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Race-Baiting from the Highest Levels

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…”


Some Thoughts On Jean-Luc Mélenchon

People in the U.S. keep asking me about the electoral prospects of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing presidential candidate skyrocketing in the polls just two weeks from the first round. Instead of continuing to respond individually and/or composing an annoying tweet storm, I thought I’d share my thoughts in full sentences here.

The Data

Mélenchon is surging like nobody else.

He’s now the most popular politician in France according to a monthly survey released last week. Fifty-one percent of correspondents said they liked him, a 19 percent jump from the previous month. Mélenchon was also the only one to earn a rating above 50%, beating out all of his presidential competitors, Macron (44%), Hamon (33%), Le Pen (32%), Fillon (23%).

He’s also soaring in the presidential polls. Over the weekend, one survey had JLM at 19%, tied with François Fillon for third, just behind Le Pen and Macron who were both at 23%. Another one had him at 18%, ahead of Fillon (17%), and behind Le Pen and Macron, both at 24%.

Appropriately, that second poll also tested how Mélenchon might actually fare in the second round. Very well: It found him trouncing Le Pen by a 57-43 percent margin—more than Fillon’s 55-45 advantage. It also tested how JLM might fare against the frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, who’d win by a close 53-47 margin. Still, naysayers have warned the presence of Mélenchon in the run-off phase will greatly increase the likelihood of a Le Pen victory. Those fears look unfounded.

Mélenchon also had a late surge before the 2012 presidential election but ultimately finished with just 11 percent of the vote. This year’s campaign is different for a lot of reasons: For one, it’s organized under an independent label, La France Insoumise, as opposed to the Left Front. But it’s also taking place in an incredibly volatile national political climate. The two traditional parties have fielded deeply unpopular candidates and the National Front is poised for a historically strong showing.

All that said, Mélenchon’s numbers today are better than they ever were in the run-up to the last election. His best showing then was 17 percent, just nine days before the vote, solidly behind François Hollande (27%) and Nicolas Sarkozy (26%).

He’s now just 4 points behind the leaders.

The Zeitgest

In the tradition of a certain lazy, mustachioed columnist, I want to share a couple of anecdotes. On Friday night, I was grabbing drinks with some friends at a cheap bar in a gentrifying neighborhood in northeastern Paris when the conversation turned to the election. These are nice people in their mid-twenties who in any other race would be voting for the Socialist Party. I was surprised to learn they both backed Mélenchon. That alone was unexpected, but then they started referencing and discussing his campaign proposals in depth—the Plan A and Plan B for reforming the European Union, why France should leave NATO, the need for a Sixth Republic, etc.

On Sunday, another liberal friend of mine told me she was planning to vote for Mélenchon. She was originally going to vote PS but with the current state of Hamon’s campaign feels like a vote for Mélenchon makes more sense.

It reminds me of when Bernie Sanders really starting taking off. There was a vague point at which things started to click—when the liberals and the non-political people around me started to take him seriously. When they started unexpectedly bringing him up in conversation, talking about things like Medicare-for-all or free college tuition. This feels a lot like that.

Take a look at this video of Mélenchon’s rally in Marseille this weekend. You don’t have to speak French—just watch the first two minutes to get a sense of the massive crowd, the energy and the excitement. None of the other candidates are doing this right now.

It’s really anyone’s guess who’ll be in the second round. But it’s clear Mélenchon has as good of a shot as anyone as qualifying—and ultimately of winning the presidency.

Of course, Sanders ended up losing.