Jul 142012



As today is Bastille Day (although I’d rather call it “14 juillet” like 99.9% of the French do) I couldn’t not post here. However, this post doesn’t have any link to the French National Holiday, it just so happens that I got this very interesting question this morning and I told myself “why not answering it right away?” (I know some people have been waiting for an answer from my part for months if not for years, what can I say? I’m not always fair).

Oh and by the way, if you want to read my post about Bastille Day, here it is: Happy Bastille Day.


So, onto the question (asked by Lenny from the US)

The Americans elected a non white president while I was living in France. During the elections my French colleagues said that they wanted to see Obama win but that my country the USA was too racist to have the guts to elect him… Now I would like to ask : are the French capable of electing a French president of Arab or African descent today? Please be honest!


The first thing I need to answer here is that I’m always honest. When I’m not, I say that I’m not (so I’m still honest, even when I’m not).

Then, I need to clarify a few geographical and ethnological details as “Arab or African descent” when talking about France doesn’t make much sense. Seriously, Americans, you need to stop it with the political correctness thing, if you dared call things, people, ethnic groups by their names you’d make less gross generalization and mis-categorizations.

So, first things first, Arab people in France are not of “Arab descent” they’re Arab. That’s all.

Then Arab people in France don’t come from the Middle East but from North Africa, so they are also from “African descent”.

Also, Black people in France can be categorized in three groups. First, Africans. But as they’re not French citizens, they can’t vote nor be elected and are off-topic today. Then we have French citizens who are second or third generation immigrants from Africa, but while there aren’t any official numbers (it’s illegal in France to have those types of racial statistics), they constitute a very small minority of French people (in Paris, they’re a large minority, but they’re extremely rare out of Paris area). Finally, there are French citizens who are black but come from the Caribbean (mostly Guadeloupe and Martinique) and as they’ve been French citizens roughly ever since the French Revolution (not exactly true, but I don’t want to lose you with off-topic details), I have a hard time calling them of “African descent” as they’re culturally as African as I am (I’m not). Yeah, I know in the US, you call Black people “African Americans” because for some reason you think that “Black” is a bad word (it’s not), but truth is that the only African thing in them is some of their genes, and personally, I’d rather define people by their culture than by their genes. Sometimes they match, sometimes not at all (example: Black Americans). In any case, Black French people of Caribbean descent are also a small minority.


So, let’s try to answer this question.

Can the French elect a Black or Arab President?

What? Do you mean, the French didn’t just elect a President from a minority? He’s from Corrèze!

My answer is simple: No. Not right now. But who knows?

Ok, I guess it requires more development.

First let’s talk about why the US has finally elected a non-white President.

I think the reason is simple, first the US has been multicultural ever since its creation. Also, the civil right movement, pretty much 50 years ago, was efficient. And while it didn’t get rid of racism in the US, while your ethnic background still plays a huge part in your “destiny”, the movement has succeeded in creating a Black middle-class and even a Black upper-class. It gave us Obama among other people.

France has a very different history. Except for Caribbean people (as well as a few other regions such as Reunion island or Polynesia), France has never been a multicultural society. Even today, it’s slowly becoming one, but it’s a slow and painful process.

Keep in mind that when the US was having its civil rights movements, France was just receiving its first wave of mass non-European immigration. In other words, quite a number of the first Arabs and Black Africans who immigrated to France in the 50′s and 60′s are still alive today.

I’m not sure if this is a comparison that is relevant, but could you have a Black president in the US 50-60 years after the end of slavery?

In other terms, while there definitely are French citizens of African descent (Arabs or Blacks) who are part of the middle and even upper classes, they’re still a very small minority in the minority. So in terms of raw numbers, there are very few people among them today who could be in a position to run for an important post.

That being said, I really believe that while racism is alive and well in France, a large number of French people wouldn’t have many issues with voting for a Black or Arab President. Of course there also would be a large number that would never do it. But is it that dissimilar from Obama’s situation. Sure he got elected, but how many people have no respect for him and try to find any possible way to discredit him too (the Birthers, the ones who are convinced that he’s a Muslim as if this was a bad thing, and whatnot). I even believe that if France elected a non-white President, while he would have to deal with a bunch of people who would hate him just because he’s not white, there wouldn’t be any movement comparable to the Birthers.

Almost last but not least, I think the main obstacle for having a non-white President in France nowadays is not the French people, but the French political parties. They tend to be very traditional and slow moving. To hope getting into a position of power within a big political party, one must be from at least the upper-middle class, coming from the ENA (or such), etc. And as previously mentioned, there are just too few Black and Arab French citizens in that position nowadays. And here it’s just a question of numbers and probabilities; few people belong to these groups (upper-middle class, graduate from a Grande École, etc).

And last but not least (for real this time), while you can be pretty much unknown at the national level and become President two years later in the US (Clinton and Obama are the perfect examples), in France it’s pretty much impossible. To have the slightest chance to become President, you have to have been famous nationwide for many years. See the last four Presidents: Mitterrand, important political figure for a good 20-30 years before getting elected, same with Chirac (who was Prime Minister twice). Sarkozy, known by everyone in France since the mid-nineties, almost ubiquitous in the media since the early 2000′s. Hollande was head of his party for more than 10 years before being elected. And as of today, there isn’t really anybody from a minority that has this kind of prominence. I’d say the only one today that is in a position to become important enough to be able to hope running for President in 10-20 years is Harlem Désir (as he may become the next head of François Hollande’s party). And Désir is not of “African descent” but of Caribbean descent (and only from his dad’s side).



More Questions Answered:

  20 Responses to “Are the French Capable of Electing a President of Arab or African Descent Today?”

  1. Your answer is very good.
    Just some other things : there was never a lot of them, but some black politicians have been elected in France since 200 years, like Jean-Baptiste Belley during the Revolution, Blaise Diagne, deputy in the French Parliament from 1914 to 1934, or Félix Houphouët-Boigny who was Minister in 1956.
    And for today, i think a President should be elected because he is a good politician, not because he is (or is not) Black or Arab. Obama was elected with too many black votes and not enough white votes for example. But maybe it will be different in the futur, maybe it’s a problem of generations.

    • Hi Paul, cute nickname.

      Yes, many black people have been elected here and there, even a few Arabs. We also have quite a few people from minorities in the government.
      However, I don’t think anyone is being elected because of their racial background, especially not Obama. He didn’t get “too many black votes.” Black voters always vote Democrat by a huge majority (about 98% I think) for obvious reasons. What’s notable in Obama’s election is that white people were not afraid to vote for him.

    • “Obama was elected with too many black votes and not enough white votes for example.”

      What an idiotic statement. Who cares if a candidate has a majority of votes from a particular race. By your logic, George Bush had too many white votes.

      • While I agree about the quality of the statement, I also believe that George Bush received too many white votes, although in his case it doesn’t matter as even when he loses he becomes President.

  2. Good answer ! So it really boils down to this: if you are not part of the establishment, didn’t come from ENA which is ruled by the elite establishment and I may add white men, you will never get elected. I don’t think 20 years is realistic. You also have a nationalistic movement that is taking place in France and growing. although they are a minority (FN) today, I think in the next elections they could be a game changer. I believe a lot of french people agree with the FN but don’t vote for them because”today ” is not politically correct.
    Thanks for your answer
    I still live in France and love it here and am not planning to move back to the US anytime soon.

    • Thanks.
      Yes, in short, I think race is not really an issue in France, once you’re part of the establishment. However, it’s a huge issue to be able to become part of that establishment.
      In terms of time frames, we can never tell. Before Obama’s coming to prominence (let’s say 2006) I don’t think many people in America thought it was possible to have a black president within the next 20 years.
      Same thing with a female president. Pre-2007, nobody in France thought that a female president was possible anytime soon. Truth is that if Segolene Royal hadn’t been so lame, she would have won.
      Concerning minorities, the same could happen too. I mentioned Harlem Désir, I could see him raise to become a major player in the French political scene in a few years (and he’s not a minor player anymore by no means).
      And even on the other side, despite her being so incompetent, if she makes the right moves at the right time, I could see Rachida Dati end up in a position to become the candidate for her party sooner than we think (especially if the UMP self-destructs and split into two or more parties, which could happen).

      I’m not worried about the FN at all. It’s not a new thing, it’s been part of the political landscape for a while now, and while it can win local elections, I don’t think it has any chance to reach of position of national power as is. (see 2002, sure it can reach the run-off, but then everyone votes for the other guy)
      I also don’t give credit to the whole “more people want to vote for the FN but don’t dare too”. Remember that votes are secret in France and believe me people who want to vote for the FN have no problem doing so, some boast about it, some don’t, but if they want to do it, they do.

  3. The US & France are two different worlds.
    The US was built on diversity ( Black, Asian, Whites, Hispanics ) moved here & built this country, It is the land of opportunity no matter what. Even though Barack Obama was elected president, there is still strong profiling as well as bringing the black community down. During the Real Estate crisis in 2008, the Black community and Hispanic community were set up to lose their homes. Also during the re-election of Georges W Bush, a lot of blacks were not sent their ballot to vote. The issues are addressed very often and definitely not ignored. France , is not built on diversity even though whenever I go over there, I see so many cultures. I see Algerian women climbing up the ladder and more and more, Asians, Blacks and many more cultures. I would not see France elect a Black man for president because it is not part of the culture that is white & catholic. I still call it racism but it goes way back to many centuries. I can see French men say “Yes” for another country but “no” for their own country, because for some reasons it is not French. There is profiling in France as well and racism but the French deal with it differently. No, they won’t vote for a black man as president, at least not now. He would have to be ” maybe” a Barack Obama, a very well educated man ( former lawyer) with so much eloquence, he is brilliant. The world is changing very rapidly and if you pay attention to the under currents, politically both worlds are starting to look like each other. I grew up in France and moved to the US 27 years ago. The question is a very good question and could be a great discussion for a group over dinner.

  4. I suspect a better comparison might be asking an American in the 1890′s or 1900′s whether they can ever expect to see an Irish President. A Catholic candidate actually ran for President at the time, Al Smith, only to be trounced in the polls as the candidate of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”.

    • Rum, Romanism and Rebellion…
      Mmmm… I’d vote for such a platform.
      And yeah, your comparison is valid I think.

  5. Outside of Le Pen’s circle of supporters, was there much concern in France about electing a Jewish president in the form of Sarkozy (or his would-be rival, Strauss-Kahn) or was that not an issue for the majority of mainstream French people?

    I imagine it is different as there has been a large Jewish population in the country for so long and because anti-semitism was so much of a concern after the holocaust. Were any presidents or prime ministers Jewish before Sarkozy?

    Were French Algerian muslims concerned either?

    • Larry, first Sarkozy is not Jewish and never was. He’s a Catholic ( a bit too Catholic in my opinion as among the many terrible things he did, one was trying to undermine the separation of Church and State in France).

      And no, being Jewish is not an issue for 99.9% of French people.

      Nowadays, most French people don’t care about Jewish people. The only time they care is when some Jewish people make a too big deal about a minor issue and/or when Jewish people defend Israel blindly, whatever horrible action they do against Palestine.

      Concerning, while he was still considered as the favorite to become the next President (before you know what), his religion never came up in the debate.

      • Thanks for answering that, Frenchman.

      • That’s funny, because from where I stand, I’m having a very hard time trying to picture Sarkozy as a Catholic… I mean a real one, not a joker. The man would turn into anything in an eye-blink if the prospects were worthy. Undermining state-church separation was in my opinion just another “toy” to use in the political game to his own advantage. We have, unfortunately, the same “typo” as a president in Romania, only he is the caricature of Sarkozy, a caricature already. Should I mention they share PPE background? And by the way, what is Sarkozy doing these days? Is he still there, in the limelight?

  6. Hi,

    After over a decade of living in France, and as a Black, I would have answered the question just as you have…and I’m not even French!
    Thank you for this.

    What I find disturbing is that the American people found it difficult to find someone who was undeniably a black American as candidate for the first Black President of the US! It shouldn’t have been all that difficult. But then what do I know…my family has only been Americans for the last 8 generations!

  7. “I’d rather define people by their culture than by their genes”

    Ah, but you’re speaking of culture as some sort of monolith more or less equal to citizenship (at least you’re implying this in your post).

    The ‘nation-state’ and ‘national identities’ are rather recent concepts, which, unlike gravity, is a collective belief that one can join along with or not. There is always a continuum of affinity in any given nation-state between outright rejection, whole-hearted adoption, or something in-between.

    “French culture” is relatively recent and not necessarily adopted by all French “citizens.” A trip through Bretagne, Corsica or even la Savoie would surely present you with a range of emotion. You may not have a tradition of hyphenation as in the U.S., but I know that there are plenty of people in France who, when asked (of course, the French state would never ask), would choose multiple affiliations.

    Spain is an even clearer case. It’s always a bit of a risk to assume that people in the Basque country or Catalonia would want to be called “Spanish.” I’ve been “corrected” myself more than once.

    As for the U.S., there are some Pan-Africanists who see themselves directly tied to Africa, but I think that most “African Americans” (and I’ve never heard a Black person take offense at “Black” btw) are really linking themselves to Black culture within the U.S., which is interrelated with but different from mainstream/dominant culture. A visit to a white Baptist church and then a black Baptist church would be one way to actually see and hear some cultural differences- both baptist, both American, both in English, yet very different.

    A final point… Native Americans are “American” in a *completely* different way from descendents of European or other immigrants. Again, there is a range of feelings among Native Americans and ‘mixed’ people. Just trying to point out that “American,” like “French” or any other nationality can never have one meaning.

  8. Leon Blum was prime minister of France (or president?) in France in the 1940′s after the war. He was Jewish, wasn’t he? I don’t think being Jewish is an issue so much as far as education, jobs and government service go in France. Other demographic groups have moved in with the controversy shifting mainly onto Muslims.

    I think in France religion matters more than skin color. I could see France electing a black (either of West African or Afro-Caribbean origin) president who a Christian; black Christians in France seem to be accepted with only prejudice against them coming from very old or very rural people. A lot of French blacks seem to like big crosses to announce themselves as non-Muslims. I saw a similar trend in the US after 9/11; persons of Levantine Christian origin always had their gaudy crosses visible.

    Muslims in France are a different story altogether, be they of North African Arab or any kind of black background.

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