Vive Obama?
Posted on: 2008-06-17 10:13:06

For blacks in France, Obama's rise is reason to rejoice, and to hope

By Michael Kimmelman

When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. "Barack Obama," he said.

A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Obama is "stirring up high hopes" among blacks here. Even seeing the word "noir" ("black") in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, 60 cars were burned and some 50 young people scuffled with police and firemen, injuring several of them, in a poor minority suburb of Vitry-le-François, in the Marne region of northeast France.

Americans, who have debated race relations since the dawn of the Republic, may find it hard to grasp the degree to which race, like religion, remains a taboo topic in France. While Obama talks about running a campaign transcending race, an increasing number of French blacks are pushing for, in effect, the reverse.

Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it's high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.

This black consciousness is reflected not just in daily conversation, but also in a dawning culture of books and music by young French blacks like Youssoupha, a cheerful, toothy 28-year-old, who was sent here from Congo by his parents to get an education at 10, raised by an aunt who worked in a school cafeteria in a poor suburb, and told by guidance counselors that he shouldn't be too ambitious. Instead, he earned a master's degree from the Sorbonne.

Then, like many well-educated blacks in this country, he hit a brick wall. "I found myself working in fast-food places with people who had the equivalent of a 15-year-old's level of education," he recalled.

So he turned to rap, out of frustration as much as anything, finding inspiration in "négritude," an ideology of black pride conceived in Paris during the 1920s and 30s by Aimé Césaire, the French poet and politician from Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who became Senegal's first president.

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