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Au Milieu

Tolerance and Rokhaya Diallo: How the veil and race have again divided France

Anti-racism activist Rokhaya Diallo/Wikimedia

During the era of Trump, many of my friends on the left have seen my escape to France as a flight to a kind of progressive utopia. In many respects, that is true. But when it comes to the area of religion and race, France’s attitudes continue to prove a challenge to progressives like me who hail from the States. And in my case, not just the States, but the far-left outpost of the People’s Republic of California. When race and religion become intertwined, it seems nearly impossible to see how a country can finally escape its past and move finally and definitively into a new era of tolerance and understanding. On a grand scale, this is the promise of the presidential era of Emmanuel Macron: A setting aside of old thinking that left France unable to leap into the future. But moving past platitudes to actual policy and practice is difficult, as his young government is learning as the events of the past week unfolded.

On the surface, so much of the two country’s histories seem to share common groundings. The ideas of the Enlightment. Revolution. Democracy. Freedom. A separation of church and state. But there is an important nuance within the meaning of the latter that creates a massive disconnect with American progressives. In the United States, we have freedom of religion. In France, there is freedom from religion. Between those two prepositions lies an almost unbridgeable chasm of moral philosophy. The American government is not supposed to make any law targeting religion. In France, the government banned the wearing of religious symbols in schools in 2004, and the wearing of face coverings a few years later. While broad, the ban was largely seen as targeting the veil some Muslim women wear to cover their faces in modesty. Outside of France, those laws were seen as anti-Muslim among progressives.

When it comes to matters of race, however, the problem for an expat is that we want to believe that a country like France has already developed a greater tolerance thanks to stories over the years of African-American artists or soldiers who came to Paris and found themselves escaping the burden of America’s racist culture. But that, too, is more complex thanks to the country’s colonial legacy and its fears about immigration that stokes ongoing debates about what it means to be French.

The tensions of race and religion flared again at the beginning of the week when France’s digital minister Mounir Mahjoubi named the new president of a digital advisory council and its 30 new members. Among the new members was Rokhaya Diallo, a well-known anti-racism activist. Her inclusion ignited a controversy, particularly among conservatives. Those criticisms led Mahjoubi to remove her from the council, a decision that fueled an even larger backlash.

Diallo’s many sins in the view of conservatives: She once said the veil could be seen as a mark of femininity. And she dared to accuse France of “state racism.”

Certainly Muslim head coverings pose a challenge to anyone who holds progressive views. Personally, I’d agree that requiring women anywhere to cover their faces or heads for any reason, particularly religious ones, seems antiquated and anti-feminist. The question then becomes whether to make that point by persuasion, or by force of law. The U.S. was a country founded in part by religious fanatics fleeing persecution to find a place where they were free to practice their faith. In France, where the separation of church and state is known as laïcité, the revolution was about overthrowing the suffocating presence of the church as much as it was about crushing the monarchy.

That idea that people need to be protected from religion continues to hold true in present day France, where the fight against the veil and other head coverings is rationalized as a pro-feminist fight, a fight of liberation. But it’s also a fight that makes for strange alliances that can leave someone from the United States scratching their head. When the controversy over some Muslim women wearing the burkini reared its head last summer, the mayors of the French towns that banned the full-body swimsuits were suddenly the darlings of the right-wing Fox News. It might have been the first time anyone on Fox News said anything nice about France since the news channel first started broadcasting.

Likewise, back in the spring, I was in Paris helping to cover the presidential elections. My job was to stake out the party for the far-right National Front’s Marine LePen, the virulent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant candidate who would suffer a sizable defeat that night. Among those coming out of the party late that evening was a well-known Lebanese feminist who had come to Paris that night to show her support for LePen. In explaining her support, she praised LePen for being so fierce in her criticism of Muslim head coverings, and for refusing to wear any when visiting the Middle East, even when others might do so for diplomatic niceties. “She is a hero to me, and to many Muslim women,” this activist said, despite the fact that LePen would prefer all Muslims be barred from every entering France.

More recently we were at a friend’s house for a small soirée, chatting with old and new friends. At some point the conversation turned to Macron, and politics, and then somehow veered into immigration. One of the attendees, well-educated, white collar, fluent in English, explained that he felt Muslims immigrants were making the situation worse because they were more and choosing to wear various head coverings and Islamic garb in public.

“It’s like a provocation,” he said. “They’re throwing it in our faces.”

“Well, isn’t possible this is all a good sign?” I replied. “Maybe it’s good that Muslims feel more comfortable expressing their religion in public.”

He wasn’t convinced.

When it comes to France’s colonial past, most American’s naturally think of Vietnam. So it was a revelation for me when my son had to read a rather well-known French novel last year called, “Cannibale” written by Didier Daeninckx and originally published in 1999. The novel gives a fictionalized account of the 1931 grand colonial exposition held in Paris, in which government sought to convince itself and the French people of the importantance of its sprawling colonial empire by constructing a human zoo and putting natives from colony on display.

France was far from being the only colonial power in Europe at this type to organize such human zoos to celebrate the “civilizing” influence of their occupation of foreign lands. In “Canibale,” the author tells the story of a group of men and women, known as the “Kanaks”, who are sent to Paris from their homes in New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie), an island nation halfway between Australia and the Fiji Islands. Based apparently on real events, the story recounts how the exhibition organizers traded some of the Kanaks to a German zoon in exchange for alligators after their own alligators died. Not understanding what happened to their friends, some of the Kanaks escape and going looking for their friends across Paris.

I had never heard of New Caledonia, nor the Kanaks, before reading the book with my son. So that set us down the trail to better understand the extent of France’s colonial reach, history, and eventual decolonization. Next to the fight to keep Vietnam in the 1950s, the brutal Algerian War for Independence is probably France’s other most well-known misadventure. For all this, number of former colonies that still remain part of France in some ways, a system known here as “Outre-mer”, was still surprising.

As in some many other areas of social, political, and economic life in France, Macron promised that he would be the guy who could help the country turn the page on its past. One of his most daring and controversial moves after emerging as the front-runner last spring was to visit Algeria and declare that France’s colonial history had been a “crime against humanity”. He added: “It’s really barbaric and is part of that past that we must face up to also by apologizing to those who were hurt,” he said. Last month, during a visit to Africa, he again insisted he wanted a new relationship with the continent, particularly its many French-speaking countries: “I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do,” Macron said at a university. “I am from a generation for whom Nelson Mandela’s victory is one of the best political memories.”

But those pages are proving difficult to turn, both abroad and at home.

Since the elections, the topics of race and religion hadn’t gotten too much attention until recent weeks. In November, Macron’s education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, stood before the National Assembly and denounced an education union that had decided to include discussions of “racisme d’Etat” or “state racism” in some schools. He promise to file a formal complaint against the union drew a standing ovation from an Assembly dominated by Macron’s En Marche party.

“Racisme d’Etat” is a term used by the left in France, including Diallo, to critique the government’s record on race relations. Indeed, Diallo waded into the debate by daring Blanquer to file a complaint against her for using the term. “I invite [Jean-Michel Blanquer] to file a complaint against me. I spoke last week at the United Nations to denounce state racism,” she said in an interview. “We live in a country where there are 12 to 15 people who die in the hands of police officers each year and 90% are young men of North African origin, black, from working-class neighborhoods.”

Just two weeks later, Mahjoubi, 33 and of Moroccan descent, finally made an announcement regarding the Conseil national du numérique, a board of volunteers intended to offer his ministry advice. Mahjoubi had been chairman of the council when François Hollande was president, but later left to become a digital advisor to the campaign of Macron. The council had been largely dormant since Mahjoubi took office last May. But this week he revived it by announcing as expected that he had appointed Marie Ekeland is its new chair.

Ekeland is one of most well-known names in France’s technology scene. As a venture capitalist last decade, she backed Criteo, which has gone on to become one of the country’s biggest startup successes. She was for a time the co-president of France Digitale, an advocacy organization for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. And last year, she co-founded an innovative new European venture capital firm named Daphni. Indeed, there was even some chatter after the election that Ekeland might be a candidate to be Macron’s digital minister.

Along with the announcement of Ekeland came the revelation of the 30 members of the council, divided equally among people representing economic interests, academia, and civil society. Diallo was among those in the civil society group, along with a rapper named Axiom who has also been a strong social justice activist. During a press conference, according to the tech blog Maddyness, Mahjoubi emphasized the independence of the council, and noted that Ekeland had proposed the members to the government, rather than the other way around. “Independence of thought was a key condition of the composition of this council,” Ekeland is quoted as saying by Maddyness. Mahjoubi said, likewise, the new council would be “hyper independent but hyper influential.” Further, he said, “The council must be able to tell us when we do something stupid, but it also must be able to point us in the directions in which we should be looking.”

Such warm fuzzies did not last long. Valérie Boyer, a member of the conservative Republican party, issued a scorching statement condemning the hypocrisy of the Macron government. Just a few weeks ago, Macron had announced that creating greater equality between men and women would be one of his “grand projects.” Boyer wanted to know how that could be squared with the appointment of someone like Diallo, who once said the veil could be considered a “mark of femininity”. And how could Blanquer’s denunciation of “state racism” be reconciled with the choice of a woman who used the same phrase.

As for Axiom, who is Jewish, well, he once referred to French police as “pigs” for their treatment of Jews. In all, these seems like pretty mundane stuff in terms of critiques, though easy fodder for anyone looking to score some political points and stoke some cultural backlash.

Maybe this would have faded, or maybe it would have continued to boil. But in any case, Mahjoubi made a decision a couple of days later that was intended to snuff it out, and instead poured kerosene on the whole thing. He asked Ekeland to “review” her list of nominees. Though he doesn’t seem to have explicitly banned Diallo and Axiom, they were clearly the targets of his public statement: “The council needs serenity to work and the last exchanges over its composition make it clear that these conditions are not in place.”

Perhaps even stranger, over the weekend a spokesman Macron’s En Marche party, Aurore Bergé, appeared on TV to defend the exclusion of Diallo: “Someone who speaks of racism of the state doesn’t have a place in a state body.”

And so began an even bigger backlash, as is so often the case. One that carried the issue outside of France’s borders to the U.S. This hits progressive particularly because part of the conventional wisdom about early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement include stories from African-American soldiers who served in France in World War II and came back to the U.S. with that sense of liberty. Indeed, the new Netflix film “Mudbound” uses this as part of its premise. One African-American soldiers returns to Mississipi after the war says: “Over there I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering. And here I’m just another nigger pushing a plough.” We want to believe that France has figured out that which we have not been able to resolve in our own country.

Crystal Marie Fleming, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, has long sought break the myths surround France and race. Just this year, Temple University Press published her new book: “Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France”. “The relegating of racism, slavery, and colonialism to the dustbin of an unspoken history explains…the difficulty the French have with acknowledging the social realities of racial inequality and oppression today,” she writes in the introduction. For Fleming, the treatment of Diallo by critics and the Macron government are just the latest evidence of this disconnect, as she noted on Twitter:

As the controversy unfolded, Diallo became the target of racist insults online for several days, something she noted was ironic, given that she spent part of the week speaking in Cairo at a United Nations summit about hate speech on the internet.

“I want to thank you for your warm support that suits me straight to the heart. Ironically, I returned from Cairo where I was invited by the United Nations to address hate on the Internet, a subject perfectly illustrated by recent events. Thanks again for the strength.”

Diallo certainly hasn’t backed down or shied away from the debate over her views. Naturally, conservatives want to turn her into a caricature, but she’s hardly someone we’d recognize as a radical or extremist. Diallo is a journalist, a TV show host, an author, quite knowledgeable about internet issues, and yes, an activist. In other words, eminently qualified to be an advisory voice. As such, she’s called out her opponents for saying someone who criticizes the government or the country shouldn’t be appointed to government positions.

“So I do not have the right to collaborate with institutions in my own country because I dare say publicly that they are imperfect? What a strange understanding of democracy.”

She even re-affirmed her thoughts on the veil by retweeting this week a video on Twitter that calls on the French to rethink their views on the matter. She retweeted another earlier in the week thanking her for taking a strong position on the issue:

Indeed, there’s been a groundswell of support for her and Axiom on Twitter. Someone even started a Change.org petition to convince Mahjoubi and Ekeland to keep them on the council.

The controversy came to a head this week when Ekeland announced she was stepping down as president rather submit a new list of names to Mounir. In a public letter under the heading “Tomorrow is another day”, Ekeland defended her choices for the council, and the idea that it needed to be an independent and inclusive body. “Coming from the world of startups, I had naturally conceived it as disruptive, ambitious and innovative,” she wrote. “I was shocked by the caricatures to which Rokhaya Diallo and Axiom were reduced: They have nothing to do with who they really are. I will continue, in different ways, and with those who wish, to work to think of a tomorrow that is, for everyone, just, sustainable and happy.” Her resignation set off a cascade in which at least 25 of the other 30 people nominated to the council followed suit.

Her departure places Macron in an awkward spot. The man who wants France to put the past behind it, to turn the page, to be a startup nation, would seem to have found the perfect ambassador for those messages in the future-facing Ekeland. He has sought to jolt the country into the future by composing a government of people from both the right and left. For an insurgent candidate to have members of his government saying it doesn’t want people who rock the boat, that indeed some dialogue remains taboo, is going to be disappointment and divisive message for the country’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem were elated by his victory.

Despite those hopes and expectations, France’s feelings about the veil and race will likely continue to divide it. Rather than building a new future, the government managed to touch some exceedingly raw nerves that are nowhere near to healing.

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Chris O'Brien

Chris O'Brien

Business and Technology Reporter living in Toulouse, France. Silicon Valley refugee.