Just 36 hours after Rokhaya Diallo joined a government panel in December, the black feminist daughter of Muslim Senegalese and Gambian immigrants was forced out — mostly, she says, for daring to talk about structural racism in public. An explosive debate has since ensued over freedom of speech and the meaning of “state racism” in the storied republic of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Many saw Emmanuel Macron’s French presidential victory as the harbinger of a new, more inclusive society. But for Diallo — who earns her living writing about race in a country where the government officially eschews the concept — the country he leads is still governed by a white majority that, despite its aspirational rhetoric, has little interest in bridging the gaps between people of color and everyone else.
“Many people from the elite are comfortable being surrounded only by white people and acting as if racism doesn’t have any effect,” Diallo said, adding that the new president is no exception.
Diallo’s critics, including a senior official from France’s mainstream right-wing party, Les Républicains, portrayed the writer and broadcaster as an extremist whose views had no place on a government body. They objected to her criticisms of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which has been the target of several violent attacks, and her casting of women’s right to wear the veil as a feminist cause. Above all, however, Diallo has been denounced for circulating, in venues as public as the United Nations, the idea of state racism.
In a country where the government refuses even to collect official statistics on race or ethnicity, on the grounds that all citizens are equal in the state’s eyes, the notion that the state might treat different groups differently was always going to be inflammatory.
“Most of the people in France who are decision-makers try to avoid the topic of race, and when you push them to face it, they call you a radical,” Diallo, 39, said in an interview last week. She was sipping hot chocolate in the cafe at Station F, the start-up campus in southeastern Paris that is widely seen as a symbol of Macron’s new vision for France.
Few public figures in France elicit as much vitriol as Diallo — and it does not all flow from the right. Other French feminists, most of them white, also say they are mystified by the attention Diallo has garnered in British and American media.
To them, Diallo’s Anglo-American supporters ignore what they see as the threat of “Islamism” in a society that has weathered a string of terrorist attacks in recent years, many at the hands of militants dispatched or inspired by the Islamic State. It’s a threat, they worry, that is only fueled by Diallo’s views on race.
“I’ve never heard her defend anything but the veil and basically attack feminists for defending the bodies of other women. She attacks only Islamophobia,” Caroline Fourest, a feminist writer and radio presenter, said in an interview. “But we live in a society where some radical Muslims are intolerant, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic.”
Diallo rejects those critiques.
France “doesn’t handle the reality that there are people at the intersection of both fights,” she said, referring to the struggles against racism and sexism. “White feminists attack Muslim women because they wear the hijab, instead of standing for them and pushing for them to be free.”