You have sowed "Liberte, egalite, fraternite" in your remotest colonies, and now, as they say in America, "The chickens have come home to roost." French Arabs and Africans have come to you to ask for more individual rights. They belong to you and you belong to them, because you have carried them in your womb. They need you most to realize their dream of democracy, equal rights with your other children, and individual dignity. And you, France, you need them as you meet the new global challenges of migration, transnational markets, and multiple identity positions. From now on the world will judge you according to whether they embrace or reject your doctrine of universalism. France, your position as torch-bearer of democracy in the world will depend on their welfare.
Dr. Trica D. Keaton's new book provides the most in-depth analysis of the predicament of French Arabs and Africans living in the suburbs of Paris-your capital and symbolic city. As an African American, Professor Keaton has experienced racism first hand in America. But it is as a social scientist-who studied with Professor Pierre Bourdieu, one of your best sons-that she looks at your new citizens and candidates for "Liberte, egalite, fraternite." Trica Keaton spent more than six years doing fieldwork and archival research on children of African and Arab descent who were born in Paris and its suburbs. She followed them at school-where they were taught the values of assimilation, national unity, and the universal equality of individuals. And she went with them to their neighborhoods and homes where they were discriminated against by your police and public institutions. She found many contradictions between what you promised them through education on the one hand, and what they experienced daily, on the other hand.
France, you may not like what you are going to find in Dr. Keaton's book. But remember what Jean-Paul Sartre had once said in his introduction to L. S. Senghor book, Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache de langue francaise. Sartre argued that French people would not like being perceived and judged by those that they had colonized. Since they had always looked at the colonized and judged her/him, they would not enjoy hearing from him that colonialism was oppressive and evil. But, for Sartre, it was necessary for Frenchmen to listen to what the black African, the Arab, and other wretched of the earth had to say. The historical conditions in those days were such that decolonization movement s had heated up--there was Indochina and Algeria soon after. In Paris, the Negritude poets had returned the gaze and French people were their object of perception in a rapidly changing world. Sartre correctly thought that it was important for the French people to try to understand what the Other was saying. Sartre went as far as to call Senghor's anthology the most committed in France at the time. Trica D. Keaton's book is not about the colonizer and colonized, nor even bout immigration, even though it could be read that way. It is about your children whose ancestors may have issued from colonialism, or even slavery. Counting the French Caribbeans, today, there are more than eight million people of Arab and African descent living in France. They suffer humiliation at the hands of the authorities, and their civil and citizenship rights are continually violated by people who treated them as foreigners simply on the basis of the color of their skin.. This book is mainly about their experience at the "Metropole."
In one sense, one can read the book through the lens of such great African American writers and activists as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Malcolm X. In their radical demand for citizenship, equal rights, and belonging in America, they told the "White Man [to] Listen;" and they threatened the "Fire Next Time." Malcolm X was one of the first to relate the struggle of African Americans in the US to that of other people of color in Europe. Looking at the riots of Birmingham (UK) in the 1960s, he cautioned the British that if they were not careful, they would end up with a situation similar to that of the US. Professor Keaton's book also contains an implicit warning to you, France, not to repeat the American racism in your country. Your black and Arab children are pleading with you to grant them their full citizenship, to respect their individuality, and to stop American-like ghettoes from erecting between them and your other children.
But it is as a social scientist that Dr. Keaton reserves her most pressing question for you, France. She calls it "The French Dilemma," borrowing the expression from "The American Dilemma" coined by the Swedish sociologist, Gunner Mirdall. Trica D. Keaton's extensive research has revealed to her that there is a fundamental contradiction "between highly abstracted notions of universalism and the lived-reality of ethnic distinction and social discrimination against persons of non-European origins and of color." In other words, your children of Arab and African descent are both assimilated culturally and excluded socially. To borrow an expression from W.E. B. Dubois-the father of race sociology in America-they experience a double consciousness as the manifestation of living simultaneously within and behind the veil. Therein lies the paradox for you, France: position the veil in one way for a particular result, or another for a totally different outcome. Adjust the definition of "universalism" in light of new modernities and alternative globalizations, or maintain the old concept of French universalism, so dear to the National Front and other conservatives and racists. Either way you will have a different France: democratic and dynamic or old, conservative and xenophobic.
The first choice is obviously what all of us, who love you, France, wish for. However, to be flexible with the definition of universalism does not mean to fall back on relativism or to retreat from reason, or even to lock ourselves into some form of fixed identity politics. It means that a strategy has to be found to include your "Other" children in the nation, without reducing them to an outdated identity of Frenchness, or ethnic absolutism. It means mobilizing everyone toward a common goal "Liberte, egalite, fraternite," without taking away their soul. Finally it means realizing that people from different origins embrace their French identity in a different manner, with out using that difference to divide them. A multicultural France is what we're calling for-a country that is still in the making, and yet is the beacon of democracy and reason. Your universalism is one that keeps rediscovering its essence in its new members, instead of being represented as fixed and timeless. We have to dare to think of a France that is not yet completed, and whose future depends also on the children of African and Arab descent.
Next to this dream of a multicultural France, there is currently an absolutist and ethnocentric model of universalism that prevails in most institutions and public spheres. It picks on trivial symbols as Arab girls wearing the veil to go to school to exclude them from your family. It denies French citizenship to black children born in the suburbs of Paris because their parents came here illegally. It mobilizes the images of radical imams, lawbreakers, and the unemployed to demonize whole communities that it declares as unfit to be included in your family. In short, this tendency relies on stereotypes and other outward forms of representation as weapons in a war against the "Other." It tries to maintains your children of African and Arab descent in a position of what Dr. Keaton calls "being perceived as foreigners," and not as French.
France, if you stay on the course of ethnic absolutism, you will not only be forced to reject some of your children, but also the idealism that made you universal around the world: "Liberte, egalite, fraternite." The universalism you should want to defend is freedom and democracy for the oppressed, not some unitary form of being French in this global world. The universalism you should extend to the world is the French hospitality and inclusion of the oppressed in your family-instead of sending them back at the mercy of dictators, religious fanatics and intolerant cultural environments. France, you need a new and, as usual, courageous universalism that can cope with the modern global challenges, instead of retreating from them.
Finally, France, you do not need to take side in the identitarian and political struggle between the National Front and the veiled Muslim girls. They're both symptoms of a changing world in which their roles are diminishing. They may hide behind your flag or envelop themselves with it, but they are not the torch-bearers. You are, France. Dr. Keaton's book shows that the veil is not the problem, but the schools and the environment in which the children grow up. Her excellent research reveals, to anybody who is willing to read it, how you, France, can solve your dilemma. I hope that you'll have the courage to read it.
Dr. Manthia Diawara is the Director of the Africana Studies Program and the Institute of African American Affairs at New York University, where he is also a professor of comparative literature and cinema studies.
* This is a forward which will appear in the book Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics, and Social Exclusion by Professor Trica D. Keaton (Indiana University Press), to be released in Spring 2006. It was originally written in December 2004. Reprinted with permission from the author.
November 18, 2005 (Originally written in December 2004)