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  • Jonathan Wijayaratne

Defining racism: a(nother) French debate

Updated: 1 day ago

France has gotten lost in semantics. New words, hardly definable, are brought up by the center-right to discredit progressive ideas — introducing “wokiste” and “islamo-gauchiste” (‘islamo-leftist’) — while at the same time they are up in arms against the non-binary pronoun “iel”. The line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is more and more blurred. But what this week has shown is that the French do not even know anymore what is racist and what is not.


On Thursday, Members of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the French Parliament, could ask questions to the Government. Carlos Martens Bilongo, an MP from the leftist opposition coalition NUPES, took the floor to raise awareness of the hardship endured by migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to arrive in Europe. Ships such as the Ocean Viking have saved 952 people from drowning in the last two weeks, but they are stranded off-shore because Malta has not answered their cries for help and Giorgia Meloni’s newly-appointed far-right government is unwilling to lend them a hand. As Bilongo asked what solution the French government could provide, the Assembly heard those words:


Qu’il retourne en Afrique!”


The minutes from that session used the singular form, so that in English, this sentence means ‘Let him go back to Africa!’. The sentence is easily understandable that way, since Bilongo is black. It came out of the mouth of National-Rally (RN, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party) MP Grégoire de Fournas. Immediately, Bilongo’s colleagues, first in his party group from La France Insoumise, then the rest of the NUPES MPs, and finally members from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance coalition, stood up and started protesting and yelling at the RN group, requesting that de Fournas leave the Assembly. It was later voted that he receive the heaviest punishment possible for an MP, which is the halving of his €9000 salary for two months and a two-week ban from entering Parliament premises.


The scene went viral on social media and made it to the 8 o’clock news that evening, sparking a national debate. Indeed, there was (and still is) confusion about what was said. “Qu’il retourne en Afrique!”, singular, and “Qu’ils retournent en Afrique!”, plural, sound exactly the same in French. De Fournas and his advocates are using this misunderstanding (which, in French, ironically translates to “malentendu”, literally ‘misheard’) to claim that he was not referring to Bilongo, effectively reifying a nation’s representative to his skin colour. Instead, he was talking about the migrants straying between the two continents. To some, the issue is settled: if de Fournas used the singular pronoun and conjugation, then he was being racist — if he used the plural, then it was merely an expression of his political views.


But really, who cares if de Fournas used the singular or the plural? Even if he were alluding to migrants, his sentence is definitely racist and not just a political statement. He is denying basic human rights to a group of people because of who they are, and identifying them with a territory often described as the other in European racist discourse, Africa. But most media refrained from labeling de Fournas’ words directly as racist, instead opting for “allegedly racist”, “accused of racism”*, and the fan-favourite “remarks with racist content”*. This tip-toeing is giving many the ick, as it’s claimed de Fournas would have been easily and properly called out a few decades ago.


In 2002, the French people had massively expressed a refusal of the far-right in the run-off presidential election, giving 82% of the popular vote to Jacques Chirac*, the outgoing President facing Jean-Marie le Pen, Marine’s father. But twenty years later, the RN has never been so close to power. Marine le Pen was in the second round of both the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections, and her party won its highest number of seats ever at the June 2022 general election. With 90 members, the RN is the second-largest party and the third-largest political force in Parliament. This draws respect and acknowledgment from the other parties and the media, and the more respectable the RN becomes, the more widespread their ideas are. France’s most-watched news channel, BFMTV, headlined “Is the far-right racist?”. Top-tier journalism, really.


I wonder if France will ever understand that it is this enabling that strengthens the far-right. They are no longer struggling to put their agenda forward - it is served to them on a golden plate. What the French call “front républicain” (‘Republican front’) and the Belgians “cordon sanitaire” (‘sanitary cordon’) is seriously weakening. And as it is no longer a matter of if, but when a snap general election will happen* in France, one can worry about the RN making substantial gains.


(Star-signs indicate French-language references.)


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