I was planning on submitting something different today, but with the recent mention of Les Mis and the French Revolution, this seemed more timely.
There were many black people in France around the time of the French Revolution—in fact, a census was taken a little earlier, in 1777-1778, counting the black population. The number reported in 1782 was 4-5 thousand, which admittedly was a small fraction of France’s population of 26 million. Whatever the case, there were many black people all throughout France. From The Negro in France:
These reports from the intendants were made out by city and town, so that it is possible to ascertain with relative precision the geographical distribution of Negroes in France. As already stated, they were most densely settled at Paris, and after it in the seaports, especially those of the west coast, like Bordeaux and Nantes. Yet even in the mountains of Burgundy and the Pyrenees were to be found a few stragglers.
These people came in all social groups. Although France supposedly did not permit slavery at the time, slaveowners from the Caribbean colonies were allowed to bring their slaves with them, or send them to France for training. (Though even the slaves were not without their options: a few successfully sued for their freedom, as in the 1762 case Lestaing vs Hutteau; some were manumitted; some escaped and could not be caught.) Many were poor, though some were rich, such as the wealthy free people of color in the colonies, who would visit France. Quoth Africa in Europe:
[A] man of color named Carstaing was elected to the National Convention from a constituency in metropolitan France in December 1793 to replace another deputy who had been executed. Of note, Carstaing was married to the comtesse Françoise de Beauharnais, the daughter of Claude de Beauharnais, comte des Roches-Baritaud and Anne-Maried Mouchard. Through the first marriage of Carstaing’s wife to comte François de Beauharnais, she was the sister-in-law of Alexandre François Marie, vicomte de Beauharnais, who had fought both during the American and French Revolutions as well as the first husband of Joséphine de Beauharnais, who later married Napoleon Bonaparte and, as a consequence, became the Empress of the French in 1804. Hortense de Beauharnais, who was the half-sister of Carstaing’s wife, was also the mother of France’s Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who after becoming the President of the first President [sic] of the French Republic in 1848 became Emperor Napoleon III of the French in 1852.
There were many servants of French aristocrats and nobles, who through their service could have good food, fancy clothes, even an education. The above is a portrait of Louis-Benoit Zamor, who as a child was kidnapped and sold to Louis XV, who gave him to his mistress, Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry. Zamor was educated and well-read, enjoying the works of Rousseau. During the Revolution he joined the Jacobins and worked for the Committee of Public Safety, where he helped to have the Comtesse du Barry arrested, tried, and executed. At the trial, he stated he was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, though the Comtesse was always under the impression he was African.
Afterward, he was arrested by one of the other factions of the Revolution for a few weeks, and after some friends got him released, he appears to have left France for some years. In 1815 he owned a house in Paris and was working as a teacher before his death in 1820.
None of this should be taken to mean that there was no racism in France, of course. In fact, the above-mentioned census was taken because of the 1777 Déclaration pour la police des noirs, which stated
that Negroes had become too numerous in French cities, and especially in Paris, that they were “the cause of the greatest disorders,” and that they returned to the colonies with a “spirit of independence and insubordination” that rendered them “more harmful than useful.” It was therefore provided that thenceforth no “Negroes, mulattoes, or other men of color” might be taken into France, whether male or female, free or slave, on penalty of a fine of 3,000 livres” (The Negro in France, p. 49).
The law required all blacks and people of color, whether free or slave, to register with an office of the Admiralty. Those with prior residence could stay in the country, but they were forbidden from marrying whites. In addition, they were ordered to carry cartouche or identification papers. (Chatman, “‘There Are No Slaves in France’: A Re-Examination of Slave Laws in Eighteenth Century France”, pp. 148-9)