Rachel Khan is a 45-year-old writer and actress, half-Gambian, half-Polish Jew born and educated in France, who was appointed by the mayor of Paris to be co-director of a cultural center called La Place, or The Place, dedicated to hip-hop music in France. Then she became a target of the wrath of “le wokisme,” French version.
Khan, who was already well-known as a dissenter from the identity-politics orthodoxy on race and victimisation, published a slim volume titled Racée — meaning racy, daring, but also a play on words — in which she lampooned the politically correct idea that to be authentically black meant that she had to incarnate a “woke” ideology.
“It’s supposedly anti-racism, but in fact it’s dogma,” she told me in Paris in November. “A black actress is supposed to be anti-colonialist. But just as I’m not obliged as a black actress to play a cleaning lady or a prostitute, I’m also not obliged as a black person to be ‘anti-colonial.’”
For her pains Khan was attacked on social media and elsewhere, called a traitor to her race. Early in November, some 50 journalists, producers, bloggers and artists circulated a petition demanding that she be fired from her position at The Place, on the grounds that her ideas are “unacceptable and divisive, validated by the most reactionary fringe of the French media and far-right politicians.”
This attack prompted a rejoinder from France’s minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who tweeted, “Our friend @KhanNRachel suffers from permanent harassment.”
As Blanquer’s rejoinder shows, Khan has her supporters in France, where she has become something of a media darling, turned to when an anti-woke voice is needed. Still, her book, the attacks on her, and the defense of her from the high reaches of the French government all show that “le wokisme” has become a hot topic in France, around which the debate sometimes reaches a fever pitch.
“Woke activism, which has wreaked havoc in the U.S., has disembarked on our shores,” French journalist Brice Couturier said on French radio while promoting his new book, OK, Millennials! Puritanism, Victimization, Identity Politics, and Censorship: A Baby Boomer’s Investigation Into the Myths of a Woke Generation. “An intense intellectual battle has just begun.”
But why now, and why in a country like France, with its very different history from the United States? For that matter, why has wokeism taken hold in other European countries, where the radical movement seems in many ways to be an imitation of its American counterpart?
In France, there’s an oft-noted irony within the answer. Despite vocabulary that seems appropriated from American academia, the main concepts originated with a group of leftist French academics in the 1960s and 1970s, who became the rage in many American universities and whose ideas, though simplified and sometimes caricatured, have been enthusiastically reimported into France.
The most influential figure was Michel Foucault, the psychologist and philosopher whose lifelong sympathy for marginalised groups and oppressed people led him to a sustained reflection on the dominating and exploitative nature of power, including its ability to define what is supposedly normal — as opposed to what it considers abnormal or sick.
In matters such as gay rights and equality for women, Foucault-like sympathy for the marginalised feels the same on both sides of the Atlantic. But American wokeness is most powerfully concentrated on a question of race that seems unique to America.
Centuries ago, Europe may have engaged in the slave trade, but no European country has anything comparable to the history of American slavery, no decades of Jim Crow, no Ku Klux Klan, no lynchings or legal segregation of the sort that afflicted black America, and also no civil rights movement, no Martin Luther King Jr., and no George Floyd killed in Minnesota.
And yet, the vocabulary of critical race theory, with terms like le racism systematique, le privilège blanc, microaggression, even le fragilité blanc, has taken hold in France like an invasive species.
Part of the answer seems to be the contagious global appeal of a doctrine explaining complicated questions, holding the same attraction for French academics, students, and others as for their American counterparts.
The appeal is especially strong for a younger generation impatient and dissatisfied with the more moderate views of traditional liberalism — or, in France, the traditional left, even if it was the same enlightened left that fought against colonialism, against anti-Semitism, against the powerful, conservative Catholic Church, as well as for choice on abortion, equal access to education, and France’s extensive social safety net.
Then there’s the matter of demographic change. Britain, Germany, and France have substantially increased their minority populations through high immigration and higher birth rates among non-whites. This has generated two conflicting reactions.
One is the increased strength and appeal of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, in France represented most conspicuously these days by a former television personality, Eric Zemmour, who to his detractors looms as a French Trump.
Attuned to anti-Muslim bias
On the other side there’s a young new left, fearful and alienated from figures like Zemmour, attuned to anti-immigrant (and especially anti-Muslim) prejudice, which, in their view of things, is roughly equivalent to anti-black prejudice in America.
“It’s an excessive reaction to a real problem,” Pierre Haski, a French journalist and radio commentator, said in an interview in Paris. “All of these issues, racism, etc, have been discussed for a long time, but the conversation has become brutal.”
Haski speaks of a generational difference. Young French blacks, born and educated in the country, feel completely French, he said, equal to their white French counterparts, who often sympathise with them, and are not hesitant to make demands on French society that their elders and previous generations of immigrants were hesitant to make. “The young generation is completely invested in this question,” Haski said.
One striking difference with the US, however, is that many of France’s most prominent public intellectuals have taken positions against the phenomenon, which may render it less potent than its American version.
In France, for example, woke activists are not proposing to eliminate entrance exams to high schools and universities, or mandating racial sensitivity training in major corporations. At least not yet.
Still, there are plenty of “woke” eruptions and a sense that a radical ideology, based on the ideas of systemic racism, guilt over colonialism, and white privilege, is making headway in the media, in schools, and especially in the minds of young people.
“The schools are infected by ideology,” one teacher, Fatiha Agag-Bourdjahlat, told the French daily Le Figaro. “They advance it behind masks, using their classes and their authority as teachers to do propaganda under cover of generosity and respect for ‘diversity.’
Adding to that, there have been enough incidents of deplatforming for the French media to have adopted the term “la cancel culture,” in the original English. Last year, feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski — whose writings strongly influenced France’s adoption of a law requiring political party lists to be at least 50% female — was prevented from speaking at the University of Bordeaux, where she was denounced in a social media avalanche as “reactionary, transphobic and homophobic.” Agacinski became anathema to campus groups like the Anti-Patriarchy Student Collective for expressing opposition to state-funded medically assisted fertility treatments for single women.
“It’s a religious cult without God,” the essayist and novelist Pascal Bruckner said in an interview at his apartment in the Marais district of Paris. “The French left has run out of ideas, so it has turned to the American idea that the white man is intrinsically guilty.”
Uniquely French issues
His critique echoes the views of American linguist John McWhorter. But French wokeness also has its own distinct flavour and motivations, centering on two emotionally fraught and conflict-ridden issues.
One is the history of French colonialism, which is treated by the wokish side of the debate in France in much the same way that the history of slavery and Jim Crow are treated in the United States, as a kind of original sin, the deep cause of continuing racial and ethnic inequalities.
Secondly, identity politics in France is inseparable from one of the main sources of political conflict in the country, namely immigration from Africa and the deep worry of many in France — left, right, and centre — over what is called Islamisation, or the radicalisation of parts of the Muslim population of the country. (At an estimated 5.7 million, it is the largest in Europe.)
“Wokism transforms the Muslims into an oppressed group,” Bruckner said. “It’s the ultimate metamorphosis of leftism in France into Third Worldism,” the idea that most of the problems in the world, and certainly all of its inequalities, stem from the white man’s colonialist exploitation of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
“Guilt over colonialism provides the entryway for wokeness in France,” Robert Ménard, the mayor of the southern French city of Béziers, told me. “It’s what leads to the accusation of Islamophobia whenever anyone tries to talk about the connection between radical Islam in France and terrorist violence in the country, as if there were no such connection.”
The reference was to a series of deadly terrorist incidents fomented by Muslim extremists in France over the last few years, including attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people, the murder of eight journalists at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo earlier that year, and last year, the beheading by an 18-year-old Muslim extremist of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, after he showed satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed to his class as part of a lesson on free speech.
This recent history is no doubt partly responsible for the acrimony surrounding some aspects of the woke ideology, which some critics, including those on the traditional liberal-left, see as making excuses for terrorism by blaming France’s colonialist history as ultimately responsible.
Earlier this year, the French national assembly passed a law aimed at combatting what is seen as the growth of an Islamic ideology in France. It imposed limitations on religious garb in public, on home schooling (following reports of private “clandestine schools” run by Islamic militants), and banned “virginity certificates,” demanded by some religious groups as a condition of marriage.
Opponents of the measure, known as the “anti-separatist law,” which included both some of the traditional leftist factions like the Socialist Party as well as Muslim groups, attacked it as both discriminatory and racist.
“The anti-separatism law is part of a long line of racist French legislation, past or present,” read a statement by Les Indigènes de la République,” the Natives of the Republic, one of several militant groups in France with a following among the young, including young immigrants or children of immigrants. “Of course, it is Islamophobic since we are indeed witnessing a new and formidable stage of the Islamophobia of the state.”
The deeper argument has to do with the values and ideas that have long reigned in France and that are being challenged by the new wokist left. For example, the supporters of the anti-separatism law described it as a defense of what the law itself calls “Republican principles.”
Its main idea is that France is governed by certain universal values that apply to all citizens regardless of race or religion — a colour-blind logic under which France (like postwar Germany) does not collect demographic data on ethnicity. Yet according to the anti-racist movement, such values have been used to perpetuate white dominance.
“Universalism is a utopia and a myth that the Republic tells about itself that does not correspond to any past or present reality,” Rokhaya Diallo, a French-born writer and filmaker of Senegalese and Gambian origins, has said in interviews. “For black and non-white people, the Republic has always been a space of inequality, triggered by colonisation.”
Diallo, whose books include Racism: A Guide and France Belongs to Us, is probably the most prominent figure in France advancing the anti-racist agenda. She is a frequent guest on television and radio where she has criticised police for what she calls racist violence against blacks, a blogger and a columnist for the Washington Post, and her visibility has made her a target.
In Racée, Rachel Khan called Diallo “an entrepreneur of victimisation” whose “ambition, under the guise of justice and equality, is to cause division.” In a television program last year, Bruckner argued that she had helped to instigate the hatred against Charlie Hebdo that led to the deadly attack on the paper, a comment that Diallo angrily denounced as “scandalous” and “disrespectful.”
“It’s because there aren’t very many people like me, who look like me and who say things that are still taboo in France [and] have access to the media,” Diallo told me during a recent interview in Paris, explaining the reasons both for her prominence as a sort of Madame Woke in France and the attacks against her.
‘Led by spoiled, privileged students’
“I talk about racism, the racism of the state and about historical oppression,” Diallo said.
“I’m visible. But I’m practically the only person of colour in France who plays a role as an editorialist on television, where there are still very few blacks, Asians, or Arabs. I feel alone, isolated. When I appear on some panel, usually with three other people, I’m usually the only one taking my point of view.
“I’m very rarely invited to speak at the university in France. There are more and more academics who study the question of racism and the history of slavery, but they have hard times getting stable positions in academia in France and many of them have to work abroad. So to say that the universities are a kind of headquarters of wokeness, that’s not my experience.
“It would be a good beginning,” she continued, “for France to begin to recognise that there is racism here, to recognise the French role in slavery, to make it known.”
In a way this points to the main difference between Diallo and her camp and the traditional left, which would hotly dispute her charge that nobody before now has taken into account France’s role in slavery or the existence of racism in the country. The point for them is that there are aspects of France’s recent history that the “woke” are not awakened to: namely, the real and present danger of Muslim fanaticism.
“The French Muslim youth are being subjected to fundamentalist propaganda that convinces them that the entire French Republic hates Islam, in order to radicalise them,” Caroline Fourest, a feminist writer and filmmaker, said in an interview with RCI.
“But when you speak out about the danger of this propaganda, those who are in denial on the left accuse you of ‘Islamophobia,’ and then the far right takes advantage of this situation to gain speed.
“This is the problem,” she continued.
“Because they don’t see the difference between racism and a legitimate concern, the woke left, often led by spoiled, privileged students living in their bubbles at universities, are opening the gates that help propel fundamentalism forward, and that is reaching the youth.”
A group known as the Mothers’ Front, in the heavily Muslim suburb of Bagnolet, north of Paris, was granted space recently for a public exhibition, sparking a vehement protest by other residents of the district who described the Mothers’ Front as a radical Islamist group.
The group’s documents are a vehement attack on the schools for alleged racism and Islamophobia, including statements like these:
- “Our children understand from an early age that there’s a problem at school if they have frizzy hair, or if they speak an African language, or if their religion is Islam.”
- “Our children are subjected to an academic program where non-white people from whom they come are infantilised, demonised or made invisible.”
- “Our students go to establishments where they are stigmatised and humiliated by certain teachers.”
“Where is this racist school?” reads a public letter written by the protesting group of Bagnolet residents. “Where are these malicious teachers? Nowhere in reality, and we all know that.”
“To speak of the state and the schools as systemically racist is to declare war on the republic,” Marilou Brossier, a neighbourhood activist, told me.
“Never in a French school does one treat black children differently from white ones. This is what’s directly related to the values of the republic. France is built on an idea of universalism, that each individual is a free citizen living in a secular republic, but the woke mania for identifying everybody as black, or Muslim, or whatever stands in direct contradiction to this fundamental principle.”
This article has been republished with permission from Real Clear Investigations.