“When Will France Have Its Barack Obama?”

President Barack Obama and President Franois Hollande of France hold a discussion following their meeting in the Oval Office, May 18, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

At the 2016 Festival Albertine, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked, and a panel of intellectuals answered.

On Wednesday, November 5th, over 100 people crowded into the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on 5th Avenue. At the front of the room Coates, a National Book Award winner recently off a one year writing fellowship in Paris, ready to lead the discussion. To his left was Iris Derœux, French correspondent in the US for the website MediaPart specializing in contemporary social justice issues in France and the US. To her left, Jelani Cobb, professor and contributor to The New Yorker, meditating on race relations, politics, and culture. To his left, Pap Ndiaye, pioneer of Black Studies in France, author, and professor. Finally, stoically on the end with a translator by his side, Benjamin Stora, historian of North African history, author, and board president of France’s National Museum.

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L-R: Coates, Derœux, Cobb, Ndiaye, Stora. Photo courtesy of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy
L-R: Coates, Derœux, Cobb, Ndiaye, Stora (c) Cultural Services of the French Embassy

It was an evening filled with murmurs of agreement, uncomfortable laughter, real laughter, sighs, and most importantly, dialogue. These are the highlight quotes from a discussion about race in France. (Quotes have been condensed for clarity, but the full talk can be viewed here.)

1) “In the US, the Civil Rights movement ended with concrete actions by the state for civil rights. The [equal rights] movement in France ended in political failure, with no progression by the state, and the destruction of the anti-racist movement.” – Benjamin Stora

 

Gay rights in France march in 1891 (C) Claude Truong / NGOC
Gay rights in France march in 1891 (C) Claude Truong / NGOC

2) “[America says] ‘we are the example by which human progress should be measured’—when [we] make that statement [we] are very vulnerable to people pointing out [our] contradictions, which is not something that happens in the French context. A social problem, a social inequality in France, is simply a social problem… So when we understand American progress, it is aided and facilitated by this dynamic of trying to maintain appearances in a global state.” – Jelani Cobb, addressing the amount of progress made in France vs. the US

3) “France focuses on class as being the differentiating factor [between people]. If you mention race, you’re accused of being ‘Americanized’, because in France we’re supposed to be immunized to race” – Pap Ndiaye

not-bad-obama4) “Obama is a pop icon [in France]. He’s more than President. It’s love unconnected to the political results.” – Iris Dorœux

5) “France isn’t doing anti-racism things, which is the same as pushing racism” – Benjamin Stora

6) “How do we fix this?” “Where’s the vocabulary? [‘This’ is an] incessant focus on classifying people, like racism that’s engrained as opposed to racism that already happened and has made us the way we are.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to an audience member’s question.

christine-taubira7) “Christiane Taubira was a candidate [for President] in 2002…she ran without emphasizing her skin color literally…so of course people saw her, and understood what she meant and the symbolic impact she had on French politics, but she didn’t speak about it… So we will have for sure a non-white candidate one day…the point is to figure out whether this candidate … will be somehow a spokesperson for issues that are pervasive in French society, will he or she be courageous enough to speak of racism in France and racial discrimination?” – Pap Ndiaye

BONUS QUOTES ABOUT AMERICA AND RACE

8) “[Americans] have no conversation about class. We say delicate euphemistic things like ‘income inequality’, which has no verbs [pauses for laughter and applause] so no one is doing anything [wrong]. During the Cold War, people who talked about class were accused of communism, so we talked about race instead.” – Jelani Cobb

9) “The anger and violence behind Marine Le Pen is a bit more subtle [in France]. But here, it is open. America looks like a caricature of what is happening in France.” – Iris Dorœux

10) “We taught ourselves racism at the same time we taught ourselves republicanism, so the question is, which one do you value more?” – Jelani Cobb