21st-century universalism will be anti-racist, or it won’t be at all

Photo: Mural in Paris featuring Rosa Parks. (Jeanne Menjoulet)

Anti-racism is a long-term struggle that is inextricably linked to the commitment to French republican values: we must be anti-racist through universalism and universalist through anti-racism. The reason the new anti-racism is so feared in France today is it weakens the pillars of a colonialist universalism that is too often confused with the bedrock of the republican contract and of the French spirit.

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"A Season in Hell" is a long-term series presented by Ricochet in partnership with the Brussels office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. The co-published series examines the current political conflicts and social movements in France.

Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 — a North American earthquake that sent shock waves around the world — a form of anti-racism has come to prominence in France. This movement, part of decades of postcolonial struggles, emerged in the wake of the Adama Traoré Committee, named after a young 24-year-old French citizen who died on July 19, 2016, in conditions eerily similar to those of Floyd.

According to the Manichean narrative that has shaped political and media discourse in France throughout the summer, this anti-racism — which has been described as “decolonial,” “Indigenist” and “categorizing,” and whose framework of interpretation has been dubbed “racializing” — has supplanted the old guard of anti-racist associations. The universalist anti-racism of these traditional and more or less institutionalized actors — fighting against all collective hatreds simultaneously while including everyone — is now apparently no longer the order of the day.

According to its detractors, anti-racism 2.0 is playing with communitarian fire, sometimes out of secessionist impulses, sometimes as part of a “business plan” in which minorities are the captive customers, sometimes out of a desire to create a buzz — or for all these reasons at the same time. It is even, in the French president’s view, a form of separatism in disguise, one that uses “essentializing” concepts that are little better than white supremacist theories, and whose ideologues are in fact the objective allies of these theories in overthrowing the republican order by starting an out-and-out race war.

Polarization as smokescreen

But what if this polarization were just a smokescreen? What if anti-racism and universalism, far from being two irreconcilable entities — two antagonistic forces in the tragicomedy of French decline — were in reality making one and the same demand of the republic?

If, as President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address on June 14, 2020, “racism is a betrayal of republican universalism,” then universalism and the republic are fundamentally anti-racist concepts. Why does anti-racism in France become anti-republican when it breaks out of the original framework of universalism, a paradigm whose values and limits are notable for having been defined, under both the Ancien Régime and the Third Republic, in connection with a colonialist and imperialist project? And how are we to overcome this contradiction, at once superficial, sterile and dangerous, which Aimé Césaire pinpointed in his essay Discourse on Colonialism:

And that is the great thing I hold against pseudo-humanism: that for too long it has diminished human rights, that its concept of those rights has been — and still is — narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and, all things considered, sordidly racist.

Pseudo-universalism is a philosophical fiction in which skin colour is dismissed as irrelevant: because obviously, all victims of racism would have been murdered even if they had been white. This is a perversion of Kantian thought: the universal (the non-existence of racism, in this case, and of the multiple discriminations through which it is expressed in everyday life) is no longer a goal towards which we must strive; in the performative thinking of its advocates, the universal becomes the real itself, the world as it is, and universalism the only framework capable of interpreting it. It is the decreed universal, as opposed to the realized universal.

In line with the thinking of Jean Jaurès, the universalism emerging from these questions would start from the real and move towards the ideal.

How can we move from this ethnic and Eurocentric, civilizing and imposing universalism, from the hypocritical ideology of Ernest Renan, which Césaire denounced, to what Césaire calls true humanism, humanism made to the measure of the world? In other words, how can French universalism reinvent itself as an anti-racist and postcolonial co-production?

Aimé Césaire honoured at the Panthéon in Paris.
Eli Sagor / Flickr

Asking these questions is not to reject universalism, but rather to question the forms in which it manifests itself and how they relate to reality and material conditions. They push us to understand what these values mean for someone living in the countryside, or in the suburbs of a big city (les banlieues), or for a French person whose background is that of an erased and obscured colonial history. In line with the thinking of Jean Jaurès, the universalism emerging from these questions would start from the real and move towards the ideal.

Inventing race: the function of the triangular trade

To start with, this reinvention will inevitably entail some extensive deconstruction work. In the paradigm of classic universalism, systemic racism is an idea imported from the United States, arbitrarily projected onto French social realities: there is no history of racism in France and anyone who claims otherwise is distorting reality by imposing a groundless schema to promote their own interests.

While it is true that France and the United States have different histories and cultures, and the proliferation of legal firearms in America enables the perpetuation of a violence that began with the genocide of Native American populations and continued with slavery, who was it that invented race as an ideology of domination? Who enshrined and regulated it in the Code noir? Who exported racism through colonization? Who transported slaves to the Americas and the West Indies? What was the economic and geopolitical function of the triangular trade?

The mythology of imported racism is a means of repression that also serves as a form of negationism: racism is a product that originated in Europe, from which it was exported by the colonial powers as they expanded their territories. Unaware of this history, whether through ignorance or a refusal to face up to it, many French people do not know why there are Blacks, Arabs and Asians in France today. Nor do they know that non-European populations once lived in France (in the colonized territories) and that their status as “colonial subjects” was for a long time governed by a Code de l’indigénat.

Anti-racism is a long-term struggle that is inextricably linked to the commitment to French republican values: we must be anti-racist through universalism and universalist through anti-racism.

This denial, examples of which abound in the history of France, serves a specific function, namely to portray racism as a postcolonial phenomenon, linked to North-South immigration and the result of mechanical factors that could be acted upon: demographics, inequalities in economic development, environmental crises, political instability and conflicts. This is to forget not only the decisive role that canonical universalist thought played in the political invention of race during the Enlightenment, but also the long history of police and military violence against colonized populations in Africa (such as the massacres at Thiaroye in December 1944 and Sétif in May 1945), and then against French overseas citizens (for example, Pointe-à-Pitre in May 1967). Colonization was rape, and the racism facing French society is one of the consequences of that rape. By keeping racism at a distance, as has happened for a long time with antisemitism, by refusing to recognize racism as a French ideology, France risks perpetuating it.

The pillars of colonialist universalism

The reason the new anti-racism is so feared in France today is because it weakens the pillars of a colonialist universalism that is too often confused with the bedrock of the republican contract and of the French spirit. But isn’t the opposite actually true? At the very core of republican radicalism — the republic, the whole republic and nothing but the republic — isn’t there the desire for nobody to be excluded from the common good and for everybody to contribute to its constant redefinition? Isn’t the overthrow of pseudo-universalism ultimately a Copernican Revolution aimed at escaping the intellectual straitjacket of the Enlightenment, reconnecting with an earlier phase of French wisdom, the true humanism of Montaigne, and giving it a new lease of life in a postcolonial context?

“There is nothing barbarous and savage,” Montaigne writes in the Essays, “except that each person calls barbarism whatever is not their own practice.” What if classical French thought, that of the Renaissance and the Grand Siècle, was more universalist in its relativism than that of the Enlightenment? Before claiming to universalize, must we not first learn to relativize, in particular by understanding that the universal is a subjective construct, a point of view? When the actress Aïssa Maïga said that France and French cinema should not be left at ease, she was not committing an act of secession: she was reminding us that putting one’s own beliefs at risk — precisely because they express a vision which, whether individual or collective, is entirely exclusive — is a necessary prerequisite for creating a France in which racism no longer has a place. We must accept this continual disturbance of the self, this sense of unease.

Police violence, labour market discrimination, unequal access to healthcare and education are just the tip of the iceberg, while the repression of colonial history is the iceberg itself.

Postcolonial universalism means taking account of race as a political construct, not to reintroduce it into the public debate, as the self-proclaimed heirs of the Enlightenment pretend to think, but to dismantle the system of domination underpinning what historian Aurélia Michel calls the “white order.” Montaigne’s relativism has a central role to play in this process, not only because it involves pivoting in order to explore the blind spots of the colonial narrative and criticize an ideological sedimentation that tends to be viewed as sacrosanct for the sole reason that it belongs to the past, but also because we must then go on to consider the world and its history from the point of view of otherness: when did we lose this ability to see the other through eyes other than our own? When did universalism become ethnocentrism?

Anti-racism: a long-term struggle

Anti-racism is a long-term struggle that is inextricably linked to the commitment to French republican values: we must be anti-racist through universalism and universalist through anti-racism. If we expect anti-racism to consolidate universal republican values, how can the reverse not be true, both in terms of values and in everyday life? If the republic is nothing more than a slogan imposed by those it benefits, it is not a common good; it becomes akin to an economic rent, and one that is monopolized at that. If universalism is merely a privilege of seniority, it condemns itself to remain the communitarianism of the majority. Ultimately, universalism must be postcolonial as much as anti-racism must be republican. This twofold demand opens up a line of critical questioning that may shed light on the relationship between the wounds of the past and the convulsions of the present, toward the construction of a common future. Police violence, labour market discrimination, unequal access to healthcare and education are just the tip of the iceberg, while the repression of colonial history is the iceberg itself.

To separate the issues of anti-racism from historical research in this field is to ignore the meaning of both. It is to sever the intelligible thread, the organic continuity between yesterday and today; it is, ultimately, to mortgage the future. Rather than thinking about a fluid ideal whose terms are negotiated on an ongoing basis by the national community, by instead adopting a stunted and skewed vision we condemn ourselves to the paradigm of decline and its latent war between first and last arrivals. However much its adherents claim otherwise, this is a political program aimed at bringing together all those who are worried, disturbed or vexed by the development of French identities. Its primary concern is that France should remain France. From the point of view of national cohesion, this identity-based and populist universalism contains within it each of the fractures it likes to blame on its chosen bogeymen.

Anti-racism currently stands accused of trying to wipe out the past through cancel culture, which is simply the refusal of the majority to relinquish its monopoly on the production of common sense. While some decry what they see as a witch hunt, a repentance culture or a victim competition, in fact the aim is to learn about history together, and develop shared narratives in order to face up to that history. As part of this process, it is inevitable that the idea of universalism will be relativized and come to be seen as the product of a certain era, the reflection of certain mentalities, the expression of a France that no longer exists. Once this is acknowledged, two possibilities emerge: either this product is placed on a pedestal and regarded as being written in stone, one of the Tablets of Republican Law (this is abstract, static universalism), or the republic is viewed as a continually renegotiable contract, a work in progress, one that requires constant adaptation in order to remain relevant. This is fluid and dynamic universalism, never finished, always having to be reinvented: a project that cannot be imprisoned indefinitely in the historical framework of the Enlightenment.

The Fire Next Time

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes that “the Negro problem will no longer exist” in the United States on the day that white people learn to love themselves and each other.

In France, the absurd contradiction between anti-racism and universalism will cease to be necessary on the day that the fantasy of the Great Replacement evaporates, when France looks at itself as it really is and not with the fantasy view that it too often has of itself. On that day, anti-racist universalism and universalist anti-racism will have become tautologies; the republic will exist in deed as well as in word. Here, there is undoubtedly an issue of synchronization between the time of the majority and that of the minorities: the majority, afraid of becoming a minority, is playing for time, while the minorities are in a hurry to have, in practice, the same rights and opportunities as the majority.

Reconciling these two time frames and truly democratizing the universal appear to be the keys to ensuring that French citizens can live together in harmony in the coming decades.

Mame-Fatou Niang is an associate professor and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. Her most recent book, Identités Françaises (French Identities), published by Brill in 2019, examines Afro-French identities and the works of female authors from the banlieue. Mame has also co-directed a documentary called Mariannes Noires (Black Mariannes), in which seven Afro-French women look at what it means to be Black and French, and Black in France.

Julien Suaudeau is a lecturer at Bryn Mawr College in the United States and a writer. His latest novel, Le Sang noir des hommes (Black Blood), published by Flammarion in 2019 and subsequently by Points in 2020, tells the story of colonial rape. He also specializes in film analysis and in 2020 has brought out Le Spectateur zéro (The Spectator Zero), co-written with film editor Yann Dedet and published by P.O.L. He writes for the online topical magazine Slate.fr.

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