French Identity – pt.1

Courtesy of Caroline Levin

30 minutes late. At 6pm, I finally arrive to Poisson Lune, the colorful bar outside the Le Palais de la Porte Dorée’s entrance.

Still catching my breath from the post-metro run, I immediately spot Professor Pap Ndiaye seated— speaking on the phone, writing an email, sipping beer from a glass, and all the while welcoming me with a warm smile.


In addition to my mix-up in scheduling and getting lost in Parisian transport, my chaotic entrance continued as I pulled out my laptop, and out of my bag then onto the table falls a condom that I was given at Pride last week.

Luckily the professor was too busy a man to notice— at least that’s what I told myself.  I apologized for my tardiness. He responded by offering me a drink on the house.

It was my first time at Palais de la Porte Dorée, known for its hosting the National History Museum of Immigration as well as l’Aquarium Tropical.

new paris

Heavy beat music playing through the speakers surrounding a stage for a potential DJ set, a vibrant terrasse, drinks being served at the open bar, an all-round young diverse crowd… the energy somehow feels like an alternate Paris.

courtesy of Caroline Levin

The space just like a different current than that of untouched tradition found at Musée D’Orsay or L’Orangerie. It embodied what I now find myself calling “new Paris”, the energy brewing on the east side in contrast with the polished West bank.

The contrast of old and new in Paris is one that’s been on my mind quite a bit since my few weeks living here. I theorize that it mirrors the clashing political agendas and that each hold an alternate vision for what the future of the French culture and society.

The country itself increasingly looks different. With a non-white France taking up more visibility than a couple decades back, questions are being raised concerning what French identity means.

With such pertinent demographic changes, France appears to be at a crossroads of definition and construction.

From the point of view of an outsider, hearing snippets from all ends of the political spectrum, the question of “what does it mean to be French in 2021” has never seemed so confusing. And yet, with the 2022 presidential elections well in sight, the need for a collective answer is as urgent as ever.

diverging narratives

Given all this cultural backdrop, Le Palais de la Porte Dorée seemed the perfect setting to sit with Professor Pap Ndiaye, French historian, professor at Sciences Po and recently appointed Director of the Palais, to discuss his thoughts on the diverging narratives dominating and dividing much of French society today.

How did you come across your own questioning of identity in France— how did you develop a more critical lens, and ultimately a desire to pursue studies in an “histoire engagée”?

Prof. Pap Ndiaye: As you might guess, there is nothing like spending time abroad to have another view on your own country. In my case, that was spending time in the US.

I came across a number of issues that were mostly swept under the rug in France— mainly racial issues, which when I was a student were not commonly discussed. They are more discussed nowadays but tend to produce controversies.

But, back then, there was a gap and the contrast between the US and France were huge.

It was a real discovery for me to study in the US and to deal with questions that I came to be so deeply interested in. It also allowed me to answer questions I had deep in myself, which I was not able to express when I lived in France.

So, to answer your question, the decisive experience was the US experience, for sure.

How do you respond to those who claim that the transatlantic lens has been more so contagion than a vantage point to reevaluate their own country— the common fear of “Americanization”?

When people say, “we’re talking about this process of Americanization of the French debate”, I usually respond by saying that this debate has been going on in France for a century.

Indeed, as early as the 1920s, a number of activists, of public intellectuals and artists were all raising questions in France about colonial domination and the racial inequalities they were experiencing in metropolitan France.

So, this debate is an old debate: if you think of the Négritude movement of the 1930s, if you think of Franz Fanon— who I started to first read in the US in English, not in France…

So, when speaking about “Americanization”, it’s a very short-sited understanding of a century-long conversation between the two sides of the Atlantic, which does not take into account the influence of French thinkers over the American thinking and the critical thinking of race.

My answer is: let’s speak of the “Frenchization”. Let’s speak about this century-long debate, let’s have a deep understanding when we speak of these exchanges, and not think of it as some recent fashion, where we just borrow from the US. It’s way more complicated and way more interesting.

How does the Négritude movement echo in France today in terms of explicit impact and influence? “The universalist rhetoric still stands… I’m curious how France remembers it today?

negritude theory

It has had an influence— especially when you think of the connection between the Négritude movement and Sartre, and the existential philosophy of Sartre in the post-WWII period in France.

Indeed, the most sophisticated theorization of the Negritude was written by Sartre. In his feature of the Ontologie de la Poésie Nègre Malgache, published by Senghor in 1948, Senghor asked Sartre to write the preface of his ontology, where Sartre presented a theoretical perspective of the Negritude movement— which can be debated and should not be taken as “the negritude” as understood by Senghor and Césaire.

However, it is the highly sophisticated, Marxist understanding of the Négritude, as a step towards the full universal perspective which he wanted. The Négritude was, as some philosophers would call, “strategic essentialism”: a movement through which any minority has to go in order to experience their true identity before moving to the next step which is full universalism and the possibility to engage in “true revolution” as Marx understood.

So, Marx understood the Négritude as an intermediary moment that could open to something else— which is not something Senghor would fully accept, as he understood it as a full form of universalism and not just a baby step towards something else…it has its own venue.

This just shows you Négritude was discussed among intellectual circles in France, which is often forgotten. Historians of French intellectuals ignore or vastly underestimate the Négritude movement, and all the thinking that discussed and challenged universalism at the time. All that has been marginalized.


The point today is to reintegrate those histories into the master narrative of French history of intellectualism and art in the 20th century. Think also of the committee which patronized the Présence Africaine journal that was created in 1947.

In this scientific committee: you find Sartre, Levi-Strauss, André Breton, … you find the crème de la crème of French intellectuals.

So, again, it is a vivid testimony of what we have forgotten nowadays – the centrality of the Négritude movement, which we have to reassess.

Why is there today a tension occurring with minority voices, notably around the question of ethnic and religious minorities —why is there a political turn today more so than ever before? Perhaps even a racial reawakening to be paralleled to the Négritude of the interwar period?

I think there are several reasons behind it. One reason would be the high level nowadays of international connections with the social networks, with connections that did not exist 25 years ago when internet was not as developed, when France was more isolated from what was going on in foreign countries.

Those conversations taking place in the UK, in the US, and elsewhere have made their way into France through the internet and through the intensity of international connections which did not exist before.


A good example would be George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The international echo of the BLM movement wouldn’t have happened without the internet, without the possibility to be aware of what’s going on, to organize…

The second thing would be a more sociological approach: we’re talking about a new generation of young French people, non-white French people, who are born in France, who go to the good universities etc. and these people are facing forms of racial discrimination and structural racism which cannot be linked to the fact that they don’t speak French or don’t have French diplomas, which was the case of their parents.

So, they ask questions about who they are. Are we French?  We’ve done everything we had to do: we live in France, we have very good diplomas and degrees from top universities, etc. And yet, we have difficulties in our everyday lives … how is that?

what about now?

When it came to our parents or grandparents coming from wherever, this was because officially they didn’t speak French or didn’t have the proper degrees… but what about us now?

There is an awakening of people born in France, not recent migrants, who are raising questions what it means to be French, about equality, what citizenship means. If it doesn’t mean equality then what does it mean? If citizenship doesn’t protect you against racial profiling by the police, then what is the meaning of true citizenship?

All these questions are asked now when they were not asked the same way by the parents or grandparents decades ago.

Why is there such a fear of these increasing voices that don’t abide by the national narrative, more so than what we’ve seen in other western countries? Take the example of Karim Benzema not singing the national anthem— it hit a profound offense in France, people saying it was inappropriate to express discontent, inappropriate to even have discontent towards France…

Is there merit to asking why some are angry, why some are demanding change, why are some troubled by glorifying the French identity? Why is there a reluctance of the political parties to listen to this anger?

That’s an important question. You speak of “anger”, and I think that might be the right word— fear I would also add.

It’s understandable to think of a society that is getting through major changes, getting through an economic crisis… which is also facing questions about what does it mean to be French in a changing world when France is not the superpower it once was, which doesn’t have an empire anymore. It’s just a medium sized country in Europe, with Germany being more powerful in many ways.

So, all these questions have raised a number of soul-searching issues about identity, about threat from foreigners— the threat to national identity by immigration. All this is so central to political light nowadays in France, as we witness almost every day.

What we are also seeing these days is the rise of the extreme right and the reactionary backlash, which considers anti-racism as more dangerous than racism, claiming that anti-racism has to be criticized and fought, but not racism.

concept of frenchness

That is the high price we are all paying for the rise of something else in France, which is a more multicultural society, the acknowledgment that Frenchness is not an ethnic concept, that Frenchness is not being white.

When you think of Frenchness, most French people would think of whiteness in reality. That is why being black in France is often being asked all the time “where are you from, where are you from”.

If you are being asked, where are you from, that means that you are not seen as from here, right? If you say you’re from Paris, people say “oh where are you really from”. This means there’s a real disconnect between race— or ethnicity— and Frenchness.

Frenchness is seen as a white thing. even if you speak a standard French etc. So, this is a huge moment of struggle in many ways, which I’m quite optimistic about in the long run.

But meanwhile, we are facing immense threats with the possibility of the extreme right to be in power in France in a year from now. This is not something I hope for sure, not something I believe in too much. But let’s face it: it’s a real possibility.

There are many issues linked to the economic situation, the sanitary situation… it creates tensions in French society. But what anti-racist people want is to put anti-racism into the political agenda, at least the political agenda of the left.


I would also argue to take distance vis-à-vis traditional French universalism, which is supposedly color-blind. But color-blindness could also be a way to avoid issues of inequality and discriminations.

So, it’s not being against universalism but believing in true universalism, universalism that is not bias in favor of man, in favor of white man, in favor of white heterosexual man, in favor of white heterosexual Christian man— you can add whatever you want. Universalism must be a true form of universalism.

I’m for a color-blind society for sure, but to have a color-blind society, we first have to acknowledge that our society is not color-blind. This is the first honest step towards it instead of hiding our eyes so as not to look at the true reality of French society.

We’re in the middle of a struggle for sure, which is not easy, which is very complicated, but France is not the first society to meet this kind of debate in the west, as we’ve seen with Trump and these reactionary almost fascist forces that tried to destroy democracy last January in Washington DC.

Click Here For PART 2

About the Article

A look at French identity today, current racial issues and diversified culture in both post–colonial France and the United States.

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