Intolerance Rears Its Head
France, which once provided refuge for oppressed blacks from America and elsewhere, now displays an uglier attitude as a minority presence grows
BECAUSE of Jean-Marie Le Pen's growing political influence, I, as a black American, am not as welcome in France as before. The writing is literally on the wall.
As I strolled through Paris' Opera section one morning earlier this year, three words scrawled on a building brought me to a screeching halt.
"Immigrant Invasion Stop." The words screamed at me. I read words that growing numbers of white French citizens mutter in private, apparently influenced by the anti-immigrant sentiment of Mr. Le Pen. I was frightened. The fact that I was a black American armed with a United States passport did not abate my apprehension. My face would still arouse hostility in some, as evidenced the night before when I got lost going back to my hotel and asked a Frenchman for directions.
Walking slowly away from me and at the same time eyeing me suspiciously (or nervously), he said sternly, "I don't have to talk to you." The Frenchman then beat a fast pace across the Boulevard Haussmann.
I was saddened and confused confronting this anti-immigrant sentiment on the walls and streets of a country once revered for its tolerance of blacks. Expatriates like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin were liberated from racism after moving to France. In 1964, famous black novelist Richard Wright moved to Paris as a guest of the French government. A year earlier in the US, Mr. Wright could not even buy a home in Vermont because of his race.
Today the welcome mat seems to have been pulled out from under the feet of France's African and Arab residents.
I had come to Paris to write an article on Le Pen's movement. Although I had read much about the far-right leader's France for the French campaign, confronting it was personally disheartening.
Ever since taking French in college, I had longed to visit the City of Lights.
Whenever I thought of Paris it was of the black expatriates who took up residence in the Left Bank. I never really had romantic illusions of the city. I simply saw it as a place of refuge to which I could go to find myself as many expatriates had. Paris seemed, in my mind, a place where the French would leave you alone and ignore your skin color.
That vision was shattered underground in the Paris Metro. I had just stepped off a train and was walking to transfer to another to go to the Latin Quarter.
About 15 yards in front of me, I saw some police detaining two Indochinese men against a wall. They were being searched aggressively. The insides of their pants' pockets were turned out. One of the policemen had one remove his shoes.
I approached the four policemen amid a large crowd of people. As I walked closer, one noticed me and his eyes grew larger. In a split second, the policeman scrutinized me from head to toe. Then he stepped in front of me and said "Excusez-moi, votre billet." (Show me your ticket.)
I produced it. Our eyes met. He scanned my ticket and said "Passez." As I resumed walking, I kept asking myself why out of a crowd of about 30 people did the policeman only stop me? I was the only black person among the crowd. That incident burned into my consciousness the disturbing fact that some people in France now will not leave you alone nor ignore your skin color.
Part of my reporting assignment brought me smack into the middle of an angry crowd of about 100,000 people protesting against racism and Le Pen.
In my eight years as a reporter, I had never covered such a massive rally before. I was overwhelmed by a tremendous vise-like pressure of the several streets wide crowd attempting to squeeze onto one main street to march to the Place de la Bastille.
With a great deal of twisting, turning and shoving, I finally reached Rue Saint Antoine near the Place de la Nation. The demonstration was reminiscent of the civil rights marches of the 1960s in America.
But this was Paris - not Birmingham. It was all so confusing. I looked around me and then stared down at the streets. I was on French soil. So many blacks exiled themselves here to escape the Birminghams in the US.
I was saddened at being in Paris in 1992 watching a crowd that could fill two football stadiums marching against racism. What would Mr. Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Mr. Hughes and Mr. Wright think?
After the rally, I went back to the Latin Quarter. I walked up the boulevard Saint Germain des Pres contemplating and retracing the steps of black American writers.
I stopped and stared into the windows of the famous Cafe de Flore. This was the cafe where Baldwin and Wright spent long hours writing their novels.
I thought of a comment Wright made in an interview when asked why he moved to Paris: "Every Negro in America carries all through his life the burden of race-consciousness like a corpse on his back. I shed that corpse when I stepped off the train in Paris."
And then I thought of a report of an Arab immigrant who was pushed from a train to his death in the South of France, a victim of growing racial violence.
Now it seems some people have become corpses in France simply because of the color of their skin. They, like Baldwin, Wright, and others, came to France seeking a better life.
What would they all think? Will France ever be the same again?