By Thomas P. Murray (University of Sheffield)
Africa and France: Postcolonial cultures, migration, and racism. Dominic Thomas. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indiana, 2013. Pp. 329. ISBN 978-0-253-00670-7 (pbk. : alk. paper). £17.99, $28.00
In 2007, the importance of the cultural identity of “l’Hexagone” was proven to be a key preoccupation of the French electorate, with Nicolas Sarkozy winning that year’s presidential elections on a distinctly nationalist platform. This this in turn gave way to the controversial “debate on French national identity”, a state-instigated public debate kicked-off in 2009 when the then Minister for Immigration encouraged the public to consider “what it means to be French today”. It seems somewhat paradoxical, then, that it was in this charged and distinctly nationalist political climate that The National Centre for the History of Immigration (CNHI) – conceived around the notion that “their history is our history” and with the goal of commemorating France’s status as a country of immigration – should see its inauguration.
It is precisely this paradoxical relationship between France and her colonial and post-colonial history that forms the central theme of Dominic Thomas’s latest book. Africa and France examines the representation of this relationship in the twenty-first century in the light of the geopolitical realignments, immigration patterns, social realities, and cultural developments of recent decades. To do this, Thomas determines to “[examine] processes of commemoration, reflections on national identity, government speeches, film, literature, and new museological approaches [in order to] assist in the process of accounting for and then reckoning with these entangled histories” (p. 17), histories that are further complicated by increased European integration and accelerating globalisation.
The first two chapters of the book concentrate on France’s commemoration of its colonial past through examining the Quai Branly Museum and the CNHI. Thomas plots the short histories of these public institutions, scrutinising their complex relationship with the state. He highlights the disconnect between the academic concerns of museum directors and academics and the government’s political agenda, contrasting the French museological approach to issues of colonial and post-colonial identities with that of other former colonial powers.
Chapter three moves away from museological concerns in order to consider the roots of the debate on national identity, arguing that France’s preoccupation with “Frenchness” is part of a broader move towards what Thomas terms “hierarchies” of immigration within an increasingly nationalistic EU. Chapter 4 discusses France’s use of its 2008 EU presidency to continue to foster transcolonial relationships with its former African possessions, highlighting the ongoing nature of France’s “mission civilisatrice”.
In the remaining chapters, Thomas turns his attention away from government policy to focus instead on the cultural representation of twenty-first century political realities. Chapter 5
considers the challenge that diasporic African directors are presenting to Paris’s hegemony in the French-language film industry, while Chapter 6 takes the “Marie Ndiaye affair” as a point of departure explore the complex situation of people of African descent living in the ostensibly colour-blind French republic.
Chapters 7 and 8 both consider the representation of migration in contemporary literature, focusing in turn on two flashpoints of migration to Europe – the Mediterranean and the infamous Red Cross camp at Sangatte. Chapter 9 analyses the situation of writers, rappers, and filmmakers from the peripheral banlieue, arguing that their defiant challenge to the conservative French “centre” continues a long tradition of cultural and political activism that is coming under threat from increasingly paranoid, xenophobic and populist movements.
Chapter 10, focuses on the littérature-monde debate, considering the significance of this new tendency in relation to the works considered in the preceding chapters. Thomas points to the potential of this new movement to destabilise the Paris-centric nature of francophone cultural production, and to challenge France’s growing nationalistic preoccupation with national identity.
Much like his 2007 book Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism, Thomas’s latest book seeks to unravel the intricacies of physical, cultural, and epistemological reconfigurations produced by Franco-African displacement, exchange, and hybridisation. Like his earlier book, Africa and France draws on an extensive and impressive range of sources to produce an in-depth analysis of the issues studied. However, given that much of the book is concerned with commemoration and collective memory it is interesting that Thomas elects to engage very little with either Pierre Nora’s or Michael Rothberg’s work on these issues (Les lieux de mémoire, 1984 and Multidirectional memory, 2009). Furthermore, Thomas does at times stray into a slightly moralising tone, especially evident in his admittedly valid critiques of Sarkozy’s presidency in the opening three chapters. These two minor criticisms notwithstanding, Africa and France constitutes essential reading for anyone investigating the debates surrounding contemporary French identity and the ever-changing relationship between France and her former colonial possessions.
Reviewed by: Thomas P. Murray, University of Sheffield
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 95-97]