In a speech to France’s National Assembly on Tuesday, Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer made an unexpected announcement: He apparently plans to sue a local teachers union for defamation because it used the phrase racisme d’état—state-sanctioned racism, roughly.
The story hasn’t received much attention from the foreign press. It ought to.
Not only does Blanquer’s lawsuit betray a cold-blooded attack on organized labor, a sort of below-the-belt complement to the government’s sweeping anti-union reforms. But by specifically targeting Sud Education 93, a left-wing union based in the famously diverse and working-class northeastern suburbs of Paris, the minister is channelling some of the country’s most harmful and retrograde views on race.
The pending court case stems from a specific incident: Sud Education 93’s plans to hold two days of “anti-racist” training for members in mid-December, focusing on topics like racism and Islamophobia. One workshop promises “tools to deconstruct prejudices of race, gender and class”; another tackles the “experience of ‘racialized’ teachers”—in the US, we’d say something like people of color. Both workshops were presented to members as “racially non-mixed” spaces. In the US, we’d say something like a “POC only space.”
Far-right bloggers caught wind of the upcoming event earlier this month, bemoaning the excesses of the anti-racist left in predictable fashion and spreading the news on social media. Then it got picked up by the minister.
While speaking to the Assembly on Tuesday, Blanquer called out the union by name and condemned its upcoming training session.
“We talk about ‘racially non-mixed [spaces],’ we talk about ‘whiteness,’ we talk about “racialized” [people], that is to say, the most dreadful words in political vocabulary are used under the banner of so-called anti-racism while, in fact, they obviously convey racism.”
Earning applause from legislators, Blanquer proceeded to a critique of the union’s use of the phrase “state-sanctioned racism” and said he would be suing over it. This last bit earned a standing ovation from the Assembly, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche, holds a clear majority.
A minor but telling detail in the video of Blanquer’s speech bears mention. At 2:00, just as the minister finishes, the camera shows a visibly giddy Marine Le Pen getting up to clap. The camera pans back to her at around 2:10. The president of the National Front can barely contain her enthusiasm.
The whole episode is almost hard to believe. Here we have one of the most high-ranking officials in the French government parroting one of the most laughably racist talking points familiar to American ears: the idea that anti-racism is actually its own form of discrimination. This is not a dark corner of Reddit, this is not a #MAGA-emblazoned Twitter account, this is not an anti-Sharia law blog. This is the minister of education addressing Parliament.
One’s opinions about the political utility of activist spaces reserved for people affirming specific identities are beside the point. Well-intentioned anti-racists have debated the subject on both sides of the Atlantic and will likely continue to do so. The larger point—the one that’s far more alarming to anyone concerned about racism today—is that a government that owes its very existence to France’s rejection of the far-right is now regurgitating the latter’s demented talking points.
It’s also true France as a whole has a race problem it doesn’t like talking about. The state is officially race-blind and thus doesn’t collect data on the religious or ethnic background of citizens. In theory, this is because everyone is equal in the eyes of the Republic. Of course, in practice, people of color suffer discrimination from cops and bosses, just like they do in the United States. While activists have increasingly forced people to reckon with these hypocrisies—words like “racialized” (racisé) and “state-sanctioned racism” (racisme d’état) are part of this effort—Blanquer’s argument flows from a sort of cartoonish French denial to recognize difference.
The legal standing of the minister’s claim against Sud Education 93 is unclear and he hasn’t responded to press queries to clarify. Either way, the response of Sud’s parent union, Solidaires, is worth considering. It tackles Blanquer’s outlandish claim that the phrase “state-sanctioned racism” is somehow defamatory.
“Racism exists in our societies. And ‘state-sanctioned’ racism too. It’s not a slogan, it’s a concept used by researchers but also by dozens of unions, non-profits and political groups. A quick search on the Internet would permit JM Blanquer to realize this. Statistics, studies and research completed at the request of ministers themselves show situations of discrimination linked to one’s real or supposed origins, to names, to neighborhoods, in society, in the public sector, in school…”