Miss France and the New Black

Chloe Mortaud’s no Miss Obama, but she’s another potent symbol that blackness is in vogue.

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Blackness is fast moving to the center of the world’s psyche. For proof, look no further than last month’s crowning of a binational and biracial Miss France 2009. Chloe Mortaud’s selection as the face of French beauty and elegance has so few precedents that the French media have named her, perhaps cheaply, “Miss Obama.”

In one symbolic photo circulating on the Web, Mortaud, whose mother is African-American and whose father is French, is being kissed on either cheek by the two runners-up. The image’s symmetry communicates the bleak uniformity of traditional universalizing in French culture. The two runners-up look like pasty twins. Mortaud bursts through with a bit of brown and a confident smile, announcing that multicultural pluralism has arrived.

The photo represents a new vogue that blackness is experiencing around the world. “Black is the new America,” as Pakistani blogger Asad Haider put it. Once a generic signifier of outsideness, the concept of blackness may be slowly changing to represent a much desired centrality.

Although she is a media darling, not everyone is happy about the breakthrough. Marine Beaury, the first attendent to Mortaud’s regional crown, has contested her loss in court. Around the Web, some French commentators have complained that Mortaud is not pretty.

The very discussion of Mortaud’s worthiness represents an advance in the way the French deal with race. The enduring myth of a colorblind France has obscured the relative invisibility of non-white French people in France’s public life. The French government does not keep statistics on race. The official position is that there are no differences among the races—therefore, there is no reason to keep an account of it. That means disparities among racial groups cannot be quantified. However, a trip to an impoverished banlieue (suburb) of Paris or Marseille, where “race riots” in neighborhoods inhabited by large numbers of African and Arab immigrants have made world headlines, shows a qualitative difference.

Thanks in part to the Obama effect, French blacks who have traditionally been divided by designations like Caribbean, African or mixed ancestry, have started to make claims on transnational “blackness,” a feeling of a mutual experience if not shared origin. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said she hoped that the Obama effect would reshape the French elite by incorporating more people of color. (Never mind that it was her husband, who was the minister of the interior during the well-televised riots of 2005, who called the African and Arab youth protesting the death of two children “riff-raffs.”)

The 19-year-old Mortaud embodies the emerging pride and awareness around a global notion of blackness. Other than French and English, Mortaud speaks Spanish and Chinese and studies international business. “I want to incarnate … today’s French diversity,” she said according to the Associated Press.

In a video interview with Men’s Style, Mortaud names Halle Berry, who is also biracial, as an idol. Mortaud also identifies herself as “black,” which is rare in France when speaking about someone who is biracial. Presumably, she learned this from her black American mother, along with a worldview deeply influenced by the African-American experience.

As a true transnational, Mortaud delicately balances her Frenchness with American blackness. In the same interview with Men’s Style, she insists that she likes classical music (as any Miss France must) then quickly affirms her love for hip-hop and the artist Akon.

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