Antiracism is not a threat to the state. It seeks to rectify and repair, not terrorize and destroy. Yet you wouldn’t know that if you looked at what the Macron administration in France has been doing over the past six months. In the midst of summer 2020’s protests against racial injustice and police violence, Macron likened social-science researchers—those investigating race, or discussing racism—to miners choosing to excavate a vein, whose opening could “only be secessionist. It is coming back to break the Republic in two.”1
Why does antiracism so threaten Macron, and his version of the French Republic? Put otherwise: When a state accuses racial-justice activists of threatening the values of the republic, what does that say about the state and about those republican values? And, most importantly—for France—can antiracism and French universalism be reconciled?2
Answering this last question would require a different approach, one that acknowledges that the grand narrative of French universalism as just that: a narrative, a story that gets told. It would require an approach that demands the re-sounding of the many other stories that French universalism has silenced.3
The three books under consideration here offer an approach—a practice—for unsettling France’s universalist narrative. Modern-day Guadeloupe, a French overseas department that has recently been in the news following the revelation of the French government’s authorization of the poisonous chlordecone pesticide there, is the setting for Maryse Condé’s novel La Belle Créole. The main character’s personal crises—his past unresolved trauma and his present predicament—mirror Guadeloupe’s late-20th-century (post)colonial ecosystem, economy, politics, and society.
Meanwhile, Françoise Vergès’s The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism tells a silenced story of French republican violence: the forced abortions and sterilizations of poor women in the French overseas department of La Réunion. Vergès recounts a story of French republican racialized violence that occurred in the recent past and reveals its connection to the longer French history of slavery and colonialism.
Finally, Jean Casimir’s The Haitians: A Decolonial History is a history and a methodological treatise, grounded in understanding France’s universalist project as inextricably entwined in its racist, colonial history of conquest and civilization. Casimir’s decolonial reading “capsizes” the self-affirming colonial narrative of French universalism (“its inexhaustible discourse of self-adulation”) to tell a story of the Haitian people. Casimir’s story reinterprets Haiti’s postcolonial history to resurface ways of being, knowing, and existing outside of dominant Western conceptual categories.
Taken together, these books make clear the multiplicity of other lived experiences—of lived consequences—of France’s universalist republican ideal. Each work grapples with the consequences of living with a self-fulfilling, self-congratulatory narrative of French universalism: consequences that are apparent on the bodies of nonwhite French former subjects and citizens, and of Black women most of all.
Citing the French republican universalist ideal, Macron has deemed antiracism an anti-republican danger to the state. But why does France appear uniquely threatened by the idea of antiracism?
The pretzel logic goes like this: France’s universalist republican ideal is color-blind and does not acknowledge racial, religious, or ethnic identification. If there is no place for race in the republic, racism cannot exist. These assumed propositions allow Republic officials to syllogistically conclude the following: those who assert the existence of race-related problems in France are, dangerously, creating division where there is none. Thus, according to such officials, asserting the existence of racism is an attack on “the values of the republic.” By this logic, antiracism and French republicanism are at best incompatible, and at worst locked in a zero-sum battle in which the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
Yet Macron’s version of the republican ideal slams up against the reality of the protests for racial justice that occurred in the summer of 2020 in France and across the globe. Though set off by police officers’ murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, France’s protests were homegrown and personal: since 2016, activists in France had been protesting the death of Adama Traoré in police custody. Floyd’s death only served to bolster this antiracist movement and its demands for racial justice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, French academics came under particular fire in the wake of the antiracist protests: Macron privately accused academia of encouraging “the ethnicization of the social question” by pursuing a research agenda centered on questions of race. Meanwhile, government officials accused academics of importing antiracism from the US,4 a charge based on the logic, again, that racism—and thus antiracism—cannot be French. In recent legislative debates over Macron’s proposed antiseparatism law, designed to “reinforce the respect for the principles of the Republic,” deputy Annie Genevard decried the “powerful and destructive” movements of “decolonialism, racialism, indigenism, and intersectionality” in French universities as a threat to the republic.
France’s universalist ideal is a narrative written to uphold a reality that it created and imposed on others.
The English translation of Casimir’s The Haitians: A Decolonial History (originally published in French as Une lecture décoloniale de l’histoire des Haïtiens) is a watershed moment: anglophone readers are now able to access a capacious and new approach to Haitian—and global—history, written by a leading Haitian scholar. As Casimir writes of his work: “This study is destined for those who wish to listen to the Haitian people in order to understand what they are saying. Their speech is barely audible, because the modern world imprisons it within the dominant culture and its writing of the past, trying to make us believe it doesn’t even exist.” As the original title makes clear, Casimir’s study (assiduously translated from the French by Laurent Dubois) is not so much a history of Haiti, but a meditation on “the beauty of the incontestable victory of the sovereign people.”5
Casimir’s The Haitians does not just illuminate the Haitian people; it also casts a new—and unforgiving—light on France. If France’s universalist ideal is a narrative written to uphold a reality that it had created and imposed on others, Casimir’s The Haitians is a practice of reading, seeing, and listening to something else: the multiplicity of other realities that came into being because of the Haitians’ resistance to France’s coloniality of power.
Casimir’s focus is on recounting the Haitians’ victory over “coloniality,” a concept he develops from the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano. Coloniality, which is bound to the ideas of “modernity,” progress, knowledge, and power, refers to the Eurocentric, racialized structures of power created by the West at the beginning of the 16th century.
Casimir argues that the Haitians’ victory over coloniality was made possible by the new realities and modes of existence that they invented. In the final chapters of the book, Casimir carefully charts these modes of existence, drawn from African-descended traditions and rural communal ways of life, which he defines as the counter-plantation system. These other modes include rural markets, garden villages, the lakou (indivisible collective property shared among kin), and the family, with particular focus on women, whom Casimir identifies as the “pivot” and “axis” of the family and “the primary creators of human existence.”
While Casimir acknowledges that he came to the language of modernity/coloniality/decoloniality through his engagement with Quijano and various scholars and institutions in Latin America and the US, he makes clear that the Haitians were already engaged in a decolonial practice from their very inception: “I discovered that I was probably searching for a path that my compatriots had in fact already been patiently surveying for two centuries.”
This thread of discovering already existing realities, of knowing how to look, to listen, to read against the grain, against coloniality—against Western narratives of knowledge and power—is at the heart of Casimir’s decolonial history (lecture) of the Haitians. It is the telling of stories that don’t get told in the West, that are not part of the grand narrative fictions of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot deemed “North Atlantic universals,” that makes Casimir’s study so powerful and so groundbreaking.6
It is precisely the stories that do not get told in the grand narrative of French republicanism—and, more pointedly, the why of their non-telling—that animates Françoise Vergès’s decolonial, antiracist feminist work, The Wombs of Women (seamlessly translated from the French by Kaiama Glover in supremely engrossing prose). As Vergès, a French social scientist and feminist, declares, “This study seeks not to add forgotten chapters to the history of France, but to question the very structure of the narrative.”
In this slim but powerful book, Vergès recounts the little-known history of the forced abortions and sterilizations performed on poor women of color in the 1960s in the French overseas department of La Réunion. Through analyses of articles and public records, Vergès reveals a sequence of events in which doctors collected government compensation for the procedures, while claiming that they had been pressured by French politicians into the scheme to limit population growth on the island. The cruel arrangement turned on the racialized trope of poor women of color as “fundamentally irresponsible and hypersexualized, deeming them in need of supervision for the good of the modern republic and its territories.”7
But it is precisely the silencing of these women’s stories—labeling poor women of color “disorderly,”8 and requiring the imposition of order and control through reproductive violence—that highlights the presence and power of race, and racism, in its specifically French republican form. As Glover puts it in her incisive introduction, the Reunionese women’s experiences, their stories, lay bare “the fundamental entanglement and execrable compatibility of republicanism, modernity, and racism.” Vergès extends her analysis beyond the case the Reunionese women, offering a longer history of the colonial state’s racialized violence against the wombs of women of color beginning with the slave trade.9
Haitians themselves engage in a decolonial practice through their resistance and re-existence outside of the structures of coloniality.
Both Casimir and Vergès engage a practice of decoloniality by reading untold stories. And both do so to deconstruct the racialized structures of power that have been hidden and silenced by the French universalist ideal.
Crucially, Black women and women of color—and the wombs of these women specifically—are central to both authors’ decolonial work, though in somewhat different ways. Vergès’s decolonial practice is based on giving voice to and rendering legible the stories of violence against the reproductive capacity of poor French women of color. The wombs of Reunionese women are the sites of the violent biopolitics of French coloniality.
For Casimir, the Haitians themselves engage in a decolonial practice through their resistance and re-existence outside of the structures of coloniality.10 As Casimir argues, “from 1804 to 1915, this same population—that the West wishes to see as made up of former slaves rather than former captives—multiplied fourfold through its own means. They attained a standard of living that was previously unknown to them, and better than that of the neighboring territories that were still possessed and governed by this same modern, civilized West.”
Here, the wombs of Haitian women are foundational: they are sites of the possibility of Haitians’ 19th-century flourishing beyond the strictures of Western coloniality. The wombs of Haitian women allow for the crucial decolonial concept of re-existence—human flourishing, freedom—to come into being in independent Haiti.
If women are undoubtedly foundational to Casimir’s decolonial reading of the Haitians, they appear somewhat reduced to their reproductive capacity: both in their role as market women sustaining the informal economy and in their role as literal life bearers. There is, however, a growing body of scholarship on women’s political agency in revolutionary and 19th-century Haiti and the gendered, often violent terms upon which their wombs became the site of Haiti’s national sovereignty.11
Violence against women loosely structures the plot of La Belle Créole, Maryse Condé’s consuming novel justly rendered by Nicole Simek’s gorgeous translation. But it is much more than a murder mystery.
It is 1999 and the protagonist, Dieudonné Sabrina, has just been acquitted of the murder of his lover, Loraine Féréol de Brémont, a békée (a white person descended from French colonial planters) who had employed him as a gardener. The course of the novel traces his postcarceral, rudderless wanderings, interspersed with flashbacks of childhood traumas and punctuated by arresting prose: “The night vomited up its India ink in a great gush.”
The fractured, anemic state of local politics punctures Dieudonné’s personal reflections: he crisscrosses a city gripped by protracted labor strikes that are suffocating the port city under garbage, blackouts, and apathy. He bears witness to the decline of the urban space as foreign development transforms the port city beyond recognition. His story and trial become a discussion point for the various impotent political factions behind the strikes: the PPRP independence (lendépendans) party, the PTCR communist union party, the bourgeoisie, the békés.
In this, Dieudonné’s postcarceral state may serve as a symbol of Guadeloupe’s (post)coloniality as a French overseas department: orphaned, without purpose, without a firm grasp on the meaning of past traumas in relation to the present. Indeed, France and the French are barely perceptible in the novel—Haitians, Dominicans, Germans, and Canadians are Dieudonné’s main interlocutors.
Except that Guadeloupe—an overseas department at the turn of the 21st century—is France. Drunk, cruel, and damaged, Loraine is one of the few links to the colonial past and an embodiment of the coloniality of power. Her death and the shipwreck of the titular sailboat, La Belle Créole, at the end of the novel would seem to set up a new beginning in 21st-century Guadeloupe, though one that remains as immobile and rudderless as before.
If these three works powerfully challenge the grand narrative of French universalism, their translation into English makes them essential reading for those interested in challenging the grand narratives of the United States, too. Vergès’s recounting of the racialized reproductive violence against Reunionese women in the 1960s re-sounds the forced sterilization of thousands of Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Her critique of Hexagonal white French feminism’s failure to take up the concomitant problems of republican racism and exploitation similarly resonates with critiques of white feminism in the US during the same period, as expressed in the Combahee River Collective Statement.
Condé’s novel presents an island adrift, subject to the winds of power and capital in a hemisphere that the US largely controls.
Casimir’s decolonial reading of the Haitians is stalked by the shadow of US neocolonialism. This adversary imposed itself on the region in earnest in the 1850s and established its violent presence in Haitian affairs at the endpoint of Casimir’s book: the US military occupation of Haiti in 1915. The consequences of US interventionism continue to play out today in Haiti.
What happens when writers unsettle the grand narrative of French universalism? Or better yet, how do they unsettle it? Casimir, Vergès, and Condé each offer stories that chip away at the hermetic, self-fulfilling narrative. French universalism is but a story that gets told; there are many other stories that remain to be read.
This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut.
- Camille Stromboni, “Comment Emmanuel Macron s’est aliéné le monde des sciences sociales,” Le monde, June, 30, 2020. ↩
- Mame-Fatou Niang and Julien Suaudeau, “Pour un universalisme antiraciste,” Slate.fr, June 24, 2020. ↩
- For a recent example of this approach in practice, see the #unsilencedpast initiative, mobilized by the Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College. ↩
- One wonders if, in the end, it wasn’t the US doing the importing from France: in the wake of Macron’s comments, the Trump administration ramped up its own attacks on critical race theory as “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” Matthew S. Schwartz, “Trump Tells Agencies to End Trainings on ‘White Privilege’ and ‘Critical Race Theory,’” NPR, September 5, 2020. ↩
- Casimir’s titular demonym refers in part to Baron de Vastey’s definition of “Haytiens” in Le système colonial dévoilé (1814). Casimir draws upon Vastey’s early 19th-century writing and thought at length throughout the work. ↩
- Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “North Atlantic Universals: Analytical Fictions, 1492–1945,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 4 (2002). ↩
- Kaima Glover, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Françoise Vergès, The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism (Duke University Press, 2020), xvii. ↩
- For a productive troubling of this notion of “disorderly women,” see Glover’s new work, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being (Duke University Press, 2021). ↩
- To be sure, women were and always are more than the reproductive capacity of their wombs. Jessica Marie Johnson’s work analyzes the practices of freedom asserted by enslaved women, despite their legal status as unfree: “their own understandings of what, where, and how their bodies should be used, their labor expended, and their lives lived.” Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 2. Crystal Eddins’s work explores how enslaved mothers and pregnant women in Saint Domingue exerted power over their lives and bodies through marronage. See “‘Rejoice! Your wombs will not beget slaves!’ Marronnage as Reproductive Justice in Colonial Haiti,” Gender & History, vol. 32, no. 3 (2020). ↩
- On existence and the coloniality of being, Casimir is working through Sylvia Wynter. See Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3 (2003). ↩
- On genealogies of sexual violence in Haiti, see Régine Jean-Charles, Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (OSU Press, 2014). On women’s direct participation in political movements in 19th-century Haiti, see Anne Eller, “Skirts Rolled Up: The Gendered Terrain of Politics in Nineteenth-Century Port-au-Prince” (forthcoming in Small Axe). ↩