Why the English word ‘black’ became the new ‘noir’ in France

13 min readMar 19, 2024


Dancer Link Berthomieux says that when French people use the English word “black,” “It’s a trendy way to say ‘noir.’” (Photo: Lea Dasenka)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them.

Have you ever been somewhere where people are speaking a language that you don’t understand, but you can make out a word or two here and there because that language has borrowed words from English? And then you ask about the word — or I do anyway — why it’s there, where are they using it. Don’t you have a word for that in your language? And they say, “Yeah, of course we do. But when we use the English word, it conveys something just slightly different .” Different in meaning, maybe, or in the associations or images it may conjure up. So it’s useful to have that word too. Today, the story of one such word.

Emma Jacobs: The English word, “Black.”

Patrick Cox: And why so many French people use it. This, by the way, is Emma Jacobs who used to live in France.

Emma Jacobs: To give you a sense of how it’s used, I went to ask around at a small film festival called “Le Black Movie Summer.”

Link Berthomeux: “Black” is a word that many French people now use commonly you know. it’s just so common.

Emma Jacobs: Link Berthomeux is a dancer.

Link Berthomeux: I think it’s about culture, a lot about music. Most of the time, it’s just a trendy way to say “noir” in fact.

Katia Terrine: [speaks French]

Emma Jacobs: A trendy way to say “noir,” with associations with African-American music and culture, agrees Katia Terrine. But also:

Katia Terrine: [speaks French]

Emma Jacobs: “Black,” she thinks, can be a bit better perceived than the word “noir.” She described it as less in your face, or less direct. I tend to think of this as kind of like putting the word in quotes when you use the English. Like, ok, it’s a kind of faulty artificial racial category — but you know, “black.”

Patrick Cox: So it’s like you’re not fully owning the word “black.” You’re just recognizing that it’s not a perfect description of what you’re trying to say. Is that it?

Emma Jacobs: Yeah, essentially — or just acknowledging it’s something you may experience as being perceived as black, but sort of questioning it at the same time. I’ll let Jean Beaman explain this a little more. She is a sociology professor at Purdue who studies France, and specially ethnicity and upward mobility among the descendents of North African immigrants. And in the course of a lot of fieldwork, she’s heard a lot of people who, she thinks, they’re avoiding using a term that identifies a person’s race.

Jean Beaman: To say I’m African American, it would be considered impolite. You would just instead say she’s an American woman.

Emma Jacobs: Pointing out differences between people in France — that is not polite. So it struck Beaman all the more when she started interviews for her research back in 2008 to hear people use the word “black.”

Jean Beaman: That’s when I first started hearing it, and I remember directly asking my respondents well why use this term and not use “noir”? Like in other words, why use the English word, “black” and not the French word for black? And it was just people just explained it very matter-of-factly as like, “Oh well it’s considered very rude to use ‘noir.’” “Black” is much more acceptable.

Patrick Cox: Wait a minute. I feel like I got it, and now I don’t get it any more. How did this word get into the vocabulary in the first place?

Emma Jacobs: So, first there’s some history that helps explains why the French don’t like using certain words that to Americans might seem fairly neutral. We’re talking about racial classification that were made by French society in the past. And these enabled really ugly things.

Pap Ndiaye: The French social sciences were based on the existence of races at a time when the colonial empire was thriving.

Emma Jacobs: This is Pap Ndiaye, a historian at Sciences Po, a university in Paris. There’s a ton of racial ideology used to justify and organize the French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and parts of Asia. And then during World War II, the Nazis and the Vichy collaborationists collected ethnic information and of course used it to deport people to concentration camps.

Pap Ndiaye: After the end of the war and the decolonization period, the French believed we all had entered a period during which we live in a colorblind society that skin color or even worse racial differences do not matter or do not exist.

Emma Jacobs: So there are these idealistic good motives that become an early source of the skittishness about differentiating people. Which shows up today in all sorts of different ways. The French government today does not have any line on its census for race — and that’s by law. Basically, for a lot of people it’s the less said about race in France, the better.

But at the same time, the French have always been fascinated by racial issues in the US, where not only do we have racial statistics but this long, long history of confrontations around race relations. And when the word black first comes to France, it’s among an intellectual crowd in the 1960s and 70s. They’re following American news like the Black Power movement. But it’s niche. The word itself doesn’t get much traction. The big development that really establishes “black” in the French vocabulary comes much later with the arrival of American rap and hip hop.

This music gets especially popular early on in poorer areas surrounding Paris that are called the banlieues.

Laurent Dubois: By the 80s, the the banlieue regions have like a lot of, you know, you’ll have North African and African populations that in some places become the majority in certain projects.

Emma Jacobs: Laurent Dubois is a historian at Duke. He says rap and hip hop catches on and inspires a lot of young French artists in these areas.

Laurent Dubois: The major question for a lot of young people in France has to do with basically being targeted by the police — a feeling, in a sense, like an occupied territory in their projects and increasingly in conflict with the police. And since that’s such a common theme also in American hip hop, I think that in some ways the translation moment really becomes that American hip hop has a way of talking about the experience of being a kind of minority population targeted for being black.

Emma Jacobs: Franco Lollia grew up in one of those big, troubled housing projects outside Paris. We talked in a café in Paris where he told me that early on, the first really high-achieving black men he remembers encountering were both African American.

Franco Lollia: Carl Lewis et ensuite Michael Jackson.

Emma Jacobs: Carl Lewis, the 80s Olympic track athlete and, of course, Michael Jackson.

Franco Lollia speaking in French

Diaphara Diallo [translating] They were the two black men who could give me a positive image of what black is supposed to represent.

Emma Jacobs: The woman interpreting for Lollia is his friend Diaphara Diallo. The word “black,” they go on to explain, took on that allure connected with black Americans’ success[es] in sports and music. But simultaneously, Lollia said he and his friends identified more in their own personal lives with other aspects of American culture. Lollia and his friends they also hung out in gangs of young guys from their own neighborhoods.

Franco Lollia speaking in French

Diaphara Diallo [translating]: Okay, so I don’t really want to say what all the bad things that I did, but what I can say was like a confrontation with whatever was a source of authority.

Emma Jacobs: But the reason Lollia brought up the period with me at all was because of the name his gang chose to go by back then.

Franco Lollia: Les black boys.

Emma Jacobs: That was the name of his gang, the Black Boys.

Franco Lollia speaking in French

Diaphara Diallo [translating]: And another group of black guys who were in another town nearby was called B Boys.

Franco Lollia speaking in French

Diaphara Diallo [translating]: It was only through this English word black that we could find a minimum of pride.

Emma Jacobs: Since then, Lollia has come to feel very differently about the use of the word “black,” in France. We’ll come back to that. But to continue our history of how this word went mainstream, back to Laurent Dubois of Duke, who I actually got in touch with because he wrote a book about soccer. It’s called Soccer Empire and is about the wildly successful French national team that won the World Cup in 1998.

Laurent Dubois: The first World Cup victory ever for France. They win at home. They win because of basically black and North African players scoring the goals — Lilian Thuram in the semi-final and Zidane in in the final. You know so suddenly these these figures become massive heroes in society and the slogan that that comes out is to describe the the French team as “Black Blanc beur.”

Emma Jacobs: “Black, blanc, beur” is a play on the stripes on the French flag, which are bleu, blanc rouge, or blue white and red. But then beur — which is a slang term for North African — replaces red, or rouge. So you have “Black blanc beur.” Which you can just make out a fan chanting to the TV cameras in the absolute chaos around the Arc de Triomphe after the 98 final.

Laurent Dubois: I was never able to figure out like you know who first coins it or you know find a journalist or something. It emerges like I don’t know from the culture I guess in a way.

Emma Jacobs: But Dubois points out this is the same time as the rise of the anti-immigrant French right. The far right leader back then Jean Marie Le-Pen questions whether the players know how to sing the national anthem, the Marseillaise. And so the slogan also becomes a way to express support for this exceptionally diverse team that is killing it for France on the soccer field. It also evokes this bigger, idealistic vision of France itself as the coming together of these groups.

Laurent Dubois: “Black blanc beur.” Everyone heard that slogan in France you know. The celebrations for this 1998 World Cup. Everybody says this is like the biggest celebrations since the liberation of Paris. So because of that, I think the term gets really sort of stuck in the imaginary as “Black” is just a way to describe people of African descent in this society in a way that’s positive.

Emma Jacobs: And so it becomes this word that all kinds of people use instead of “noir.” Not just people of color in the banlieues but French people of all different stripes.

Patrick Cox: It’s podcast recommendation time! This week I want to tell you about Plodding Through the Presidents, which tells lesser-known stories about some of the early presidents and founders of the United States and the people around them. And boy, are there stories: Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with wool; the love letters of John Quincy Adams and the surprisingly saucy Warren G. Harding; Winston Churchill’s possibly nude, probably apocryphal, White House encounter with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. There are fabulous episodes on all these– which you’re going to love however much or little, like me, you know about America’s Presidents. Your hosts are Howard and Jessica Dorre. Howard is a history blogger. Jessica has a nice line in irreverence. They know how to tell a well-researched story, and have great guests too. I am working my way through the entire oeuvre of Plodding Through the Presidents and I hope it never ends. Listen and subscribe wherever you’re listening to this.

Emma Jacobs: Today, the hopefulness of that “Black blanc beur” slogan, it’s something people look at with nostalgia but also can almost seem naive to a lot of people. Because in case you haven’t noticed, France had not solved its racial tensions. The change in the 90s and 2000s was a subtle one and everyone’s not suddenly at ease talking about race. Or religion. This is partly because the hostile political environment that inspired that slogan has persisted and arguably hardened. French historian Pap Ndiaye says today can feel a lot like the 90s — before that unifying world cup victory.

Pap Ndiaye: We also live in a political moment when the extreme right and the National Front are very strong.

Emma Jacobs: The National Front, that’s France’s far right party that’s been gaining vote share since the mid-90s.

Pap Ndiaye: There are issues related to identity being raised all the time, national identity. What makes us French and so on and so forth, so that in a way any word or distinction that may imply that French society is dividing along racial lines is often seen as suspect.

Emma Jacobs: But at the same time, there are these problems that follow racial lines. Ndiaye tends to talk about these as shared experiences, of heavy-handed policing, housing and job discrimination.

Pap Ndiaye: In many ways French blacks want to be visible and invisible. They want to be invisible because they don’t want to be subjected to any form of discrimination. They want to be like anyone. They don’t want to be singled out by the police for example in a train station.

Emma Jacobs: But they also want to be visible. They want the issues dealt with that are to do with their being black.

Pap Ndiaye: So it is this kind of minority paradox visibility and invisibility which is at the heart of the use of the word noir sometimes the word black.

Emma Jacobs: Ndiaye isn’t against the word black but he just thinks noir is more “accurate,” more precisely about the French experience. He also points out its use in a positive way by historic cultural movements of French-speaking African and Caribbean intellectuals.

Franco Lollia, who used to be part of the Black Boys who is now in his mid-40s, has come to feel very strongly that he doesn’t like the word “black.” He’s now a social worker and also an anti-racism activist. He says, “black” does conjure up American success , but it also implies that racial inequities are somehow not French.

Franco Lollia speaking in French

Diaphara Diallo [translating]: The perverted effect of using “black” instead of noir is just to erase the racism in France and to pretend that racism is only an Anglophone thing, only an American thing.

Emma Jacobs: That there’s something American or illegitimate about grievances that are felt in France. So far from being academic, language, he thinks really, affects how people identify problems and how easy or difficult it is to mobilize and do something about them. And Jean Beaman the sociologist, says another argument for finding the right language — whatever that is — to talk about what Americans would think of as racial or ethnic identities, is that more recently France has come to over-emphasize religion. Islam, in particular.

Jean Beaman: Islam — everything is just coded as Islam. Anything that’s seen as a threat to French identity or French society is coded in the level of Islam when I think people are really talking about race and ethnicity but are, you know, it’s not polite or not acceptable to do so openly.

Emma Jacobs: Unfortunately, she thinks that conversation about religion has become such a big part of the news cycle and public debate there’s not a lot of energy left right now for tackling other issues.

Beaman pointed out that recently, some young black activists in France have started to use the phrase “Black lives matter.” It was chanted at protests after the death of a young man in police custody this summer. It piggybacked on the American conversation that has gotten a lot of media coverage in France — maybe a help. But it also comes with American baggage. Comparing the French experience with an American situation that at least in the area of police violence, the activists themselves believe is much much worse.

As an example, shortly after the death of the young man outside Paris,someone from his same neighborhood described police in the US to me as shooting black men “like chickens.” He mimed shooting at the ground with his fingers.

This is the complicated thing about taking the US as an inspiration, linguistic and otherwise. It’s simultaneously seen as this place where blacks can be very successful but French people are also very very aware of the problems black Americans deal with.

Jean Beaman: Talking with racial and ethnic minorities there’s very much a sense of a pride in what they consider this sort of American civil rights movement and the trajectory that one could say — or I guess they would say — led from you know Martin Luther King to Barack Obama being our first African-American president. But what’s interesting is that in that they don’t want a sort of American-style identity politics. So I think there’s really a wrestling in French minority communities of, “How do we ever see our version of a French Barack Obama for example without the exact same identity politics that we have in the United States?”

Emma Jacobs: And the question running underneath all this, still to be determined, is what vocabulary should France adopt? Whether it’s “black” or something else, or both. What are the terms going to be that best describe French — not necessarily American — realities but also challenge the French status quo?

Patrick Cox: Emma Jacobs is an audio and multimedia reporter who today is based in Montreal. She’s also a fabulous illustrator too. I’ll post links to her work in the shownotes to this episode. Since she reported this story in 2017 you could say a lot has changed, and nothing has. After the Black Lives Matter movement went global, French soccer players took the knee. But unlike, say, the English national soccer team, the French team was divided about the gesture — and after a couple of years, they abandoned it. And the French ultra right National Front party is becoming ever-more popular with voters. The party is polling strongly ahead of European elections this summer. The next Presidential election will be in 2027. Through all this. the word “black” in France remains popular.

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