Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for families, children and women’s rights, was asked on Wednesday by the radio station RMC for her views on the recent trend among Western fashion houses to produce clothes, such as the ‘burkini’, aimed at observant Muslim women. She said she thought it was an ‘irresponsible’ decision that encouraged ‘the imprisonment of women’s bodies’. But didn’t some women choose to dress that way? Yes, and ‘there were also American nègres who supported slavery,’ she said.

Her comments caused an immediate storm on social media where, for the benefit of English-speakers, the word ‘nègre’ was initially translated as ‘nigger’ – by, among others, Yasser Louati of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. The reaction from anti-racist and Muslim groups was fierce. It was as if Rossignol had ‘set out to help the recruiters of Daesh’, according to Abdallah Zekri, the president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia.

The international English-language press, which reported the story yesterday, collectively decided (without a single exception) to translate ‘nègre’ as ‘negro’. The consensus was so pronounced that some journalists who had initially translated the word in stronger terms, or used asterisks, deleted their earlier tweets. The translation changed the focus of the story. The Telegraph, for example, ran the headline ‘France says Marks and Spencer burkini “irresponsible”’ above an article that didn’t even mention the controversy over Rossignol’s choice of words.

The French term ‘nègre’ has a particular history, and no exact equivalent in English. It is the most offensive way to refer to someone of African descent (which is why it is often translated as the n-word). However, like the word ‘Negro’ in English, it was also subject to a campaign of appropriation by some African and African-Caribbean people after the end of the First World War.

The négritude literary and philosophical movement of the late 1930s is the most well-known proponent of this appropriation. But the reclamation of ‘nègre’ began earlier, when the Comité de Défense de la Race Nègre was formed by the Senegalese activist Lamine Senghor, who had split from the French Communist Party over its lack of interest in Africa and the Caribbean. The committee published a vibrant though short-lived newspaper, La Voix des Nègres, the first issue of which included a striking defence of the term ‘Nègre’.

The imperialists, Senghor argued, were trying to divide black racial unity by allowing those who had adopted Western customs to call themselves ‘noir’. Men with European university degrees could even progress to ‘men of colour.’ Meanwhile, ‘nègre’, ‘the dirty word of today’, was applied to unprivileged black people, ‘those who are exploited in the cotton fields of the Niger valley’ and ‘the sugarcane cutters in the plantation fields of Martinique and Guadeloupe’. It was with them that Senghor and his organisation wanted to express their solidarity, their common blackness. ‘We bring ourselves honour and glory by calling ourselves Nègres, with a capital N,’ Senghor wrote.

The defiance was carried over into the négritude movement, representing a rejection of the French ‘assimilationist’ model. But there were critics too, most notably Wole Soyinka, who scoffed: ‘A tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigritude. It jumps on its prey.’

As with ‘Negro’ in English, ‘Nègre’ lost ground in French in favour of ‘noir’, while retaining its pejorative power and its continued appropriation in some black cultures, such as hip hop. But France hasn’t seen the discussions about terminology that have taken place in the US and UK (collecting statistics on ethnicity and race is banned). The official term for a ghostwriter in French is still ‘nègre’.

Manuel Valls, the prime minister, was once filmed complaining there were too many dark-skinned people at a market: ‘Give me a few blancs, a few whites, a few blancos,’ he said. A senior member of the Socialist Party was expelled in 2007 after complaining about the number of black players on the French football team. For many people, Rossignol’s use of the term ‘nègre’ to condemn the way Muslim women dress demonstrated the ongoing links between anti-Muslim and anti-black prejudice in France.

The choice by the British media to translate ‘nègre’ as ‘negro’ wasn’t inaccurate, but it was misleading. Rossignol, meanwhile, told AFP that her use of the word ‘nègre’ was merely a reference to an abolitionist tract by Montesquieu. ‘Apart from the slip of the tongue,’ she insisted, ‘I don’t take back a word I said.’

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