The Colonial Roots of the Idea of a Colorblind France

12 December 2022

** This is the first in a series of four reviews of Emily Marker’s Black France, White Europe” Youth, Race, and Belonging in the Postwar Era. Each day this week one review will be published, and Marker will then respond on Friday. **

Scholars of race in France are under siege. In 2021, Frédérique Vidal announced an investigation into “Islamo-gauchisme” that was a “gangrène” on French university life. While a potential investigation may have amounted to little, and indeed Vidal’s days as Minister of Higher Education were numbered, certainly the outcry against the study of race and postcolonialism reached a fever pitch. It isn’t just critics from within government, though. Prominent figures from French academia and public life have tried to argue that, on the one hand, the study of race had little natural place in a supposedly colorblind republic, and on the other that scholars of race and France were drawing from methods imported from an American context (hence the charge of wokisme). Emily Marker’s Black France, White Europe: Youth, Race, and Belonging in the Postwar Era offers a timely and important response to these critics. By providing a longue durée history of ideas of race in France, she argues that some of the most important terrains of struggle over thinking (or refusing to think) about race in France come from the colonial era, and that the process of making France simultaneously “white and raceless” come from France’s history as an imperial and a European power.

Rather than “a history of young people and adjacent social groups,” Marker’s book “explores the shifting coordinates of postwar belonging through them” (13, emphasis Marker’s) by bringing together the history of French empire and of European integration into the same framework. She shows how the category of youth became important to a project to maintain and strengthen French rule in Africa at the same time that proponents of European integration saw youth as central to depicting European integration as a generational project. Her framework of interweaving the history of postwar French empire with the history European integration provides new insights not just into the renovation of empire and the creation of a new sense of France as simultaneously raceless and white and European, but also understanding the end of empire: in the epilogue, she suggests that reading French administrators’ “growing fatalism in the mid-1950s” about the fundamental differences between Africans and Europeans can help us understand how “despite France’s efforts to strengthen tie with its African colonies in the 1940s and 1950s, France became both more French and more European during precisely those years” (219).

Marker’s work adds to the important literature on the reconstruction of France after the Second World War. The “postwar” in the book’s subtitle refers to the end of the war through the 1950s as “an extended postwar moment” (23). Marker examines the significant changes in French colonialism before the Second World War, but also the formative nature of the long and messy end of the war itself. She does considerable work with people like René Cassin. Cassin was the Free French national commissioner of justice and public instruction for de Gaulle’s shadow government from December 1941 to June 1943. The only actual schools he had control over during his tenure were in French Equatorial Africa, and he ran in international circles of policy makers, including spending time with Czechoslovak president in exile Edvard Beneš. Cassin had a national education job that was, as Marker points out, more national, colonial, and transnational than would normally be expected.

As the example of Cassin shows, Marker’s focus, while treating metropole and colony in the same analytic frame, allows her to also transcend the metropole/colony framework that can often hem in work in colonial studies. For instance, while she builds on work by J.P. Daughton, who argued that the huge conflicts of the fin de siècle between the Church and the republic in many ways found a grudging truce in the colonies, she intriguingly shows that the decisions by Free French and Fourth Republic youth and education officials to prioritize religious schooling and youth associations in France as well as the colonies also drew from transnational European developments like the occupation of Germany after World War II. French occupation officials, unlike British and American occupation authorities, prioritized the reconfessionalization of German schools, which had been nationalized and secularized under the Nazis in 1937 (191). Religion plays a key role for Marker in how French identity could become raceless while also European, white, and also, laïc identity of many French administrators notwithstanding, Christian, and That is the fuller context in which Islam emerged in opposition.

Her approach of bringing together the colonial and the European helps her make innovative arguments about race. She sees this new postwar discourse around French racelessness emerging out of new ways of talking about Europe. She builds on growing historical research into postwar empire. On the one hand, French Empire changed rapidly after the war, from establishing universal citizenship for Africans in 1946 to expanding suffrage. Even the terms by which empire referred to itself shifted; the Ministry of Colonies became the Ministry of Overseas France, and the establishment of the French Union in 1946 followed in that zeitgeist. Alongside changes to empire, Marker argues that France came to see itself as raceless in the context of a move away from using race to discuss difference among Europeans (114). In understanding race in the postwar, Marker argues that the interplay between the changing ways the French state rearticulated its ideas about race and the ways it was critiqued by Africans constitutes “a postwar racial common sense.”

The concept of “common sense,” though, perhaps doesn’t do justice to the careful way she shows ideas about race were articulated and how they changed over time. In fact, Marker’s close reading of French administrative bureaucracy is one of the great strengths of this fascinating book.  Besides showing how administrative and colonial discourse changed over time, she makes a provocative and important argument for how discourses around race mattered. It was imperative for French officials, even when accepting that the state of education in postwar Africa was dire enough to justify the infusion of a new fund of billions of francs (a portion of which was earmarked for education), to refuse to accept that it was racist (109). Marker shows how by the 1950s, despite a very slow expansion of education in Africa, French officials tried to argue that the inadequacies of colonial education bolstered their claims of the incompatibility of African and European civilization. She shows how the surveillance the colonial state carried out on the relatively few African students who made it to the metropole to study was not just about security or monitoring political threats from a group that was increasingly radical and anticolonial, but was “more of an ethnographic enterprise…Their ‘findings’ produced new patterns of racialization that renaturalized structural inequality and race prejudice” (141). Indeed, her approach justifies careful reading of colonial administrators by showing how much French colonial administration determined the outcomes of empire. She concludes that “some potentialities were hamstrung, if not completely foreclosed, by this conservative Euro-colonial institutional framework from the start” (11).

The close work she does with French administrative discourse helps us better understand how colonial leaders could make what might seem like surprising conclusions about African student and political leaders who protested colonial racism. She carefully charts across a rightward lurch in the colonial administration after the end of tripartisme in 1947 a more rigid administrative insistence that while France was raceless, it was Africans who were defined and limited by their race, which shaped both how French administrators viewed African education but also how they fought against demands made by African students and youth leaders. Marker argued that “the ease with which those demands could be dispensed with by invoking ‘anti-white racism’ became another key component of postwar racial common sense” (130). Her epilogue shows the long legacies of these ways of framing race. Many decades after the end of France’s African empire, the charges of antiwhite racism against not just people who seek to study race in France, but the powerful movements of people seeking to challenge French racism, point to the enduring importance of historicizing the limits of racelessness and representation in the longue durée of French history.


Liz Fink is the editor of French Politics, Culture & Society at the Institute of French Studies, New York University. She is a historian of social movements and decolonization and is finishing her book manuscript about elections and decolonization in West Africa.

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