be seen are taken as a threat, as indication of their “refusal to integrate”, as a “rejection to the Republic”.

At the risk of shocking the reader, we can say that integration, as it is generally conceived, spoken of, and politically translated for the public, is less of an alternative to racism than a sublimated form or instrument of legitimization for racism. If racism is the denial of equality, then integration is a form of eliminating the issue of egalitarianism. Indeed, while being “integrated” and “included” and having “a place” is considered better than being purely and simply excluded, these terms do not specify which place one comes to occupy. A waiter has “his place”. He may well be included and integrated while also being subordinated, scorned, and exploited. The truth is that, in many contexts, speaking of “integration problems” is essentially a way to avoid having to pronounce words like domination, discrimination, and inequality.

Similarities between the use of the word “integration” in the colonial system and in the postcolonial system are striking: in both cases, beyond the numerous contextual differences, the word is working in the same way, namely, as a pushback against demands for liberty and equality. Indeed, the word “integration” was never used as frequently as when the colonized demanded equal rights, self-determination, and independence—and then again, several decades later, beginning in 1983, when their descendants “marched for Equality”. [15]


“Integrate, Suppress, Promote, Emancipate”

The postcolonial system also reproduces divisions among individuals that come from colonial times: a certain mass of people has to be integrated, another mass has to be to suppressed, the elite has to be to promoted, and women have to be emancipated.

A mass of people that has to be integrated. The “culturally handicapped”, the “stubborn” ones, “Islam’s misadjustment to modernity” and “secularism”, the lack of “efforts to integrate”: all of these clichés are the product of a “mythical portraiture of the colonized”, which Albert Memmi had called the ‘mark of the plural’, in his compelling book The Colonizer and the Colonized. [16] Again, the migrants are considered the culprits for their “backwardness” and “slowness”, and the French state incarnates the opposite: the “civilizing” mission.

A mass that has to be suppressed. Rejection and revolt by the youth from the banlieues faced with inequality, particularly those of colonial immigrant backgrounds, are considered illegitimate. Because these acts are seen through a strictly culturalist prism, no other possible meaning, value, or social and political legitimacy can be assigned to them. [17] Youth demanding social justice are only seen in terms of their “refusal to integrate” and their familial and/or cultural and/or religious affiliations. They are considered “anomic”—or worse: the bearers of norms and values that pose a threat to the social order.

From the Minguettes revolt of 1981 to the riots of November 2005, the systematic (and almost exclusively and excessively “rough”) recourse to the surveillance and repression of protest movements is another point in common with the colonial model. More broadly, all dissident, deviant, or simply “misplaced” behavior by the youth from backgrounds of colonization is met with moral judgment that echoes the outrage, the generalizations, and the content of the colonials’ grievances regarding the colonized. The “mythical portrait of the post-colonized person” largely reproduces the “mythical portrait of the colonized”, the structure and development which Albert Memmi studied in his time. [18] Today, as in the colonial era, we speak of “territories” to “conquer” or “reconquer”, “uncivilized spaces”, “wild children” and “barbarians”, a “lack of education”, the necessity of “adapting” our penal legislation to “new”, radically “different” populations who once lived “outside of all rationality.” [19]

Apart from words, political and police practices (though, luckily, to a lesser extent) follow a script that was mostly written during the colonial context: from the implementation of curfews to the “pre-emptive war” of repeated police inspections or inopportune dispersions in building lobbies, from the penalization of parents for the crimes of their children to the ways of dealing with political contestation (defamation, criminalization, calls upon religious authorities to pacify a riot or keep the public from political protest), officials have installed methods of control that undermine a good number of fundamental principles (the presumption of innocence, the principle of individual responsibility, the principle of secularism, etc.). These are seen as anomalies within the French legal tradition. But if one recalls the “other” French tradition, the nation’s shadows where exceptionalism and techniques of power were invented and experimented—we are of course speaking of the colonies—then the current “security-related deviations” lose much of their newness and exoticism.

An elite to promote. Be it to show off the “French model of integration” (to show the failing masses that “you can pull yourself up”, and that each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her own unhappiness), or to work as an “intermediary” with the other “youths” under the pretext of cultural proximity, or to occupy ethnicized posts under the pretext of certain specificities, an ideological disloyalty is being promoted at many levels. This situation is similar to Frantz Fanon’s conception of the “evolved”, or the “black skin, white masks” [20].

Women to be “emancipated”, in spite of themselves, and against their families. The debates surrounding the law on wearing religious signs have brought to the fore the persistence of colonial representations of a “violent heterosexuality” among the “Arab” or “Muslim man” and the submissive woman or girl. The very fact that those concerned went unheard, that they were asked to unveil themselves under threat of punishment, exclusion, and academic expulsion—in other words: to “force them to be free”—recalls the colonial conception of emancipation [21].


The Stakes of Nomination

To conclude, and in response to recurring objections, we must clarify two issues. First, to say that a “postcolonial racism” exists does not amount to saying that this form of racism is the only one existing in French contemporary society, that colonization is the only source of racism, or that countries that did not have colonial Empires do not have their own forms of racism with their own historic foundations. Clearly, other forms of racism exist in France, which is to say, other forms of irreducible to xenophobia: Anti-Jewish and Anti-Gypsy racism, for example—or even radical forms of social scorn with regard to “poor Whites”, which amounts, in a way, to classism.

While it might be necessary to recall this fact, it’s however absurd and dishonest to suspect or accuse—as is often done—these groups of “colonial-centrism”, of “competing with other victims” or of “trivializing the Shoah”. It would be irresponsible to call someone anti-Semitic for devoting him or herself to the analysis and struggle against specific racisms that target colonized and post-colonized peoples.

Sigmund Freud, for example, argued that dedicating oneself to the numerous neuroses that are born from sexual repression is not tantamount to negating the existence of other troubles and causes. In the same way, emphasizing the colonial origins of some forms of racism is not tantamount to negating the existence of other forms of racism and discrimination rooted in other historic moments and other social processes. We do not see colonization everywhere, in the same way as Freud didn’t see sex everywhere—even if we do see it in places where others do not want to see it, like Freud saw sexual pulsion where many didn’t want to.

Neither is speaking of “postcolonial racism” a way to suggest that descendants of colonized persons experience the same situation, in every aspect, as their ancestors. Here, the meaning of the prefix “post” is clear: it marks both a change of era and a filiation, an inheritance, a “family curse”. Here again, it’s worth making the distinction. However, it is often a bit besides the point, especially when it is brought up in order to “teach” militant movements that are often completely aware of the differences between colonial and postcolonial situations—and who state it loud and clear.

Such was the case of the Mouvement des Indigènes de la République. In spite of the numerous clarifications they provided [22], a number of scholars and politicians criticized them on a regular basis for calling themselves indigènes [natives] or for describing some speech and some legal, administrative, and police documents as “colonial”. [23] “The Code de l’Indigénat has been abolished”, they sagely explain. The problem with these kinds of demands for “seriousness” and “historical rigor”, besides the fact that they take their audience for a bunch of imbeciles, is that they misunderstand the specificity of political discourse, or rather, of certain forms of political discourse (the petition, the communiqué, the banner, the slogan, etc.), which imply, since the beginning of time and regardless of the struggle (workers, feminists, homosexuals, etc.), a certain use of the shortcut and hyperbole. They also misunderstand the heuristic power that the “anger of the oppressed” can wield. [24]

These calls to order also feel like a “double standard”, for one rarely sees those scholars or politicians offering the same lessons or friendly advice to militant feminists when they—and rightly so—call our society patriarchal. However, the discriminatory laws that gave women the status of minors are as abolished as the Code de l’Indigénat. Equality between men and women is now enacted by law, just as the principle of non-discrimination based on “race, ethnicity, or religion”—and they are equally as effective… One also doesn’t find the same concerns and hypercorrections when over-exploited illegal immigrants are compared to slaves, when philosophers, sociologists, and left-wing militants speak of academic or social apartheid, or when workers, who benefit from some acquired social status or relative access to consumer goods, continue to identify in songs with the “damned of the earth” or “slaves of hunger”.

More deeply, the hostile, wary, and condescending reactions to the different movements and demands of the 2005 movements, which included the demands of the Indigènes de la République, pose crucial questions regarding the power of names and their legitimacy. The power of names is performative, which is to say that it affects realities; it shapes what is said and what is, as a result, relegated to the “un-said” and even to the “un-sayable”.

It constructs social reality and imposes models for interpreting, cause and effect explanations that trickle down to public policies. Knowing who is authorized to name whom is not irrelevant. It is not irrelevant to see new terms emerge, whether by self-designation or hetero-designation.

It is in this way—rather than in the academic way of emphasizing the differences between colonial and postcolonial natives—that historians and sociologists ought to understand recent movements that, in part, understand themselves in terms of the colonial past. As Abdelmalek Sayad recalls: “This is a known thing: derision is the weapon of the weak; it is a passive weapon, a protective and preventive weapon. This technique is well-known by dominated peoples, and is used with relative frequency in situations of domination […]. Black American sociology and colonial sociology teach us that, as a general rule, one form of revolt—undoubtedly the primary form of revolt— against stigmatization […], is reclaiming the stigma, which then becomes an emblem.” [25]


This text was taken from Pascal Blanchard (ed), Colonial culture in France since the revolution, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014

Read the French version here.


[1] Yvan Gastaut, L’Immigration et l’opinion en France sous la Ve République (Paris : Seuil, 1999).

[2] Gérard Noiriel, Le Creuset français (Paris : Seuil, 1988) and La Tyrannie du national (Paris : Calmann-Lévy, 1991).

[3] Albert Memmi, Le Racisme (Paris : Gallimard, 1999), 184.

[4] Mohamed Barkat, Le Corps d’exception. Les artifices du pouvoir colonial et la destruction de la vie (Paris : Éditions Amsterdam, 2005).

[5] Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard, De l’indigène à l’immigré (Paris : Gallimard, 1998).

[6] Pierre Tévanian, “Le corps d’exception et des métamorphoses”, in Quasimodo, no. 9 (Summer 2005).

[7] Véronique de Rudder, ed., L’Inégalité raciste (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2000).

[8] Christine Delphy, “Un mouvement, quel mouvement ?”,

[9] Abdelmalek Sayad, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité. L’illusion du proviso ire (Paris : Raisons d’agir, 2006), 173.

[10] See Carole Reynaud Paligot, La République raciale, 1860-1930. Paradigme racial et idéologie républicaine (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2006).

[11] Albert Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized, translated by Howard Greenfield (Boston : Beacon Press, 1991 [1957]).

[12] See Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy : Aspects of Working-Class Life (London and New York : Penguin, 2009).

[13] Barkat, Le Corps d’exception.

[14] Éric Savarèse, Histoire coloniale et immigration (Paris : Séguier, 2000) and Sayad, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité.

[15] Saïd Bouamama, 10 ans de marches des beurs (Paris : Desclée de Brouwer, 1994).

[16] Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized, 80-89.

[17] François Athané, “Ne laissons pas punir les pauvres”,

[18] Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized.

[19] Pierre Tévanian, Le Ministère de la peur. Réflexions sur le nouvel ordre sécuritaire (Paris : L’Esprit frappeur, 2004).

[20] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (New York : Grove Press, 2008 [1952]).

[21] Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé, Les Féministes et le garçon arabe (Paris : L’Aube, 2004) and Christine Delphy, “Antisexisme ou antiracisme : un faux dilemme”, Nouvelles Questions feminists 25.1 (January 2006), 59-83.

[22] See Alix Héricord, Sadri Khiari, and Laurent Lévy, “Indigènes de la République : réponses à quelques objections”,

[23] Jean-Pierre Chrétien, “Certitudes et quiproquos du débat colonial”, Esprit, no. 322 (February 2006), 174-186 and the Special issue of Hérodote, no. 120, devoted to “La question coloniale” (February 2006).

[24] Colette Guillaumin, Sexe, race et pratique du pouvoir (Paris : Éditions des Femmes, 1992).

[25] Abdelmalek Sayad, “Le mode de génération des générations immigrées”, Migrants-Formation, n° 98 (septembre 1994), 12.

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