Author’s Response: Black France, White Europe (Emily Marker)
**This is the author’s response in our book forum on Emily Marker’s Black France, White Europe” Youth, Race, and Belonging in the Postwar Era. This week, we have published four reviews of Marker’s book.
For more than seventy years—from 1946 to 2018—the French Constitution championed the equality of all French citizens “without distinction” on the specific basis of race. When the French National Assembly voted to remove the word “race” from this foundational declaration of French values in June 2018, the move was cast in the media and by many scholars as the latest manifestation of a deep-seated and distinctly French tradition of rejecting race as a legitimate category of political discourse and social analysis. This kneejerk, ahistorical interpretation uncritically reproduces the ideological claims of the measure’s proponents. A mythic republican universalism, unchanging and unmoored in historical time, cannot possibly account for the urgency of excising the word “race” from the constitution in 2018, after more than seven decades of its anchoring the crucial passages that hail equality and non-discrimination as French constitutional principles across both the Fourth and Fifth Republics. On the contrary, the campaign to remove “race” from the constitution was historically contingent and contested, part of the dramatic sharpening of public debate about the crushing salience of race and racism in everyday life in twenty-first-century France. Indeed, this parliamentary maneuver is most intelligible as a direct response to the new conceptual repertoires of decoloniality and racisme d’état, along with new organizing tactics like non-mixité, that have been deployed to considerable effect by antiracist activists, teachers’ unions, students, Afro-feminists, and others since the early 2010s.
Five years on, it’s clear that the 2018 constitutional revision was the opening salvo in a protracted battle to protect the status quo by stifling grassroots mobilizations against racism and inequality in France today. French Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal’s crusade against so-called Islamogauchisme in 2021, which opened Liz Fink’s essay in this forum, may not have amounted to much in practice, but it stoked ever more vitriolic responses—not just on the far right but also from within the republican mainstream—to the critiques and claims of minoritized students, activists, and educators. What’s more, Vidal’s clumsy assault on academic freedom has clearly demonstrated the state’s willingness to mobilize its power and considerable resources against some of the most precarious and marginalized social groups in and beyond the French academy. It is precisely such deployments of power that (re)produce the racialized positions of those groups in French political, social, and cultural life.
It should not be surprising that recent attempts to stifle race talk in contemporary France set their twinned sights on formal politics and the education sector. These have long been deeply entangled, porous terrains where race is made, contested, and potentially unmade. Scholars, teachers, youth workers and students, as much as politicians, pundits, and state officials, are all profoundly implicated in processes of racial reproduction or disruption. All kinds of people, including young people themselves, take part in what Jess Pearson elegantly refers to as “the everyday life of politics” in her contribution to this forum. We would do well to take the quotidian aspects of political contestation more seriously, and, as Greg Valdespino notes, to recognize the targets of racism as important historical agents in their own right who help shape the contours of any given racial formation through their varied forms of resistance, protest, and activism.
Why doesn’t the zombie lie of a seemingly timeless, and distinctly French, tradition of colorblindness and secularism rooted in republican universalism stay dead? Despite decades of historical research that has conclusively shown that republican ideology did not, in fact, constrain patently discriminatory state practices and policy choices in any of the twentieth-century French republics, scholars and pundits alike return to this myth with ritualistic precision and continue to invest it with explanatory power. Black France, White Europe charts a path out of that interpretative cul-de-sac. Drawing on decolonial and transnational perspectives and methodologies, it decenters the republican-universalist myth by demonstrating the profound impact of both young Africans’ activism and transnational processes of European integration on racial reconstruction in postwar France.
After the war, it was thoroughly uncontroversial for the drafters of the 1946 Constitution to loudly declare that belonging in France would not be based on race. It was in fact imperative that they do so, not only to distance the fledgling postwar republic from Vichy’s lethal state racism against Jews, but also to signal a radical transformation in metropolitan France’s relationship with its colonies. Grand pronouncements about the resurrected republic turning the page on France’s racist and colonialist past in favor of some new kind of inclusive multiracial democracy were backed up by a raft of youth and education programs that sought to develop genuine bonds of solidarity between French and African young people. Indeed, I argue that it was precisely in the youth and education sector where the proverbial rubber hit the road of “decolonization without independence.” In youth and student exchanges, curricular and pedagogical reforms, and the hasty construction of new schools and institutions of higher education across European and African France, we can see how late colonial visions of imperial democratization ultimately collapsed under the crushing weight of their practical limitations, internal contradictions, and contingent countervailing forces.
A significant subset of those countervailing forces, I contend, were unleashed by early European integration. It is often overlooked that at the very same moment that French and African leaders were experimenting with new forms of racial and legal integration in France and French Africa, France and its European neighbors were weighing new forms of political and economic integration in Western Europe. Though we typically think about early European integration as a top-down, technocratic project, European integrationists shared colonial reformers’ focus on youth as a vital sociocultural foundation for their wider political and economic aims. Already in the late 1940s, European unity activists were proposing a startlingly similar set of education reforms and youth programs to make young people in Western Europe feel more European. The dominant conceptions of Europe and Europeanness motivating those efforts, however, widened the distance between Europe and Africa precisely as French and African youth were being enlisted in turning the old empire into a new multiracial democracy.
I connect a vision of a more “pluralist” Europe that coalesced in postwar European education campaigns—which coded Europe as both white and raceless, Christian and secular—to decisions about what should be taught in African classrooms and how many scholarships should be provided for young Africans to come to France. That vision of Europe also informed French responses to African student activism for racial and religious equality, responses that turned most young francophone Africans away from France irrevocably. In this way, I offer a fundamentally new interpretation of the ostensible world-historical opening of the postwar conjuncture. As all the reviewers have noted, a robust literature insists that national sovereignty was not the only viable route out of empire, but we still do not have a clear sense of why alternative visions failed. Black France, White Europe shows that conflicting models of pluralism animating Franco-African and European integration projects are an essential piece of that enduring historical puzzle.
It has been tremendously gratifying to see the many ways that the arguments and method of Black France, White Europe have resonated across this forum. With regards to methodology, I was especially heartened by Liz Fink’s discussion of how I read the colonial archive, Sarah Runcie’s emphasis on how I make space for both historical contingency and structural analysis, and Jess Pearson’s comments about how my work models a different kind of political history that hones in on the interplay between high politics and the everyday. All three approaches stem from my particular concern to better understand the mechanics of “race making” and how racism actually works—processes that transect various levels of historical analysis and draw on multiple reservoirs of meaning, from folk notions and elite discourse to concrete social relations and institutional arrangements. I was delighted by all the reviewers’ enthusiastic responses to my specific claims about racelessness and whiteness, and laïcité and culturalized Christianity. Greg Valdespino and Sarah Runcie dramatically underscore the stakes of those arguments past and present, from a deeper understanding of race and decolonization in the Africanist historiography to an active historical framework for making sense of last spring’s horrifying scenes of tens of thousands of Black and Brown university students from the ex-colonial world stranded in war-torn Ukraine.
The essays in this forum also raise important questions about gender, political economy, multilateralism, and Pan-Africanism. The gendered and economic dimensions of postwar youth and education initiatives were significant. As I suggest in Chapter 4, the technocratic and neoliberal undercurrents of the European project rose to the fore in the mid-1950s as supranational forms of political integration in Western Europe faltered. The subsequent establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) and EURATOM in 1957 refocused both Europeanist and Eurafrican youth and education initiatives around technical and professional education in the run up to African independence. More research on that shift in the education space would certainly augment the growing literature on the colonial roots of the EEC and the entangled history of European integration and racial capitalism.
The productivist logics of postwar education and youth development programs were also highly gendered. In the immediate postwar years, political discourse about youth was generally focused on young males as the harbingers of Europe and Africa’s political stability and economic prosperity; boys and young men made up more than two-thirds of organized youth movements in both the European and African contexts. And yet, the gender imbalance in the pro-Europe youth movements was seldom remarked on, let alone worried about (evidently it seemed quite natural to assume that Europe’s future leaders would be mostly men), whereas unequal sex ratios in Franco-African youth programs and the situation of African women and girls in general was a constant obsession of French pundits, colonial reformers, and youth workers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, gendered discourse about African youth contributed to the (re)pathologization of African cultures and the (re)racialization of Africa and Africans in the late colonial era.
French African youth drew on an ambient Pan-Africanist ethos as they actively combatted racist stereotypes about themselves and then-dominant misrepresentations and distortions about African history and culture in their student newspapers, political treatises, speeches, and memoirs. But though these sources loudly championed African unity in the abstract, I saw little evidence that French African youth and student circles took Pan-Africanism seriously as a concrete political project or a viable alternative to either imperial federation or national independence. Young French Africans closely followed and admired Nkrumah’s Ghana; Catholic and Muslim African youth envisioned transnational communities with their co-religionists on the continent and beyond; and most fused their critiques of anti-Black racism and religious persecution in European and African France with a more capacious anticolonial, Third-Worldist politics, especially after Bandung (1955). But French African youth seemed somewhat removed from anglophone Pan-Africanist networks and were much more preoccupied with building solidarity within their transnational faith communities or regional francophone constellations.
That said, French politicians, colonial officials, and youth and education workers were in a perpetual panic over the potential threat of Pan-Africanism spreading among French African youth. Ultimately, that is also how I read the impact of the UN on French colonial youth and education reforms in this period. French colonial administrators were terrified by the prospect of the “internationalization” of all its remaining colonial holdings after the war under the auspices of the UN. That fear had tangible effects on colonial education policy—French officials did reluctantly initiate some reforms as a way of pre-empting international intervention—but international oversight itself seldom made much difference. Indeed, a growing body of work shows that France and the other imperial powers successfully thwarted UNESCO efforts to develop robust basic education and other programs in Africa until after formal independence. So, yes, I would say that the 1950s was a long decade of “multilateralism without teeth,” in the education space at least. As we approach the close of the UN’s “International Decade for People of African Descent” (2015-2024) – whose theme “recognition, justice, and development” may seem as aspirational and remote as ever – we must come to terms with that foundational toothlessness, to really look it in the face and not look away. Black France, White Europe is a history of failure and disappointed hopes, but by confronting those disappointments and dissecting the actual mechanics of failure we may learn useful lessons as we continue to work towards a true multiracial and decolonial democracy today and tomorrow.
Emily Marker is Assistant Professor of European and Global History at Rutgers University-Camden and the Vice President of the Western Society for French History.