France has long been seen as a safe haven for people of color fleeing racism in their native land. According to Alan Govenar’s documentary Myth of a Colorblind France, this reputation has its roots in the experiences of African American soldiers who arrived in France in 1917 to fight in World War I. Most were from the South and were used to daily, sometimes life-threatening, racism; they expected similar treatment from the overwhelmingly white population of France. But their actual experience was quite different: much to their own surprise, African American soldiers were accepted and appreciated by both the French military and the general population.
These soldiers wrote home about their experiences, and some of those letters were printed in the African American press, including one in which a soldier told his mother that “These people are so nice, the only time I know I’m colored is when I’m looking in the glass.” Many eminent African Americans moved to France by choice in the following decades, including Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Richard Wright, Lois Mailou Jones, and James Baldwin, some spending the rest of their lives in that country. Many contemporary expats of African descent also make their home in France today, and a number of them recall their positive experiences in this film.
Officially, France is a “color-blind” country: the 1958 constitution guarantees equal treatment without regard to race or religion, and a 1972 law makes racial defamation a crime. A national belief in the equality of all men can be traced back to the French revolution, and there are even earlier precedents: for instance, in the 15th century, the principles of “French Free Soil” stated that any slave who set foot in France was automatically considered free. In addition, the migration of African Americans to France dates back to the 19th century, when free African Americans from Louisiana began to move there.
Yet the actual situation is more complicated, because French planters in the Caribbean were allowed to own slaves, and French citizens participated in the slave trade. The contemporary situation in France is also complex, and the positive experiences enjoyed by African Americans are not always shared by dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, many of whom report experiencing harassment and discrimination. Quantifying that discrimination in France is difficult, however, because a 1978 law bans the collection of race-based data except under very specific circumstances (race and ethnic information is not collected, for instance, in the national census), raising the question of how a country could be sure they are color blind in reality as well as in principle if they don’t collect and analyze the kind of data that could identify racial discrimination.
The key to the different experiences of expat African Americans and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, according to Myth of a Colorblind France, is that French racial discrimination has its roots in France’s colonial history, rather than being based exclusively on skin color. Thus, an individual who may have no problem accepting African American celebrities and tourists may at the same time wish that the impoverished, dark-skinned immigrants living on French housing estates would just disappear from the country. Unfortunately, this thought is not well developed in Govenar’s film, which feels more like a collage than a well-constructed film. The materials presented make it interesting enough to watch, but the experience is also frustrating because you know the film could have been so much better. | Sarah Boslaugh
Myth of a Colorblind France is distributed on VOD by First Run Features.