10 Things You Might Not Know About Black History and Culture in France

The Black Lives Matter movement has been changing the world, and also reminding us of our history.

The history of Black people in France is very different from that of Black people in the US, where the movement started – as well as in other countries. But unfortunately, prejudice and racism exists here, as well.

Understanding is an important part of bridging cultural gaps and curing the disease of ignorance. With that in mind, we’d like to share ten things you might not know about Black history and culture in France.

Since the job of allies isn’t to speak for Black people, you’ll find lots of primary and academic sources to give more in-depth insights.

Why only cover Black culture and history in France?

Before we begin, let’s be clear:

It’s important to acknowledge that Black people – whether from Africa, the Caribbean, or elsewhere, or born in France –  are far from the only minority in France. Many other groups and cultures have influenced French culture, and these groups and cultures have, sadly, also experienced discrimination and, at times, violence. Each group’s history is complex and rich, and we plan to focus on them in future posts.

The reason we’re focusing on Black people in France in this post is because of what’s going on in the world right now. It’s not about erasure of other communities.

If you’d like to get an idea of other groups that face discrimination in France today – whether due to race/ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation or identity, a good place to start is the SOS Racisme website.

Another excellent resource for learning about the history of groups that have come to France from other countries is the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration’s website, which offers a number of documents and videos that you can read and watch for free.

And of course, you can also do a general search for organizations or history related to particular groups that interest you, along with the word “France”.

And now, without further ado…

#1 We don’t know exactly how many Black people there are in France.

Due to France’s ideal of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, race is often downplayed or ignored in official documents and mainstream communications/news. It’s not even a question on the census. So it’s not possible to get exact population statistics.

It’s estimated that there are between 1.5 and 3 million Black people living in France today.  This said, there is much more of a sense of separate communities here than in the US, probably because in most cases, Black people still have ties with the country they or their family come(s) from – the same way recent immigrants of any race do.

A blurred image of a crowd.

#2 A vast majority of Black people immigrate(d) willingly to mainland France.

While there was slavery on a large scale in some French colonies and territories, most Black people who came to mainland France in the past, as well as those who have recently immigrated, have come of their own free will. Some have come for work opportunities, including dockworkers in coastal cities in the 18th century, and workers who helped to build and rebuild France in the prosperous years after World War II. Others have joined family members already established here, or come as refugees.  

Unfortunately, once immigration began on a large scale in the post-War years, prejudice also escalated. It’s generally thought that once Black people from other countries began to build communities and establish themselves in France on a more permanent level, some traditionalist French people began to see them as a threat to everything from their jobs, to French culture.

You can read a wide range of first-hand accounts by immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean by doing an online search for terms like “témoignage immigration africaine en France” or “témoignage immigration Antilles en France”.

#3 Slavery was officially abolished, re-established, and re-abolished several times in mainland France and its colonies.

In 1315, King Louis X abolished slavery (which could be the condition of people of many different races) in France by proclaiming that slave who touched French soil was automatically free.

Unfortunately, over the years to come, economic interests won the day. While large-scale slavery didn’t occur in mainland France, it was common in many French colonies and overseas territories. The French were the third largest slave traders in the 18th century. Over a million slaves were brought to places like Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique in that century alone.

On mainland France, slavery was officially abolished in 1794, but it continued to be practiced in the colonies until 1848. The modern French government considers slavery a crime against humanity.

#4 Mainland France has never had national racial segregation laws.

A white woman and black man holding hands. We see only their hands. The man's hand has a wedding band on it.

On a more positive note, mainland France didn’t have laws imposing segregation of different races. This meant that Black people from places like the United States often saw France as a refuge from much of the institutionalized prejudice they experienced every day.

Unfortunately, this isn’t to say that individuals in France weren’t sometimes prejudiced or racist towards Black people, whether in a hateful, paternalistic, or fetishistic way.

#5 Colonialism has left behind a rich, complex, and controversial legacy.

The French began to colonize other parts of the world in the 1530’s. Over the centuries, these countries and territories have gained entire or partial independence and generally have a positive relationship with France today. But the history of colonialism includes some horrific aspects, like discrimination, racism, erasure or attempted erasure of local cultures, customs, beliefs, and languages, and violence against the local population.

This article is very helpful in giving a basic overview of French colonialism. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend checking out some of the books on this reading list, which includes a number of first-person accounts.

You can also find thousands of books by and about colonized peoples on this excellent website, as well as Le Musée national de l’Immigration’s online resources.

#6 African-Americans are considered a part of French history – and a source of pride.

I’ve already mentioned that because France didn’t have the same institutionalized prejudice as the United States, many Black and bi-racial Americans saw France as a refuge. A number of them came to France for their studies, tourism, or even to settle here.  In the early to mid-20th century, many famous African-Americans made France their home, including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker

To get some additional insight, listen to or read this interview with some elderly Black expats who experienced life in France around the mid-20th century.

Interestingly, today, many Black Americans find  that when they come to France, they’re perceived and treated differently from Black people born in France, Africa, or the Caribbean. Many French people view them with a sense of respect and nostalgia, as opposed to the racism that other Black people might experience.

#7 One of the most famous French authors was a person of color whose father was born into slavery.

There are many celebrated and award-winning Black Francophone authors, including Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire. This list allows you to search for Francophone African authors and books by country.

This list will let you discover Black Francophone authors from the Caribbean.

Many of these authors’ works are celebrated and widely read, but what about a writer whose characters have become international pop culture icons? Look no further than Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Dumas’ father, Thomas Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie, was the son of a white French nobleman and a Black woman, and was born into slavery. By bringing him to France, his father legally freed him.  He grew up to become one of the highest-ranking  European generals of African descent – and not just in any army, but the legendary Grande Armée of Napoleon.

Born in 1802, his son Alexandre became an international megastar of a writer whose works are not only part of the French literary canon, but beloved around the world.

In researching this article, I came upon something really lovely that Charles De Gaulle said about Dumas:

Avec vous, nous avons été d’Artagnan, Monte Cristo ou Balsamo, chevauchant les routes de France, parcourant les champs de bataille, visitant palais et forteresses….Avec vous, nous avons rêvé. Avec vous, nous rêvons encore.

(With you, we were d’Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, roaming battlefields, visiting palaces and fortresses….With you, we dreamt. With you, with dream still.)

#8 African art discovered by a Spanish man in France changed the art world forever.

Three African masks. Two in the foreground are carved in wood. In the background, a mask has a white-painted face, dried grass haning from its chin like a beard, and an elaborate headdress made of feathers and other elements in a rich dark brown.

In the early 20th century, Pablo Picasso had left his native Spain and was living la vie de bohème in Paris. There, he discovered African sculptures at the Louvre, which led him to think differently about the representation of forms and space…leading to the invention of Cubism, a major movement in 20th century art.

Other famous modern artists who were inspired by African art include Modigliani and Brancusi.

#9 Black soldiers contributed to the survival of France as we know it.

Black soldiers, whether living in France or from French colonies, helped to defend France in both World Wars (not to mention, on a smaller scale, in many other wars – think about Alexandre Dumas’s father in the time of Napoleon, for instance).

Without their contributions, the French may not have had the edge in decisive battles, and without the support of then-governor of Chad, Félix Éboué, the French Resistance might not have succeeded during World War II.

Hundreds of thousands of Black French and Francophone troops participated in the World Wars. Generally, they were accepted and admired by their fellow troops, but in other cases, they faced prejudice and violence. In World War I, the American army was horrified that the French army wasn’t segregated. In World War II, captured African soldiers were targets of Nazi abuse and experiments.

Still, in the face of prejudice and other hardships, these soldiers fought and sacrificed for France.

#10 There’s a Black Lives Matter movement in France.

A pair of hands holds up a cardboard sign showing a fist and the words "BLM", the abbreviation of "Black Lives Matter".

There are a number of anti-racism and anti-hate movements and organizations in France, but Black Lives Matter (usually kept in English, but sometimes translated as Les vies noires comptent ) only arrived here in a significant way a few weeks ago, when protests broke out in the US after the police’s murder of George Floyd.

This article from Time Magazine gives an excellent, clear explanation of the movement’s French incarnation, and what police violence is like in France.

Around the time of George Floyd’s death, a verdict was reached in the 2016 violent arrest of Adama Traoré, a Black Frenchman. The police, who had held him to the ground despite his cries of “I can’t breathe” (this is now sadly an international experience) were found not guilty after an autopsy showed  that Traoré supposedly suffered from pre-existing conditions. But Traoré’s family ordered another autopsy performed. This one revealed his cause of death as respiratory failure. His sister, Assa Traoré, saw this verdict and the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests around the world as an opportunity to draw attention to police violence against minorities in France.

This being said, many Caucasian French people have also been victims of police brutality in recent years, as the article explains. There is more profiling of Black men and men of North African origin than there is of other races, but police violence seems to be on the rise in France in general.

You can read about French people’s experience with police violence via the Twitter hashtag #MoiAussiJaiPeurDevantLaPolice (I’m afraid of the police, too). The hashtag makes reference to a May 23 interview with singer Camelia Jordana, who’s  of North African descent. Jordana observed that during the COVID-19 lockdown, the police were especially brutal with minorities. She said that she and other people of African descent are afraid of the French police. Her statement caused an uproar – both of dissention and recognition.

These are just a few facts about Black history and culture in France. It’s a complex, fascinating, and important subject.  I hope you’ll continue to learn more, via the links included here, as well as through your own research and experiences.

Featured image credit: www.atikh.com and www.khayriyyah.com

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.