Josephine Baker poster

This essay, on Josephine Baker, Éric Zemmour and universalism in French politics, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 5 December 2021, under the headline “How can a country that hails Josephine Baker take the racist Zemmour seriously?”

“How does it feel to be a white man?” Simeon was not a white man. He was an African American who had left his homeland to escape the ferocious racism every African American faced and sought shelter in Paris. There, he had got into a fight 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 treated like blacks back home, the dark-skinned American to whom the authorities show deference. “How does it 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 Americans in the middle decades of the last century, found in France a refuge from the segregation and bigotry that scarred America. “There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America!” claimed the novelist Richard Wright in his essay “I Choose Exile”.

Unlike Wright, however, Smith became increasingly aware of the ambiguous place he occupied in French society. “We’re the niggers here”, an Algerian tells Simeon. African Americans may have felt free in France, but for others, freedom was as circumscribed as it was for blacks in America.

The Stone Face can be clunky and didactic at times. Yet, as the American cultural critic Adam Shatz observes in the introduction to the new edition, it not only “resonates with contemporary concerns about privilege and identity”, but “its treatment of these questions is defiantly heterodox”. Having a white skin, Smith insists, is not always a sign of privilege; being black is not necessarily to be disadvantaged. Context is all-important. The novel is equally acute in its portrayal of France. A nation that prided itself on its universalist principles, that had embraced black Americans, but had, no less than America, constructed its own “niggers”.

I was reminded of The Stone Face while watching the almost simultaneous news from Paris last week of the honouring of Josephine Baker and the announcement by Éric Zemmour that he is standing in next year’s French presidential elections. Exposed here were both sides of France’s attitude to race.

In an elaborate ceremony, Baker was afforded a place in the Panthéon, the Paris mausoleum where many of France’s greatest sons and daughters are buried. Born in St Louis, Missouri, in the 1906, at the height of Jim Crow apartheid, Baker was among the first African Americans to take refuge in France. After making her name as an entertainer at the Folies-Bergère, she joined the Resistance during the Second World War, before playing her part in the postwar civil rights struggle in America.

For the French authorities, celebrating Baker was a means of extolling a form of colour-blind universalism while challenging perfidious Anglo-Saxon politics of identity. “Her cause was universalism,” President Macron told the Panthéon audience, her goal not “to define herself as black before defining herself as American or French”.

Zemmour has a very different notion of what it is to be French. A writer, broadcaster and polemicist, Zemmour views French Muslims as “colonisers” and immigration as an “invasion”. He promotes the “Great Replacement theory”, which claims that whites are being deliberatelyreplaced by black and brown immigrants. Zemmour is Jewish but is sympathetic to the wartime Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis, insisting that it protected French Jews by allowing only foreign-born ones to be deported to Nazi concentration camps. This is a historical calumny, but even were it true, it would be a deeply immoral defence of Vichy.

Zemmour belongs to a reactionary tradition that harks back 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 because, as the 19th-century novelist Maurice Barrès insisted, it seeks to “detach” French people “from the soil and from their social group, to take them out of their prejudices”.

In Barrès’s day, Jews were the embodiment of everything the reactionaries despised – a people unrooted, un-French, liberal, cosmopolitan. Today, it is primarily Muslims who are seen as the enemy within. And not just by reactionaries but by many liberals, too; by many who would applaud the honouring of Josephine Baker and see themselves as standing within the universalist, republican tradition.

“Zemmour’s ideas are extremist, racist and exclusionary”, Shatz observed in a recent essay, “but the groundwork for his rise was laid by mainstream intellectuals and politicians”. Intellectuals and politicians who have responded to the rise of the far right by embracing hardline rhetoric about immigration and the threat of Muslims to “our way of life” and, in so doing, providing even more fuel for reactionary ideas.

The universalist belief that one should treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is a valuable principle. In practice, however, French policy has entailed being blind to racism in the name of being “colour blind” and deeming certain groups, whether Jews or Muslims, as not belonging to the nation, the “Other” against which French national identity is defined.

The Stone Face ends with the events of 17 October 1961, when a large demonstration in support of the Algerian independence struggle was met with unprecedented police brutality. Between 100 and 300 people are likely to have been killed, many after having been tortured. Dozens were thrown into the Seine, their bodies washing up on the banks in the following days.

It was the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in western Europe in modern times. Yet, until relatively recently, there was silence about it. Not until 2012 did a French president, François Hollande, even acknowledge the massacre. This year, on the 60th anniversary, President Macron called it an “unforgivable crime”.

It is a silence that speaks of a universalism that refuses to be truly universal but finds succour from the exclusion of particular groups from the national body. And as long as it does so, it will provide cover for figures such as Zemmour. As William Gardner Smith reminded us half a century ago, one cannot challenge identity-based politics or embrace a universalist vision without challenging also the reality of racism and the politics of exclusion.


  1. Antifarage

    “Zemmour’s ideas are extremist, racist and exclusionary…” From Shatz’s lips to God’s ears! And those ideas appeal only to whites, which is why France’s future is looking better and better, thanx to the irresistible and irreversible growth in communities of colour there.

    This analysis applies to every other country harbouring a Zemmour-alike (the Orange Racist in the US, Johnson and Farage in the UK, etc). Immigration is the most progressive force on earth, because it first dilutes and then dominates and ultimately destroys the fascist white bloc that votes for hate. Zemmourisme is the last spasm of an expiring beast. Vive la France!

  2. Kenan Malik is a clever man and usually avoids repeating fashionable claptrap. But this article shows that he too can be hoodwinked by establishment propaganda. As I will show, there’s no substitute for doing your own research instead of relying on the MSM.
    The idea that mass immigration into Europe leads to ethnic replacement has been broadcast under the name of “great replacement”. It has been harshly condemned as a reactionary fantasy and an expression of white supremacism. However those who condemn it never cite any demographic literature. Perhaps the reason they refrain from citing any demographers is because the great replacement view was asserted unequivocally in 2006 by David Coleman, a professor of demography at Oxford University, in an article called “Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-Fertility Countries”, in which he wrote:
    “This article explores the implications of the recent trends and projections of the ethnic or foreign-origin populations of selected European countries. It suggests that if the composition of these European populations continues to change as projected, the resulting ethnic and social transformation should be regarded as a “third demographic transition.” On conservative assumptions, the foreign-origin proportions of these populations are projected to rise to between 15 percent and over 30 percent by mid-century with almost linear rates of change.”
    Source: Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-Fertility Countries: A Third Demographic Transition, by David Coleman, in Population and Development Review, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Sep., 2006), pp. 401-446 (46 pages), published by the Population Council
    It’s natural to believe that Renaud Camus is a racist and frets about the white man’s future. After all, Le Monde says so and the New York Times says so and Wikipedia says so (both French and English editions), so it must be true. But that was not the impression I got when I read his book. Here is a brief passage that I translated myself from the French, since the English edition is unobtainable:
    Renaud Camus The Great Replacement pp 19-20 of French edition
    It’s true that individuals can become part of a people, integrate into it, assimilate into it; and in France there have always been people who have done so, out of love for its language, its culture, its civilization, its landscapes, its history, its art of living, and simply out of love for France.

    But I have a friend, a young man, a Frenchman of Moroccan background, who is deeply attached to France, to its culture and to the French language, and is very grateful to our common homeland for all that it has done for him, he tells me. He is a teacher at a priority education zone in the Paris region. All [start page 20] his pupils, almost without exception, come from the other side of the Mediterranean, just like his own family. But he assures me that everything that in-nocents [this is a term that Camus invented and means more or less “French patriots”] like me say [about Arab youth in France] is not only true and relevant, but actually understates the way the adolescents who fill his classroom talk and think. I concede that they do not actually use the term “colonization“ but conquest is very much on their minds, and conquest is reflected in their attitudes and their speech, and in their eyes conquest is inevitable, it is merely a matter of time – and they eagerly look forward to it and take great pride in it.
    They laugh when their teacher, my friend, tells them that he is French just like them. They cannot believe for an instant that he is speaking seriously. They think he is trying to gross them out by saying such nonsense. When he actually told them that he was not only a Frenchman but a French patriot and very proud of his French homeland, they felt that he was really going too far, it was no longer funny, he should not talk like that, he was overdoing it.

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