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

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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.

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

  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. 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. 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. 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.


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

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Correspondence to Carolyn Sargent.

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Sargent, C., Larchanché, S. Disease, Risk, and Contagion: French Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of “African” Bodies. Bioethical Inquiry 11, 455–466 (2014).

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