Race Politics and Colonial Legacies: France, Africa and the Middle East

Hisham Aidi, Marc Lynch, and Zachariah Mampilly


France has been consumed by the politics of race and difference over the last two decades, with a rising right wing intersecting with the insistent demands for citizenship and inclusion by citizens of African descent and Islamic faith. The legacies of French colonialism run deep, not only in the postcolonial states of West and North Africa but within French political discourse and state-society relations.  In June 2023, the Project on Middle East Political Science, the Program on African Social Research, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris convened a workshop bringing together scholars and activists from the United States, Europe and Africa for a focused dialogue on the contentious legacies of the French colonial experience for today’s politics of race and religion. This volume of POMEPS Studies collects some of the papers presented at that workshop.

This project has roots at the very beginnings of the Program on African Social Research.  In February 2020 – the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic – the Project on Middle East Political Science held a preliminary meeting at Columbia University in New York to explore the origins of the Africa-Middle East divides that treat North Africa as part of the Middle East and neglect states such as Sudan and Mauritania. Columbia was an appropriate place to begin such a dialogue. Two decades ago, when two of us (Aidi and Mampilly) were graduate students at Columbia, the Institute of African Studies was in serious crisis. The Ugandan political theorist Mahmood Mamdani arrived and launched an initiative to decolonize the study of Africa to counter Hegel’s partition of Africa by transcending the Saharan and red Sea divides,  and by underscoring Africa’s links to Arabia, Asia and the New World. To that end, we co-organized a second conference on racial formations in Africa and the Middle East looking at race-making across these two regions comparatively, including the border zones often left out of both African and Middle Eastern Studies: the Sudans, Amazigh-speaking areas in the Sahel, Arabic speaking areas on the Swahili coast and Zanzibar. This workshop represents the third in our series of transregional studies across the Africa-Middle East divide.

So why France and French colonial legacies?  We hoped to correct the Anglo-American bias in our previous discussions of race and racialization, by bringing together Francophone scholars to talk about how French colonialism produced and exported “race” to different regions of the world – and then after colonialism decided to reject the concept of race it had done so much to produce.  We hoped to bring into dialogue intellectual communities and historical experiences too often kept separate by the vagaries of language, closed academic networks, and different theoretical starting points. This approach was shaped by our intellectual partner and host at École Normale Supérieure, Marwan Mohammed, whose work on Islamophobia and incendiary racial politics in France – including Renaud Camus’s Great Replacement Theory and the broad attack on an alleged “Islamo-leftism” threatening the French republic – gave urgency to our theoretical and comparative inquiries.  Our previous work directly challenged the divide between North Africa and West Africa, arguing against the idea that the Sahara somehow posed an ontological divide between societies which had always been economically and culturally linked.  In this collection, scholars like Madina Thiam similarly challenge the divides between British Eastern Africa (specifically the Sudan) and French Western Africa, showing how those regions too had long historical economic connections. How would our previous work on race and racialization in Africa and the Middle East be changed if better informed by French sociological theory that showed that the concept of racial formations actually grew out of French and British sociology departments in the 1970s?

Regarding colonial legacies: We know that the regime of racial and ethnic differentiation introduced by France in 1830s Algeria profoundly shaped conceptions of difference and identity categories in Algeria, that those colonial policies would influence how race was deployed across the Sahel into French West Africa from Mauritania to Senegal, and in turn colonial Senegal would inspire educational policies applied in colonial Morocco. The French theorizing and race-making also occurred across continents. We know France sent political prisoners and nationalists from West Africa to penal colonies in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar and Vietnam.  And if Arthur De Gobineau’s notorious theory of the human races was shaped by his time as a scholar-diplomat in Brazil and Iran; it was also from the New World – specifically the Caribbean — that the most trenchant critiques of French racial thought began to emerge from thinkers like Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, often in engagement with North African politics. France of course – Paris in particular – would also become an incubator for a range of pan-African and pan-Arab ideologies, with Antillian and African American writers playing a pronounced role (Solène Brun and Claire Cosquer, this volume).

Colonial legacies alone do not explain the patterns of racial differentiation and hierarchy, however. How did French colonial policy interact with pre-existing racial hierarchies? Can the concept of “race” be used to describe difference and domination prior to colonialism? In the decades after gaining independence, some African states (e.g., Rwanda, Tanzania), in effect, banned ethnicity and race as categories, but discrimination against minorities continued. In recent years, we’re seeing the term ethnicity revived again, for instance, in the Maghreb, with the rise in Amazigh activism. Political theorist Michael Hanchard recently observed that in America the concept of race fell out of favor in American political science after WWII – in comparative politics and international relations but not American politics. In the last decade, race has been making a return in the study of Latin America and Europe (with the study of migration). In our work, we engage a set of scholars bringing the concept of race back in the study of Africa and the Middle East – and their diasporas– this time as a decolonizing or equalizing tool.

One of the key, but controversial, theoretical moves in this literature has been the decoupling of race and skin color, with attention to racializing dynamics along a broader range of identity, religious, caste, ethnic and tribal markers. We’re interested in examining which differences in the Francophone world get labeled as racial, ethnic or caste, and how that might differ from such demarcations in the Anglophone world.  What do Francophone scholars and activists in Africa or the Caribbean mean when they say ethnicity or race – are they talking about ancestry or bodily markers? We are also interested in movements, ideas and campaigns to counter racism in all its forms. Are there new concepts or frameworks that are emerging locally in France or former French colonies to counter racism? Ya-Han Chuang in this collection looks at anti-Asian racism in the context of COVID-19, showing the recurrence of racialized processes and discourses along different lines than the more frequently observed racialization of Muslims and Africans.

This collection intentionally puts into dialogue a roughly even number of scholars focused on former French colonies in Africa and the Middle East and scholars focused on the politics of race and racism in France itself.  To borrow a title from Paul Silverstein, one of the contributors to this volume, we wanted to study France in Africa and Africa in France, contesting the sharp lines traditionally drawn between colonial and postcolonial and between the metropole and the colonies. In his own essay, Silverstein uses football to show these movements, from the racial politics of sports under colonialism to the racialized response to African-origin players in contemporary World Cup play.  Millions of Africans and North Africans have lived in France for generations, as have African-born or raised settlers such as Algeria’s piednoirs who returned to the metropole at independence. Meanwhile, postcolonial African and Middle Eastern states continue to have their discourses and political institutions structured by the racial categories established by France during the era of colonial rule.  France has long attempted to maintain diplomatic prominence within its former African colonies, as Amy Niang documents in this collection, in ways that ensured the ongoing political and economic connections that problematize fine lines between the colony and the postcolony.

We are especially interested in the circulation of ideas, practices and politics across national, regional and continental divides –particularly within Francophone Africa and the Middle East. As Oumar Ba points out in his contribution, generations of African intellectuals and political figures — often educated in French-style institutions and engaged with French philosophical and political debates – moved seamlessly between their capitals and Paris, forming new relationships and solidarities along the way. The language of higher education played a role in racializing dynamics across French Africa. As Baba Adou demonstrates using the case of Mauritania, the effects of the Arabization of post-colonial North African education and state institutions continued to structure lines of political and social conflict decades after independence.  A forthcoming POMEPS Studies volume on Fanon’s legacy for the Middle East and Africa takes the circulation of these ideas even further.

Racialization is a continuous process, “a system of social differentiation under French colonialism was not a fixed category, but fluid, moving across time and space” (Dahlia El Zein, this collection) and involves issues far beyond skin phenotype.  El Zein, in this collection, shows how Lebanese Syrian Shi’a migrants acquired a racial identity quite different from their subordinate racialized position within the Levant. Resistance to racism can trigger its own countermovements, as we have seen globally. In the case of Tunisia, Houda Mzioudet shows how the successful moves to protect African migrants and outlaw racism suffered violent reversal following Kais Saied’s coup against Parliamentary democracy, as tolerance and activism gave way to demonization and pogroms inspired by Saied’s explicit and implicit drawing on the French right wing politician Eric Zemmour’s racist “Great Replacement” talk. 

The second set of essays focus on the politics of race and racism in France, always with a keen eye on the ongoing connections with the former colonies and the political context of what Leonard Cortana calls “the ferocious witch hunt against the producers of post-colonial knowledge… amid highly mediatized urban revolutions and a couple of years after the promulgation of France’s new anti-separatism law passed in 2021.”  Brun and Cosquer’s overture takes on directly the theoretical question with which we began: is there a distinctively French sociology of race? Pushing back against accusations that race is a political construct imported from the United States, Brun and Cosquer trace the evolution of distinctively French conceptions of race and racialization through colonialism, running from the thinkers of negritude through Frantz Fanon into a wide range of sociological and philosophical approaches which have, in turn, often informed American debates and approaches.

Kenza Talmat argues that “the study of racialization in France has been ironically consigned as a peripheral or imported object by the scholarly establishment” despite the long French role in developing racialized concepts and the current wave of heavily racialized political repression. Olivia Umurerwa Rutazibwa takes up that challenge in an innovative and deeply personal reflection on the epistemologies of race and Blackness during the 2020 Black Lives Matter mobilization. Liberalism is hardly an answer, argues Hamza Esmili, particularly with regards to French Islamophobia and the insistent racialization and securitization of its Muslim citizens and residents. While there are wider patterns of right-wing reaction, Esmili notes, “most illiberal and authoritarian measures taken by the French state target Muslims” and Islamophobia occupies its own distinctive place within the dynamics of racialization. And Leonard Cortana examines the divergent patterns of racialization within the French reception of African-American historical figures such as Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Josephine Baker.

Several essays in the collection approach the questions of race and colonial legacies through close ethnography of liminal sites within Paris. Talmat explores processes of self-identification through probing interviews about process of self-identification and ethno-racial categorization of nearly three dozen people who trace their ancestry to French African or Caribbean colonies, showing  “racism as a dynamic and multidimensional phenomenon that operates not only on the hierarchy between dominant and dominated racializations, but also on the maintenance of boundaries between minorities in a competitive relationship through the policing of their identities and solidarities.” Samuel Everett traces the evolution of Jewish-Muslim relations within a single neighborhood, showing the intersection of the local, national and global, as well as the generational: “Jewish and Muslim (specifically Maghrebi) interactions and philosophies of life, formed from centuries of faithful co-habitation, are shifting as Maghreb-born generations retire or pass away,” leaving relations hostage to contemporary passions and abstractions. Sélima Kebaïli looks at the lived experience of racism and racialization among veiled Muslim women in France and Switzerland. Emmanuelle Carinos Vasquez looks at the “criminalization” of rap music which, he argues, “reveals the way that post-slavery and post-colonial countries deal with the artistic and political freedom of speech of “minority groups”, tracing the adoption of attacks by right-wing politicians on Muslim rappers accused of anti-white racism.

This collection continues an ongoing transregional and multi-continental conversation about the origins and dynamics of racialization which considers both colonial legacies and local contexts in the consolidation of structures of difference and domination.  That conversation, unfolding across multiple disciplines, should continue to bring together literatures and regions typically studied as discrete units.  Only such a genuinely comparative, historical, and theoretically diverse approach can hope to advance knowledge on these contentious and critical issues.