Before Oct. 27, if you mentioned "le tumulte noir" to a Frenchman he was likely to smile and think of Josephine Baker. That phrase is associated with Paris in the Jazz Age, when Baker and other black artists helped spark French fascination with African-American art and culture.
Nowadays, however, a Frenchman who hears the phrase just might shudder and think of the fires lighting the night skies above his troubled country. At first glance, the conflagrations in France seem at odds with that nation's legendary willingness to embrace the cultural and intellectual traditions that American-born blacks brought with them following World War I. How could people who love jazz and James Baldwin exhibit such cluelessness and indifference toward its black and brown citizens?
The behavior of Nicolas Sarkozy, the embattled French interior minister, illustrates the riddle that is modern France. Almost alone among French officials, he is a prominent supporter of affirmative action. He opposed the banning of head scarves in French schools. Yet it was his caustic comments that apparently spurred the rioters to greater violence. One observer told The Washington Post that Sarkozy is "caught between his own contradictions." The same, it seems, can be said of France.
It presents a confusing scenario for everyone, and certainly perplexes folks who, despite our nation's recent conflicts with France, tend to think of it as an enlightened haven where stellar talents such as Baldwin, Baker and Richard Wright were welcome to escape their racist homeland and pursue their genius in unfettered glory. Could it be true that in such a place "black people and Arab people are not really considered to be from this country," as one activist has asserted?
I called Jake Lamar for an insider's perspective. Black, American-born, and the author of five acclaimed books, he has lived in the City of Light since 1993. He told me France's fabled community of black American expatriates continues to thrive. "I'm never more than two degrees of separation from an African-American in Paris," he said.
According to Lamar, French enthusiasm for African-American culture is part of a larger fascination with American life in general. "The French aren't anti-American," he explained, "they're anti-Bush. They were very enthusiastic about John Kerry over here."
Lamar lives in the 18th arrondissement near Barbes, home to large numbers of Arabs and Africans. Like many American urban communities, he said, "often the only white people you see are cops."
But that's where the similarities end.
His encounters with police help spell out the distinctions. "I've been stopped and asked to show my papers but once they see that United States passport everything's OK. My friends from Senegal, Martinique, Guadalupe, they have to deal with racism that doesn't really touch me because as soon as I open my mouth, everyone knows I'm American."
"In the United States, racism is usually based on color, on what you can see," he continued. "In France, racism is so much more complicated. There's cultural baggage and colonial history. A bigoted French person will often have nicer feelings toward a Moroccan or Tunisian than toward an Algerian, for example."
Commentators both inside and outside France have compared the protests to the American civil rights movement. Lamar has little patience with such talk. "I've been getting e-mails for days saying this is just like Watts, this is just like Detroit," he said. "I really don't think it's an accurate comparison."
I had the same thought. The riots in the U.S. came after years of disciplined, organized campaigns in both the streets and the courts. In contrast, the youthful eruptions in Paris seem to be what the late civil-rights strategist Bayard Rustin would call "an attempt to provide psychological solutions to problems that are profoundly economic."
Lamar described the French violence in similar terms. "In the U.S. the riots came as part of an ongoing black liberation movement. There's no movement here, no talk of changing laws to create equality."
Such talk mustn't come solely from the rioters in the ghettoes; it also has to come from the government that has confined them there.
"In America after the riots of the '60s, a lot of white people saw that it was in their best interests and society's best interest to have more diversity. You have to have that mentality for affirmative action to work," Lamar told me. "Here, people haven't caught on yet."
Which leaves France in an odd and increasingly untenable position: once the headquarters of the avant-garde, it now finds itself way behind the times.