The last time France was this agitated by the term “negre” was in October 2010, when Jean-Paul Guerlain, the renowned perfumier, declared on television that he had “worked like a negre” to develop his perfume Samsara.
“For once, I set to work like a Negro,” said the millionaire heir. “I don’t know if Negroes have always worked like that, but anyway …”
His comments sparked protests, anti-racist groups held demonstrations in front of the Guerlain boutique on the Champs-Elysees, calling for a boycott of his products. Three organisations would subsequently sue Guerlain for his statement, lamenting “the state of ordinary racism that still permeates French society”.
In March 2012, a French court found the 75-year old Guerlain guilty of making racist remarks, and fined him 6,000 euros, despite his claim that “work like a Negro” was a “common expression” in his generation.
The prosecutor declared the first part of his statement “dated and disagreeable” but not illegal, but the second part a threat to “public order” since it linked “laziness” to a “group of people by virtue of their origin or race“.
Injurious and racist
This past week French airwaves and editorial pages have again been filled with discussions about the term negre, its history and appropriateness. And few seem to recall that exactly four years ago a French judge deemed the term “injurious and racist” and a threat to public order.
This most recent kerfuffle was prompted by comments made by the French minister for women’s rights Laurence Rossignol on a television show. Asked what she thought of the decision made by fashion companies such as Marks & Spencer and Dolce & Gabbana to produce Muslim-style garments, the minister repudiated these companies saying the products were not “socially responsible”.
When the interviewer noted that some Muslim women choose to wear hijabs and abayas, Rossignol retorted: “Of course, they are women who make the choice … there were also … American negroes who were in favour of slavery.”
The reaction was swift. On Twitter, a student quipped: “In America, rappers are forbidden from using the n-word on air, but in France a minister can use it on a news programme.”
A petition asking for her resignation gathered more than 19,000 signatures in 24 hours.
There was an element of absurdity to the drama as English-speaking journalists agonised over how to translate negre, and as Rossignol defended her choice of words by citing the abolitionist work of philosopher Montesquieu – not a great public relations move, given the Enlightenment philosopher’s views of Islam (as a faith that induces laziness and demographic decline.)
Diversity in France
The African-American experience hangs over most discussions of race and diversity in France. Of late, French politicians have preferred not to make references to America’s racial past or model of integration.
This is in part because French minority activists often point to the civil rights movement and the election of Barack Obama as a way to highlight France’s lack of comparable progress.
French officials have sounded particularly defensive since the urban riots of November 2005. When a diplomatic cable written by the US embassy in Paris surfaced in 2011, highlighting “the failure of white Christian France to view its dark-skinned and Muslim compatriots as citizens in their own rights”, French diplomats were furious.
And it is partly to distance France from American racial thinking that President Francois Hollande has proposed legislation to remove all references to “race” from the French constitution.
Just last December, when Foreign Affairs magazine asked the French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, why the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants in France “had trouble integrating” – he retorted: “May I ask you why African Americans have problems of integrating ten generations after they arrived in the US?“
Islam and blackness
But this time it was a French politician, Rossignol, who made the reference to America’s racial history, unleashing a torrent of trans-Atlantic comparisons, and confirming what French activists have long argued: that in France – as in the US – there is now an indelible association between Islam and blackness.
It is truly shocking that Rossignol, a minister representing the political left and a founder of [the anti-racism group] SOS Racisme would use this language, says Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent Senegalese-French activist and correspondent for the US-based Black Entertainment Television.
“She lacks respect for women who choose to wear the veil, she doesn’t think they have a right to dress as they please” – and “when she says ‘the more womens’ rights advance, the shorter skirts will become’ it’s incredible … so we will only achieve emancipation by exposing our bodies?“
The protests have been met with anger. As scholars took to the airwaves to explain that the term negre may have been used during the 1930s and 1940s in France, but fell out of favour during the 1960s with decolonisation, and that today most blacks prefer the term “noir” or “black”, critics dismissed this US-style “political correctness” and “cultural relativism”. Commentators wondered why blacks in France can use the term negre but not whites.
Rossignol has conceded that her use of the word “negre” was a “slip” – but added: “Apart from the slip of the tongue, I don’t take back a word that I said.”
Meanwhile, a range of public figures from feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter to industrialist Pierre Berger are now calling for a boycott of “Islamic fashion“.
Lost in much of this din is that as anti-black and anti-Muslim political rhetoric reaches frightening levels in France, on April 1, a court in Lyon chose to sentence a 22-year Turk to three months in prison for “anti-white” racism, after he insulted an elderly white man on a commuter train.
France works in mysterious ways.
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.