Fear of a Black France

You want to troll French fascists? Tell them the truth: the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé.

Kylian Mbappe. Image FIFA.

I was born in the late 70s of a mother from Martinique and a father from Lorraine region in eastern continental France: I was always aware that, for good and bad, France was more than white, more than Europe, more than what most thought and took for granted. I looked to history to make sense of the very existence of my family, and the history I found was a history of exploitation, slavery, abuse ignored by most French people.

Growing up in the 1980s, there were few places where French flags were acceptable: government buildings, sporting events, right-wing and fascist meetings. That was about it. For lefties like me, waving the flag was an act of political aggression. For a Frenchman of West Indian descent like me, waving the flag was also source of special ire, because I’d grown to know that no matter how French I actually was, no matter how well I knew French history, how well I spoke or wrote, how beholden to French values of liberté, égalité, fraternité, how connected to culture I was, there would be Frenchmen to fly the Drapeau tricolore in my face as a reminder that for them, against all aforementioned values, my skin alone was proof that I would never quite be French. All of this was both sublimated and exacerbated in football games where black and brown people were especially visible and worshipped by fans who would just as soon spit racial slurs at them.

So, 1998 was a bit odd. I shunned crowds and watched at home.

I had no special pride in being French, but then there wasn’t really anything else for me to be. My ties to Martinique do not make me Martinican. I was born and raised in a country that often struggles to fit me in. Like most Frenchmen of African descent, I’m a conscript of Frenchness—to riff on Conscripts of Modernity, David Scott’s reflection on Haitian revolutionaries’ vexed relation to revolutionary France and its averred values. Football occupies a unique and peculiar role in this relationship: I started playing at seven and never stopped. Football is tied to real world politics, morals and history, but it is also its own parallel world. Football allegiances do not seamlessly fit maps or borders. Football allegiances reveal individual geopolitics. I support FC Metz—my hometown team; I support Arsenal FC—Petit, Pirès, Kanu, Overmars, Bergkamp, Wiltord, Vieira and Henry’s team forever and ever, amen; I don’t trust PSG, Chelsea, Lazio which, rationally or not, I connect to their once and future fascist fans; I support all African teams, because I want them to teach the world a lesson, and I support football beauty wherever and whenever it appears, however fleetingly. I also support France (the team) in spite of France (the country), and for the imagined, alternative flag it flaunts in the face of France.

Have it in French: Je supporte la France, mais la France m’insupporte.

In 1999, I left the country for a year, and eventually for good. Not that racial matters in the US are any better; but I figured it might feel a bit different to actually be a foreigner.

I was naturalized recently, which I suppose makes me French-American. Things are a bit more complex: I’m Antillo-French-American, or maybe African-French-American. I’m not being flippant: these things matter, and have defined me.  In years I’ve spent away from France, I—as I suspect many other French people of African descent—have used Frenchness as a relativist tool: I take it everywhere, often keep it in my pocket, sometimes pull it out to use as a bludgeon on unsuspecting bigots, racists, misguided liberals, and more often than not I just sit on it. It makes for a decent pillow.

France and the US are not so different. They make similar claims for values of universalism and openness that are belied by their histories and politics. By law and values, if you’re born on French soil you are a French citizen, no matter where your parents came from, why, how, or when. The right of soil has been attacked in recent decades, but still, it remains. But in France, we do not hyphenate: origins are known and often discussed but they’re expected to bow down to Frenchness. Not such an awful idea, except that for all of France’s Revolution-fed universalism, the idea that Frenchness passes through blood still wallows in the sewers of the French psyche. Lately, more of these sewers have been opened and their stench have become an unavoidable component of the French political atmosphere.

But see, some of us were born with that smell in our nostrils. 25 years ago, Paul Gilroy famously wrote—with a wry smile, I imagine—in The Black Atlantic: “Striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness.”  

In this World Cup as in others before, I am left to reflect on the dilemmas that come with rooting for France when France does not quite root for me. Should I be glad as a Frenchman of color to see the same people who once insulted me on the street, questioned my Frenchness, suggested I go back to my country, now revel in the achievements of people who look much like me, whose roots aren’t unlike mine? Can there be more than schadenfreude in seeing darkest France win it for a country increasingly defined by its racism and pettiness? Is it schadenfreude or a peculiar form of backdoor patriotism? What am I rooting for?

I found joy in reminders that some of France’s best players have close roots in Mali, Sénégal, Cameroon, Morocco, Congo, Guinea, Algeria, Angola. I also gleefully pointed out the blackness of our best players. I flaunted it. I get it: the black players of France are also black players for the entire black world. Reminding the world of the players’ African roots is a way to bring perspective to victories claimed by people who still profit from France’s crimes against these very countries and their people. Yet I could not help but feel a little queasy at the multiplication of tweets—many by probably well-meaning white Anglos—summarizing centuries of history into witty tidbits French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen would not have frowned upon. Many of these, whether they mean to or not, reinforce the notion that blackness in France is necessarily not-quite-French. But France has been black for centuries. If a point must be made by way of this team, maybe it is that France should not be allowed to claim distinction and separation from Africa so casually, because France owes Africa everything. Not just the resources it continues to pillage, not just the labor force it shamelessly taps into, not just the art it appropriates as it has for centuries: France owes Africa its very soul.

France’s history of slavery and colonialism is long and vile, and France has a long record of silencing it. But it lives in these bodies on Russian soccer fields and in those we only catch glimpses of when cameras cut to crowd scenes in those Parisian suburbs most of the players grew up in. And we know in moments like these, on the greatest stage in the world, we can make France look better than it is, we can make it look like it actually delivers on promises it tramples under feet on the daily. No one knows France like we do. No one is France like we are. You want to troll French fascists? Tell them the truth: the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé. And in the eternal words of Aimé Césaire: n’allez pas le répéter, mais le nègre vous emmerde. En français.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.