In France, criticism grows on American-inspired activism on race and gender

PARIS – Prominent French politicians and intellectuals say the country faces a growing threat: American-style militant movements that are forcing American multiculturalism and gender politics in France.

In recent months, President Emmanuel Macron, government ministers and other prominent figures have said activism on a range of issues – from non-sexist language to the condemnation of French historical figures for racism and sexism – is threatening to divide the republic along race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

This, they say, contradicts France’s republican ideals, which call on citizens to subordinate these group identities to the country’s universalist values ​​of “freedom, equality and fraternity.”

To characterize the alleged threat, some have adopted the English term “woke”. Invented in the United States to describe an increased awareness of racism and other prejudices, it has become a shorthand for a worldview that puts identity politics at the forefront in the fight against injustice and inequality.

As such, the term has been used as an epithet in the United States, and now in France, by those who challenge this dogmatic view.

“We have to look at what weakens democracy, weakens the republic,” said Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French Minister of Education. “Woke-ism, that’s clearly it. “

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said “woke-ism” threatened to weaken democracy.


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Controversy erupted last month after Le Robert, a dictionary publisher, included an entry for “iel”, a neutral pronoun that merges “he” and “she”, the French words for “he” and “she” . The pronoun is intended to counter a flaw in the masculine gender in French and to accommodate those who do not want to specify a gender. The decision came amid a heated debate over whether such writing should be allowed in official documents.

“I see the first step, or the stigma, of woke-ism,” said François Jolivet, a deputy from Mr. Macron’s party. “When you look at what’s going on in the United States, you can’t think that new freedoms have come with the advent of inclusive writing.”

French minority groups, activists and some leftist politicians and intellectuals call such criticism an attempt to discredit the fight against the prejudices that remain prevalent in French society. Many of them reject the label “awake” or do not know what it means, like most French people, according to the polls.

“For me, it’s a term used to stigmatize people who fight for equal rights,” said Delphine Ravisé-Girard, president of the National Association of transgender people in France. “Our fight is not awake-ism. It’s humanism.

The debate reflects the impact that American protest movements on race and gender have had in France, drawing criticism from some politicians and intellectuals. The #MeToo movement sparked public introspection as to whether French sexual mores were too permissive in the face of unwanted advances from men. In response, Mr Macron’s government proposed a new law to the legislature that criminalizes chat calls and other forms of public sexual comments.

The Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd led to large protests in Paris in 2020 against police violence and discrimination. Mr Macron and his associates felt that the protesters were wrongly drawing parallels between the history of slavery and state-sanctioned racism in the United States and what they saw as the less calamitous racial history of France, said a former colleague of Mr. Macron.

Earlier this year, it emerged that UNEF, France’s largest student union, was holding meetings that were not open to white students, where minorities were invited to discuss their experiences with discrimination. This sparked an uproar from Mr Macron’s government.

UNEF President Mélanie Luce said the meetings, which began in 2016 and are continuing, aim to put French minorities at ease when discussing the discrimination they face.

Large Black Lives Matter protests took place in Paris in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, with protesters condemning police violence and discrimination.


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UNEF, France’s largest student union, held a series of meetings that were not open to white students, where minority students were invited to discuss their experiences with discrimination.


Vincent Isore / ip3 / Zuma Press

“If we ask people living with discrimination to speak out freely in front of everyone, it doesn’t work,” said Ms. Luce. “At UNEF, we are clear that white racism, or reverse racism, cannot be equated with the racism suffered by Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Blacks.

During the 2020 protests, some activists called on France to remove the names of people linked to the slave trade from statues and public buildings. They were targeting Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who in the 17th century helped draft the Code Noir, which detailed the brutal punishments that could be inflicted on people enslaved in French colonies. A statue of Colbert stands in front of the National Assembly. French leaders rejected the idea.

“We must do historical and memorial work which does not consist in erasing what we are but in completing our history, with new statues, new street names,” said Mr. Macron.

Mr Blanquer launched a think tank in October, called the Laboratoire de la République, which aims to counter what he says is a series of threats to France’s republican values, according to chief executive Eric Clairefond. These concerns include Islamist political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood that are active in Europe, as well as social justice campaigns emanating from the United States. These movements, he said, aim to encourage the French to identify themselves as members of a racial or religious group rather than as French citizens.

Mr Clairefond said the think tank plans to first analyze how US-born ideas to tackle discrimination have influenced France.

“This does not call into question for a single minute the necessary battle against discrimination and inequality,” he declared. “We are mobilizing against the excesses, the excesses of a legitimate fight.

Some French commentators say a review of racism in France is long overdue. The law broadly prohibits French authorities from collecting statistics on race, ethnicity or religion, a policy aimed at treating all citizens equally. But academics, activists and people of color say this leaves the government blind to widespread and de facto discrimination against black and Muslim communities in France.

Lawmaker François Jolivet has criticized an effort to make the French language more inclusive and said some public discussions about racial hierarchies can be harmful.


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French authorities have started to explore the problem. A study supported by the French Ministry of Labor and published last month found that job applicants with a North African last name were 31% less likely than those with a white French last name and identifying information. equivalent to be recalled.

“Hiring discrimination based on presumed origins remains high and a major element of the labor market in France,” the ministry said.

Elisabeth Moreno, Minister for Gender Equality and Equal Opportunities under Mr Macron, echoed the sentiment of many French minorities when she said on French television: “Obviously, there is a white privilege.

She returned to her remarks a few weeks later, following criticism within her party, La République en Marche, which Mr. Macron founded. Mr Jolivet and others have said that such a public debate about racial hierarchies is harmful. “I regret that I used the phrase. It’s from the United States, ”she said.

The debate in France on inclusive writing has been brewing for years. Le Robert decided to include “iel” after observing that its use, although still relatively rare, has grown rapidly in recent months on the basis of statistical analyzes of a large number of texts. “It seemed useful to us to specify the meaning for those who cross it, and would like to use it or on the contrary reject it”, declared the editor.

Mr Jolivet, the French lawmaker, and other critics of the ruling have requested comments on “iel” from the Académie Française, which in France is considered the official arbiter of the French language. The academy, whose 40 members call themselves the Immortals and receive lifetime nominations, plans to make an announcement soon, a spokeswoman said, after performing “lexicographical and grammatical research.”

But the academy has already taken a dim view of inclusive writing, arguing that it would undermine the fight for gender equality. Among other changes, inclusive writing allows male and female versions of French words to be pasted with a period, for example, “Françaises” to denote a group of French men and women. The traditional use calls for the masculine form “French”.

“By advocating immediate and comprehensive spelling reform,” the academy said in May, “proponents of inclusive writing are violating the rhythms of language development under a brutal, arbitrary and uncoordinated injunction.”

The Institut de France in Paris is home to the Académie française, official arbiter of the French language in France and which must influence the use of a neutral pronoun.


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Write to Matthew Dalton at [email protected]

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