Disease, Risk, and Contagion: French Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of “African” Bodies


In this article, we explore how sub-Saharan African immigrant populations in France have been constructed as risk groups by media sources, in political rhetoric, and among medical professionals, drawing on constructs dating to the colonial period. We also examine how political and economic issues have been mirrored and advanced in media visibility and ask why particular populations and the diseases associated with them in the popular imagination have received more attention at certain historical moments. In the contemporary period we analyze how the bodies of West African women and men have become powerful metaphors in the politics of discrimination prevalent in France, in spite of Republican precepts that theoretically disavow cultural and social difference.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    The 2005 riots followed the death by electrocution of two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, both second-generation immigrants of North African and sub-Saharan African descent, respectively. The boys thought they were being chased by the police and climbed a wall to hide in a power substation. Riots followed immediately in the suburbs of Paris, involving mainly the burning of cars and public buildings at night. Events spread to poor housing projects in various parts of France. The riots that took place 2 years later in 2007 also involved the death of two teenagers of North African descent, whose motorcycle collided with a police vehicle.

  2. 2.

    Since the Revolution in 1789, the French population has been officially divided into two groups on the basis of nationality: There are French citizens and foreigners who have not acquired French citizenship. In the early 1990s, a polemic took place at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) as to whether or not to use ethnicity in censuses. No agreement was reached until 2007, when a new law on immigration (Loi Hortefeux) included the identification and enumeration of ethnic groups. This was deemed anti-constitutional by France’s Constitutional Council on November 15, 2007.

  3. 3.

    By “specialized” mental health care centers, we refer to structures that provide culturally sensitive mental health services to immigrants.

  4. 4.

    Ethno-psychiatry is the study of mental illness in a cross-cultural perspective. In France, its practice was developed by Tobie Nathan, a student of anthropologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux.

  5. 5.

    Cultural mediation as a formal profession emerged in the context of family reunification policies in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s, cultural mediators, principally women originally from the immigrant societies of origin, were solicited by maternity hospitals, child health clinics, and similar institutions. The mediator’s function was literally to translate, on the one hand, but also (and perhaps more significantly) to bridge social worlds. Thus, his/her role was to translate conceptually the discourse of state institutions to immigrants while conveying to biomedical and social work personnel the local meanings and practices of immigrant clients. Mediators are intended to sustain client autonomy but assist social workers and other practitioners in carrying out public health, educational, and other institutional objectives.

  6. 6.

    Refers to “suburbs.” In the French context, this term is often used to refer more specifically to low-income urban peripheries, characterized by high unemployment rates, a concentration of immigrant residents, and gang activity or urban violence.

  7. 7.

    Colonial psychiatry refers to the practice of psychiatry in the colonial context. As we show in this article, by analyzing mental disorders in the context of cultural (or alternatively “racial”) difference, colonial psychiatry justified political control over/repression of colonized populations.


  1. Barou, J. 2002. Les immigrations africaines en France au tournant du siècle. Hommes et Migrations, no. 1239: 6–18.

  2. Bertossi, C. 2012. French republicanism and the problem of normative density. Comparative European Politics 10(3): 248–265. doi:10.1057/cep.2012.6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bock, P.K. 1988. Rethinking psychological anthropology: Continuity and change in the study of human action. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Brace, C.L. 2005. “Race” is a four-letter word: The genesis of the concept. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Briggs, C.L. 2005. Communicability, racial discourse, and disease. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 269–291. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120618.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Café des Roumains. 2014. Médias et migrations: À qui la faute? http://cafedesroumains.com/2014/04/28/medias-et-migrations-a-qui-la-faute1217/. Accessed September 8, 2014.

  7. Code de la santé publique. 1998. Article L12. http://legifrance.gouv.fr/affichCodeArticle.do?cidTexte=LEGITEXT000006072665&idArticle=LEGIARTI000006692172. Accessed September 8, 2014.

  8. Comaroff, J. 1993. “The diseased heart of Africa”: Medicine, colonialism, and the black body. In Knowledge, power, and practice: The anthropology of medicine and everyday life, edited by S. Lindenbaum and M.M. Lock, 305–329. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Conklin, A. 1997. A mission to civilize: The republican idea of empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Fassin, D. 2001. The biopolitics of otherness: Undocumented foreigners and racial discrimination in French public debate. Anthropology Today 17(1): 3–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Fassin, D., in collaboration with P. Aïach, B. Boulenger, H. Bretin, D. Cèbe, Z. Kessar, S. Klingberg, and C. Philippe. 2004. Des maux indicibles: Sociologie des lieux d’écoute. Paris: La Découverte.

  12. Fassin, D., and E. Fassin, eds. 2009. De la question sociale à la question raciale? Représenter la société française, 2nd ed. Paris: La Découverte/Poche.

  13. Fassin, D., and A.-J. Naudé. 2004. Plumbism reinvented: Childhood lead poisoning in France, 1985–1990. American Journal of Public Health 94(11): 1854–1863.

    PubMed Central  PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Fassin, D., and R. Rechtman. 2005. An anthropological hybrid: The pragmatic arrangement of universalism and culturalism in French mental health. Transcultural Psychiatry 42(3): 347–366.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Favell, A. 1998. Philosophies of integration: Immigration and the idea of citizenship in France and Britain. New York: St. Martin’s Press in association with the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick

  16. Foucault, M. 1970. The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.

  17. Foucault, M. 1972. The archaeology of knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.

  18. Gilloire, A. 2000. Les catégories d’“origine” et de “nationalité” dans les statistiques du sida. Hommes et Migrations, no. 1225: 73–82.

  19. Hollifield, J.F. 1994. The migration challenge. Harvard International Review 16(3): 26–33.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Hunt, N.R. 1999. A Colonial lexicon of birth ritual, medicalization, and mobility in the Congo. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Keller, R.C. 2007. Colonial madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Kotobi, L. 2000. Le malade dans sa différence: Les professionnels et les patients migrants africains à l’hôpital. Hommes et Migrations, no. 1225: 62–72.

  23. La Documentation Française. 2006. Politique de l’immigration. Regards sur l’actualité, no. 326. Paris: La Documentation Française.

  24. Larchanché, S. 2010. Cultural anxieties and institutional regulation: “Specialized” mental healthcare and “immigrant suffering” in Paris, France. Ph.D. diss., Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and EHESS, Paris.

  25. Larchanché, S. 2012. Intangible obstacles: Health implications of stigmatization, structural violence, and fear among undocumented immigrants in France. Social Science and Medicine 74(6): 858–863. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.08.016.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Le Goaziou, V., and L. Muchielli, eds. 2006. Quand les banlieues brûlent: Retour sur les émeutes de novembre 2005. Paris: La Découverte.

  27. Le Monde. 2005. Le ministre de l’emploi fait de la polygamie une “cause possible” das violences urbaines. November 16. http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2005/11/16/le-ministre-de-l-emploi-stigmatise-la-polygamie_710615_3224.html.

  28. Le Monde. 2009. Besson relance le débat sur l’identité nationale. October 25. http://lemonde.fr/politique/article/2009/10/25/besson-relance-le-debat-sur-l-identite-nationale_1258628_823448.html.

  29. Le Nouvel Observateur. 2014. Infographie “raciste”: Avalanche de plaintes contre le “Progrès.” April 23. http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/medias/20140423.OBS4808/infographie-raciste-avalanche-de-plaintes-contre-le-progres.html.

  30. Le Parisien. 2010. Ils étaient au cœur des émeutes de 2005. October 27. http://www.leparisien.fr/clichy-92110/ils-etaient-au-coeur-des-emeutes-de-2005-27-10-2010-1125357.php.

  31. Le Pen, M. 2013. Tuberculose multi-résistante: l’Etat doit sortir de son silence et réagir immédiatement. Marine Le Pen—Le Site Officiel, January 25. http://www.marinelepen.fr/2013/01/tuberculose-multi-resistante-letat-doit-sortir-de-son-silence-et-reagir-immediatement/. Accessed April 17, 2013.

  32. Le Robert and Collins. 2006. Dictionnaire français-anglais/anglais-français, 8th ed. Glasgow: Harper Collins.

  33. Lot, F., D. Antoine, C. Pioche, et al. 2012. Trois pathologies infectieuses fréquemment rencontrées chez les migrants en France: Le VIH, la tuberculose et l’hépatite B. Bulletin Épidémiologique Hebdomadaire, no. 2-3-4: 25–30.

  34. Maman, M., ed. 2009. Être Africain et malade du sida à Paris en 2009: Paroles de patients, paroles de soignants. Paris: URACA.

  35. McCulloch, J. 1995. Colonial psychiatry and “the African mind.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Millot, L. 2005. “Beaucoup de ces Africains sont polygames …” Libération, November 15. http://www.liberation.fr/evenement/2005/11/15/beaucoup-de-ces-africains-sont-polygames_539018. Accessed May 30, 2014.

  37. Ministère de l’Intérieur. 2005. Déplacement de M. Nicolas Sarkozy à Perpignan. October 13. http://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Archives/Archives-de-Nicolas-Sarkozy-2005-2007/Interventions/13.10.2005-Deplacement-de-M.-Nicolas-Sarkozy-a-Perpignan.

  38. Ndiaye, P. 2008. La condition noire: Essai sur une minorité française. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Nicolet, C. 1982. L’idée républicaine en France: Essai d’histoire critique (1789–1924). Paris: Gallimard.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Noiriel, G. 1988. Le creuset français: Histoire de l’immigration au XIXe–XXe siècle. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Poiret, C. 1998. Familles africaines en France: Immigration et changements. Paris: L’Harmattan.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Quiminal, C. 1991. Gens d’ici, gens d’ailleurs: Migrations soninké et transformations villageoises. Paris: Christian Bourgois.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Renan, E. 1882. Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? Conférence faite en Sorbonne, le 11 mars 1882. Paris: Calmann Lévy.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Rezkallah, N., and A. Epelboin. 1997. Chroniques du saturnisme infantile 19891994: Enquête ethnologique auprès de familles parisiennes originaires du Sénégal et du Mali. Paris: l’Harmattan.

  45. Sargent, C. 2005. Counseling contraception for Malian migrants in Paris: Global, state, and personal politics. Human Organization 64(2): 147–156.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Sargent, C. 2006. Reproductive strategies and Islamic discourse. Malian migrants negotiate everyday life in Paris, France. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 20(1): 31–49.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Sargent, C., and S. Larchanché. 2007. The Muslim body and the politics of immigration in France: Popular and biomedical representations of Malian migrant women. Body and Society 13(3): 79–102. doi:10.1177/1357034X07082253.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Sargent, C., and S. Larchanché. 2009. The construction of “cultural difference” and its therapeutic significance in immigrant mental health services in France. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 33(1): 2–20.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Schnapper, D. 1991. La France de l’intégration: Sociologie de la nation en 1990. Paris: Gallimard.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Stanojevich, A.E., and A. Veisse. 2007. Repères sur la santé des migrants. La Santé de l’Homme, no. 392: 21–24.

  51. Terrio, S.J. 2009. Judging Mohammed: Juvenile delinquency, immigration, and exclusion at the Paris Palace of Justice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Thébaud-Mony, A., and C. Lepetit. 1991. La tuberculose n’est pas une maladie “exotique.” Plein Droit, no. 14. http://www.gisti.org/spip.php?article4015. Accessed April 15, 2013.

  53. Timera, M. 1996. Les soninké en France: D’un histoire à l’autre. Paris: Karthala.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Vaughan, M. 1991. Curing their ills: Colonial power and African illness. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Vaughan, M. 2007. Introduction. In Psychiatry and empire, edited by S. Mahone and M. Vaughan, 1–16. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Viet, V. 1998. La France immigrée: Construction d’une politique, 1914–1997. Paris: Fayard.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Weil, P. 2008. Liberté, égalité, discriminations: L’“identité nationale” au regard de l’histoire. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Weil, P., and J. Crowley. 1994. Integration in theory and practice: A comparison of France and Britain. West European Politics 17(2): 110–127.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Wieviorka, M. 2002. Race, culture, and society: The French experience with Muslims. In Muslim Europe or Euro-Islam: Politics, culture, and citizenship in the age of globalization, edited by N. AlSayyad and M. Castells, 131–146. Lanham: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Wihtol de Wenden, C. 2012. Encadré: Tendances récentes des migrations en France. Bulletin Épidémiologique Hebdomadaire, no. 2-3-4: 15–16.

Download references


We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Lily Jacobi for her meticulous editing and bibliographic research.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carolyn Sargent.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sargent, C., Larchanché, S. Disease, Risk, and Contagion: French Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of “African” Bodies. Bioethical Inquiry 11, 455–466 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-014-9578-4

Download citation


  • Immigration
  • Risk group
  • Infectious disease
  • Chronic illness
  • Bioethics
  • Anthropology