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The Struggle for Racial Equality in the Colourblind French Republic

Trends and Insight 395 Add to collection

Olivier Henry and Wale Gbadamosi-Oyekanmi - two of the rare Black creative leaders of agencies in France - tell LBB’s Alex Reeves about fighting for racial equality when the problem is not acknowledged

The Struggle for Racial Equality in the Colourblind French Republic
Nobody familiar with the French advertising industry will be surprised to hear that it has a race problem. “I've been in this industry for 25 years. And I was always one of the only Black people in my agency,” says Olivier Henry, co-founder and CCO of creative agency La Force. 

As he wrote in a recent post on French trade publication CB News, the non-white representation within the industry in Paris basically goes as far a short list of names that each person can think of off the top of their heads. He made a list like this in his piece, published just days after the killing of George Floyd refocused the world’s attention on racial issues. Wale Gbadamosi-Oyekanmi, founder and president at Dare.Win was named in Olivier’s short list. He can also only name a handful of non-white French advertising leaders. “We all know each other and have all been in contact with one another,” he says.

Olivier and Wale are confident they are the only two of only a handful of Black men leading creative agencies in the country. “There's a lack of representation of Black people in the French industry,” says Wale. “I might be one of the few exceptions. And I don’t have in mind a single Black female CEO of an agency.”

Being a Black man, Wale is chronically aware of the lack of diversity in the French industry. And following the storm of conversations around race following prominent killings in the USA at the start of the summer, he admits that there have been a few ripples of acknowledgement in the Paris ad community, such as Olivier’s op-ed. “It is something that has, a little bit, been addressed by the Black community in France...” But then what he says adds an important layer of nuance to this discussion that’s unique to his country. He goes on: “... which is not really allowed to be called ‘the Black community’ in France.”

That is because of the deep-running principles of the French Republic. Everybody’s heard of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, but the indivisibility of the Republic actually prohibits distinguishing individuals according to their origin, race or religion, as it is enshrined in paragraph one of article one of the French Constitution. All are equal in the eyes of the French state, according to these legal foundations. As Wale puts it: “Men and women, we're all the same. We are children of the Republic. And the Republic is blind to colour, blind to religion and blind to all types of diversity.”

The French political structure is effectively colourblind, the legal manifestation of “I don’t see race”. And one point that has been made very clear in the conversations of recent months is that not seeing race means not seeing the structural problems that racism continues to cause

A big problem, as both Olivier and Wale see it, is that this makes it impossible to find out how many people in France are Black, Asian or from another minority ethnic background. “We don’t know how many Black or Arabic people there are in France,” says Olivier. It is actually illegal to collect data around diversity in France.

The only way to guess at the racial diversity data in France is to extrapolate from the data on foreign nationals. Insee, the National Institute of Statistics, can’t ask about race, but they do ask about where people were born, or where their parents used to live. If someone’s parents were born in Senegal for example, it’s reasonable to guess (within an error margin) that that person is not white, for the purpose of a rough ballpark figure. Having looked at the data, Olivier guesses that maybe France’s population is 10 or 12% Black or Arabic. That’s around six or seven million people. 

Wale, coming from a digital background and immersed in the importance of data from an advertising perspective, sees it very clearly. “If you want to actually solve an issue, you need to be able to face it and see the reality of what the country’s diversity is, and enable people to have this type of discussion. The challenge is that it is a very emotional topic and people connect to that topic based on their own personal experience rather than what the big picture and the reality of it is.”

Racism is a reality, whether race is officially acknowledged or not. As Olivier says, in his estimate France and UK are similar in terms of population (In 2018 about 13.8% of the UK population was from a minority ethnic background.) and similar, he thinks, in terms of the racism that Black people face in both countries, as well as in much of Europe and the USA. “Everything that happened in the USA with George Floyd can happen in France,” he says. He points, as many have, to the case of Adama Traoré, who died on his 24th birthday in July 2016 after an arrest in circumstances that still remain unclear, but who has come to symbolise of a wider cause in France against police brutality, racial injustice and economic inequities that many say disproportionately affect the country’s Black and Arab minorities. 

“We are in exactly the same situation with cops in France,” says Olivier. And for him, the business of advertising is intrinsically linked to this discussion. He remembers seeing P&G’s campaign The Talk, in which Black parents have to go through the ordeal of warning their children of the prejudice they’ll face throughout their lives. “I don’t understand why P&G don’t air that commercial in France. You can hear The Talk in France for the same reasons. As a father, I had to explain to my son that there’s a certain way he has to deal with cops. You are not white, so you’re supposed to say ‘yes, officer’.”

Wale notes that following the renewed momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, people in France have begun to speak more about these issues, but he points out that it took an American television network, BET, to first recognise the relentless anti-racist work that Adama Traoré’s sister Assa had been doing since his death. “Isn't that the weirdest thing? She doesn’t get recognised domestically. She gets recognised by an international Black entertainment network owned by MTV.”

Voices outside of France have been important to Wale in this time as he’s reflected more than usual on the pain of racism. He cites Trevor Noah, the South African host of American late-night talk show The Daily Show, as an important voice for him and reflects on the oddness of that. “It's interesting that for me, as a French man in France, the biggest source of information on that Black Lives Matter topic hasn't been local. It has been international. I think the movement is better structured and the representation of Black thought has come from the US, from someone who's also an African. I think it's very interesting to see how the US remains influential.”

Even specifically to the French advertising industry, the discourse around diversity often takes place overseas. Rosapark, an agency run by three white men, was recently publicly called out by Black advocates from the US-based organisation 600 & Rising for choosing a name suspiciously similar to civil rights activist Rosa Parks. The Havas-owned agency responded saying it was “rethinking” its name, but the conversation remained mostly on English-language social media. “Strangely enough, it didn’t really make a huge shockwave over here,” says Wale.

As someone in the world of branding, Wale knows the responsibility, as well as the opportunity, for brands to engage with societal wrongs like those that the Black Lives Matter movement is taking on. He’d love to be a part of that kind of change in France, if only the problem was acknowledged properly. Again, he looks to the US, where brands like Netflix, who have pledged to divert funds to financial institutions that support Black-run businesses. “There's no way you can actually call yourself a Black business,” he says. “People would say that's racist, which is awkward to me. If you want to solve a problem, you have to acknowledge it. You can’t be colourblind forever.”

Watching the global demands for racial justice increase in volume following acts of police brutality has made this summer, already a difficult one thanks to the worst pandemic in a century, emotionally exhausting, but Wale has found watching the Black Lives Matter movement personally motivating. “It has been an accelerator of my thinking,” he says. “We have more access now than I did when I started. I need to use it in a better way.” 

For more than 50 days now, Wale has been sharing creative, marketing and digital job opportunities with his network on LinkedIn every day, using the hashtag #1day1opportunity. “My network is more diverse than others,” he says. He wants to give people access to those jobs who might not usually be aware of them. “To me, that's a way of pushing people forward and helping them,  empowering them to do better and to have a better opportunity than they have at the moment.”

He’s also keen that the momentum that’s built up this summer continues. “There's something about committing to something in an extensive way. It's not a summer thing. It's not something that should evaporate overnight. It has to be something consistent.”

Commitment to action like this is putting Wale’s influence to good use, but for him and Olivier as Black creative leaders, their existence and work is proof that progress has been made and that there is potential for more progress. Olivier remembers the impact that seeing other Black people in the industry had on him. “When I was young in the industry, there were maybe two or three black creatives,” he says. “It was not like an inspiration. It helped me to realise that it's possible.” Now there are not only two Black creatives, but two Black people leading creative agencies.

Wale agrees. “I do strongly believe that we're in a position where we become role models for other fellow younger creatives, account managers, strategists, whatever the person wants to be.”

Running an agency as respected as Dare.Win is not something Wale feels he has to be falsely humble about. “It's an incredible achievement,” he says. “To have the opportunity to be a role model or a lot of youngsters from different backgrounds. Just the fact that I'm in pictures, have won awards, people see my interviews. That, to me, is not a major step, but it is a step in an ocean of white.”

Beyond suggesting that P&G runs ‘The Talk’ in France, Olivier rattles off a list of advertising ideas in which Black people and other minority ethnic people’s stories are reflected. Why did Nike never do a French version of Nothing Beats a Londoner, representing the diversity of Paris? Why has Peugeot never told the story of how generations of French first and second generation immigrants from North Africa drove all the way through France and Spain to visit their families in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, mostly in Peugeot 504s (“Where is that commercial? It’s a solid story!”) The people of the French West Indies have a deep faith in the Ford brand. “They are proud lovers,” says Olivier. Why did Ford never make a commercial telling that story? 

These are the compelling human insights that brands are missing out on because of the lack of diversity in French advertising, but the anomalies that agencies like Dare.Win and La Force represent have access to them. “If you don't know this, you can't imagine this,” says Olivier. “If you don't have Black people or other minority people working with you, you can't have that in your mind.”

“If we want to be creative and address as many people as we can, we need to be able to understand all types of people,” concludes Wale. And we might not have the data, but it seems indisputable that French advertising would benefit from more agencies like his and Olivier’s.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 12 Aug 2020 14:22:41 GMT