France continuing long tradition of decrying racism abroad while obscuring it at home
France is inducting an African American woman, Josephine Baker, who was also a French World War II spy and civil rights activist into its Pantheon. But critics say France is continuing a long tradition of decrying racism abroad while obscuring it at home.
Civil rights activists in France say the decision masks generations of systemic racism, arguing that the country's official doctrine of colorblind universalism is a deception.
Baker’s entry into the Pantheon on Tuesday is the result of years of efforts from politicians, organizations and public figures. Most recently, a petition by Laurent Kupferman, an essayist on the French Republic, gained traction.
For Rokhaya Diallo, a French commentator on issues related to race, “universalism is a utopia and myth that the republic tells about itself that does not correspond to any past or present reality,” she told The AP. “For Black and non-white people, the Republic has always been a space of inequality, of othering through the processes triggered by colonization.”
Lawyers, activists and academics have chronicled discrimination in police violence, in housing and in employment in France, notably against people with African or Arab origins. Universalists say this isn't a structural part of French society, however, identifying racism as a moral matter and not inscribed within the state.
Françoise Vergès, a political scientist on questions of culture, race and colonization, said “symbolic gestures” like putting Baker in the Pantheon aren’t enough to extinguish racial discrimination in France.
“In 2021, even if it’s morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives,” she said.