A remarkable exhibition has been running at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. The vast show, titled “The Color Line,” is billed as an examination of the response of African American artists to segregation. This is an exhibit on a grand scale, featuring 183 paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists from Henry Ossawa Tanner to Mickalene Thomas, and 498 documents, including books, films, flyers, newspapers, posters and videos. The show is as much historical as artistic, with long swathes of text that retell the story of the brief promise of equality after the Civil War as well as photos and postcards documenting the brutal imposition of Jim Crow and finally, the long political struggle that culminated in the civil rights movement.
A review of the exhibit in the influential newspaper, Le Monde, noted that not a single prominent French politician attended the October opening reception for “The Color Line.” Maybe, critic Philippe Dagen noted, the black struggle in the United States drew uncomfortable parallels to France’s own past and present history with its minorities. This, despite the curator’s insistence that there was no political motive behind the show. The main goal, curator Daniel Soutif told me, was to make the French (and art professionals in particular) aware of a body of work “essentially ignored for the last 150 years on this side of the Atlantic.”
“The Color Line” opened just as France launched into its 2017 presidential contest. The early skirmishes, far more polite than the recent U.S elections, have touched on the volatile issues of French identity, racial and cultural assimilation, and the spread of extremism among the immigrant poor. These issues will move to center stage when Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, enters the contest. Le Pen has been buoyed by the victory of Donald Trump, with whom she shares much of the same anti-immigration, anti-globalization rhetoric.
The apparent aversion of French politicians to the opening of “The Color Line” reflects a significant change from the days when the French loved to preach to Americans about race relations. This sense of superiority was fed by the sharp contrast between America’s rigid racial segregation in the decades before the 1970s and France’s more open attitude. Many African Americans who came to France as soldiers in the two World Wars came home talking about how they were treated as equals for the first time. Their stories made France a haven for high-profile black intellectuals and artists, including writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin and painters like Edward Clark and Lois Mailou Jones who sought to escape from the relentless pressure of racism.
But now France is struggling with its own issues involving race, ethnicity and immigration. In October, thousands of police dismantled “the Jungle,” a vast tent city in Calais near the tunnel to England and a growing squatter camp in the heart of Paris’s 19th arrondissement. Both sites had become a staging point for thousands of refugees from war and ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Sudan.
It’s not just the refugees that cause concern. France has become multiracial and multiethnic in the past four decades, with streams of immigrants from its former colonies in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the immigrants are Muslim, and young men and women, even those born in France, have proved susceptible to radical pitches. More than a 1,500 French citizens or residents have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State or turned on France to wreak havoc in terror attacks at the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, and the Bataclan massacre of Nov. 13, 2015.
The French still think of themselves as open-minded. A recent survey by a national commission on human rights reported that more than half of all those surveyed considered themselves “not at all” prejudiced. Yet, in the same survey, the number of racist, anti-Jewish and anti-Arab incidents reported in 2015 rose 22.4 percent from a year earlier to a record 2,034. Issues such as police brutality and employment discrimination are discussed more often in the mass media. But a ban on racial or ethnic statistics prevents French authorities from knowing the actual size of the minority population or how widespread inequality is.
French rights activists could draw a lesson from the “The Color Line,” which chronicles the emergence of the civil rights movement and its eventual success in knocking down many of the racial barriers in the United States. Thousands of middle and high school students, many of them black and brown, are touring the exhibit with their teachers. But the idea of coalescing around ethnicity or race runs counter to the French ideal of color-blind “republicanism.” Calls for racial solidarity are quickly denounced as “communitarism,” a term that implies separatism. But there islittle political will in this climate to reduce discrimination or to address the alienation of young people in the bleak ghettos that surround major French cities. France has its own color line, but it is blurred, vague and hard to define — and therefore, hard to combat.
[“The Color Line” closes on Jan. 15, 2017.]
Joel Dreyfuss, is a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.