How can a country that hails Josephine Baker take the racist Zemmour seriously? | Kenan Malik


“How does it really feel to be a white man?” Simeon was not a white man. He was an African American who had left his homeland to flee the ferocious racism each African American confronted and sought shelter in Paris. There, he had bought into a battle in a bar with an Algerian. The police threw the Algerian into jail. Simeon they let go. In Paris, it was the light-skinned Algerian who was handled like blacks again dwelling, the dark-skinned American to whom the authorities present deference. “How does it really feel to be a white man?” taunted the Algerian.

Simeon is the central character in William Gardner Smith’s newly republished 1963 novel The Stone Face. Smith, like Simeon, like many black People in the center many years of the final century, present in France a refuge from the segregation and bigotry that scarred America. “There’s extra freedom in a single sq. block of Paris than there’s in the total United States of America!” claimed the novelist Richard Wright in his essay I Choose Exile.

Not like Wright, nonetheless, Smith turned more and more conscious of the ambiguous place he occupied in French society. “We’re the n****** right here,” an Algerian tells Simeon. African People might have felt free in France, however for others, freedom was as circumscribed because it was for blacks in America.

The Stone Face can be clunky and didactic at instances. But, as the American cultural critic Adam Shatz observes in the introduction to the new version, it not solely “resonates with modern considerations about privilege and id”, however “its remedy of those questions is defiantly heterodox”. Having a white pores and skin, Smith insists, is just not all the time a signal of privilege; being black is just not essentially to be deprived. Context is all-important. The novel is equally acute in its portrayal of France. A nation that prided itself on its universalist ideas, that had embraced black People, however had, a minimum of America, constructed its personal “n******”.

William Gardner Smith.
William Gardner Smith discovered refuge in France after the segregation of the US. {Photograph}: Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

I used to be reminded of The Stone Face whereas watching the nearly simultaneous information from Paris final week of the honouring of Josephine Baker and the announcement by Éric Zemmour that he’s standing in subsequent 12 months’s French presidential elections. Uncovered right here have been each side of France’s angle to race.

In an elaborate ceremony, Baker was afforded a place in the Panthéon, the Paris mausoleum the place lots of France’s biggest little kids are buried. Born in St Louis, Missouri, in the 1906, at the top of Jim Crow apartheid, Baker was amongst the first African People to take refuge in France. After making her title as an entertainer at the Folies-Bergère, she joined the Resistance throughout the Second World Struggle, earlier than taking part in her half in the postwar civil rights wrestle in America.

For the French authorities, celebrating Baker was a technique of extolling a type of colour-blind universalism whereas difficult perfidious Anglo-Saxon politics of id. “Her trigger was universalism,” President Macron instructed the Panthéon viewers, her purpose not “to outline herself as black earlier than defining herself as American or French”.

Zemmour has a very totally different notion of what it’s to be French. A author, broadcaster and polemicist, Zemmour views French Muslims as “colonisers” and immigration as an “invasion”. He promotes the “Nice Alternative principle”, which claims that whites are being deliberatelyreplaced by black and brown immigrants. Zemmour is Jewish however is sympathetic to the wartime Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis, insisting that it protected French Jews by permitting solely foreign-born ones to be deported to Nazi focus camps. That is a historic calumny, however even have been it true, it will be a deeply immoral defence of Vichy.

Éric Zemmour announces his candidacy to French presidency.
Éric Zemmour pronounces his candidacy to French presidency. {Photograph}: Yoan Valat/EPA

Zemmour belongs to a reactionary custom that harks again to opponents of the French Revolution and views liberalism, secularism and cosmopolitanism as enemies of the social order and of true French values. The liberal universalist ethos is corrosive as a result of, as the Nineteenth-century novelist Maurice Barrès insisted, it seeks to “detach” French individuals “from the soil and from their social group, to take them out of their prejudices”.

In Barrès’s day, Jews have been the embodiment of every part the reactionaries despised – a individuals unrooted, un-French, liberal, cosmopolitan. In the present day, it’s primarily Muslims who’re seen as the enemy inside. And never simply by reactionaries however by many liberals, too; by many who would applaud the honouring of Josephine Baker and see themselves as standing inside the universalist, republican custom.

“Zemmour’s concepts are extremist, racist and exclusionary,” Shatz observed in a current essay, “however the groundwork for his rise was laid by mainstream intellectuals and politicians.” Intellectuals and politicians who’ve responded to the rise of the far proper by embracing hardline rhetoric about immigration and the risk of Muslims to “our lifestyle” and, in so doing, offering much more gasoline for reactionary concepts.

The universalist perception that one ought to deal with everybody as residents, relatively than as bearers of particular racial or cultural histories, is a invaluable precept. In observe, nonetheless, French coverage has entailed being blind to racism in the title of being “color blind” and deeming sure teams, whether or not Jews or Muslims, as not belonging to the nation, the “Different” towards which French nationwide id is outlined.

The Stone Face ends with the occasions of 17 October 1961, when a massive demonstration in help of the Algerian independence wrestle was met with unprecedented police brutality. Between 100 and 300 persons are more likely to have been killed, many after having been tortured. Dozens have been thrown into the Seine, their our bodies washing up on the banks in the following days.

It was the bloodiest act of state repression of avenue protest in western Europe in fashionable instances. But, till comparatively lately, there was silence about it. Not till 2012 did a French president, François Hollande, even acknowledge the bloodbath. This 12 months, on the sixtieth anniversary, President Macron called it an “unforgivable crime”.

It’s a silence that speaks of a universalism that refuses to be actually common however finds succour from the exclusion of explicit teams from the nationwide physique. And so long as it does so, it should present cowl for figures comparable to Zemmour. As William Gardner Smith reminded us half a century in the past, one can’t problem identity-based politics or embrace a universalist imaginative and prescient with out difficult additionally the actuality of racism and the politics of exclusion.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist