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'Black France' - 3-Part Series On History Of Blacks In France & Their Long Struggle For Recognition

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 30, 2013 7:25 PM
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Black France

I wonder if, for our readers in France, a series like this is akin to what CNN's Black In America series is for us in the USA. Long-time readers of this blog will already know that we aren't too high on those Soledad O'Brien-hosted episodes, and wish they'd die a quick death.

Alas, they must be a cash-cow for the network, otherwise it wouldn't continue to broadcast them.

But really, if you're a reader of this site, and you live in France, I'd love to read your reactions to a series like this. Granted it's Al Jazeera, a network that I actually trust and watch a lot of very informative, thoughtful, useful content on. However, I don't like to make assumptions.

Al Jazeera presents a 3-part series that the network says will tell the story of blacks in France - a long history of segregation, racism, protest, violence, culture and community building - from the turn of the 20th century until the present day.

The series actually began yesterday, August 29, with episode 1. Episodes 2 and 3 will air next week Thursday (September 5) and the Thursday after that (September 12), respectively.

Here's the breakdown of each episode:

Episode 1: Conflicting identities

The first episode of this three-part series looks back on what it meant to be both black and French in the decades before France’s African colonies achieved independence. The first generations of African immigrants pioneered the fight for rights in France during the latter part of the 18th century. They were mocked with racist caricatures and campaigns depicting them as savages in need of civilising. Black people became quite a spectacle in white France. They were paraded around the country in shows for whites to marvel at. And 'Chocolate the black clown', who was kicked when he misbehaved, became a popular symbol of colonialism. For some, France meant freedom. African-American athletes, like cyclist Major Taylor and boxer Jack Johnson, competed in Paris because segregation in the US prevented them from doing so at home. But for others, it was a death sentence. When World War I broke out, France needed the support of African soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of black men joined France’s war efforts by working in factories and on the frontlines - thousands died after being promised French citizenship. But when the war ended, blacks were excluded from peace negotiations. And black people living in France fought for decades to be both black and French.

Episode 2: The battle for social justice

The second episode of this series reveals the ongoing struggles of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to achieve rights, form communities and have their contributions to French society recognised. During World War II, Africa once again answered France’s call to battle, but this time the motivation was different. Black soldiers were not just fighting for France; they were combating the racist ideologies of Nazi Germany. But while France and the allies defeated the Axis with the help of black soldiers, the war for social justice was only gearing up across the French colonial empire. In 1945, during France’s post-war elections, blacks saw their first major victory. More than 60 overseas deputies were sworn into France's National Assembly. One year later, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and French Guiana became French departments following 300 years of colonial rule. Departmentalisation, and then President Georges Pompidou’s decision to establish the Office for the Promotion of Migration in the early 1960s, opened a door between France and its departments. Almost 200,000 blacks immigrated to French cities in search of education and work. But they faced poverty, racism and segregation. And they struggled to gain acceptance in cultural, academic and social realms of French society.

Episode 3: The immigration problem

The last episode of this series focuses on the extreme racism and discrimination black immigrants faced during times of economic hardship and through political shifts in post-World War II France. The 1973 oil crisis quadrupled the price of oil. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) embargoed oil exports to countries that supported Israel in the War of Yom Kippur. France, like many other western nations, was hit hard by the price increase and plummeted into a recession. Immigrants became the band-aid solution to France’s economic problems. The government set a goal to encourage 500,000 foreigners to return to their countries. African immigrants who stayed were forced from slums into hostels where they were further segregated and ghettoised. Opposition to immigrants festered and, by 1977, more than half of France’s citizens said they wanted to see immigration numbers decrease. But Africans joined workers of other nationalities in protest. A four-year rent strike spread across the country’s hostels. And then in 1981, the newly elected President Francois Mitterrand promised to regularise 130,000 undocumented workers. The government shifted its focus from mass migration of unskilled labour to skills training in the former colonies. But many questioned France’s paternalistic attitude towards the independent African nations. And despite some change, racism and hate crimes against black people escalated. From protests and marches to music and dance, this is the story of how black people born in France fought for equality in the face of discrimination and how they used culture as a tool to empower generations.

By the way, the 3-part series is titled, simply, Black France

Each episode can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2000; Friday: 1200; Saturday: 0100; Sunday: 0600; Monday: 2000; Tuesday: 1200; Wednesday: 0100; Thursday: 0600.

It doesn't appear that it'll be available to American viewers. I wasn't able to play any of the clips. It appears that Al Jazeera and the newly-launched Al Jazeera America will each broadcast their own location-targeted content, unlike before Al Jazeera America debuted, when those of us in the USA could watch just about every Al Jazeera program via their YouTube channel, or their website. Not anymore it seems, which stinks! I hope they reconsider.

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  • Eryna | November 29, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    France is such a racist country, their colonial and slavery past are still alive.

  • Mathilda | September 22, 2013 8:27 AMReply

    All together a considerable masterpiece!!! but:
    - In the Episode 1 is refered to my ancestor, Jean Hegesippe Legitimus (Légitimus is the right spelling), a socialist politician from Guadeloupe who served in the French National Assembly from 1898–1902 and from 1906-1914 - but does not reveal his work and legacy for the Panafrican World! Nevertheless my cousin the actor Pascal Legitimus, does describe the legacy and mission to our family.
    - In the Episode is shown a extract of the music-show "PULSATIONS" without stating that his creator was Gesip Légitimus (1930–2000) artist and first black television producer in Europe, grand-son of Jean Hegesippe Legitimus. Gesip Légitimus dedicated his life and contributed a lot to the presence of blacks in the European media-world. His brothers Theo Legitimus (actor, musician), Gustave (musician)) and Clément Legitimus (musician and Band-leader) were like him born in Paris and supported his mission. Their mother the actress Darling Légitimus (born Mathilda (Marie-Berthilde) Paruta (1907-1999) was a French actress from Caribbean black artists who perfomed Genêt and Césaire on stage and 1983 won the Golden Lion at the Mostra of Venise for playing Man'Tine in "Rue Cases-Nègres" (Sugar Cane Alley). In her early carrier 1925 she even performed on stage in the " Théâtre des Champs Elysées" under the artist name Miss Darling with Joséphine Baker and Sidney Bechet. She was not even mentioned in one of those 3 films. A pity really! Black History has to be revised, corrected and updated.
    Black (s)heroes (and they are many more who don't appear in those films) has to be revealed correctly - with a real tribute for their legacy, the truth spread for the dignity of the Panafrican World and for our next cosmopolitan generations.....

  • Erik | September 2, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    Great documentary! The episodes are available for viewers in Europe.

    I think it's the documentary "Noir de France" ("Blacks of France”). If you can't watch the documentary check out the trailers, google Video: "Noirs de France" ("Blacks of France”) - The history of Black people in France (on Afroeurope blog).

  • Reinaldo | August 31, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    This is significant work in the context of Europe in general and France in particular. The intellectual activity that the African Diaspora International Film Festival-FIFDA in French generates every time it is held in Paris is a clear indicative of what is happening there. The 3rd of FIFDA is in September. The African-American experience is unique but so it is the Afro-Cuban experience, the Afro-French experience, etc. However there is a common bond, the color of our skin has been a determinant in the direction of our lives.

  • gi | August 31, 2013 6:09 AMReply

    Visiting Paris on my 3rd trip, the NICEST person I encountered was a young black man sales clerk who helped me so readily and gave me a free product worth $100- for my troubles. Blacks are treated badly as is everyone thats not what the indigenous consider "French." Europeans in general are snobs towards Americans but without our innovations and technology they'd be stone age so to all of them KISS OUR BEAUTIFUL ASS'S! What was striking when I went to the Paris Flea market is how the immigrant class has immersed itself in American "Thug" culture to the point of parody with tee shirts, jeans and accessories screaming out "I am a thug", faces of teeth with grills, guns, pot leaves in bold declarations, actually quite funny and sad.

  • deecreative | August 30, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    al jazeera documentaries are great though! I'm watching al jazeera America now and it's not too much different than watching another network, same news, just more anchors as opposed to pundits. I feel they dumbed down the channel for America, I hope that changes.

  • deecreative | August 30, 2013 11:29 PMReply

    al jazeera America is weak!! They'll never show this doc, al jazeera english is waaaay better. I'm upset they cancelled the live stream, we're cut off from the world really.

  • Edwina | August 30, 2013 8:56 PMReply

    Hmmmm... Blacks being ridiculed and dehumanized in France sounds very familiar. Not much different than our experience here.

  • sab | August 30, 2013 11:54 PM

    Not to say we don't have or haven't had the same issues but France is behind the US in terms of experiencing a civil rights phase historically/sociologically where other ethnic and political groups were involved on a larger scale. It's like the pendulum here in the US is swinging back from all the progress that has occurred whereas the strides in France for blacks hasn't yet seemed to rally France overall as a country. But I look forward to being more educated about the subject if and when this will be available for viewing here. The problem is that overall we know so little about what Blacks in France are facing. What about blacks in Europe in general?

  • Charlotte | August 30, 2013 8:51 PMReply

    I hope the show the difference between the African black French & the Caribbean French Black. notice the order of words. Big divide

  • LL2 | August 31, 2013 2:32 PM


    I'd say class was the greatest divider in the world. The rich have more in common with each other than with others in their racial and/or cultural group.


    I would assume there would be cultural differences between the two groups as there is to be expected between any two people that have different ethnic backgrounds. Where you referring to some other difference, maybe political differences? Its only in a America where people don't seem to understand that race and ethnicity are not the same. People can be of the same race and from the same country and still not be of the same ethnicity or culture.

  • Gi | August 31, 2013 6:11 AM

    Charlotte the greatest divider in the world in not race but CULTURE!

  • tashmoney | August 31, 2013 12:32 AM

    it would be nice if the series unpacks the real differences there. there's even vast variances between folks from different caribbean islands. and the entire exploration is a great launching pad to address France's style of colonizing and how it worked (or didn't) in each region they colonized.

    Based on the episode descriptions though, it doesn't sound like they get that deep. this might call for a encyclopedia africana franco.

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