Days after Netflix’s latest production Emily in Paris premiered to millions of viewers around the world, a critic described it as a “love letter to American exceptionalism.” In the days that followed, tweeters and digital publications alike echoed the sentiment: the show disrespects French culture, its portrayals of French people are wrong and clichéd, and worst of all, its protagonist displays a supreme American arrogance. YouTubers published videos breaking down the show’s stereotypes ; viewers noted that Emily didn’t bother to learn the language of her new workplace, and one commentator went so far as to call Emily an American “agent of empire” in France.
These discussions, while aptly describing a cultural tendency amongst Americans, leave out a crucial piece of context: American exceptionalism is itself an imperial construct. As such, France, as an imperial nation, cannot be a victim of it. Moreover, Emily in Paris must be critiqued with an eye to French empire itself. After all, the most embarrassing aspect of France is not that its people are seen as uncouth, lazy, mean-spirited and promiscuous. The most inconvenient truth of France is its brutal history of war and empire, violent counterinsurgency, and continued racism against formerly colonised peoples, as well as its state-led repression of Islam at home and abroad.
Frantz Fanon famously described the coloniser’s capital as a “brightly-lit town.” Although Fanon highlighted apartheid within French colonies and not the metropole, his analysis is perhaps more relevant today.
Paris, the City of Light. Which Paris does the show Emily portray? Is it the Paris where police ethnically profile Black and Arab boys and men? The Paris in which hijabi women suffer hate crimes? Or the Paris where Macron has effectively declared war on Muslim communities? On the contrary, Emily constructs a dreamlike Paris where “troubles melt away like lemon drops” — a largely white utopia.
The show’s cast boasts a single Black member, Emily’s coworker Julien. Julien’s character lacks any sort of depth and typifies the standard sassy Black side character, lobbing one-liners and eye rolls at our chipper young protagonist. The topic of race relations in France is not raised once throughout the show, with Julien instead joining forces with Emily’s white co-workers in ostracising her. Her colleagues present a unified French front against the intrusive American. Although Paris is undoubtedly a diverse city, this race-blind nationalist unity rings false in the face of reality.
As a republic, France projects a universalist veneer. However, Black & African people in France describe it as a racist society,  with Paris’ sizable migrant populations largely populating ghettoes. It is worth noting that the show does not have a single North African character. Suffice to say that the show does not quite feel representative of either Paris’ diversity or its racial atmosphere.
France’s egalitarian facade, and the one perpetuated by Emily in Paris, is further belied by the country’s enduring attacks on Islam and the Islamic identity. In the past several months, French President Macron has ordered Muslim leaders in the country to subscribe to “republican values”, openly calling for religious reform and the creation of an “Enlightened Islam.” French police have detained and interrogated Muslim schoolchildren as young as ten years old and announced plans to inspect almost 80 masajid. These are only a few of the attacks that the government has launched against Muslim organisations, families and Islamic practice in the past year.
Yet this repression is nothing new. On the contrary, France’s anti-Islam crusade stems directly from its imperial history. France’s colonisation of Muslim majority lands, deemed a mission civilatrice or “civilising mission”, entailed imposing its secular worldview and practices upon the people in its colonies. As such, France engaged in an all-out war with Islam; its army forcibly converted Algerian mosques into churches and cathedrals and French academics recommended the creation of a “new Islam” which would better suit European sensibilities. In an attempt to “unveil” the Muslim woman, French photographers staged and circulated photos of Algerian women in the nude. It is this historical legacy, rooted in laïcité as a fundamental French value, which explains current attempts to erase expressions of Islam from society. Yet France persists in denying the significance of these actions, with President Macron claiming: “Secularism has never killed anyone”.
But what does Emily in Paris have to do with France’s colonial legacy? The show certainly does not touch on the topic, but this is because the entire series takes place in a city of its own making. In reality, the Paris of today remains grounded in empire.
In critiquing the imperial character of British Victorian novels, Edward Said argues that “[t]he novel is…a concretely historical narrative shaped by the real history of real nations.” He describes how the backdrop of such novels, some of which I fondly remember reading in my teens, reflect the reality of colonialism. The houses, servants, overseas “possessions,” and all other manner of wealth that the characters enjoy are a result of colonial violence. The same can be said of the depiction of Paris in Emily. The romanticism, wealth, and luxury that Paris represents is a direct result of decades of colonial expropriation.
We must note as well the particular brutality of French empire. As Fanon put it in his Letter to the Youth of Africa,
The viciousness of French colonialism, its contempt for international morality, its spectacular barbarousness, reassure the other colonialist countries.
From its torture of nationalists in North Africa to its merciless wars of conquest in Indochina, French imperialism was characterised by atrocities committed upon colonised peoples. Despite the dissolution of formal empire, racism continued to pervade French society and institutions. Emily’s city “filled with love” is the same city that committed crimes against its colonised subjects, continues to profile and surveil segments of its population, and exerts state control over Islamic practice.
So, France was an empire and is shaped by its imperial history, but what does that have to do with Emily’s exceptionalism? In order to answer this, we first have to understand American exceptionalism. Since its inception, the United States has defined itself in contrast to the European empires of the time — one of which the U.S. fought against to gain independence. American exceptionalism was originally coined to contrast the American empire against other Western European empires. From the United States’ settlement of Native lands, to its subsequent colonization of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other territories, the United States maintained a state of denial. The U.S. was not an empire, it insisted. Despite evidence of imperial congruence, the U.S. claimed to be unlike those oppressive and tyrannical Europeans: the British, the French, and the Spaniards.
Later, some American politicians and academics conceded that the U.S. may well be an empire, but held that its imperialism was different: benevolent, liberal, and exceptional. Both strains of thought continue to this day, where politicians, pundits, and populace alike maintain that America’s strand of world domination is unique to other, predominantly European versions.
However, Europeans are by no means the victims of American exceptionalism. The purpose of U.S. exceptionalism was and is to legitimise violence and rule over its non-European colonial holdings. Professing exceptionalism, the United States colonised the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, Samoa, Hawaii, and many other territories. It seized indigenous lands and continues to do so. Claiming anti-colonial and liberal values, it went on to exercise imperial control and violence in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Korea. Claiming to be the harbinger of democracy, the United States invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, and went on to bomb at least seven different Muslim-majority countries in the past two decades. Acting according to a self-imposed mandate, the U.S. maintains over 800 military bases worldwide.
Of course, American claims of opposing European empire are false. Despite claiming exceptional and liberal values, since the colonial era, the U.S. has had no problem utilising the brutal French and British empires for its own military and economic gain. Through the United Nations Security Council, the U.S., along with several former European empires, continues to exercise an unprecedented form of police power over the formerly colonised world. While the United States and France play at being cultural enemies, they work together to loot the Global South. Additionally since 9/11, the U.S. in leading the War on Terror, has actively securitised the discourse around Islamic practices and values, providing the intellectual justification for France’s severe repression today.
Ultimately, the “exceptionalism” discourse that Emily in Paris has spurred amounts to inter-imperial squabbling. However the implications of the current conversation are significant: it sanitises the image of both countries and creates a version of exceptionalism that is essentially harmless. The focus on these imaginary cultural borders further obscures both countries’ shared practice of pathologising and criminalising the Islamic identity.
We do need to discuss American exceptionalism — we need to discuss it in context of the War on Terror and American imperial history. Framing countries like France as the true victims of American exceptionalism detracts from the very real harms that U.S. exceptionalism continues to legitimate against too many people and in too many iterations to name. The two empires disingenuously portray themselves as cultural adversaries, and this time, a united “French people” and “French culture” play victim.
As Muslims, we must recognise the purpose behind the construction of this so-called cultural conflict. We cannot ignore the connections between French imperialism, Islamophobia, and lasting racism, even as they are disregarded by the clueless yet exceptionalist American Emily. A century-old imperial dispute continues to play out, and as usual, the two empires remain the beneficiaries. Emily in Paris is not merely American propaganda, nor is it an anti-French hate crime. It is apologia for empire.
Musabika Nabiha is completing her undergraduate degree in History and Postcolonial Studies at CUNY BA. Her interests include histories and discourses of imperialism, politics, and Islamic studies. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.
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