French colonial and post-colonial hybridity: condition métisse

Posted in Articles, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-04-20 01:57Z by Steven

French colonial and post-colonial hybridity: condition métisse

Journal of European Studies
Volume 28, Number 1 (1998)
pages 103-120
DOI: 10.1177/004724419802800108

Dina Sherzer, Professor Emeritus of French and Italian and Comparative Literature
The University of Texas, Austin

One of the central issues which shapes and agitates contemporary France, as well as other European countries, is that of identity. Multiple discourses on French identity are crisscrossing France today and are channelled in two different domains—a revisiting of the colonial past, and a reflection on what constitutes contemporary Frenchness. Since the mid-1980s a cultural phenomenon has emerged in France which involves the rediscovery, reassessment and representation of the Empire, colonial politics and ideology, and colonial life. The colonial moment of France’s past (1830-1962), which had been repressed and censured, is now reappearing in studies by historians, sociologists and anthropologists. Film directors and novelists have contributed to this growing interest in the colonies by their imaginings and refigurings of the colonial past. Studies of the colonial period have shown that, based on a set of asymmetrical arrangements, life in the contact zone was organized according to two worlds whereby the colonized were subservient to and dominated by the colonizers. French hegemony was concretized by division and segregation based on race and economics. The French were considered pure and therefore superior, while the Others, the colonized, were considered inferior and somehow savage and impure. What was of utmost importance in the colonies was to preserve French identity; and life in multiracial settings fostered and exacerbated racial consciousness.

It was also in the mid-1980s, as France was becoming increasingly multi-ethnic with a growing population of individuals from the ex-colonies of Africa and North Africa, that the notion of French identity became a national debate, stirring up the country on the right and the left. And it is now possible to speak of a ‘logique contradictorielle’ because, as has been noted, France is ‘un pays de meteques avec une tres forte ideologie antimeteque’. It is a country which has constructed its identity on the concept of universality, and yet particularism is thriving under the impulse of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his followers. As a result the country is divided by two contradictory attitudes: the desire for ethnic purity and xenophobia on one hand, and for tolerance, acceptance of the Other and celebration of contacts, mixings and ‘metissages’ on the other hand. Thus notions such as to be Francais-Francais, Francais-non Francais, or non-Francais; the presence in cities and outskirts of cities of a multiracial population, referred to as ‘les trois B’ (Blacks, Blancs, Beurs); and questions of immigration, integration and assimilation are constantly in the news, in political debates, in journalistic writings, and in films.

Because of the cohabitation of colonizers and colonized, and because of immigration of individuals from the former colonies to France, mixed marriages or unions took place in the colonies and are more and more frequent in contemporary France. For instance in 1994, 22% of second-generation Algerians were married to French individuals born of French parents. Nowadays hybrid individuals constitute a significant part of the French population. They are referred to as, and call themselves ‘sang meles’, ‘croises’or ‘metis’. Many well known personalities in sports, politics and the arts are metis and their hybridity is often mentioned and underscored by the media. Thus it is well known that the actress Isabelle Adjani has a Maghrebi father and a German mother; Raphaëlle Delaunay, a dancer at the Paris opera, has a father from Martinique and a mother from Alsace; Harlem Desir, the anti-racist activist, has an Antillean father and an Alsatian mother; Yannick Noah, the ex-tennis champion now pop singer, has a father from Cameroon and a French mother from Alsace; the lawyer Jacques Verges is Eurasian. Concomitant with and participating in the revisiting of the colonial past and the thinking about the post-colonial present, a number of studies, films, novels and autobiographies have appeared which engage and articulate with ethnicity and identity in focusing on hybrid, mixed-blood, metis individuals; they highlight the fact that if racial mixing, hybridity and ‘metissage’ were of utmost concern during the Empire, in the contact zone, now the same concern is manifesting itself in post-colonial France.

In my discussion I will draw on a representative selection of films and texts together with relevant scholarly studies. The presentation of the ‘condition metisse’ in colonial times appears in the 1988 film by Martinican director Euzhan Palcy, Rue cases-negres, autobiographies such as Kim Lefevre’s Metisse blanche (1990), Dany Carrel’s L’Annamite (1991) adapted into a telefilm with the same title screened in June 1996 on TF1, and a 1993 autobiographical essay entitled Metis by Patrice Franchini. Several novels set in the colonies, from the 1980s to the present, also present metis characters. Examples are the 1930 novel by Erwan Bergot set in Indochina, Le Courrier de Saigon, reedited in 1990, L’Amant by Marguerite Duras from 1988 and Annaud’s 1991 adaptation of it, as well as a 1994 novel by Régine Desforges, Route de la soie. Set in contemporary France, Leïla Sebbar’s Le Chinois vert d’Afrique (1984) and Marie N’Diaye’s En famille (1990) have hybrid individuals as central characters. Films also take on this topic as a subtext, as in Jean-Loup Hubert’s La Reine blanche (1991). Goyav, a popular magazine newly created and found at newsstands in public places, devoted its third issue in June 1996 in large part to ‘la condition metisse’ with articles and interviews about this topic. In these renderings of ‘la condition metisse’, set in the colonies and in post-colonial France, I propose to examine how hybrid individuals have been constructed, what identity they have been given and how they have been made to live and perceive their hybridity. Then I will discuss the significance of the emergence of such texts in the context of contemporary France and, more specifically, examine how these cultural micro-expressions in popular and high culture shape and participate in the creation of the mood, mentality, and attitudes of contemporary France alongside current events, political and sociological writings, and TV debates.

Metissage and colonialism

Metissage is a term invented during the colonial period, as mixed-blood children were born from relationships between French men and Asiatic, African and North African women in the colonies. It had negative connotations, implying miscegenation, mongrelization and impurity. After World War I successive waves of immigration brought to France Italians, Poles and Spaniards who married French individuals and had children, but no specific term was used for these European mixed-blood individuals. Thus, language already shows that mixing between Europeans was acceptable, whereas when it took place with a coloured Other it was marked negatively. The study of rules, regulations and attitudes during the Empire reveals that metis individuals were considered to be degenerate and represented a threat to racial purity. Yet in the colonies colonizers and colonized were in very intimate contact; native women were available and became sexual partners as the colonizers desired it. The colonies were places where the French appropriated land, goods and women, and in fact one of the incentives for going to the colonies was the promise of adventures which entailed unlimited access to women. Postcards, posters and advertisements from the period enticed prospective colonizers, travellers and soldiers by displaying native women and young girls. Exotic sexual encounters were part of the ‘imaginaire colonial’. In Metis Franchini proposes the following analysis of today’s connotations of the word Eurasian, which applies to the more…

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