The Nyansapo Festival has stirred anger and outrage across France’s divided political spectrum after both Left and Right-leaning groups discovered it intended to keep 80 percent of its festival space exclusive to black women, according to NBC News. Another section would be set up for black men, while a final section would be open to the general public.
The public realization that the group intended to exclude anyone but black women stirred anger across France, earning condemnations from Paris’s mayor Anne Hidalgo as well as French anti-racism organizations. The group SOS Racisme issued a public statement slamming the festival, describing it as “discriminatory.”
Mayor Hidalgo will ask the city to ban the event entirely. However, the controversy goes deeper than merely public disapproval at the exclusion of anyone but black women.
Supporters of failed French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front Party widely associated with the global Alt-Right movement, took to Twitter over the weekend to call for the festival to be banned, stirring an unusual alliance between far-right nationalists, anti-racism groups, and the Socialist Party mayor.
Some commenters drew comparisons between the recent screening of Wonder Woman which invited only women, and which provoked a backlash on Twitter. In the case of Wonder Woman, however, men were able to purchase tickets, and one reportedly did attend the event.
The organization holding the festival, Mwasi, was founded in 2014 as an Afro-feminist group seeking to “exchange and speak on issues related to Black Women.” This is the first time the group has courted national controversy, however.
Relations between the majority white French population and minority black population are often fraught. Many French blacks are descendants or immigrants from former French colonies in Africa. The French Empire held much of West Africa from the late 19th century until the 1960s. French law prohibits gathering data on people based on ethnicity, but some estimates put the number of French blacks at 4% of the overall population. Many immigrants ended up in suburbs of major French cities in ghettos referred to as banlieues. These neighborhoods suffer higher poverty and crime than the rest of the country and most recently were the site of an alleged rape of a black suspect by police officers.
In 2005, the banlieues suffered mass riots after two teenagers were killed by police. In 2007, two more teens were killed in a motorcycle collision with a police vehicle, touching off further riots.
While France banned slavery in 1826, decades before the United States, France did not practice large scale slavery within Europe, where overpopulation produced enough peasants and working class citizens to prevent a labor shortage. When France built its 19th-century overseas empire, it explicitly banned slavery, but practiced a form of colonialism that often came very close.
When the French Empire collapsed in the 1950s and 60s, France allowed immigrants from throughout its former empire to settle to ease post-war labor shortages. In the 1970s, the French government abandoned its policy of assimilation in favor of “integration,” which favored a multicultural approach to new immigrants. In 2011, French President Nicholas Sarkozy declared that this approach had failed, leading France to once more revisit assimilationist polices.
France has long seen itself as a bastion anti-racism and humanism going back to the French Revolution of 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Revolution’s guiding bill of rights, aimed to provide equality to all French citizens and makes no mention of race.
Nevertheless, glaring disparities exist between French blacks, recent immigrants, and Muslims and white French citizens. While France never had a formalized system of American Jim Crow-style laws, the legacy of empire and colonialism runs deep in French society. Informal discrimination and racism was a common theme in the recent presidential election that led to the victory of Emmanuelle Macron.
[Featured image by Ker Robertson/Getty Images]