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For instance, "There have always been racists" is "Il y a toujours eu des racistes" NOT "Il y avait toujours des racistes".

Based on what we're taught in French textbooks/classes, the passé composé is for one-time actions (or things completed in the past, even if they lasted a duration), whereas the imparfait is used for continuative actions that don't have a clear end and may continue until now. For instance, "I've been waiting for you for 3 hours!" would be "Je t'attendais depuis 3 heures!" NOT "Je t'ai attendu depuis 3 heures!"

So why is it that when we want to say "There have always been xxx" we need to use the passé composé? I am thoroughly confused!

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  • I agree with Anne Aunyme. I want to add that for the second part of your question, your translation is not exactly correct. If you say "Je t'attendais depuis 3 heures", it means the events is passed ! ie : "You were in a bad mood yesterday when I came" "I had been waiting for you for 3 hours !" Note that if you used pendant instead of depuis, the meaning is the same and you can use passé composé : "Je t'ai attendu pendant 3h". – Teleporting Goat Nov 17 '16 at 9:25
  • To come back to the correct tense, if the person just arrived the sentence would be : "Je t'attends depuis 3 heures !" or "Ça fait 3 heures que je t'attends !" – Teleporting Goat Nov 17 '16 at 9:27
  • @Teleporting Thanks for pointing out my misunderstanding of "I've been waiting for you" -that clears up a lot! – 26rda Nov 17 '16 at 15:05
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Il y avait des racistes.

Means there was racists, suggesting somehow there are no racists anymore today. If you add "toujours" it means there was racists whatever the time period we look at, but not today. That's not what the English sentence means.

In English you are using the present perfect, not the preterit. It should ring a bell when translating it: most of the time present perfect is best translated into passé composé.

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