Racism Unfiltered in France

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JEAN AYISSI / AFP / GETTY

French comedian Dieudonne performs in Paris in October.

If the problem of racism in American discourse is typified by the N-word outburst of comedian Michael Richards followed by his abject apology, the French variant is altogether more toxic. The latest outrage came from second-string TV personality and self-appointed social commentator Pascal Sevran, whose recently published book included the obscenely racist idea that the "black [penis] is responsible for famine in Africa." Elaborating in a newspaper interview, Sevran said, "Africa is dying from all the children born there" to parents supposedly too sexually undisciplined or dumb to realize they could not feed them all. The answer to the problem? "We need sterilize half the planet," Sevran emphatically replied. Known as an relentless attention-seeker, the defiant Sevran drew only limited fire for his comments, and a public rebuke from his public television employer — though not the cancellation of his Sunday program that many demanded. Appalled at the light punishment, the government of Niger (itself a victim of recent famines) announced it would file libel charges against Sevran in French courts.

Sevran's prurient opinions are but the latest addition to the growing racist chatter in the French mainstream. A month earlier, a Socialist political kingpin in the Montpellier region sparked fury — and possible expulsion from the party — by lamenting that France's national soccer team fielded "9 blacks out of 11" starting players. "I'm ashamed of this country," in which "the whites are lousy," he groused, and would soon be fielding teams "where all 11 players are black." That echoed a comment a year earlier by philosopher Alain Finkelkraut, who — seeking to explain the 2005 rioting by youths descended from immigrants in France's suburbs — made allusion to France's "white-black-Arab" soccer side that won the 1998 World Cup and became an icon of French social integration. " Today, [the team is] black-black-black, and it's the laughingstock of Europe," Finkelkraut complained.

Even some black Frenchmen have joined the bigoted chorus: In November, the black comic known as Dieudonné made a conspicuous appearance at the annual congress of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party — much to the pleasure of extreme-rightists looking to lose their racist stigma without changing their xenophobic positions. For the last two years, the self-described leftist Dieudonné had outdone even Le Pen in Jew-baiting, delivering a series of brazenly anti-Semitic remarks, belittling the Holocaust and depicting Jews as racist persecutors of blacks and Arabs. Though that earned him general condemnation, Dieudonné's high-profile fraternizing with a party treated as a pariah by most French minorities and voters indicated that he, too, was looking for a more effective manner to promote his divisive positions. His flirtation with Le Pen found support from Ahmed Moualek, a blogger and influential voice from France's blighted suburban housing projects who said he'd rather debate with "an intelligent racist than with a stupid anti-racist," noting that while Le Pen's "language can at times shock people, he's an honest man."

The rising torrent of racist language and publicly expressed racist attitudes may be a sign less that racism is spreading, than that the boundaries of mainstream tolerance are changing. As in the U.S., France has seen an increase in provocative shock content in entertainment and commentary, whether for comic effect or political impact. Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy drew protests when he used a racially loaded term to denounce young men rioting in the suburbs last year — an outcry that also coincided with his jump in polls. The street patois of those ethnically diverse projects, meanwhile, has also long contained its own racially aggressive "shock" element, with the rejoinder "ta race" (your race) a kind of generic, all-purpose slight. Clearly, the political "filter" in the U.S. public square that prompts a Michael Richards or a Mel Gibson to grovel apologetically following publicly recorded racial insults is considerably less developed in France. Indeed, last year's riots were a stark reminder of how poorly France has done in integrating its diversity, remaining locked in an officially "color-blind" national ideology that often simply avoids confronting the problems of racial inequality. France counts no blacks or Arabs as members of parliament, and its corporate boardrooms don't fare much better.

France rejects affirmative action as incompatible with its republican ideals of color-blind equality for all citizens. Nice in theory, but that's not working in practice: discrimination continues, inequality is rife, and notions of color-blindness don't square with the rising chorus of racially loaded commentary. Color-blindness may also function to keep France blind to racial discrimination and inequality, but the rising tide of anger in the projects and racist chatter in the mainstream suggests that the French may soon have no choice but to openly confront what color-blindness prefers not to see.