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Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France$

Katelyn E. Knox

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781383094

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781383094.001.0001

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Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History

Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History

(p.44) Chapter Two Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History
Race on Display in 20th- and 21st Century France

Katelyn E. Knox

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter develops the notion of ‘self-spectacularization’ to describe racial and ethnic minorities’ late-twentieth century efforts to draw attention to and counter the many exoticizing ‘gazes’ to which they were subjected. It focuses primarily on the sans-papiers’ socio-political movement, as well as representations of undocumented or clandestine migrants in literature (J. R. Essomba’s Le Paradis du Nord) and popular music (Salif Keïta’s ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, Meiway’s ‘Je suis sans-papiers’, and Manu Chao’s ‘Clandestino’). In so doing, however, it also contends that the ways Francophone authors and musicians were ‘packaged’ by their respective industries effectively places the author or artist in the role of spokesperson for the communities to which s/he belongs. The works examined in chapter 5 return to and contest this role ascribed to minority authors, arguing that it is yet another manifestation of the ‘exotic gaze’ that allows whiteness and its latent association with notions of ‘normalcy’ to evade critical scrutiny. Chapter 2 therefore ultimately considers whether these early efforts to ‘speak out’ through ‘spectacularizing the self’ nevertheless perpetuate the very ways of looking they seek to contest.

Keywords:   J. R. Essomba, Le Paradis du Nord, Salif Keïta, Nou Pas Bouger, Sans-papiers, immigration, Racism, France, Meiway, Manu Chao

Thinking about the display of black bodies in France in the late twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first conjures two starkly opposed images. The first is that of the well-dressed sapeur (a person who, as I discuss more in-depth in Chapter 3, participates in the société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes cultural phenomenon), whose designer clothing and flashy patterns confirm his (for it was almost exclusively a male phenomenon) narrative of economic success in France. The second, discussed in French news media and political speeches, is that of undocumented immigrants often presented as a homogeneous collectivity. The most striking example of such an image came when, on the morning of August 23, 1996, the French viewing public awoke to a horrifying scene. Overnight, French Prime Minister Alain Juppé had ordered approximately 1,000 CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité; French riot police) agents to enter Paris’s St. Bernard church, where a group of 300 men, women, and children of predominantly sub-Saharan African origin had taken up residence.1 Members of the group called themselves the sans-papiers, or ‘undocumented individuals’, in an effort to draw attention to the fact that, though many had entered the country legally, changes to France’s immigration legislation had stripped them of their legal residency permits. In fact, a few were what came to be known as the ‘inéxpulsables-irrégularisables’—a group which per French law could neither be deported from France nor ever receive permanent residency papers or citizenship—a paradoxical status left in the wake of such sudden and dramatic changes to French legislation.2 In the early hours, the CRS agents, who already outnumbered the sans-papiers three to one, used tear gas and serious force to remove the protesters. The (p.45) French viewing public reacted to the images with outrage and shock at the police tactics and, at least for a brief period, the event brought national attention to the plight of the sans-papiers.3

Though each used very different means to achieve it, the sapeurs and the sans-papiers exhibit a common goal: taking control of their own image through acts of self-spectacularization. Through carefully composed outfits, the sapeur seems to counter the images discussed in Chapter 1 that put forth the colonized subject’s body (specifically his inability to adopt European fashion) as a sign of his need for surveillance and of his desire for the colonial gift of civilization. Sapeurs, by contrast, acquire authentic European designer labels, known as griffes.4 Moreover, unlike Nénufar who, as discussed in Chapter 1, lacks the self-awareness needed to even recognize his fashion faux-pas in the first place, the sapeurs deliberately subvert European fashion norms from within. Wearing his suit too large, for instance, becomes an act that reveals that the sapeur has not only mastered European fashion norms, but now creates his own rules.5

The sans-papiers, for their part, took to French news media in order to craft their own narrative. Originally driven into the shadows as a result of changes to France’s immigration and national identity legislation, the sans-papiers later sought out the spotlight to distinguish themselves from clandestine migrants who had entered the country illegally or had overstayed their visas. One of the sans-papiers’ main critiques, advanced by the group’s spokesperson, Ababacar Diop, was that France’s legislators and media ignored the larger histories of colonization that had paved the way for postcolonial immigration: ‘Nous ne sommes pas ici par hasard. Nous sommes ressortissants d’anciennes colonies françaises surexploitées au profit de la métropole’ (We’re not here by accident. We’re immigrants from former French colonies, excessively exploited for the Hexagon’s benefit).6 By drawing attention to the relationship between colonization and postcolonial immigration, and by highlighting colonized contributions to France, Diop complicates the rigid territorially based claims to national identity that were at the heart of France’s immigration debates in the 1980s and 1990s.7

At the time, French bookshelves, television screens, and music stores were already brimming with beur and banlieue narratives promising their audience a glimpse into what life was ‘really like’ for France’s different minorities groups: children of North African immigrants (beurs)8 and those who inhabited France’s socioeconomically disenfranchised outer cities (banlieues).9 As Mireille Rosello and Kathryn Kleppinger have (p.46) underscored, journalists and literary critics overwhelmingly promoted those authors who affirmed the correspondence between their literary works and reality, especially those who participated in activism themselves.10 As Rosello put it, the French publishing industry’s move to ‘capitaliz[e] on the plight of immigrants’ should give us pause about the real impact of the authors’ and artists’ fictional narratives: ‘the most sincere authors find their own agendas complicated by commercial imperatives’.11

The relationship between authors’ gestures to ‘speak out’ and the larger commercial institutions that privileged certain voices and narratives also raises larger questions about the new wave of material depicting sub-Saharan African immigration to France that engaged with narratives put forth by both the sapeurs and sans-papiers. Most of these works—which Jacques Chevrier has characterized as migritude for the way they radically engage with the theme of immigration and explore the marginalization that immigrants suffer from both their home and host communities—paint a bleak portrait of sub-Saharan African immigration to France.12 Their central protagonists often find themselves in economically exploitative conditions, and some even become participants (willing or not) in criminal activities. Through their works, the authors ‘write to right’ the two narratives discussed above: they both reveal the sapeurs’ narratives to be nothing but illusions, and advance the sans-papiers’ idea critiquing the way in which immigration was presented in France as a phenomenon divorced from larger colonial histories.

Because this book is concerned not only with images, but also with larger questions of display and gazing, I would like to take a step back to consider the extent to which these impulses to spectacularize the self—whether through fashion, news media outlets, fiction, or music—perpetuate or depart from the gazing dynamics of the cultural works associated with the 1931 colonial Exhibition discussed in Chapter 1. Of course, there are clear differences between the ‘native performers’ and the francophone authors and artists I consider in this chapter. The latter were not brought to France to serve as spectacularized representatives of supposedly authentic colonized cultures, nor were they forced to embody particular roles, unlike the ‘native performers’ on display at the Exhibition. Instead, the authors and artists (like their works’ protagonists) moved to France of their own accord, most hoping to settle permanently.13

The more one compares the two cases, however, the more thorny questions emerge. In speaking out on behalf of France’s sub-Saharan (p.47) African immigrant populations, the cultural works of migritude and real-life testimonials contested stereotypical images attributed to the racialized body; however, did they not also ultimately reinforce the larger frameworks (like those at the Exposition coloniale) that continue to position racial and ethnic minority bodies as objects of the European gaze? What is more, as many scholars and authors including Alain Mabanckou have rightly underscored, the very act of classifying these works as migritude14 depends on their authors’ biographical information (that is, their own immigration to France), and downplays, as Boniface Mongo-Mboussa has pointed out, how immigration has always been a central polemic of francophone African literature.15 Even though the authors insist that their works are fictional, audiences, critics, and journalists nevertheless read them through autobiographical and sociological lenses and, in so doing, recast the author as a spokesperson for the immigrant community depicted in their works. To echo Rosello’s statement quoted above, the French publishing industry capitalizes on immigrants’ narratives, and promotes those authors and artists who tackle the larger topics their works discuss (such as racism or discrimination) beyond the confines of their printed literature or recorded music. These larger dynamics, however, suggest that the very act of ‘writing to right’ might inadvertently place the author, artist, or activist in the role of ‘native informant’ for European gazing (or reading) subjects. To what extent, then, do the authors and artists participate in reinforcing prevailing narratives? To what extent does their act of self-spectacularization perpetuate the institutionalized spectacularism I am tracing throughout this book?

Far from oblivious to these questions, the literary and musical works I analyze in this chapter address them head-on and grapple self-consciously with their risks and stakes. As my brief overview to what has been termed migritude literature suggests, there are dozens of examples I could have chosen in answering the questions I have laid out above. At first glance, the choice to focus my literary inquiry primarily on J. R. Essomba’s novel Le Paradis du Nord (1996) might seem curious. Where other well-known migritude authors such as Alain Mabanckou, Calixthe Beyala, Fatou Diome, and Abdourahman Waberi are regularly invited to participate on literary talk shows, take active roles in founding non-profit organizations (see my discussion of Beyala’s group Collectif égalité [Collective Equality] in Chapter 5), or become spokespeople for brands, such as Simon Njami for Moleskine, Essomba rarely speaks out on behalf of sub-Saharan African immigrants (p.48) in France, either in interviews or in nonfiction essays. In my view, the relatively scarce critical attention paid to Essomba’s Le Paradis du Nord confirms Rosello’s and Kleppinger’s conclusions that journalists and critics alike disproportionately privilege (perhaps inadvertently) those authors who break down the distance between the personal, literary, and political.

Yet this is precisely Essomba’s point. In Le Paradis du Nord and one of his rare nonfiction works—the essay ‘De la Reconnaissance’ (1999) (‘On Recognition’)—Essomba points up how news media and cultural marketplaces legitimize certain stereotypical narratives.16 Authors who choose to participate risk fueling larger systems designed to objectify francophone authors and promoting the same dynamics they ultimately seek to contest. In fact, Essomba’s novel anticipates what Lydie Moudileno later identified as two of the dangers of ‘Francophone celebrity’: losing his or her agency within the French literary scene, and participating in what Graham Huggan terms the larger ‘global “spectacularization” of cultural difference’.17 Essomba’s Le Paradis du Nord takes a self-reflexive stance on the machinations of the larger francophone cultural system and both its (and its author’s) larger role within it, and thus serves as a useful counterpoint to the many excellent studies of migritude literature.

The critiques advanced by the musical works I discuss in this chapter—Salif Keïta’s song ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ (1989), Ivorian zoblazo artist Meiway’s ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ (2004), and Manu Chao’s ‘Clandestino’ (1998)—resemble those put forth in Le Paradis du Nord. Their abundant allusions to colonization and the slave trade contest the way in which media and political discourse position immigration as a postcolonial phenomenon. They also meditate on the nature of the gaze in their music videos, whose visual composition recalls the ways colonized bodies were put on display as ethnographic spectacles. At the same time as they literally put themselves on display, the artists gaze back at their spectators, which brings the gazing dynamic itself—and the larger forces that legitimize the spectator’s right to gaze—under scrutiny.

These works self-consciously grapple with their own complicity in perpetuating the culture of exoticism they ultimately seek to contest. While drawing their audience’s attention to both the inaccuracies of widely circulating narratives associating minority bodies with clandestinity and marginalization, and ‘righting’ the underlying view of postcolonial immigration, they simultaneously ask whether their literary or musical performance nevertheless continues to relegate the artists and minorities they depict in their works to the position of exotic spectacle.

(p.49) Immigrant, Cargo, or Commodity?

Like other migritude works, especially Mabanckou’s Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (1998) (Blue White Red, 2013) and Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique (2003) (Belly of the Atlantic, 2006), Le Paradis du Nord’s main narrative reveals what Odile Cazenave has termed the ‘miroir aux alouettes’ (lark mirror)—the images associating France with opulence—to be an illusion.18 Drawn north by the siren song equating arrival in France with immediate economic success, the young Cameroonian protagonist Jojo suffers a series of misadventures that quickly transforms this dream into a nightmare. His free will vanishes the moment he boards the cargo ship that will take him to the Spanish coast, and by the end of the novel, Jojo stands trial for rape, murder, and drug trafficking (he is innocent of the first, committed the second to save a woman who would have been killed, and was naïvely unaware of his involvement in the third). Moreover, his expulsion from France will also cause him to stand trial in Cameroon for a murder his travel companion Charlie committed before their departure. Offering a vision of life in France seen through the eyes of those it deems its others, Le Paradis du Nord seems, at first glance, to give voice to those individuals who have none, ‘writing to right’ the narrative that proved Jojo’s undoing.

What interests me more about Le Paradis du Nord, and what previous studies of this novel have yet to fully examine, is how the novel also ‘writes to right’ French history itself. Siobhán Shilton, for instance, has productively read Le Paradis du Nord as an example of African travel literature, underscoring how Jojo’s travel to France reverses the typical gazing dynamics associated with European travel literature, which historically puts exotic lands on display for their European reader.19 My analysis builds on Shilton’s and related studies by revealing not only how the novel deploys Jojo’s gaze on France itself, but also showing that the geography and hydrography that define Jojo’s journey northward turn the novel’s gaze to the larger histories often considered peripheral to—or worse, expunged from—France’s national narrative.20 In so doing, the novel contests the institutionalized spectacularism that permeates official historical discourse on which depended France’s 1980s and 1990s legislation on immigration and national identity.21

In Le Paradis du Nord, every segment of Charlie and Jojo’s journey north reminds the reader of the previous Atlantic and Mediterranean crossings that laid the foundation for immigration in the 1980s and 1990s. The cargo ship in which the Cameroonians find passage carries (p.50) echoes of a slave economy that depends on the objectification of workers, whose labor remains invisible from the shore. In the captain’s eyes, the only difference between Charlie and Jojo and the other commodities the ship transports is that the young men consume food. Though Charlie and Jojo paid for their passage, the captain requires that they earn their board through undocumented labor: ‘j’ai été payé pour vous transporter […] mais je n’ai pas été payé pour vous nourir’ (41) (I was paid to transport you […] but I was not paid to feed you).22 Furthermore, their position as undocumented laborers—whose contributions will never appear in any official records—also recalls the slave and colonial labor whose part in France’s prosperity is rarely acknowledged.

After the ship passes through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cameroonians (as well as three Senegalese migrants who attempt the journey with them) must swim toward a lantern to reach the Spanish coast. When the Cameroonians reach the beach, the smugglers extinguish the lantern, leaving the Senegalese men to continue their marine passage in complete darkness. In the end, only one of the three Senegalese migrants reaches shore alive before the smugglers signal it is time to depart on foot. Essomba’s allusion to the two Senegalese bodies suspended within the Mediterranean evokes larger histories of ocean floors littered with other bodies, such as those of slaves cast overboard during the transatlantic trade. The Mediterranean not only becomes a site of passage connecting Africa with Europe, but also, as Iain Chambers puts it, a repository of ‘historical memories […] the very opposite of those systematically catalogued in a national museum’.23 The emphasis here on water as the guardian of transnational histories subtly contests the territorial claims to national history on which France’s immigration and national identity legislation rested.

The middle segment of the immigrants’ journey, inside a small compartment underneath a cargo truck carrying oranges, serves as the Cameroonians’ own Middle Passage and further concretizes the metaphor connecting slavery to contemporary immigration. The compartment’s initial description—‘la profondeur […] ne dépassait pas quarante centimètres [… et Charlie et Jojo] n’avaient que le choix de deux positions: soit couché à plat ventre, soit couché sur le dos’ (50) (it was no more than forty centimeters deep [… and Charlie and Jojo] had only two positions to choose from: either lying flat on their stomach or flat on their back)—emphasizes an inhumanely restrictive space that carries echoes of the slave ship’s hold where, according to Christopher Miller, ‘each captive typically had a space below decks approximately (p.51) six feet long by sixteen inches wide by two feet seven inches high’.24 Furthermore, not only does the compartment they will occupy for twelve hours restrict their movement, it also constrains their consumption of food and drink. For instance, once they see the compartment for the first time, Charlie and Jojo naïvely ask the smuggler how they will eat, drink, and relieve themselves; he responds by giving them a meager snack, and by telling them that ‘vous n’avez qu’à faire dans vos frocs’ (50) (you just have to go in your clothes). Imagining the immigrants relieving themselves unquestionably calls to mind descriptions of the slave hold, where slaves, chained to each other and to the ship, had no option but to do the same. This similarity is rendered even more concrete when, ‘deux heures après le départ, Jojo vomit tout ce qu’il y avait dans le ventre. Charlie l’imita une trentaine de minutes plus tard’ (50) (two hours after their departure, Jojo vomited everything in his stomach. Charlie did the same only thirty minutes later). Beyond the literal connection it establishes between the Cameroonians and slaves, the act of vomiting can be read metaphorically as a figurative regurgitation of history, uniting the processes that led to the dispersal of Africans throughout the past and present. If for Paul Gilroy the ship ‘refer[s] us back to the middle passage, to the half-remembered micro-politics of the slave trade and its relationship to both industrialization and modernization’,25 the orange truck, carrying the Cameroonians between Spain and France, becomes the quintessential symbol for new orientations of European modernity that rely on immigrant labor.

Once the Cameroonians reach Paris, their lives are characterized by geographical and social exclusion, suggesting that though they can cross the geographical borders that demarcate Europe, other borders remain impermeable—the internal borders within France and even within the immigrant community. Charlie and Jojo are liberated from the compartment only to be drugged, robbed, and left in an underground parking garage in the stolen Mercedes the smugglers used to transport them from Toulouse to Paris. Their subsequent interactions with Parisians—both white and black—reveal racist stereotypical assumptions about sub-Saharan African immigrants promoted by the anti-immigrant discourse that prevailed in the early 1990s. For instance, when Jojo begins to ask a French woman how to get out of the garage, no sooner does he state, ‘N’ayez pas …’ (61) (Don’t be …) than she immediately calls out, ‘Au secours! au secours! ils veulent me violer! ils veulent me violer!’ (61) (Help! Help! They want to rape me! They want to rape me!). The French woman’s immediate assumption that Jojo (p.52) is a criminal and a rapist harkens back to Mireille Rosello’s findings that associations linking blackness to criminality were advanced in 1990s French political discourse and news media.26 Ironically, this interaction pushes the Cameroonians into a life of crime: in order to flee the impending police investigation, the two hide in the back seat of a car and force the female owner to drive them to a metro station.

Ultimately rejected by both French society and their Cameroonian compatriots, Charlie and Jojo have no choice but to sleep in a park for the night. This night is characterized by the quintessential interaction between immigrants and police that for Rosello visually defines immigration in 1990s France.27 When the police arrive, Charlie and Jojo flee, fearing deportation and knowing that they will likely face murder charges in Cameroon. Charlie is caught but Jojo is able to escape by ‘plonge[r] dans les eaux noires de la Seine’ (85) (diving into the black waters of the Seine). Because the police officers cannot see him, the Seine initially saves Jojo’s life; however, the high walls on its banks and swift current quickly render him suicidal:

Il n’avait plus envie de lutter. Il n’était pas un lutteur. Et pourquoi lutter? Ce serait tellement simple si tout s’arrêtait […]. Ne plus vivre, ne plus courir, ne plus souffrir, mourir. Oui, c’était la solution: mourir!

Il s’arrêta de nager, ferma les yeux, bloqua sa respiration et se laissa couler. (86−87)

(He no longer wished to fight. He was not a fighter. And why fight? It would be so easy if everything just ended […]. No more living, no more running, no more suffering, death. Yes, that was the solution: death!

He stopped swimming, closed his eyes, held his breath, and let himself go under.)

Just like the Cameroonians’ brief plunge into the Mediterranean, the trope of water here imbues this commonplace interaction between police and immigrant with a much larger historical significance, suggesting that what had previously been considered ‘tributary histories’28—colonization and the slave trade—are, in fact, central: they flow directly into the heart of Paris. Jojo’s resignation to drowning in the Seine underscores the passivity inherent in his entire migratory experience; from his nightly dreams of living in France to being recruited in Charlie’s theft, to being stowed away in various modes of transportation, Jojo has been passively swept along established migration networks. Moreover, Jojo’s near-lifeless body floating downstream calls to mind other bodies that perished in other bodies of water, both during and (p.53) after transnational crossings.29 By associating the Seine—a river existing entirely within France, and which holds a prominent place in French national, literary, and artistic history—with transnational histories, Essomba’s novel contests the myopic notions of history underpinning France’s immigration reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.30

If the water topos in Le Paradis du Nord implicitly situates contemporary sub-Saharan African immigration on a much larger historical trajectory, the novel’s final scene, where Jojo stands trial for crimes he did not commit (or committed of necessity or in ignorance) makes this connection explicit. Jojo’s case seems straightforward: a young African man surreptitiously enters France, becomes involved in illegal activities, is arrested, and faces expulsion. However, in his closing argument, Jojo’s lawyer demands that the jury read Jojo’s case through a much longer historical lens, and even suggests that each jury member is just as guilty as Jojo:

Nous sommes allés, et parfois très brutalement, imposer la France chez lui. Pourquoi lui reprocher aujourd’hui d’aimer et de vouloir un peu plus de France? […] En cette période riche en commémorations, il ne me paraît pas déplacé de vous rappeler que l’histoire de ce jeune homme n’est que la fin tragique de votre histoire d’hier. Alors avant de prononcer une sentence, dites-vous bien que vous ne pouvez pas le juger sans vous juger. Mais puisque vous devez le juger, faites votre devoir: jugez-le! jugez-vous! (167; emphasis added)

(We went, and sometimes very brutally, to impose France in his land. Why should we now reproach him for loving and wanting to have a bit more of France? […] In this time filled with commemorations, it seems hardly inappropriate to remind you that the history of this young man is nothing more than the tragic end of your own recent history. So before delivering your verdict, remind yourself that you cannot judge him without judging yourself. But since you must judge him, do your duty: judge him! Judge yourself!)

Despite its heavy-handedness, this speech near the novel’s conclusion calls into question the myopia that dominated discussions of undocumented immigration in the 1980s and 1990s by arguing that postcolonial immigration only represents ‘the tragic end’ of a much larger history of exploitation. The French lawyer’s reference to ‘this time filled with commemorations’ strikes an ironic tone, particularly in light of the relative absence of events commemorating the sesquicentennial of slavery’s abolition in France in 1998, just two years after Le Paradis du Nord was published. As Françoise Vergès notes, though the law (p.54) proposed by Christiane Taubira to officially designate the transatlantic slave trade a crime against humanity was passed in 2001, it was not until 2005 ‘qu’un débat public s’est développé, relayé par les médias, l’Internet, des intellectuels et des politiques’ (that a public debate developed, transmitted by news media, the Internet, intellectuals, and politicians).31 Achille Mbembe has also pointed out the serious resistance to a plurality of memory in France: ‘Relatively belated efforts have been made to symbolically assume responsibility for slavery and abolition. As for the “colonial fracture”, it is still gaping wide’.32 Though Jojo is still ultimately found guilty, the lawyer’s speech transforms the way in which one reads personal immigration narratives by opening up the discursive space in which the larger history of colonization and the slave trade must be resuscitated.

In this way, Essomba’s Le Paradis du Nord participates in a larger critique found in colonial and postcolonial francophone works that point out how colonization and the slave trade established pathways that led to contemporary immigration. For instance, one thinks of Ousmane Sembene’s film La Noire de… (Black Girl), his novel Le Docker noir (1973) (Black Docker, 1987), and Henriette Akofa’s Une Esclave moderne (A Modern Slave, 2000), all of which operate on the overarching comparison between postcolonial immigration and modern slavery.33 Though set primarily in Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako’s film, La Vie sur terre (Life on Earth, 1999), conspicuously references Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism, 1955) to comment not only on underdevelopment in postcolonial African nations, but also on Dramane’s—one of the film’s main protagonists—immigration to France. Similarly, in Calixthe Beyala’s Le Petit Prince de Belleville (Loukoum: The ‘Little Prince’ of Belleville, 1992), Abdou Traoré, who only shares his thoughts directly with the reader through epigraphs, announces:

My country, your forebears know it well. They ripped out its flowers, cut down its forests, ploughed its land to strip it of the red gold of its life. I’m not resentful of them, for I have no body left, no rancour. I am lost. Withered. For once, just leave me alone—renounce your spirit of conquest, of domination, of pleasure. Just for once.34

Abdou Traoré figuratively ‘looks back’ to French colonization as the source of Abdou’s contemporary suffering in postcolonial France.

These works share more than an interest in resuscitating these marginalized histories and a focus on their continued relevance to (p.55) postcolonial immigration. What further unites them, and what becomes the central focus of Jojo’s courtroom scene, is a larger meditation on the protagonists’ ability to tell their own story. In La Noire de … Diouana has no voice to protest her exploitative working conditions. Dramane never once speaks on screen in La Vie sur terre, and his father only speaks to the film’s spectator through letters read in voiceover, just as Abdou Traoré only speaks directly to the reader through the epigraphs with which each chapter of Le Petit Prince de Belleville begins. By contrast, an overinvestment in insisting on Akofa’s ability to tell her own story characterizes Akofa’s Une Esclave moderne which, as Dominic Thomas points out, not only contains a foreword by Akofa insisting on the narrative’s veracity (which for him recalls Olaudah Equaino’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789) but is also ‘prefaced by Robert Badinter (a very well-known lawyer and human rights activist), continuing a long tradition of patronage of African texts’.35

In Le Paradis du Nord, the courtroom dynamics similarly draw connections between Jojo’s voice (or lack thereof) and the larger implications of the novel’s own attempts to ‘write to right’. Jojo chooses to remain silent during his trial, leaving the responsibility of interpreting his story for the jury to the prosecutor and his defense lawyer. The defense that Jojo’s lawyer offers brings to the fore questions of authority inherent in immigrants’ self-representation. Before beginning his speech, which I dissected above, Jojo’s lawyer preemptively explains his client’s silence and assures the jury that it does not reflect a lack of command of French: ‘si l’accusé avait bien voulu parler, vous auriez constaté qu’il parle le français aussi bien que vous et moi’ (167) (if the accused had wanted to speak, you would have noticed that he speaks French as well as you and I). This need to justify Jojo’s choice reveals two underlying assumptions: first, the lawyer believes that in the jury’s eyes, Jojo’s blackness is synonymous with an inability to speak proper French; second, that the French lawyer is in a position to attest to an African’s linguistic abilities.

These stereotypes carry echoes of Ousmane Sembene’s novel Le Docker noir, which highlights assumptions regarding African immigrants’ authorial capacities and, more generally, their ability to speak and write French. In Le Docker noir, Diaw Falla stands trial, accused of plagiarizing a white French woman’s novel entitled Le Dernier Voyage du négrier Sirius (The Last Voyage of the Slave Ship Sirius) and subsequently murdering her to cover up the plagiarism. (p.56) Though, in reality, the French woman plagiarized Diaw’s manuscript, as Dominic Thomas points out, the jury’s foregone conclusion of Diaw’s guilt is predicated upon stereotypical traits attributed to Africans: ‘Diaw could not have written a prize-winning book […] since such an accomplishment would clearly fall outside the traditional expectations of African performance’.36 What is more, to find Diaw innocent, the French jury must accept not only that he possesses the authorial capabilities to write Le Dernier Voyage du négrier Sirius, but also that the French woman would have plagiarized an African author’s novel.

This dynamic whereby a member of the majority must endorse the migrant’s narrative can be read as a larger indictment of minority authors’ positions in literary marketplaces both within and beyond the francophone context. For instance, to be published, early works produced by African Americans, in particular autobiographical slave narratives, not only had to conform to certain expectations in terms of content but this content often had to be authenticated in the form of an introduction by white editors (or sponsors) testifying to the work’s veracity.37 This practice, as Carla Peterson points out, raises serious questions regarding both the work’s and the author’s commodification in a larger literary market:

Slave narrators thus discovered that the autobiographical act, far from freeing them from commodification, tended to reinforce their status as commodities. In writing their lives, [… a]nd, in agreeing to sell their life experiences on the market place, they further exposed themselves to the gaze of an alien audience.38

Though these writers sought to author their own stories, they still found themselves bound up in a literary machine that—by the very nature of the types of work that were published and how they were marketed—reinforced images of blackness in the United States. A similar practice has also emerged in the Italian context in the 1990s, where a new group of Italian migrant authors such as Pap Khouma produced semi-autobiographical texts ‘co-authored with native Italian speakers, a practice called scrittura a quattro mani or “writing with four hands”’.39 The fact that covers for these works of Italian migrant literature such as Khouma’s Io,venditore di elefanti (1990) (I Was an Elephant Salesman: Adventures between Dakar, Paris, and Milan, 2010) display the name of the Italian co-author alongside that of the migrant author implicitly calls into question both the migrants’ linguistic abilities and serves as a legitimizing presence.

(p.57) These instances of literary sponsorship, a central feature of institutionalized spectacularism in cultural marketplaces, abound in postcolonial literary markets, as Graham Huggan has illustrated in the anglophone world in The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (2001) and in the francophone world, as Richard Watts demonstrates in Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World (2005). Francophone authors, too, were (and continue to be) ‘packaged’ by paratextual images, promotional materials, and, of course, writings. For Watts, the ‘struggle over who has the right to mediate and who maintains the authority to present and interpret this literature is fought’ in the paratext—all of the materials that package a given text.40 Yet this struggle is conspicuously absent in Le Paradis du Nord; in fact, although Jojo literally authors his own narrative by writing a journal documenting his experiences in France, he gives this journal to his defense lawyer on the condition that he keep it confidential (163). Ultimately Jojo’s defense lawyer keeps this promise, but his gesture to mediate Jojo’s narrative for the jury returns him to a legitimizing and authorial role. Through the courtroom scene, Le Paradis du Nord lays bare the existence of this mediation and, in so doing, perhaps opens up space from which it can be challenged. Jojo’s silence, however, also signals the text’s pessimism about the possibilities of escaping the larger system in which black authors—and the texts they produce—are subjected to a legitimizing presence.

It is here that Jojo’s narrative joins Essomba’s. In one of the few nonfiction essays he has written, Essomba critiques the way the French publishing industry serves as a legitimizing force for African narratives, which is worth quoting at length:

pour être reconnu en Afrique, il faut d’abord être plébiscité par Paris, Londres ou New York. [… O]n se retrouve finalement dans une situation où l’éditeur, les critiques, les pourvoyeurs de prix, les médias et le premier cercle de lecteurs, toutes ces personnes qui sont déterminantes dans le décollage d’une oeuvre, se trouvent être des étrangers. Dans un tel contexte, l’écrivain africain ne sera-t-il pas, d’une certaine manière, contraint à adapter son discours, à arrondir les angles, évitant d’effaroucher ceux qui vont le publier et qui ont peur des miroirs, rassurant ceux qui veulent le lire mais tremblant de rencontrer leur mauvaise conscience au détour d’une page ? Même si dans cet exercice l’écrivain arrive parfois, du point de vue littéraire, à des résultats très satisfaisants, la substance n’est pas d’origine; on a triché, on s’est quelque peu prostitué.41

(To be recognized in Africa, one must first be approved by Paris, London, (p.58) or New York. [… O]ne finds oneself in a situation where the editor, critics, suppliers, media, and the first round of readers, all these people who determine whether a work will be launched, are foreigners. In such a context, is not the African writer in a certain sense constrained to adapt his or her speech, to smooth out the rough edges, to avoid frightening those who will publish it and who are afraid of mirrors, reassuring those who want to read it but tremble at the thought of encountering their own guilty conscience leafing through its pages? Even if in this exercise the writer sometimes, from a literary point of view, arrives at very satisfactory results, the substance is not original; one has cheated; one has prostituted oneself somewhat.)

Essomba’s critique lays bare the larger tensions between agency and censorship that define African authorship. What is more, it also reveals a paradox that other authors—notably Alain Mabanckou, as I discuss in Chapter 3—critique as well: the way such highly mediated narratives become marketed as ‘authentically African’.

As I discussed in the chapter’s opening, it is this very framework that became the target of the sans-papiers protesters, who, unlike Jojo, sought to speak on their own behalf and make themselves visible in a context where others (such as journalists and politicians) spoke about and for them. Similarly, the musical works to which I now turn actively affirm marginalized positions to challenge the homogenizing discourse about late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century immigration in France.

Voicing Black Atlantic History

As James Winders discusses in Paris Africain: Rhythms of the African Diaspora (2006), Salif Keïta not only had ideological reasons for opposing changes to France’s immigration legislation, he was also personally affected by it, having experienced ‘the kinds of administrative humiliations to which African immigrants could be subjected’.42 Speaking out against these types of injustice is one of the many roles (including acting as a porte-parole for his community, a mediator between populations during disputes, and a guardian of his population’s oral history) that a traditional Malian griot43 such as Keïta fulfills for his community.44 His song ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, which, as its title announces, defiantly asserts immigrants’ and their descendants’ rights to remain in France, prefigured the sans-papiers protest by seven years, demonstrating the (p.59) lengthy period during which discussions of these legislative changes remained at the fore in France.

In terms of musical composition, the 1989 version of ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ deftly weaves together traditional African rhythm and instrumentation with global 1980s sounds, creating a musical genealogy attesting to the intertwined nature of French and African history and culture. Though Keïta’s traditional griot-style singing in Bambara later announces the song’s West African roots, the instrumentation of the song’s opening situates it squarely within 1980s rock music: a synthesized keyboard sound plays before drums from a drum kit join in, followed closely by an electric bass, two guitars, and a horn section (a keyboard will join later). Next, the two more traditionally African elements—Keïta’s vocal track and a balafon—enter. The song’s triplet rhythm accentuates its upbeat and optimistic, but forceful, tone and its two-against-three polyrhythm highlights its West African roots, while simultaneously placing it within a more global 1980s soundscape, which relied heavily on polyrhythms. Musically, the song asserts an African perspective, yet is very much anchored in global 1980s sounds, underscoring the ways in which European and African cultures can productively come together.

Just as the music itself suggests how African and European cultures are inextricably linked, the song’s lyrics evoke two types of historical interconnectedness—Africans’ service to France and the continued postcolonial European presence in Africa—to question France’s exclusionary immigration policies. The song’s opening lines insist upon the physical labor that the African body provided, without which European imperial expansion would not have been possible: ‘From the time of slavery / The black man have [sic] toiled / The black men have suffered / The black men have sweated blood’.45 In these lyrics, the reference to blood not only reminds the listener of the harsh realities faced by slaves and colonized subjects, but it also calls into question rigid racially, historically, and even biologically based conceptions of national identity (which, as I illustrate in Chapter 5, continue to surface in twenty-first-century France). Keïta’s role as a griot, whose other primary responsibility is to recount the genealogy of his people, is significant: the slaves’ blood to which Keïta alludes reinforces the genealogical connection between the African diaspora and Africa—a product of the forced circulation of the transatlantic slave trade. However, because it is shed in service of the French empire, this blood also asserts a genealogical link between France and Africa; in other words, because of their service, Africans form an integral branch of France’s genealogical (p.60) tree. These lyrics, then, offer an alternative genealogy of France that calls into question the distinction between French and foreigner that will form the basis for 1980s and 1990s immigration reforms.

The lyrics underscore how processes of labeling and naming continue to matter, contesting the association between racial and ethnic minorities and ‘foreigners’. The lyrics point out, for instance, that though France’s borders remain closed to migrants, France nevertheless maintains a postcolonial presence as ‘foreigners’ in Africa. Keïta sings, ‘Independence has arrived / There are white men everywhere / There are white men in Africa’.46 Yet, despite the fact that non-African populations persist in Africa after independence, African immigrants who have been living in France for years are violently expelled:

  • The CRS are everywhere
  • They only use violence and nothing else
  • To move us on
  • […]
  • Every day they call the police
  • Every day there are arrests
  • Every day people are taken back home by ‘plane.47

By insisting upon the historical intersections of France and Africa, and by contrasting Europeans’ continued presence in Africa with Africans’ exclusion in Europe, Keïta’s lyrics strike at the underlying assumptions that formerly colonized subjects do not belong in France because they have no claim to French history.

Similarly, the song’s video visually references how the black body was conscripted into forced service for France and places slavery and colonization into dialog with postcolonial immigration. Though these devices are present throughout the video, the opening scene illustrates them particularly well. Unlike the CD track, the ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ video begins with the chorus, and the video’s first shot, which corresponds to the chorus’s first four beats, begins with a close-up of black feet walking rhythmically from the right of the screen to the center of the shot, taking a step on each down beat (Figure 4).

Once the feet reach the center of the shot, they remain there, but continue to march in place on each down beat. The dancer’s clothing—a dark grass skirt—is partially visible around the dancer’s legs, and both his feet and clothing stand in stark contrast to the white background. Hand-drawn white lines emphasize the contrast between black and white, and also obscure a clear view of the dancer’s feet. The second (p.61)

Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History

Figure 4: African dancer in the opening shot of the video for Salif Keïta’s 1989 version of ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, directed by Michael Meyer of Wonder Products.

shot begins with a jump cut to a close-up of the dancer’s top half; his wooden, elongated mask surrounded by dark strands similar to those from the dancer’s skirt looks quickly from screen left to screen right, before this image fades out to that of a bright object in the center of the screen. Finally, in the third shot, the image of the bright object fades out to a medium close-up of a person’s torso, dressed in green, with his or her hands handcuffed in front. As s/he moves from the right to the left of the screen, four more handcuffed bodies follow. Their dark clothing makes their handcuffed arms the prominent focus of the shot.

Using close-ups to frame the video’s opening reduces the black body to symbolic constitutive parts and serves two complementary purposes. First, it suggests that these individuals—particularly those who are handcuffed—are not understood as human beings, but rather as a faceless collectivity. Second, it evokes the way the African body was historically seen as an ensemble of parts that could serve the colonial empire. In Littératures africaines francophones des 1980 et 1990 (Francophone African Literatures of the 1980s and 1990s), Lydie Moudileno notes that several body parts, including skin, feet, the male torso, blood, and the womb play prominent symbolic roles in sub-Saharan African literary (p.62) productions before 1980.48 For her, each of these body parts functions metonymically; references to feet, for instance:

signal[e]nt tantôt l’acculturation (pied entravé dans la chaussure, pied botté du tirailleur, pied sur l’asphalte de la ville), tantôt la reculturation (pied nu en contact avec la terre natale, pied nu de la dance ancestrale).49

(sometimes signal acculturation [foot shackled by a shoe, booted foot of the colonial soldier, foot on the city’s asphalt], and sometimes getting back to one’s roots [bare foot in contact with the native land, bare feet performing an ancestral dance].)

In the music video, the feet perform a dance reminiscent of ‘traditional’ African culture, yet in light of the larger context of the song’s lyrics—which assert immigrants’ right to be in France given the longer history of exploitation—they can also be read as affirming belonging, claiming the jus soli that had been revoked just four years later.50 That the background contains no referent definitively placing the video in either France or Africa also suggests a doubly marginalized space, outside of both France and Africa, where the immigrants and their descendants reside physically and psychologically. Just as Jojo finds himself excluded from both African and French communities in France, and eventually inhabits a squat in Le Paradis du Nord, so too do the individuals in ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ inhabit a space outside of presumed French national identity, marginalized both legally and discursively.

The handcuffed arms and torsos closely following each other in a line across the screen visually reference the many clandestine immigrants who were deported from France, but they also evoke earlier moments of colonization and slavery when these body parts were forced into service for France. In fact, a later shot from the video makes this history of servitude explicit: approximately one minute into the video, a shackled line of feet marches slowly from left to right across the screen. Juxtaposing these restraints from different historical periods within the same video produces a parallel underscoring the song’s critique of French immigration policy: even though colonized subjects were formerly forced into service for the French empire, they are now being excluded from citizenship within the former colonial power.

Finally, ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ builds on the courtroom scene in Le Paradis du Nord, which exposed the ways French mediators speak for black authors and their works. The multiethnic chorus (Figure 5) and images of fluid borders in ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ suggest the possibility that a plurality of voices can be expressed—and heard—in France.51 On the (p.63)

Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History

Figure 5: Multi-ethnic chorus in Keïta’s 1989 version of ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, directed by Michael Meyer of Wonder Products.

surface, this scene’s chromatic binary between black and white seems to mirror the way in which France’s immigration debates were figured in implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) racial terms: the chorus’s all-black attire stands out sharply against the white background and fabric, as do the shadows cast back onto the fabric. The lighting, however, reduces the overall contrast, and can be read as a critique of the larger discourse surrounding the immigration ‘crisis’: though it had been framed in very clear, oppositional terms—that is, depicted as a question of ‘black’ and ‘white’—in reality, the video suggests that the debate needed far greater nuance. In this way, the ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ video anticipates the sans-papiers protest, which Rosello describes as a ‘new authoring principle, a group of individuals who managed to impose a new grid of intelligibility, and to suggest that a much more nuanced response to their fate was both desirable and possible’.52

In addition to targeting the specifically racial binarisms that pervaded (and, as I trace in Chapter 5, still persist in twenty-first-century France) the discussion of immigration in France, the multicultural chorus scenes of the video for ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ also call into question the impulse to divide populations in the first place. In these scenes, the chorus is divided into three rows, each of which stands on a different level of a riser. At (p.64) several moments during the video, a wide strip of sheer white fabric is raised between the rows, separating the chorus’s members. Though the sheer white fabric does obscure certain chorus members, it never completely hides them from the camera’s view, and, in fact, the shadows cast back onto the fabric by the rows behind it make their partial absence visible. What is more, the fabric does not obscure their voices—their oral presence—in the least. Beyond symbolizing the arbitrary divisions between people that are at the heart of the immigration discourse, the shadows and the presence of the voices also suggest the presence of additional narratives.

Echoes of the Sans-Papiers

If Keïta’s ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ stands as an affirmation of belonging that anticipates the way the sans-papiers claimed their right to self-representation in 1996, Manu Chao’s ‘Clandestino’ (1998) and Meiway’s ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ (2004) as their titles suggest, reclaim the sans-papiers identity in the years following the St. Bernard church affair to highlight the continued struggles of immigrants and their descendants in France. Comparing how each song strategically embodies this marginalized position through close analysis of their lyrics, vocal delivery, and, above all, their videos, reveals how they engage in self-spectacularization to put the marginalized migrant on display for the viewer. In both videos, the artist speaks on behalf of (and, in Meiway’s case, as) migrants and their descendants in contemporary France. Ultimately, their gazing and speaking dynamics raise further questions regarding the larger frameworks that control these attempts to ‘give voice to’ and to ‘make visible’ these populations.

Born in France to parents who fled Franco’s Spain, Manu Chao has had great success in the French and international popular music scenes. From 1987 to 1994, Chao was one of the principal members of the alternative French rock group Mano Negra (Black Hand, which refers to undeclared work), whose aesthetic drew from a variety of sources, including French chanson-style singing, ska, rock, reggae, and salsa. After the group’s dissolution, Chao traveled extensively in South and Central America, and released what he expected to be a demo EP that would begin and end his solo career, Clandestino.53 Much to his surprise, the record met with great success and sold over 3 million copies (2 million outside France).

(p.65) Overall, the title track’s lyrics (in Spanish) paint in broad brushstrokes the journey of an undocumented immigrant as he, like Jojo in Le Paradis du Nord, passes through the Strait of Gibraltar (‘entre Ceuta y Gibraltar’) to seek refuge in the Global North (‘una ciudad del norte’). Though the song’s very first line announces a decidedly first-person perspective and positions immigration as a solitary journey (‘solo voy con mi pena’ [I go alone with my pain]), this migratory experience is anything but unique. During the chorus, Chao lists a variety of nationalities (‘peruano’, ‘africano’, ‘argelino’, ‘nigeriano’, and ‘boliviano’, [Peruvian, African, Algerian, Nigerian, and Bolivian]), suggesting the universality of this experience. The lyrics offer few concrete details regarding the journey itself, instead focusing on the clandestino’s nomadic existence (‘correr es mi destino’ [to move from place to place is my destiny]) and the labels ascribed to such populations, most notably when Chao uses the passive voice to proclaim, ‘me dicen el clandestino’ (they call me the clandestine one). The song’s lyrics highlight how, though these individuals come from a variety of backgrounds, ultimately, forces beyond their control (be they governments, individuals, or other associations) label and classify them homogeneously into one group located outside of the national boundaries and opposed to a homogeneous ‘us’.

The song’s official video compounds, rather than neatly resolves, this tension between individuality and universality announced by the lyrics. Its staging is simple, alternating medium shots of Chao singing with close-up shots of silent individuals who often stare back at the camera. Chao’s shots are primarily set in front of a sun motif, while shots of the individuals are primarily set in front of an undifferentiated, out-of-focus crowd. During these individual shots, the video foregrounds individuals and families from a variety of different national backgrounds; they hail from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The act of bringing them to the foreground and then returning them to the undifferentiated mass visually mirrors the lyrics’ shifts between individuality and universality. The video also reflects on the act of ‘labeling’. Many of the individuals and groups hold up their identifying documents, ranging from stamped passports to birth certificates, family photos, and even barcodes. In speaking out on behalf of this group and in seeking to make these individuals’ stories heard, however, the song nevertheless falls into one of the very traps it seeks to combat. Though the lyrics and images make gestures to interrogate the universalizing and stereotypical narratives inscribed onto the migrant experience, they make limited efforts to give voice to these diverse experiences. In fact, the video gives voice only (p.66) to Chao, reinforcing, as Barbara Lebrun notes, ‘the role of Western artists as adequate spokespersons’54—a notion that she and I both find problematic.

At the same time, however, the video draws the viewer’s attention to the visual dynamics that position the racial and ethnic minority as the silent object of the European gaze. As I pointed out above, the individuals cast as migrants often stare directly into the camera. In so doing, they destabilize the spectators’ comfortable gazing position and challenge them to reflect on the processes that legitimize their gaze. As I now trace, the video to Meiway’s ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ similarly ‘gazes back’ at its spectators to expose and ultimately contest these gazing dynamics.

Whereas Chao speaks out on behalf of migrants in ‘Clandestino’, Ivorian zoblazo artist Meiway strategically embodies the sans-papier position to speak from this subject position in ‘Je suis sans-papiers’. Musically, ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ is a doleful ballad that departs from Meiway’s upbeat dance-style zoblazo aesthetic. Moreover, unlike the other two songs examined in this chapter, which weave their narrative of métissage into their musical compositions (drawing on instrumentation and rhythms from a variety of cultural backgrounds), the musical composition of ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ is anything but ‘exotic’—its instrumentation includes a saxophone, synthesized piano, vocals, and sparse percussion.

Like Le Paradis du Nord and ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ affirms former colonial subjects’ belonging in France by reading postcolonial immigration on the same historical trajectory as slavery and colonization. In so doing, it reconceptualizes French national history through a transnational lens, interrogating rigid notions of national identity. Lyrically, ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ uses a metaphor of homelessness to describe not only the clandestine immigrant’s life in France, but also the postcolonial African condition more generally.55 For instance, Meiway proclaims, ‘J’étais bien chez moi / sous mon petit toit / Tu es venu chez moi / Tu m’as imposé ta loi’ (I was fine in my land / under my little roof / You came to my land / You imposed your law on me).56 Later, he reinforces how immigrants’ legal and cultural marginalization is an outgrowth of this history: ‘Immigré chez toi / Je suis exclu par ta loi / Sans-papiers, je suis sans-papiers’ (Immigrant in your land / I am excluded by your laws / Undocumented, I am undocumented).57 The anaphora of the terms ‘chez moi’ and ‘chez toi’—phrases with which half of the song’s French lines end—underscores the theme of (p.67) belonging and emphasizes the paradoxical state of the postcolonial subject, who no longer has a home to call ‘chez moi’, but is rejected from the métropole. Moreover, this link between colonization, homelessness, and immigration also orients the music video, encouraging the viewer to read the protagonist’s homelessness (indicated in scenes where Meiway is depicted sleeping on the ground or begging in front of the metro) historically. The song therefore suggests not only that the immigrant’s economic situation is caused by imbalances of power originating in colonial exploitation, but also that the immigrant’s literal homelessness can be seen as a metaphor for the postcolonial condition: Europe metaphorically stole his home through its colonial project.

Both the repeated informal second-person pronoun ‘tu’ and Meiway’s chilling gaze, pointed directly into the camera, implicate the listener directly in this history. The first four lines cited above, in particular, lend an accusatory tone to this discussion of French colonial history and recall other migritude works such as Le Paradis du Nord or Abdou Traoré’s epigraphs in Calixthe Beyala’s Le Petit Prince de Belleville discussed above. At the same time, however, this accusatory tone risks perpetuating the binarisms that, as Pascal Blanchard notes, characterize discussions of how to acknowledge colonial history in contemporary France.58 Despite the potential pitfalls of such a tone, Meiway’s lyrics nevertheless encourage viewers to recognize their nation’s historical role in contributing to the conditions leading to immigration to France.

In terms of visual composition, several of the music video’s scenes are filmed through vertical bars, reminding the viewer of clandestine immigrants’ imprisonment and deportation. This composition also recalls moments when the colonized subject’s body was put on display in ‘human zoos’,59 such as the Exposition coloniale discussed in Chapter 1. In this way, the camera’s gaze in ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ is a concrete example of how, as George Lipsitz has put it, ‘ethnic cultures accustom themselves to a bifocality reflective of both the ways that they view themselves and the ways they are viewed by others’.60 Beyond simply conjuring these stereotypical images of black bodies, however, this scene’s bifocality is strengthened through Meiway’s gaze directed at the spectator through the red metal bars (Figure 6). By staring into the camera at the presumed spectators, Meiway acknowledges, but also simultaneously questions, his position as a spectacle. His look back at the audience can be read as a self-reflexive gesture that demonstrates an awareness that in speaking out he might be perpetuating reigning stereotypes about African immigrants.61 Furthermore, his stare makes (p.68)

Self-Spectacularization and Looking Back on French History

Figure 6: Ivorian artist Meiway staring through vertical bars in the video for ‘Je suis sans-papiers’.

his viewers aware of their own impulse to gaze, pushing them to interrogate the underlying power dynamic behind their authority to do so. This perspective harkens back to Jojo’s lawyer in Le Paradis du Nord, who, though he explains how Jojo differs from the stereotypes about African immigrants, nevertheless does not critically analyze the framework whereby he is authorized—and, in fact, feels compelled—to explain the black, mute body.

Looking Back, Speaking Out: Porte-paroles, Artists, and the Gaze

Ultimately, the literary and musical works I have examined in this chapter seek to give voice to one of France’s most vulnerable populations: immigrants. Each one interrogates the discriminatory immigration and national identity laws passed in late twentieth-century France by interrogating the historical myopia without which they could not exist. Specifically, each work—whether through the topos of water (Le Paradis du Nord), musical composition (‘Nou Pas Bouger’), or imagery of the black body under surveillance (Le Paradis du Nord, ‘Clandestino’, and ‘Je suis sans-papiers’)—repositions postcolonial immigration to France as but one point on a much longer trajectory of exploitation. By evoking the histories of colonization and of the slave trade, the artists I have (p.69) considered reframe the terms of the immigration debate, asserting their own power, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot has put it, to ‘define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention’.62 In so doing, they challenge France to recognize both its own role in forging the connections that contributed to immigrants’ travel to France and these populations’ belonging in the postcolonial métropole. Though these connections may seem obvious, they are often overlooked and it is therefore essential to resuscitate them when discussing contemporary migratory flows.63

Evoking these histories in the context of immigration, however, has a much larger significance that reaches beyond the immediate historical context of 1980s and 1990s France. By resuscitating histories of colonization and the slave trade in conjunction with immigration and national identity debates, these works anticipate France’s memorial turn in the mid-2000s (illustrated inter alia by the inauguration of the CNHI, the Musée du Quai Branly, and the passing of the Loi du 23 février). As Blanchard asserts, recognizing these histories—though difficult—is essential in France’s increasingly multicultural society:

L’enjeu est de taille: soit le fait colonial trouvera sa place dans le présent, soit les frustrations deviendront mythologies et accentueront les césures de la société française.64

(The stakes are high: either colonial history will find its place in the present, or the resulting frustrations will become myths and accentuate the fractures of French society.)

Ultimately, these literary and musical works pluralize notions of national history and memory in late twentieth-century France.

By laying the groundwork for this memorial project, works such as Le Paradis du Nord, ‘Nou Pas Bouger’, ‘Clandestino’, and ‘Je suis sans-papiers’ have opened up new discussions in which these histories can be challenged. Yet, at the same time, these works all grapple with the questions of (self-)representation that emerged during the sans-papiers crisis. By underscoring parallels between the histories of colonization, slavery, and postcolonial immigration, to what extent do the works discussed above suggest that these histories are foundational for all descendants of immigrants in France? The works I discuss in subsequent chapters—particularly Léonora Miano’s Blues pour Élise, studied in Chapter 4—will contest this very idea.65 Moreover, in drawing attention to this population’s experiences, to what extent are the authors and artists legitimating their own voice as spokesperson? Finally, by way of (p.70) ‘looking back’ both literally at their audience and figuratively on French history, the works consider whether they themselves are complicit in perpetuating the prevalent associations between blackness, clandestinity, and economic marginalization.

As I explore in the following chapters, more recent francophone works, including Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazar (2009), Léonora Miano’s Blues pour Élise (2010), and Saïd Bouamama and rap group Z.E.P.’s Devoir d’Insolence (2010), draw attention to and self-consciously grapple with the precise risks on which these questions are predicated. Establishing a teleological relationship between the slave trade, colonization, immigration, and issues of race and national identity in contemporary France risks suggesting that these historical moments continue to be central for all racial and ethnic minority populations. Moreover, these more recent works take a self-reflexive stance on their own complicity in perpetuating institutionalized spectacularism in cultural marketplaces.


(1) As Thierry Blin highlights in his thorough study of the sans-papiers movement, the group did not exclusively comprise sub-Saharan Africans. Though the protesters were predominantly Malians (247 individuals), Mauritanians (29), Senegalese (21), Syrians (2), Central Africans (2), Guineans (p.173) (2), an Algerian, a Zambian, and four individuals of ‘other nationalities’ made up the group (L’Invention des sans-papiers: essai sur la démocratie à l’épreuve du faible [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010], 221).

(2) The Loi Bonnet and Loi Pasqua represent some of the most significant changes regarding immigration and regularization policy in France during the 1980s and 1990s, restricting the conditions under which immigrants could legally enter France, increasing the government’s ability to detain and deport immigrants, restricting polygamous immigrants’ abilities to obtain a ten-year residency permit, and even removing the right of jus soli that, since 1889, had accorded French citizenship to any foreigner born in France when s/he reached adulthood.

(3) As Mireille Rosello has illustrated, unlike the French news media coverage of immigration more generally, which often depicted immigrants as a homogeneous group defined by clandestinity, coverage of the sans-papiers depicted this group differently, insisting upon their individuality by underscoring their names, ages, countries of origin, and personal trajectories (Rosello, ‘Representing Illegal Immigrants in France: From clandestins to l’affaire des sans-papiers de Saint-Bernard’, Journal of European Studies 28, no. 1 [1998)], 148).

(4) The literature on sape is exhaustive and well documented, but for the best work on this subject, see Dominic Thomas, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007); Ch. Didier Gondola, ‘Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth’, African Studies Review 42, no. 1 (1999); Didier Gondola, ‘Sapeurs’ in Berg Fashion Library, ed. Berg Publishers (2010), http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bazf/bazf00498.xml?q=sape&print; Justin-Daniel Gandoulou, Entre Paris et Bacongo (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Centre de création industrielle, 1984); Justin-Daniel Gandoulou, Au Coeur de la sape: moeurs et aventures des Congolais à Paris (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1989); Michela Wrong, ‘A Question of Style’, Transition, no. 80 (1999); Janet MacGaffey and Rémy Bazenguissa, Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000); Jonathan Friedman, ‘The Political Economy of Elegance: An African Cult of Beauty’, in Consumption and Identity, ed. Jonathan Friedman (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994).

(5) In this way, sapeurs join other ‘black dandy’ and minority fashion movements such as the nineteenth-century Cuban negros curros, the way African-American slaves repurposed and adorned their clothing, and the Latino ‘zoot suits’. On each of these phenomena, see respectively Fernando Ortiz, Los negros curros (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1995); Monica L. Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Stuart Cosgrove, ‘The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare’, in Zoot Suits and Second-Hand (p.174) Dresses: An Anthology of Fashion and Music, ed. Angela McRobbie (Boston, MA: Unwim Hyman, 1988).

(6) Ababacar Diop, Dans la Peau d’un sans-papiers (Paris: Seuil, 1997).

(7) As Laurent Dubois has provocatively shown in ‘La République Métissée: Citizenship, Colonialism, and the Borders of French History’, the sans-papiers rhetoric united French universalist discourse—itself a notion that was forged through the actions of Caribbean slaves—and claims of cultural difference.

(8) The most notable example is Azouz Begag’s Le Gone du Chaâba (Paris: Seuil, 1986).

(9) Notable novels include Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed (1983) (Tea in the Harem, 1989) and Faïza Guène’s Kiffe kiffe demain (2004) (Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, 2006). Beur and banlieue films and television shows also gained prominence during this time; the most notable example is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. For an excellent analysis of beur and banlieue filmmaking, see Carrie Tarr’s Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). For an overview of beur television series and an in-depth look at one in particular (La Famille Ramdam), see Alec G. Hargreaves, ‘Gatekeepers and Gateways: Post-Colonial Minorities and French Television’, in Post-Colonial Cultures in France, ed. Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney (New York: Routledge, 1997); Alec G Hargreaves, ‘La Famille Ramdan: Un “sit-com” pur beur’, Hommes & Migrations 1147 (1991).

(10) Mireille Rosello, Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); Kathryn Kleppinger, Branding the ‘Beur’ Author: Minority Writing and the Media in France, 1983–2013 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

(12) Jacques Chevrier, ‘Afrique(s)-sur-Seine: autour de la notion de “migritude”’, Notre librairie 155–56 (2004): 97–99. Select works not discussed at length in this chapter include films such as Thomas Gilou’s Black Mic-Mac (1982) and Daniel Vigne’s Fatou la Malienne (Fatou, the Malian, 2001); fiction such as Alain Mabanckou’s Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (1998) (Blue White Red, 2013), Simon Njami’s African gigolo (1980), Daniel Biyaoula’s L’Impasse (The Impasse, 1996), Calixthe Beyala’s Loukoum: Le Petit Prince de Belleville (1992) (Loukoum: The ‘Little Prince’ of Belleville, 1995), and Fatou Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique (2003) (Belly of the Atlantic, 2006); nonfiction works such as the testimonial by Ababacar Diop, who positioned himself as the spokesperson for the sans-papiers protesters, Dans la peau d’un sans-papiers (In the Shoes of a sans-papiers, 1997); and music such as Ivorian zouglou group Magic System’s ‘Un Gaou à Paris’ (‘An Idiot in Paris’, 2003). See also Carrie Tarr’s overview on early 2000s West African immigration in cinema: ‘Transnational Identities, Transnational Spaces: West Africans in Paris in Contemporary French Cinema’, Modern and Contemporary France 15, no. 1 (2007).

(p.175) (13) See in particular Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, and Sandrine Lemaire, ‘From Scientific Racism to Popular and Colonial Racism in France and the West’, in Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires, ed. Pascal Blanchard et al. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); Herman Lebovics, ‘The Zoos of the Exposition Coloniale Internationle, Paris 1931’, in Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires, ed. Pascal Blanchard et al. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); Gilles Boëtsch and Yann Adrdagna, ‘Human Zoos: The “Savage” and the Anthropologist’, in Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires, ed. Pascal Blanchard et al. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

(14) Other proposed classifications include Benetta Jules Rosette’s ‘Afro-Parisianism’, Odile Cazenave’s ‘Afrique sur Seine’ (Africa on the Seine), or Abdourahman Waberi’s ‘enfants de la postcolonie’ (children of the postcolony). Like migritude, these classifications depend on biographical information about the authors. See Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Odile M. Cazenave, Afrique sur Seine: une nouvelle génération de romanciers africains à Paris (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003); Abdourahman A Waberi, ‘Les enfants de la postcolonie: Esquisse d’une nouvelle génération d’écrivains francophones d’Afrique noire’, Notre librairie 135 (1998).

(15) Alain Mabanckou, Le Sanglot de l’homme noir (Paris: Fayard, 2012), 150–51; Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, Désir d’Afrique (Paris: Gallimard, 2001). See also Thomas, Black France, 22; Lydie Moudileno, ‘Littérature et postcolonie’, Africultures 28 (2000).

(16) Jean-Roger Essomba, ‘De la reconnaissance’, Africultures 15 (1999).

(17) Huggan (15) qtd. in Lydie Moudileno, ‘Fame, Celebrity, and the Conditions of Visibility of the Postcolonial Writer’, Yale French Studies 120 (2011), 64.

(19) Siobhán Shilton, ‘Travel Literature in French Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters’, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 10, no. 1 (2006).

(20) See also Aedín Ní Loingsigh, Postcolonial Eyes: Intercontinental Travel in Francophone African Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009).

(21) In a forthcoming article entitled ‘Tributary Histories’ Flowing into National Waterways: European Rivers in Sub-Saharan African Immigration Literature’, I flesh out the significance of European rivers in Le Paradis du Nord, reading this text’s hydrography of immigration alongside two other sub-Saharan African immigration narratives: Ousmane Socé’s Mirages de Paris (1937) and Donatongo Ndongo-Bidyogo’s short story ‘El Sueño’ (‘The Dream’, 1973). I contend that these three works use European waterways to remap (p.176) imperial violence committed in Africa onto the hydrography of colonial and postcolonial Europe.

(22) Note: all references to Le Paradis du Nord in this chapter will be given in parentheses.

(23) Iain Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 149. Here, one also thinks of Derek Walcott’s canonical poem ‘The Sea is History’.

(24) Christopher L. Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 51.

(25) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 17.

(29) This moment also calls to mind the bodies floating in the Seine on the night of October 17, 1961 when Parisian police forces violently repressed Algerians peacefully protesting a racist curfew enacted against them twelve days earlier. Although no definitive conclusion has been reached regarding the number of victims, the best estimate seems around 200. Many bodies were recovered from the Seine. See Jim House and Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Jean-Luc Einaudi, La Bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961 (Paris: Seuil, 1991); Jean-Paul Brunet, Police contre FLN: le drame d’octobre 1961 (Paris: Flammarion, 1999).

(30) In recent years, scholars have begun turning to water spaces as alternatives to nationally bounded histories and identities; however, often the object of study is a large body of water that can serve as a challenge to national histories because they connect multiple countries, such as the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. See for example Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) and Chambers’s Mediterranean Crossings (2008). Applying this same paradigm to national bodies of water such as the Seine, which flows entirely within France, could be a fruitful point of departure for subverting territorially defined histories (and the resulting ideas of national identity) from within, and is a subject that could complement emerging perspectives of interdisciplinary water-based area studies.

(31) Françoise Vergès, ‘Les Troubles de la mémoire: traite négrière, esclavage et écriture de l’histoire’, Cahiers d’études africaines 179–80, no. 3 (2005), 1144.

(32) Achille Mbembe, ‘The Republic and Its Beast: On the Riots in the French Banlieues’, in Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprising in Contemporary France, ed. Charles Tshimanga, Ch. Didier Gondola, and Peter J. Bloom (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 50.

(p.177) (34) Beyala, Le Petit Prince de Belleville, 29; emphasis original.

(37) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Capitalism and the 1850s African-American Novel’, American Literary History 4, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 565–66.

(39) Allison Deventer and Dominic Thomas, ‘Afro-European Studies: Emerging Fields and New Directions’, in A Companion to Comparative Literature, ed. Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 345. For more on early Italian migrant literature see Alessandra Di Maio, ‘Black Italia: Contemporary Migrant Writers from Africa’, in Black Europe and the African Diaspora, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

(40) Richard Watts, Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), 3–4.

(42) In fact, as Winders notes, over the years these legislative hurdles wore on Keïta to the point that he decided to permanently relocate himself and his family to Bamako in 1997 (Paris Africain: Rhythms of the African Diaspora [New York: Basingstoke, 2006], 59, 107).

(43) Interestingly, Keïta is descended from the royal lineage of Sundiata Keïta, which normally would exclude him from occupying the role of griot—a separate inherited caste that serves the ruler in traditional Malian society. However, Keïta’s albinism caused him to be disowned by his family, allowing him to pursue his passion for music and to study griot singing.

(44) Of course, many scholars, journalists, and artists note that the griot’s role has changed significantly in recent years in many African regions. For instance, Dani Kouyaté’s film Keïta! ou l’héritage du griot (1995) (Keïta! Voice of the Griot, 1996) presents contrasting views of griots: in the main narrative, a traditional griot instructs a young boy on the meaning of his name, thereby recounting the oral history of the Malian empire, but at other moments of the film, the viewer is introduced to more modern griots who sing the praises of notable attendees at events in exchange for money. This latter image of the griot is now more pervasive in West African society and, as Dorothea Schulz discusses, these types of griot have been criticized for privileging money over tradition (‘Praise without Enchantment: Griots, Broadcast Media, and the Politics of Tradition in Mali’. Africa Today 44, no. 4 [Oct–Dec 1997], 449). This mistrust of griots’ intentions, however, is not exclusive to the postcolonial moment. As Christopher Miller shows, a similar skepticism toward griots is already present in earlier works such as Laye Camara’s L’Enfant noir (The Dark Child, 1953): ‘The griot can enter your home and demand what he wants; (p.178) you refuse at your peril, for his powers of speech, usually used to praise, can be turned from chant to chantage, from praise song to bribery. Uninvited, a griot may begin singing your genealogy; if a sufficient gift is not forthcoming, he may begin weaving in sly references to skeletons in your closet such as ancestors who were slaves’ (Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 83).

(45) Salif Keïta, Ko-Yan (New York: Island Records, 1989), CD. The lyrics are sung in Bambara; here, the lyrics are quoted from the English translation in the CD’s liner notes.

(48) Lydie Moudileno, Littératures africaines francophones des années 1980 et 1990, 2nd ed. (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2003).

(50) The second Loi Pasqua revoked automatic citizenship for children born in France to immigrant parents. Instead, these children had to file a formal ‘manifestation de volonté’ to become a French citizen between the ages of 16 and 21. The Loi Guigou of 1998 later repealed the ‘manifestation de volonté’ requirement.

(51) The chorus’s composition recalls other social equality movements from the same time, most notably the group SOS-Racisme, founded in 1984, for whom ‘Nou Pas Bouger’ served as the unofficial anthem, as Winders points out (Paris Africain, 59).

(53) Manu Chao, Clandestino (France: Virgin France, 1998), CD.

(54) Barbara Lebrun, ‘Music for Sans—Papiers in the Republic’, Third Text 20, no. 6 (2006), 718.

(55) Meiway, Golgotha (Paris: BMG France, 2004), CD.

(58) Pascal Blanchard, ‘Histoire coloniale: la nouvelle guerre des mémoires’, Cultures sud 165 (June 2007), 37.

(59) Pascal Blanchard et al., eds., Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

(60) George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 135.

(61) I discuss this idea further in Chapter 5, by analyzing Z.E.P.’s song ‘La gueule du patrimoine’, which inserts listeners’ exaggerated reactions to their song into the song itself. In so doing, the artists ask whether speaking out about racism and discrimination nevertheless affirms that these are the only narratives open to France’s racial and ethnic minority artists.

(62) Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995), 99.

(p.179) (63) Achille Mbembe, for instance, reminds us that ‘before colonization, there was the slave trade […]. The acceleration in migratory movements toward France is also the direct product of that long history’ (‘The Republic and Its Beast’, 50).

(65) According to Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas, what defines ‘Afropeans’ is not a larger shared ‘black’ or African diasporic history (which would include moments such as colonization or the slave trade), but rather shared experiences of marginalization within Europe. See Nicki Hitchcott and Dominic Thomas, eds., Francophone Afropean Literatures (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014).