Antiracism in France, from the “universalist” ideal to “categorical” struggles

Hawa Traoré, one of Adama Traoré's sisters, speaks during the demonstration against racism in Marseille, June 13.

Twenty thousand people before the Paris court in the 17e arrondissement, June 2. Fifteen thousand people, according to figures from the Police Prefecture, a few days later, on June 13, on Place de la République, in the 10e arrondissement of the capital, and rallies organized across France… The Adama committee, named after Adama Traoré, this young man of 24, died on July 19, 2016 after his arrest by gendarmes, has become the spearhead mobilization against racism and police violence.

Also read the decryption: “It’s beyond us and that’s what we want” … How the Adama committee succeeded in a surprise mobilization against police violence

This fight, which has returned to the forefront of the media since the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who was asphyxiated by a white police officer on May 25 in Minneapolis (Minnesota), highlighted differences between the anti-racist movements in France. Explanations with Emmanuel Debono, historian and author of the blog “At the heart of anti-racism”.

Also read the summary: Within days, “Black Lives Matter” became a universal slogan

How was the anti-racist movement built in France?

Emmanuel Debono: Antiracism, as a thought, is a fairly old phenomenon that appeared long before the XXe century. Militant anti-racism, that is, when people decide to aggregate and take action to combat “race” prejudice, dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, with the creation of LICA, the ancestor of Licra [Ligue contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme]. The other great historical organization, founded in 1949, is the MRAP [Mouvement contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples]. In the pre-war and post-war periods, anti-racism activism was structured by the struggle against Nazism and Fascism.

LICA and MRAP will weigh heavily in defining what anti-racism is today. If they do not agree on everything, they share the same paradigm, which we would describe today as “universalist” : the will to fight against all racisms, by integrating everyone. By dint of lobbying, but also of reflection and documentation on the place of the phenomenon in society, they manage to have the government adopt, in 1972, the law against racism.

SOS Racisme, founded in 1984, also plays a significant role in this fight, with the implementation of several campaigns and especially those of testings [qui « consistent à faire se présenter des personnes de types différents (maghrébin, africain, européen, etc.) ayant le même profil pour une offre d’emploi, à l’entrée d’une discothèque, à la réservation d’une chambre d’hôtel ou à la location d’un appartement », pour mettre en lumière les discriminations, détaille l’organisation].

Harlem Desir, center, president of the association SOS Racisme, during a demonstration in support of Nelson Mandela, in Paris on December 25, 1985.

How to explain the current tensions between older organizations, like SOS Racisme, and recent collectives, like the Adama committee?

The current mobilization adopts a different reading grid, known as “racializing”, with an activism that is described as “decolonial”. Collectives such as the Adama committee or The natives of the Republic denounce a society and a Republic which they consider to be intrinsically the bearers of racism.

Read also the column of Thomas Piketty: Faced with our colonial and slave-like past, “confronting racism, repairing history”

Their struggle is particularistic or categorical, and some are not empowered to carry this word. By defining “allies”, we get out of the historic fight for general emancipation and a law that would apply to all. We are moving away from the idea of ​​a common cause.

How did these new movements emerge?

The rise of the National Front, the “Sarkozy years”, marked by an obsession with national identity, or even the feeling of blocking working-class neighborhoods which did not see their lot improving… There is a moment when frustration and the fact that discrimination remains a daily problem in French society becomes unbearable. And this is all the more so when the Republic tends to gargle with speeches in favor of equality. Some decolonial thinkers mock universalism: a fetish which serves to give oneself a good conscience so as not to act.

Read also Stereotypes, discrimination and racist acts persist in France, even more indirectly, says report

Traditional associations are also accused of having remained prisoners of their fight against anti-fascism and of waging an institutional fight, close to the authorities. There is a stronger focus on concrete discrimination in current movements. The old organizations, without reducing them entirely to this, have given much thought to the speeches. They are sometimes described as defenders of “moral anti-racism”, so to speak that they only grasp the scum of the problem.

A woman protests against racism and in support of the family of Adama Traoré, in Marseille, June 13, 2020.

Finally, another complaint by some activists: the executives of these organizations do not share the lives of the people they want to defend. Figures like Assa Traoré, they embody for them the fight of the so-called “working class” districts. However, there is diversity in historical associations and many victims of racism have been able to benefit from their support, particularly in the context of legal proceedings. Despite the criticisms, concrete actions have been taken.

Are their modes of action similar?

We can hardly understand the success of the current mobilization if we do not associate it with the question of social networks. The reach of Licra’s or MRAP’s Twitter or Facebook accounts is nothing like that of activists and media figures – for example, Rokhaya Diallo. Traditional organizations lack the necessary and efficient digital cells.

The new organizations are more like small groups and have supporters but few members. These are above all figures that exist by speaking. We are far from what traditional organizations do, which are built on an associative model of mass activism, with a Parisian headquarters, local sections, activists, members, regular meetings or even large meetings, posters. , leaflets…

Are their positions irreconcilable?

In the current militant platform, we consider institutionalized racism, in habits, in structures, in the system. We don’t even see him anymore and the white population doesn’t know that he discriminates. She has a “Privilege”, by virtue of an identity, necessarily defined as dominant.

Also read the forum: “The expression” white privilege “is not irrelevant to think of the French context”

Even if it is conceivable that a “non-white” person will be faced with more opportunities to be discriminated against in his or her existence, the question is whether it is necessary to use essentializing concepts. This reading imposes that any individual, without knowing his background, his opinions, his commitments, his aspirations, will be understood from the angle of his skin color and that this will determine whether he is a dominant or a dominated.

Also read the forum: “White privilege, this dangerous nonsense”

A “racial” principle is reintroduced into the fight against racism. Even if we speak of a social construction, this notion radicalises positions. At each end of the chain, individuals retrieve it and instrumentalize it – one can, among other things, quote statements by the far right on “anti-white racism”.

For traditional organizations, which have endeavored to bring to light other factors explaining discriminations than just “race”, this vision is reductive. None of them want to align themselves with this position. The fight against racism is inseparable from the struggles for equality, against anti-Semitism, against homophobia, against sexism and other forms of exclusion, whatever they may be. In their eyes, anti-racism is a gathering and a reconciliation.

Just as modern mobilizations do not want to regain the support of structures which, in their eyes, are part of the problem and which serve as “hide-and-seek” for a government, which can then boast of a dialogue without nothing to change.

Also read the forum: “I don’t apologize for being a black man and I have no revenge for white people”

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