Rokhaya Diallo is almost exactly the same age as French President Emmanuel Macron, and like him, a fresh face in a political realm defined by tradition. But the likeness stops there.
Macron – white, male and bourgeois – is an embodiment of the French establishment: The son of two doctors from Amiens, he breezed through three of the country’s elite universities and a top investment bank on his path to the Elysee Palace. Diallo, the black feminist daughter of Muslim Senegalese and Gambian immigrants, grew up in a Paris suburb and earns her living writing about race in a country where the government officially eschews the concept.
In May 2017, Macron, a political outsider, won the presidency in a landslide at age 39. By contrast, just 36 hours after she joined a government panel in December, Diallo 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 Macron’s victory as the harbinger of a new, more inclusive society. But for Diallo, the France 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.
Diallo does not look particularly “radical”; in fact, she looks like any other young professional in Paris, juggling appointments on multiple devices and trying not to be late. But few public figures in France elicit as much vitriol – 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, notably in a long profile in Le Monde, has been accused of not condemning forcefully enough a controversial recent book titled “Whites, Jews and Us” by her longtime friend, the French Algerian activist Houria Bouteldja. “I have not read it yet,” Diallo said, noting that many of her campaigns have included condemnations of anti-Semitism, homophobia and other prejudices. “I’m being associated with comments that I never made.”
Her 2013 book, “How to Talk About Racism With Children,” includes a section on combating anti-Semitism.
“If you are a feminist, normally you are a universalist,” said Céline Pina, a writer and former politician in the Paris region. “Rokhaya Diallo calls for ‘ethnic feminism,’ whose principal fight is about the wearing of the veil. That is not a piece of clothing; it’s a symbol. It sends a clear message – that a woman is impure and that she has to cover her hair.”
Diallo rejects those critiques. “Actually, I don’t support the hijab as the hijab. I support – how can I say? – free choice,” she said. “The right for any woman to wear whatever she wants.”
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.”
To that end, some gender scholars see a strange convergence in France’s contemporary feminist discourse between the leftists and the hard right.
Because of their “all-or-nothing declarations against the veil in particular, and their angst around political Islam destroying the foundations of a secular Republic,” prominent leftist feminists such as Fourest and Pina “have failed to articulate a vision that is noticeably different than the current discourse of Marine Le Pen on the topic,” said Cécile Alduy, the author of a well-known book on Le Pen’s rhetoric and a professor of French politics at Stanford University, in an email.
All throughout the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen sought to use feminism as a means of denigrating Muslims.
Leftist feminists agree with Le Pen and her allies on next to nothing, but for Alduy and others, the differences between the two disappear when it comes to Islam.
“The problem with espousing absolute ‘secularist’ politics is that it starts to sound like what the far right is saying,” said Alduy.
When she talks about “state racism,” Diallo comes with statistics in hand. The most prominent example she cites is a January 2017 study by France’s public defender of civil liberties, on police brutality. According to the study, 40 percent of young people between ages 18 and 24 reported having been stopped by police, while 80 percent of men in that age range “perceived as black, Arab/from the Maghreb” said they were stopped.
“To me that’s racism sponsored by the state,” Diallo said.
To others, Diallo’s dismissal from the government’s digital advisory council – and that of Hicham Kochman, a rapper and defender of minority rights better known as “Axiom” – only underscored what they see as the limited public space afforded to minorities in France.
The government “helped her show how freedom of speech is different based on your color,” said Louis-Georges Tin, who chairs the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations. “In a way, she has made her point.”