Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Confronting Racism

PARIS -- The French news media were captivated by Hurricane Katrina, pointing out how the U.S. government's faltering response brought into plain view the sad lot of black Americans. But this time the French, who have long criticized America's racism, could not overlook the parallels at home.

"In France, [many] ran to pelt the 'American model.' But have they just looked at the state of their own country?" Le Figaro asked on Sept. 8.

Only four days before, a fire had swept an apartment in south Paris, killing 12 people, most of them black. And just days before that, 17 black people died in a single blaze. Since April, 48 people, and all of them black, have died in four separate fires in Paris.

"It could be a coincidence," said Sissouo Cheickh, bitterly, "but one question the French have to answer is: Of 48 people who died, why were 48 black?"

France has long boasted of itself as the cradle of human rights. But French insistence on the equality of man leaves them in a bind, black critics say, perpetuating the fiction of a society without minorities. The census in France does not list people by race. Hence, while blacks are thought to number about 1.5 million, no one really knows the exact number, which is estimated to be far higher.

Until recently, virtually all blacks were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Gradually, however, a younger generation is gaining education, starting businesses and gradually giving birth to a black middle class. They feel the discrimination they say is rampant in society and are beginning to resist.

"The French like to say, 'Blacks are a social problem, not racial,'" said Gaston Kelman, 52, a native of Cameroon. "So our institutions have no means to overcome it." Asked whether the French people are racist, Kelman replied: "It's a racism of nuance. Every Frenchman would immediately say, 'One of my closest friends is black.'"