Aug 042009

(asked by Lola from the UK and originally from Nigeria)

I’ve been reading “Ask a Frenchman” as well as “Stuff Parisians Like” in order to get a feel for what it would be like to live in France.
You see, I am 27 and Nigerian; I was raised in the UK from the age of 4 and lived in the US from the age of 16-24 and am now back in the UK. I consider myself to be well-adjusted to western society but every time I mention to people (here in the UK) that I would love to live in France I get the same response “They’re really racist in France, you could never have gotten the job you have now if you lived in France etc, etc..” (which I consider to be somewhat patronizing but anyway….) I’m female; not sure if that makes a difference and have always been really determined and done well in life; I’m a Graduate, a professional working continuously since graduating but I keep being told that if I move to France I can not possibly survive and that my degree and professional experience will mean nothing. Of course I do not want to start from scratch at my age but I really want to do this now before I get too old.
I know that at the end of the day it is my decision to make but could you possibly give me an answer as to whether things will be as bad for me (as a black female in France) as everyone says? I just want to be prepared.
Also would there be a marked difference between me being situated in Paris as opposed to another area in France?

I acknowledge that you may not be able to answer this question if you do not know any black people in Paris, please let me know either way.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Hi Lola,
I find your e-mail very interesting and I’ll try to answer it as best as possible.
First of all, let me tell you that you’re tackling several different topics in one (big) question, topic that may seem related but are not necessarily.

Let’s start with the cheap shot of the day: you’ve been told all of this in the UK. Seriously, did you expect positive comments about France from an English person? They’re utterly incapable of such a thing (see previous post about Ireland, as well as an upcoming post too).

More seriously, let’s talk about racism in France a bit.
I’d be lying if I said that there’s no racism in France, but the fact that there’s racism in a country doesn’t mean that everybody in that country is racist, and frankly I don’t know one single country in the world that is plagued by racism one way or another.
And for some reason, one always tends to emphasize racism in other countries and minimize racism in our own (especially when one is not the victim of racism in their own country). The media don’t help either. For example, these days when the French media do a story about politics in the UK, it’s not about both main parties and their issues, but about this very xenophobic party whose name I forgot and who is supposedly on the rise. We also hear way more about the American white supremacists in France than in the US. And when I read English speaking articles about the Front National, they always almost give the feeling that France is an extremely racist country.

That being said, let’s try to talk about racism in France in the as objectively as possible.

First, where does it come from?
Well, the same sources as everywhere else: lack of education, bigotry, and the other usual suspects.
But in the case of France, there’s also a certain cultural source that is: colonialism.
Colonialism was caused by many things, but one specific one for France was this “mission civilisatrice de la France” (France mission of bringing mission). I’m not sure what the reasons of such a concept are, but I assume it’s a twisted consequence of Enlightenment or something similar.
The idea is that sure France was invading territories it would call its own and then plunder their resources and exploit the locals, just like any other colony, but the French colons would also bring this rationale that France was bringing modern civilization and culture to the countries it colonized, and in the positivist times that the 19th Century was, this was seen as a good thing, the fact that local cultures were being wiped out was not even an after thought. Multiculturalism is a concept most French people don’t understand today, so back then I let you imagine…
And this idea that France was civilizing those areas is still ingrained in many French people’s mind. Mostly older people though, simply because they were taught that in school as they were in school before decolonization.
The consequence today, is that some French people tend to be patronizing with non-White people, especially Africans, because this is what they’ve been taught. And of course, if this is a form of racism, most people that behave like this, don’t think it is, and some will strongly believe they’re not racist, despite that behavior.
A perverse effect is that people from the colonies also have some sort of inferiority complex towards European French and they’ll accept being treated this way, because this is the way it’s been for a long time.
For example I knew this guy from the Cote d’Ivoire who told me one day that I should move there as I’d have a great job and make a lot of money there, just because I was white, and I could get a big house, with lots of servants, and all… At first, I couldn’t believe he was serious, but serious he was. For him, this is just the way it is in his country, just as it’s a normal thing that Africans get crappy jobs that Europeans don’t want in France.

Now, let me be clear, not all French people behave like that, but this is something that can and will happen.

I also feel that real racism in France is more aimed at people from North Africa, than towards people from West Africa, simply because they represent the biggest minority in France and as such the number one scapegoat. There could be other factors too, the trauma from the Algerian war could be one, as well as the fact that North African culture, being heavily influenced and shaped by Islam seems at first less compatible with mainstream French culture as Western Africans cultures can be. I’m not sure.

The “fear of the unknown” plays a role in racism too, as you’ll find the most racism against black people in areas of France where there are little to no black people.

OK, I could talk more about racism in general (and/or towards specific ethnic origins), but I have the feeling that I’ll have future opportunities to do it, and I now want to answer more specifically your question, especially the relationship with ethnic origins and the job market in France.

First of all, if you move to France, yes you’ll have a hard time getting a job, but that is for reasons totally unrelated to your Nigerian origins, as the job market has been chronically bad for the past 20 years or so in France it’s hard for anybody to get a job. I could say that the current crisis makes matters worse, but actually, the job market seemed to be doing better for the past two three years, so I feel that the crisis just made it bad again, but not much worse than it was in the 90’s and the early 2000’s.
And because of that, not only it’s hard to get a job in France, but it’s harder if you’re a foreigner, especially if you need a working visa (if you’re a UK citizen you won’t need one, if you’re still a Nigerian citizen… good luck…), but this still has nothing to do with racism, more with the way the job market works in France as for some reasons, human resources always care more about your degrees than your experience. Actually you’ll need both, but without a specific degree, your chances to get the job are slim to none even if you have experience in the field.

Also keep in mind that all of those are generalizations and those things will vary greatly from profession to profession.

Now, will your ethnic origin have an influence on whether you get hired or not?
I won’t lie, and it definitely could, but this will depend on the person that will read your resume. There have been investigations and “tests” and yes, it’s a fact that white people have more chances to get hired than other people. But once again, this is a generalization, and that doesn’t mean it happens all the time.
I can’t give you statistics and such, as there are none, as it’s illegal in France to have statistics based on ethnic background.
Once again, it will also depend on what job we’re talking about, and I have the feeling that jobs that are “in the middle” are the ones where the most discrimination happens.
With jobs requiring high qualification, your resume will matter more than your personal background (and human resources will be composed of people that are more educated and less likely to be racist). Jobs that are at the bottom of the ladder, are usually full of people from minorities, are they’re the jobs European French people don’t usually want.

But even when there’s some discrimination going on, there are a few factors that are sometimes considered as racial, but are not.
Let me explain.
Because most non-White people in France come from countries that are poor, they’re not exactly rich when they arrive and France, so, yes, they live in poor suburbs, in the projects, in other words, in the ghetto. So there’s a big number of people from minorities that live in the ghettos, to the extent that some people think only people from minorities live in the ghetto, and all the people from minorities live in the ghetto.
But this is as far from the truth as it can get.
A lot of white people live in the ghetto too, and a lot of non-white people don’t live in ghettos.
But sadly this prejudice will have a big influence on people everywhere, including human resources, and your zip code will matter even more than the color of your skin most of the times.

Gender could play a role too, but a positive one in your case, as (and we’re still dealing with prejudices here) African women are seen as more serious than their male counterparts. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s true that second generation women from African descent try to get out of the ghetto (through education and trying to get decent jobs) more and more consistently than men. But here too, I don’t want to generalize too much for obvious reasons.

Geography now. Paris or the rest of France.
Well, the situation is as follows: in Paris, you’re less likely to encounter basic racism because you’re black, as most of the West African population in France is in and around Paris, but this whole ghetto and wrong zip code discrimination thing is mostly happening in Paris, not really in the rest of France.

There’s also the fact that you’re from Nigeria, a country that doesn’t really have a history with France, and there are very very few people from Nigeria in France (I’m not sure I’ve ever met one), so there’ll be less prejudices against your country than there can be against some French speaking countries (except for the uneducated people that’ll think you’re from Niger).
The fact that you’re an English speaker will tell that you’re not the usual immigrant from Africa, and people will be less prejudiced against you for that.

So to conclude, if you move to France you may or may not encounter racism. I assume you will have to face some once in a while, but no more than in England or the US (actually, less than in some parts of the US). But if you’ve had graduate education and been working since then, your ethnic origin shouldn’t play a big part in whether or not you get hired for that job.

I hope that answers your question, and if anybody wants to add their two cents, please do so (I’ll be much interested to hear about your personal experiences if you’re not white and live or have lived in France).

More Questions Answered:

  7 Responses to “What about racism (and a few other things) in France?”

  1. I think the lack of multiculturalism you mentioned is the primary difference between race relations in France and the US/UK and probably contributes to its image as racist, i.e. the headscarf controversy. Media definitely contributes to it too (before I went to France one of my friends was convinced that burning cars in the suburbs of Paris was something that happened on a weekly basis.) In defense of America, however, it's not entirely fair to lump American neo-nazis in with the BNP in the UK and the Front National in France - neo-nazis are not serious political candidates who win elections. (Which is not to say there is no racism in American politics, it's just subtler.)

  2. Hello,
    I am french and white, so not necessary the best person to give advices about this particulary subjet.
    But just to add my 2 cents, i'll tell you about my flatmate who is Cameroonian. We often discuss about that matter.
    He is a computer scientist with a master degree and work in France for more than 3 years now. He has been working in Germany for 6 month, and has many friends from africa (Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Senegale…) working in differents parts of europe (France, Germany, UK, Spain).
    From his point of view it's easier and more pleasant to live and work in France. Sure he find the bureaucratie and some other things annoying but in the end it's not that difficult that it seems. He personnaly likes the way people think and interestingly enought he think a french person and an african one understands each other better than a african one and a german one (for exemple).
    Well i'm not sure i made my point, so forgive me if i am not that clear
    One anecdote: some friends of him, living in the uk and germany were very surprises that he have french white friends. Because themselves don't make local white friends so easily (Well this is certainly very subjective).

    The thing is you can find racism everywhere, but even if people may have some misconception about you because of the color of your skin, i really think than as soon as they find than you are a dependable person, things become better.


  3. "The headscarf controversy is a different topic in my opinion, and it deals more with religion and 'laïcité' than with multiculturalism." Yes, but it's related I think to a lack of multiculturalism in that it contributes to a homogenized idea of what it means to be French.

    "Also, I don't know much about the BNP, but the French National Front has never been serious political candidates that win elections" Le Pen has been in the European Parliament and got pretty far in the 2002 election (I realize these are mostly flukes and that he's not really very representative of the French, but those are still pretty big advancements.)

    "I should mention another party that is racist shouldn't be taken seriously and still wins elections: the Republican party." Republicans lose their careers if they say something too racist…George Allen is a good example. Sarkozy's comment about "racaille" in the suburbs would have ended his political career if he were in America. A lot of Republicans are certainly racist, but they have to express it subtly through policy without saying it out loud.

  4. The OP might find her situation complicated (improved? disimproved?) by the fact that she may be perceived as primarily American/British, rather than/as well as Nigerian. I see around me in London confusion at the occasional black American tourist (there aren't many) because their clothes and demeanour and accent contradict the fact that they are probably initially assumed on sight to be British Afro-Caribbeans dressed oddly.

    I do think British attitudes to perceived French racism (French racism certainly exists, but not precisely as the British see it) are coloured by the fact that Britain and France have responded rather differently to immigration in official terms.

    I don't agree that French secularite is an entirely unrelated issue - it comes up all the time in British media wonderings about whether British multiculturalism has failed, and whether the French approach involves less cultural schizophrenia on the part of the 'host' nation, and is fairer to immigrants, particularly to immigrant women from Muslim countries (I think the logic being that being compelled into secularism in dress at a French school, say, might mean an immigrant girl is less likely to be ghettoised inside her immigrant community and thus possibly less subject to pressures such as forced marriage to someone from her family's original home country…) Which isn't immediately relevant here, apart from the fact that, depending on how Britishised/Americanised the OP is, she may be surprised by how race and racial feeling manifests itself differently in France.

    I'd think the OP might well have a hard time getting established professionally in France, without being sure how much of that to put down to a currently crappy French job market/foreigners of any race have a hard time getting hired/straightforward racism. I have a couple of white American friends who are married to well-established white professional Parisians, speak fluent French, but who have still found it very difficult to find work that isn't several notches below what they would have been doing had they remained in the US.

    More tangentially, I was recently in South Africa, and my sense from talking to people in Cape Town and Durban especailly was that Nigerians (especailly 'Nigerian drug gangs') were taking the rap for all possible social ills…

  5. David, you have a point
    In fact what i wanted to stress, is than in his view it's easier to live in france in comparison to other european country. So, I agree with you, but whatever the reason could be for him to think like that, i thought that could be an interesting testimony. Even if totally subjective

    Another thing. He told me one time, that the thing he likes about france is the fact that you can become a french citizen (even if it's not always so simple) and to be recognize like french. It means that even if some people will think of you as not a "real french", the majority will accept you as a french person. To the point that often people just assume he is french, even if he says he is cameroonian. They will think he talk about his parent's native country!

    So in conclusion from his testimony and my own experience i can say than life in france is not as bad for african people than some might say. Well actually it's not that bad if you do have a degree and even better if it's in a field where there are jobs ^_^

    Well i tried to be as clear as i can in english, i hope it's not that bad.

    Ps: Btw i really enjoy your blog, even if some questions can be very bothering, your responses are often priceless and always informative.

  6. Thanks for answering my question David. Since asking it I have been admitted into a Masters programme in France (outside of Paris) so I guess I'll see for myself.
    You’re right about our perceptions of Racism in other countries. When I was living in the US I never felt any racial prejudice but since moving I hear of segregated proms in the South and racially motivated attacks in the town that I used to live in on the East Coast.
    Again; I am comfortable living in the UK as a person of colour but then on the news I hear of the BNP successfully gaining 2 seats in the European Parliament.
    I guess life is too short to worry about greater issues that do not necessarily affect your day-to-day; and yet I do.
    Either way I’m looking forward to spending a couple of years in France. I’m weirdly curious about the whole thing.

  7. David: I'll be in Orleans.
    I barely right in my journal; any blog I started would be quickly abandoned

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