Author : Angelique Chrisafis
Posted on : The Guardian | December 20, 2017
A bitter row over the difficulties of debating racism in France has erupted after a high-profile feminist and anti-racism campaigner was forced off a government advisory body, prompting the resignation of the director and scores of members.
Journalist Rokhaya Diallo has repeatedly spoken out against what she calls institutional racism in France, notably police stop and search practices against non-white young men.
Diallo, 39, was one of 30 people appointed last week to France’s national digital council, the CNNum, an independent commission of digital experts. The voluntary panel was to advise the centrist president Emmanuel Macron’s government on a new, more inclusive digital policy.
The appointments were approved by the digital minister Mounir Mahjoubi – one of the few faces of ethnic diversity in government – as well as the prime minister. But the government then bowed to complaints about Diallo’s presence.
Far-right commentators on social media attacked Diallo, then the mainstream rightwing party Les Républicains wrote an open letter to the government to complain that Diallo had in the past been outspoken on “institutional racism” in France and had supported feminist movements where black women had attended closed meetings to speak among themselves about racism and sexism. The party also slammed the appointment of the rapper, Axiom, criticising his lyrics. Some in the leftwing Socialist party, such as the former prime minister, Manuel Valls, supported evicting Diallo.
The government swiftly appeared to kick out Diallo, promising a reshuffle in order for the body to work more “calmly”.
The French Human Rights League slammed the government’s “worrying” decision, saying: “In a democracy, the state must respect the pluralism of opinions to inform public action and enrich it.”
Marie Ekeland, a French start-up entrepreneur and head of the digital advisory body, stood down on Tuesday, followed by scores of other members. Ekeland said the row showed “in France, we don’t want to hear dissonant voices. It shows to what point we don’t know how to calmly debate different points of view.”
Diallo, whose work includes a recent documentary From Paris to Ferguson about a new generation of anti-racism activists, told the Guardian: “I think it shows there’s a great tension. Marie Ekeland, who appointed this committee, is ahead of the game and very optimistic about the capacity of the French to discuss and talk to each other. What you can see today is there are topics which are very hard to discuss in France, namely race issues.”
She added: “There has been a wave of support for me by people including the French Human Rights League, who understand that for the health of democratic debate, all voices need to be heard. It shows there is a desire for democracy. There are generations now who understand that France today is also made up of people like me, that I’m part of France today, and whether you want to listen to me or not, you have to take that into account. It’s painful for some people but crucial for the future.”
Diallo, who had been in Cairo addressing a United Nations meeting about online hate, said: “Abroad, there’s an understanding of what’s at stake France, but in France, people are putting their heads in the sand.”
The row comes as Macron’s new government is on edge about debate around about any kind of institutional racism. The French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, last month announced in parliament that he would sue a teachers union in the ethnically diverse Seine-Saint-Denis area north of Paris for using the term “institutional racism” while holding workshops on the education system.
Diallo said she would continue to talk of institutional racism in France, citing the state citizens’ rights ombudsman who has warned against police racial profiling, saying young men perceived as Arab or black are 20 times more likely to have their identities checked. Last month, she invited the education minister to sue her for it, if he sees fit.
“When I talked of institutional racism in France, I was hugely reproached for it,” Diallo said. “The fact is that Jean-Michel Blanquer, instead of concerning himself with the racism that is produced by the state, prefers to take legal action against an expression..
“What we should be doing is making sure the education system doesn’t reproduce racist mechanisms and guarantees all pupils and teachers racism-free access.”
The foundation stone of the French Republic is that all citizens should be equal and free from distinctions of class, race or religion. It is illegal to classify people by ethnicity or to collect data or ask census questions on race or origins. But campaigners say this masks ongoing problems of racism and discrimination in society.