Spotlight on Africa - UN General Assembly president calls for respect for diversity while promoting shared values
The Paris Peace Forum is now underway with around 30 heads of state and leaders of civil society meeting to promote global peace. French President Emmanuel Macron opened the forum on Tuesday by saying that the global political system was in "unprecedented crisis", and called for new kinds of alliances to help solve problems.
United Nations General Assembly President Tijani Muhammad-Bande spoke to RFI on the sidelines of the forum in Paris, and he expressed similiar sentiments, calling for respect of diversity while promoting shared universal values.
Spotlight on Africa - France's Africa Ambition
The time to invest in Africa is now. That was the message hammered home at last week’s France-Africa business summit, which saw the French government position itself as a new investment hub for the continent. Yet, many French companies still shy away from African markets and bilateral trade has fallen. Can France make up for lost time with China and reclaim its status as Africa’s main European trading partner? And if so, on what terms? RFI’s Christina Okello reports.
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SMEs are key to reviving French business ties to Africa
Spotlight on Africa - Can France’s minorities learn from US slavery struggle?
In August, America marked 400 years since the arrival of the first Africans in 1619, which started the institution of slavery. In France, observers are questioning whether there are lessons to be learned for France’s African community.
In a brightly lit room of the American library in Paris, members of the public pour in for a conference exploring the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to the British colony of Virginia. The guest speaker, a civil rights expert and playwright, is yet to arrive.
When she does, Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, apologises profusely, blaming her lateness on her taxi driver who got lost and then wanted to overcharge her.
Her humour dispels the mood of the topic she’s come to discuss. But from the get go, she insists upon celebration and not defeat.
“I want to thank my ancestors. Without their perseverance, I wouldn’t be here,” she tells the audience.
In August of 1619, some 20 indentured Africans arrived in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, after being kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola.
“They arrive and they learn the economy, the language, culture, and they actually progress, and then once the law takes effect and they’re enslaved, from there we have this fight, this ongoing fight for 400 years, so there’s a lot to commemorate.”
Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, had just returned from a trip to Angola.
“I went back to Angola. I wanted to know more about these first Africans, and I discovered Queen Nzinga. Not only did she rule but she went to battle and stood up to Portuguese slave traders,” she comments.
Choose to fight
By highlighting the brave achievements of the Angolan warrior queen and others like her, Browne-Marshall attempts to reclaim some of the dignity lost during the slavery era, which she has documented on extensively.
“We all have choices. Are we going to go on with the programme even if it is oppressive to others, or are we going to stand our ground and fight? Queen Nzinga did, and that really inspired me.”
Her research has also focused on recent battles for equal rights, including that of Mum Bett, the first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts.
“Just as Mum Bett became Elizabeth Freeman by pushing against those that would oppress her, we have to continue pushing forward. We can’t sit down and believe that the battle is over.”
Yet the battle may be more difficult depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on.
“I’ve been in the same company for over twenty years and have never been promoted,” a female engineer from Martinique tells the audience.
“I think the US has enabled black people to have more opportunities than here in France,” she says.
To which Browne-Marshall replies “Are you demanding the freedom and that you be treated fairly?” echoing the words of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Another female member points out differences between slavery in the United States and France.
If the enslavement of Africans began in 1619 in the US, it would not begin in France until 1642. Moreover, it would eventually be abolished here in 1848, after initially being reinstated in 1802, while America would follow suit in 1865.
For Browne-Marshall, both countries have similar undertones. “In both, you see protests every day. People are protesting for higher wages, they are protesting for other things. Why aren’t people of African descent protesting for full inclusion?”
Such identity politics hit a raw nerve in France where the notion of "Frenchness" is associated with a common set of values as opposed to colour or origin.
Furthermore, critics point out that flagging up the differences between communities runs the risk of forging a common identity between them at the expense of a national identity, and thereby legitimising racial divisions that activists want to abolish.
“Assimilation doesn’t mean giving up your soul,” argues Browne-Marshall.
“The French, of all people are the ones everyone knows will stand up for their culture. So, why can’t people in the African diaspora stand up and say I am proud of my heritage as an African in this country, and I’m French?”
The issue of French identity came to the fore during last year’s World Cup, where some commentators joked that the tournament had been won by an African team, due to the fact that 19 of its 23 players were of African descent.
Civil rights in France
The debate is a complex one, but for Browne-Marshall it should not distract from the legacy of slavery, which still lingers in enduring inequities in opportunity for the children of migrants or whose family generation emigrated to France.
"I think that France needs to have a civil rights movement,” she reckons, referring to the decades-long struggle for equal rights for African-Americans led by figures such as Martin Luther King.
“Fighting for your freedom and not waiting for it to be handed down to you, is something so powerful for the spirit and so necessary,” she said.
This is the third part of RFI's series on France's diasporas. Subscribe on iTunes or Google podcasts.
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Spotlight on Africa - Black model art show challenges France's colour blindness
A recent Paris exhibition honouring forgotten black models of modern art has shone a spotlight on black identity in a society where race remains a controversial subject.
France has been multicultural "since the 19th and 20th century", says Denise Murrell, co-curator of Le Modèle Noir or Black Models.
The landmark exhibition on modern art’s forgotten black models ran from March to July at Paris’ Orsay museum. On Friday 13 September, it was due to premiere at Pointe à Pitre in Guadeloupe.
The lavish show, portraying people of colour in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s, “shows without question that there was a black presence in the heart of cultural activity in the 19th century,” mirroring “today’s diverse, contemporary society”, Murrell told RFI.
Yet these figures were left out of history. The four-month long exhibition sought to give them back their identity, by renaming leading paintings in the models’ names. Portrait of a Negress thus became Portrait of Madeleine and Edouard Manet’s Olympia, showing a reclining nude prostitute, has been renamed Laure, in honour of the black maid in the background.
“Madeleine, the black woman in the painting, has been subject to a silencing or obliteration of her identity by a generic title…so being able to rename her was important,” continues Murrell.
Similarly, Laure, who inspired one of Manet’s most important works, is barely noticed, and extensive scholarship on the work has focused more on the cat than the servant stooping down to offer flowers to the white woman.
“Laure was emblematic of the condition of the diaspora, being invisible even though one is in plain view. I wanted to do something about it,” comments Murrell.
Revealing the maid’s identity became the foundation of the curator’s doctoral dissertation, Seeing Laure, Race and Modernity from Manet’s Olympia to Matisse, Bearden and Beyond, and an earlier exhibition of Le Modèle Noir in New York that Murrell curated called, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today.
Over 400,000 visitors flocked to the Orsay museum to see Laure and many of the other Black figures in French art such as Haitian model Joseph, who was the central figure of Gericault’s famous painting the Raft of the Medusa.
Joseph was portrayed as the hero in the artwork – the one who called for rescue for the other stricken crewmembers. In an era where slavery was still rampant, such a favourable portrayal was a clear call for abolition.
For Murrell, the success of Le Modèle Noir is a clear sign of the "hunger" in France for information on the subject, which has "historically not been widely discussed”, she says.
While the representation of black people has become a topic in the history of art on both sides of the Atlantic, research in black studies is relatively new in France.
Breaking the mould of mental slavery
Le Modèle Noir exhibition was the first of its kind in Paris, while London and the Netherlands have already drawn crowds to shows such as Black Chronicles at the National Portrait Gallery and Black Is Beautiful at Amsterdam’s Newe Dirk museum.
The term "race" remains controversial in France.
Advocates of strict secularism are against defining society in racial terms, saying it undermines the French Republican value that “everyone is equal".
Last year in June, the government removed the word from the constitution, arguing it was a "made-up social construct". Former president François Hollande, in his 2012 election campaign, said the term “has no place in the Republic”.
Collecting statistics based on race remains illegal.
Critics say that such apparently lofty ideals conceal the extent of racial discrimination in France.
Murrell believes embracing black identity in France could, in fact, reinforce the foundations of the Republic.
“I think recognition of France’s multiple heritage and the contribution of people of colour to French society can only strengthen Republican ideals,” she says, “because it creates a sense of belonging for populations who may perhaps feel they have been ignored.
“I think that part of the ability to improve the condition of the diaspora is to hear the voices of people from the diaspora.”
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Spotlight on Africa - What's behind Macron's courting of the African diaspora?
France has recently made overtures to the African diaspora, inviting them to be the bridge between France and their countries of origin. Critics say it's a move to regain a foothold in the former colonies. But France's African community could leverage its influence to ask for recognition at home.
In France, there are no statistics on "race" or ethnicity. Racial categories that are commonplace in the US and UK such as white, black or Asian don’t exist.
The logic is simple: to avoid racism, avoid categorising people by race and instead treat everyone equally. This is the Republican egalitarian ethos. It is held up in France as a powerful rebuke of the racist ideology propagated by the Nazi regime.
In World War Two, the former collaborationist regime enabled the roundup of thousands of Jews, based on their race and ethnicity.
However, the experience of discrimination felt by some in France's African community has led to growing calls for more visibility of ethnic minorities.
Today, the French government is reaching out to Africans in the diaspora to help it foster greater connections with the African continent.
Paris has lost ground to countries like China in a scramble for influence in this new Eldorado.
President Emmanuel Macron has said that if Africa fails then all of Europe will fail, and wants the diaspora to serve as a buffer. If they play their cards right, France's African community could leverage their influence to ask for more recognition at home.
So who are they? What are their aspirations? And what effect can the diaspora have on French society? In the coming weeks, RFI's Christina Okello will take you on a journey to explore the rich diversity in France, starting with its African diaspora.
Subscribe to the series on iTunes or Google podcasts.
And to listen to this first episode, just hit the Play button above