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