Late last month, French far-right figurehead Marion Marechal hosted a conference in Paris featuring the country’s most prominent conservative polemicists. In an enthusiastic speech to the hundreds of attendees, the 29-year-old niece of the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen claimed that the French people risk “becoming a minority in the land of their ancestors” and asked her supporters to help her protect the white European culture from what she calls the “great replacement” by mass migration and “Islamisation”.
Controversial right-wing journalist Eric Zemmour, who has twice been convicted of inciting racial hatred, delivered the keynote address at the event. His violent diatribe was focused on a different threat supposedly facing French whiteness: The war on the heterosexual white male. In his speech, which quickly went viral in francophone far-right circles, Zemmour claimed, without a hint of irony, that Muslims, feminists, LGBTQ activists and every other marginalised group in the country are part of a grand conspiracy to “exterminate the heterosexual white male”.
While it is easy to cast aside Marechal and Zemmour’s words as baseless ramblings designed to fire up a racist fringe, they actually echo fears that are deep-rooted in the collective imagination of French people. These fears came to the fore last month when a black national icon dared to say something that is obvious to many across the world: from France to Italy to Europe in general, racism is a part of white culture.
On September 4, just a few days after black Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to monkey chants during a game between Inter Milan and Cagliari in Sardinia, retired French footballer Lilian Thuram said in an interview with Italian national sports newspaper Corriere Dello Sport that a culture of white supremacy is the underlying cause of the racist incidents that have blighted European football in recent years.
Thuram, who is the most capped player in the history of the French national team, said that it is not the world of football that is racist, but “Italian, French, European and, more generally, white culture”.
“Whites have decided they are superior to blacks and that they can do anything with them,” the footballer explained. “It is something that has been going on for centuries unfortunately and to change a culture is not easy.”
Thuram’s matter-of-fact analysis caused a storm of controversy across France. First, it was the usual far-right suspects who took issue with his assertion that racism is part and parcel of white culture. They vented their anger on social media, accusing Thuram, who is an acclaimed anti-racism activist, of being a racist himself.
From there, the controversy moved into the mainstream, with white journalists from across the political spectrum racing each other to condemn Thuram’s use of the phrase “white people” – supposedly an essentialisation of a race – and his “anti-white racism”. Thuram’s face was even on the cover of the conservative and identitarian news magazine Valeurs Actuelles, accompanied by the headline “Anti-white racists”.
Suddenly, racism in football was at the top of the agenda of the country’s most prominent social and political commentators. No one, however, was talking about black players being subjected to racist chants or bananas being thrown at them. No one was talking about the verbal abuse and trolling they continue to endure on social media simply because of the colour of their skin either. Instead, the entire country was talking about the alleged suffering of white people at the hands of blacks in general and black anti-racism activists in particular.
Some even went as far as to argue that white people are the real victims of racism in football. Prominent football pundit and TV personality Pierre Menes, for example, openly claimed that he believes the main problem with the sport is anti-white racism.
During a televised debate, Menes encouraged everyone questioning the existence of anti-white racism in football to go to a match in the Paris area. “Go to those games and count the whites on the field,” he said. “Usually only the goalkeeper and the right-back are white.” The pundit added that he tried to get his son, who he admitted has “no talent”, into football, but the child eventually had to give up the sport because he was discriminated against by black players.
Menes’ arguments are, of course, ridiculous – following a considerable backlash, he had to issue an apology on Twitter, saying he had been misunderstood. They, however, clearly reflect the fragility of French whiteness.
Race is a taboo subject in France, which claims to be “a colourblind country”. Therefore, a large portion of white people in France are not used to having frank conversations about race and racism. When they are forced to talk about the subject, they expertly move the focus of the discussion from racism itself to the hurt they feel when a black person dares to mention the existence and pervasiveness of white supremacy in France and beyond.
They insist “they do not see colour”, they say “they are against all forms of discrimination”, they accuse people of colour of “playing the race card”. They cannot see white supremacy is at the core of their country’s social structure because they have been raised to believe “white” is the norm, not an identity. The accusations of anti-white racism directed at the likes of Thuram, therefore, are little more than a coping mechanism. People who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and the role they play in the perseverance of a system built on white supremacy instead play the victim.
There is, of course, no such thing as anti-white racism. There cannot be anti-white racism in a white-majority European country like France, because racism cannot be reduced to the sum of isolated acts. What black people experience today in France is the result of a history of domination that started with slavery and colonialism. Black people in France exist in a system that was built long ago to oppress, silence and intimidate us. We experience institutional discrimination that influences our everyday lives in various ways – from healthcare to education, housing to police brutality.
In this system, a white person can, of course, still be exposed to hate, they can be bullied or even assaulted – and such incidents should be condemned – but they can never claim to be systematically oppressed because of their race. Being white is not a social or political handicap but a privilege in France. So, the systemic and institutional racism minorities in France are subject to can never be compared with the abuse or discrimination any white person experiences as an individual.
Today, French whiteness is in crisis. It is in crisis because minorities in France are finally in a position to voice their concerns and grievances in the mainstream and they are pressuring the country to have an honest and open conversation about race.
The toxic ideas of the likes of Marechal and Zemmour about the so-called “anti-white racism” and “the war on white people” are now resonating with white people across the political spectrum, because they are afraid to face their privilage and acknowledge that their dominant position in society is the result of centuries-old injustices. They are afraid to accept that “white” is an identity just like “brown” and “black” and not the universal “self” every single “other” is defined against.
Lilian Thuram became a target not because he said anything wrong or new, but because he touched a nerve. I suspect many more anti-racism activists are going to experience similar bursts of outrage in the near future. But one day, French society is going to run out of excuses to avoid having a real discussion about race. We are going to stop talking about made-up problems like anti-white racism and instead tackle the real issues that are dividing and crippling our nation. The panic that currently follows any minor comment on race and white supremacy makes me believe that the day of reckoning is now very near.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.