By Makana Eyre
When Anne-Louise Mesadieu and her family arrived in Chaville in the 1980s, they were among the first Haitians in town. In fact, they were one of the first families of color in a largely white, affluent area southwest of Paris.
“There were two black students at school,” she said.
Since her childhood, Mesadieu knew that many people in France had a simplistic view of Haiti, that they connected the country only with poverty and corruption. In many ways, that view shaped her.
“I learned English so that people would think I came from the United States, not Haiti. It was stupid but it worked.”
Mesadieu and her family being Haitian and arriving in France hardly made them unique. In fact, Haitians have been coming to France for centuries to study, escape dictators and coups d’états, and seek a better life.
Today, France is home to around 62,000 Haitians. Most of them live in Paris and its surrounding suburbs.
What is unusual about Haitians in France are the many gaps in the public’s understanding as to their place in French society. This is odd because Haiti and France are so deeply connected. Unlike Miami and New York, Paris has no Little Haiti. Few permanent community centers welcome Haitians here. No university in France is home to a Haitian studies institute.
We set out to fill some of these gaps. Perhaps unsurprisingly, information was hard to come by and the picture we assembled is complex.
Part of the challenge is a French law that prohibits recording demographics based on race. That means data about immigrant groups—such as what do they do? how much money do they earn? do they own houses? if so, where?—is incomplete if it exists at all. It also means that pinning down exactly where the Haitian community is based in France is a daunting if not impossible task.
What is clear is that Haitians in France have seen vastly varying degrees of success, and are involved in all parts of French society.
“There are many very accomplished people of Haitian descent in France—painters, writers, politicians and much more,” says professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College. “They have a really good social status in France. We also have Haitians who are professors at les Grandes Écoles, which are like Ivy League universities in the U.S.”
But Saint Paul is quick to add that this is not the case for all. While Haitians in France have a long history of intellectual achievement, more recent immigrants, are on the whole less educated than those who came in the 1980s or earlier, and are more likely to struggle. This is especially so in Paris’ suburbs, made famous in the media for their troubles. Saint-Denis is one such place. It abuts Paris just north of the ring road that serves as the de facto border of the city.
“Saint-Denis is like Brooklyn. You will have the masses of Haitians all mixed up with different intellectual backgrounds, different social statuses. And there are people of very different economic backgrounds,” Saint Paul said says.
And while Saint Paul notes that many Haitians have come to France and received advanced degrees, not all have done well. “It’s not uncommon to have someone with a PhD driving a cab.”
By and large, the children and grandchildren of the first wave of Haitian intellectuals who arrived in France starting in the 1970s are doing well—they are integrated into French society and play important roles in the country. But some say that this is due to the stronger financial and educational foundation their parents had. Also, when they arrived and where they made their entry into French society were crucial factors as to their success in their French lives.
Mesadieu, raised in the quiet commune of Chaville, was one of those early-wave children and is among the prominent Haitians in France. She is a Regional Counselor for Ile-de-France, a mentee of the prominent French politician, Valérie Pécresse, and an elected City Councilor for the commune of Chaville. She also holds a cultural attaché job at the Haitian Embassy in Paris.
“If I had grown up in Saint-Denis,” she says, “I might be different.”
The Haitian French Connection
Haiti and France are deeply connected. In 1625, France took over what was then called Saint-Domingue from the Spanish, and quickly turned the colony into a lucrative slave port and sugar hub. Some one hundred and fifty years later, slaves and free people of color—as they were then called—rose up and defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupying forces. They established a state where slavery was illegal and non-whites ran the government.
Ties to France remained strong, and by the 19th century, Haitians were making their way to France more frequently.
“To understand the genesis of migration of Haitians in France, we need to look to the 19th century,” Professor Saint Paul, of Brooklyn College says. “Throughout the 19th century, Haitian elites thought that France was the country to follow. It was the ideal society for Haitian people. In the U.S., the political system was shaped by slavery and Jim Crow so Haitians didn’t look to the U.S. as a great country. They went to France.”
By the 1970s, coming to France to study had become common among Haiti’s élite class. Their numbers grew as persecution under the country’s then dictator, François Duvalier, increased.
During the 1980s and beyond, the demographics of Haitians arriving to France changed. They were poorer, less educated, and came more for a better economic life than to escape political persecution. The devastating earthquake in 2010 also resulted more Haitians leaving for France. As they’d done down the decades, Haitians arrived in France by passing through the French territory of Guiana.
Haitians arriving to France at different times and for different reasons has affected the Diaspora today. Many of the intellectuals who arrived in the 1970s are dead. Their children are now in their 50s and 60s, and they are largely integrated into French society and are part of the country’s middle class. Those who came later for economic purposes have fared less well.
Mesadieu contends because of the way Haitians immigrated to France, the same social classes that exist in Haiti exist here.
“The community is split. The elites don’t mix with the rest. It’s just like it is in Haiti,” she says.
Professor Saint Paul echos Mesadieu, saying, “Haiti is a very stratified society and that’s the same here.”
Immigration patterns might also explain why no Little Haiti exists in Paris or any other French city as they do in New York and Miami. The French government has historically played a more hands-on role in where immigrants are housed. The children of the first wave of Haitians, well integrated as they are, are spread across Paris and the suburbs. Those who came later, did not converge to any particular part of Paris. Haitian stores and restaurants are relatively few and are spread out around the city. The church, Saint-Georges de La Villette, in Paris’ 19th district holds Haitian weddings and masses that many Haitians attend, but there are few other cornerstones of Haitian culture or community in Paris.
Aaron Wayne, known by his stage name Daan Junior, is a Haitian-French musician. In his view, Haitians coalesce around concerts and parties, but there isn’t a quarter of Paris or a famous bar where these events happen.
The lack of a Little Haiti in Paris could be due simply to the fact that far fewer Haitians immigrated to France than to the U.S., and they did so over a longer period of time. But Géraldine Millet, who was born in Haiti but has spent most of her life in Paris, thinks that the reasons may be more complex. According to her, when people from Haiti come to France today, they say, “’Don’t admit that you’re Haitian.’ They arrive here ashamed to be Haitian.”
Millet says that one of her former colleagues even hides the fact that she’s Haitian, saying instead that she’s from an African country.
Others, like Maggy de Coster, a Haitian-born poet and journalist in France, find the lack of a Little Haiti a good thing.
“I’m for a mix of people living together rather than creating a ghetto or a quarter. That’s counter-productive,” she says.
Racism may also play a part in how the Haitian diaspora has been shaped in Paris. According to Millet, racism against people of color exists in France but it’s much subtler than in other countries. Paris has not been a place where segregation by law has existed, at least in recent times. But according to Millet, it exists in other ways.
“The French say ‘But you, you’re different. You speak French so well. The other immigrants don’t.’ That’s very French.”
Hauts-de-Seine, the larger department, which includes Mesadieu’s hometown of Chaville, has long been a stronghold for France’s conservative movement. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of France, has held office in the department. After studying law in Paris, Mesadieu was drawn to politics. It seemed logical, if not practical, to join Sarkozy’s center-right Republican party as she began her career.
It did not take long for Mesadieu to rise in her party. Senior party members took notice of her, especially after she was elected as a City Counselor for Chaville, where part of her job is to oversee cultural affairs and officially welcome immigrants to the town.
Mesadieu belonging to a conservative political party in France strikes some as odd. After all, it was Nicolas Sarkozy, a member of Mesadieu’s Republican Party, who called for tough restrictions on immigration and threatened to withdraw from Europe’s Schengen Agreement. In addition, there was the burqa controversy, in which Sarkozy said that full veils and face coverings were “not welcome” on French soil.
But the political leanings of Haitians in France are complex. In general, they seem not to follow other immigrant groups whose support for the left is usually a given. Professor Saint Paul believes there are deeper reasons for this.
“France is not the U.S. In France you don’t have the same idea of diversity. So for Haitian immigrants, the first thing they want to do when they arrive is integrate. If the party of Sarkozy is the party that will give them the opportunity to integrate into the political structure, they will support it.”
Mesadieu is aware of the fact that some in the Haitian Diaspora in France find her membership in the Republicans strange.
“Black people are usually automatically to the left,” she says. “It’s partly because former President François Mitterrand allowed many of them to become legal residents, but there’s more than just that.”
But for Mesadieu, at the core of the Republican party are several values she holds dear.
“It’s a meritocracy. That’s our philosophy. I teach you how to earn money, not just give you everything.” In fact, she believes that the French left did a disservice to immigrants in France.
Despite her party membership, certain policies of the Republicans don’t sit well with Mesadieu. “There are ideas of the right that aren’t me, that I don’t like,” she points out. But she quickly adds, “If you work, you deserve your job. That’s what pulls you up. That’s what my party and I believe.”
Others in the Haitian community in France have accused the Republican party of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, especially after the most recent presidential elections, which featured candidates on the right with more radical views on immigrants in France.
Mesadieu has a less clear-cut take on racism in France, saying, “There’s not much racism in France. Jealousy? Yes. But racism? No.”
Mesadieu, now 42, is politically ambitious, but what form that ambition might take, she still isn’t sure.
“I’m not sure that people in Chaville are ready for a black woman as mayor,” she says. And adds, “To have a black person as the president, it’s not yet possible in France.”
Until she figures out where the next step leads, Mesadieu is happy in Chaville where she resides and is raising her son. Today, she says, there are around forty Haitian families living in Chaville. There are also more and more people from other parts of the world, something she finds encouraging. Many of the Haitian families are friends of hers. And, as a city counselor, she has welcomed them to the town, a part of her mandate that she enjoys very much.
Even if Haitians are at times shy in France, as some have said, there is a strong pride in being Haitian. The most integrated Haitians, even those who were born and raised in France, still consider themselves Haitian. Mesadieu is no different.
“I have a double culture,” she says. “I am Haitian and French. I love France. It’s thanks to France that I am where I am. Thanks to my culture, though, I have my strength. That’s because of Haiti.”