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The Return of the Native: Postcolonial Smoke Screen and the French Postcolonial Politics of Identity

Sandrine Bertaux

Although many scholars have attempted to avoid lapidary formulations, much of the postcolonial conversation that takes place in France is a reconfigured formulation of old questions, with a taste of déjà vu. Even before having fully landed on French soil, the term postcolonial is anathema to France: it is associated with a diminished space of discussion, and the debate over its usage has nationalistic undertones. To paraphrase a famous title, the conversation boils down to the following question: is postcolonial studies bad for France?1 It recalls the “for or against veil” formulation that discredited all domestic opponents of the 2004 law on laïcité as “pro-veil.” The law made France world famous, one more time, for its singularity of clinging to universalism despite the fact that, evaluated in its context, the law was not free of the charge of being part of a gesture toward multiculturalism.2

A perusal of the three articles written by Jean-François Bayart, Achille Mbembe, and Ann Laura Stoler reveals that the question we are invited to discuss has less to do with the impact of postcolonial studies in French scholarship than with the reason why such scholarship that has gained high visibility in the English- speaking academic world has long remained marginal or ignored in French academia and why it emerges today in such a controversial fashion. In other words, what is at issue is the reception of postcolonial studies in France, denoting for Bayart an “academic carnival,” revealing for Stoler France’s “colonial aphasia,” and representing for Mbembe the way out of its “imperial winter.”3

Postcolonial studies and its debates are relevant and disrupting not only because they challenge the official claim to a “French republican model based on the principles of the indivisibility of the nation and the equality of all citizens before the law, which stem from a legal tradition dating back two hundred years,” but also because postcolonial studies is partly informed by what is known in U.S. academia as French theory.4 The term postcolonial relates to both the return home of reconfigured, or contested, native theories and the return in public space of a native question raging in overseas departments and territories and in the metropole’s underprivileged banlieues (suburbs). What is at issue is what connects the two.

Just Landed? Forgetting Orientalism

To begin with, it is necessary to dissipate the postcolonial smoke screen that surrounds a French academia presented by some as if it is about to succumb to the postcolonial charm. Bayart confesses to being a novice to postcolonial studies, and his interest is precisely aroused by the eruption of the term postcolonial on the French public scene.5 The “posture of denunciation” of those brandishing the postcolonial torch in France prompts him, he tells us, to write against those not respecting the neat boundaries of knowledge and politics.6 Bayart is not the only one to question the scholarly value of the “postcolonial library” for being either devoid of originality and trapped in its original sin of “identity” or simply discarded as obscure. While the historian Emmanuelle Sibeud criticizes French historians for their lack of attention to postcolonial studies, she nevertheless attributes the current revival of an “anticolonialism of the rear guard” in France to the importation of the most “mystifying” aspect of postcolonial studies.7

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I thank Mamadou Diouf and Miriam Ticktin, and the editor of this special issue, Janet Roitman, for their insightful comments and suggestions. All translations from the French are mine.

  1. The reference is to Susan Moller Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? ed. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussbaum (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  2. See Murat Akan, “Laïcité and Multiculturalism: The Stasi Report in Context,” British Journal of Sociology 60 (2009): 237 – 56.
  3. Bayart’s phrase is also used in the title of his book from which his essay is a shortened version. Jean-François Bayart, Les études postcoloniales: Un carnaval académique (Paris: Karthala, 2010); Bayart, “Postcolonial Studies: A Political Invention of Tradition?” in this issue, 72. Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France,” in this issue, 125; Achille Mbembe, “Provincializing France?” in this issue, 87.
  4. This self-assertive statement is found in the French official response to ECRI’s recommendations, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Second Report on France, Adopted on 10 December 1999 (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2000), 23, ENGLISH/Cycle_02/02_CbC_eng/02 – cbc-france- eng.pdf. On French theory see François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); originally published as French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, et Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (Paris: La Découverte, 2003).
  5. Bayart, Les études postcoloniales, 6.
  6. Bayart, “Postcolonial Studies,” 58.
  7. Emmanuelle Sibeud, “Post-Colonial and Colonial Studies: Enjeux et débats,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 51 (2004), 95.


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