PARIS – On the surface, it’s a powerful message against racism: a Black woman will, for the first time, join other luminaries interred in France’s Pantheon. But by choosing a U.S.-born figure -- entertainer Josephine Baker – critics say France is continuing a long tradition of decrying racism abroad while obscuring it at home.
While Baker is widely appreciated in France, the decision has highlighted the divide between the country's official doctrine of colorblind universalism and some increasingly vocal opponents, who argue that it has masked generations of systemic racism.
Baker’s entry into the Pantheon on Tuesday is the result of years of efforts from politicians, organizations and public figures. Most recently, a petition by Laurent Kupferman, an essayist on the French Republic, gained traction, and in July, French President Emmanuel Macron announced Baker would be “pantheonized.”
“The times are probably more conducive to having Josephine Baker’s fights resonate: the fight against racism, antisemitism, her part in the French Resistance,” Kupferman told The Associated Press. “The Pantheon is where you enter not because you’re famous but because of what you bring to the civic mind of the nation.”
Her nomination has been lauded as uncontroversial and seen as a way to reconcile French society after the difficulties of the pandemic and last year’s protests against French police violence, as George Floyd’s killing in the U.S. echoed incidents in France involving Black men who died in police custody.
Baker represented France’s “universalist” approach, which sees its people as simply citizens and does not count or identify them by race or ethnicity. The first article of the constitution says the French Republic and its values are considered universal, ensuring that all citizens have the same rights, regardless of their origin, race or religion.
In 1938, Baker joined what is today called LICRA, a prominent antiracist league and longtime advocate for her entry in the Pantheon.
“She loved universalism passionately and this France that does not care about skin color,” LICRA President Mario Stasi told The Associated Press. “When she arrived from the United States, she understood she came from a ‘communautaurist’ country where she was reminded of her origin and ethnicity, and in France, she felt total acceptance."
Universalists pejoratively call opposing anti-racism activists “communautarists,” implying that they put community identity before universal French citizenry. Radical anti-racist groups, meanwhile, say that France first needs a reckoning with systemic racism — a term that is contested here — and the specific oppression experienced by different communities of color.
The term “communautarist” is also used to describe American society, which counts race in official censuses, academic studies and public discourse, which is taboo in France and seen as reducing people to a skin color.
For Rokhaya Diallo, a French commentator on issues related to race, “universalism is a utopia and myth that the republic tells about itself that does not correspond to any past or present reality,” she told The AP. “For Black and non-white people, the Republic has always been a space of inequality, of othering through the processes triggered by colonization.”
Lawyers, activists and academics have chronicled discrimination in police violence, in housing and in employment in France, notably against people with African or Arab origins. Universalists say this isn't a structural part of French society, however, identifying racism as a moral matter and not inscribed within the state.
Kévi Donat, a Black French guide who gives tours of Black Paris, said Baker is the “most controversial” figure he highlights in his tours, in part because she initially earned fame in France for dancing in a banana belt that “played into stereotypes around Black and African people.”
“Sometimes Josephine Baker is used to say ‘in the U.S. there was racism, (but) all these Black Americans were welcomed in France,' meaning we’re ahead, that we don’t have that problem here,” Donat said.
Baker was among several prominent Black Americans, especially artists and writers, who found refuge from American racism in France after the two World Wars, including the famed writer and intellectual James Baldwin.
But Françoise Vergès, a political scientist on questions of culture, race and colonization, said “symbolic gestures” like putting Baker in the Pantheon aren’t enough to extinguish racial discrimination in France.
“In 2021, even if it’s morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives,” she said.
In addition to her stage fame, Baker also spied for the French Resistance, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, and raised what she called her “rainbow tribe” of children adopted from around the world.
For Stasi, the LICRA president, her “fight is universalist, so nationality in some way is irrelevant. ... She perfectly inscribes herself in the (French) fight for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’”
“Of course there was racism in France, but it wasn’t institutionalized like it was in America during segregation,” Kupferman said.
For Vergès, this obscures France’s own history of racism and colonialism, which includes a brutal war with Algeria, a former French colony, when it fought for independence from 1954 to 1962.
“It’s always easier to celebrate people who aren’t from your country,” she said. “It avoids questioning your own situation at home.”
Verges explained that moving abroad for anyone may offer some protection from racism, simply because you are seen by locals as different anyway, more American or French or Nigerian than Black.
“A country’s racism is in relationship with its own history,” Vergès said. “You also have French Black people in the U.S. who find it less racist than France, because being French protects them from being treated like Black Americans.”
Baldwin, the American writer, noted the same thought in a 1983 interview with the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
“In France, I am a Black American, posing no conceivable threat to French identity: in effect, I do not exist in France. I might have a very different tale to tell were I from Senegal — and a very bitter song to sing were I from Algeria," he said.
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