N is for Muslim

Musab Younis

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.’

Read more in the London Review of Books

Jeremy Harding: Marianne gets rid of the veil · 19 February 2004

Stephen W. Smith: The French Retreat from Africa · 11 February 2010

Megan Vaughan: Frantz Fanon · 18 October 2001


  • 1 April 2016 at 4:53pm
    Graucho says:
    Gesture politics is something of a bete noire with this correspondent. Less time and energy spent fussing over a word and more time and energy spent fussing over jobs, housing, education and opportunity - the things that actually do matter and make a difference - the better. I look forwards to the day when black people - if that is the current PC term - walk around wearing T-shirts proclaiming Proud to be a Nigger just to put an end to this cosmetic irrelevance.

    • 1 April 2016 at 7:23pm
      rae donaldson says: @ Graucho
      The real point here isn't the use of 'negre'-indicative as it may be- but the fatuous parallel between chattel slavery and choosing to wear a headscarf.

    • 1 April 2016 at 8:31pm
      Graucho says: @ rae donaldson
      That may indeed be the point of the article and obsessing on fashion is equally irrelevant, but it was the word that caused the furore and bought the interview to world attention. The hostility of the French to the wearing of the hijab in schools is well known on the grounds that the zealots identify non wearers and coerce them. Some of my formative years were spent in Malaysia when wearing the hijab amongst Malays was a rarity one remarked on, not now. The minister's interview was unwise to say the least, but using the wearing of religious symbols to exert political control is something that should concern us all.

    • 2 April 2016 at 1:11am
      joaoaorodrigues says: @ Graucho
      I stepped into a fight today. It was not about small words. A white man in his mid-fifties was beating a 13 year old black boy because the boy had broken the man's garage window with a stone. After I stopped and reproached the man - who was twice the size of the boy - he provoked me: "Was I being too white?" The neighborhood we were in does need jobs, housing, education and opportunities, but you are a fool - sorry for not being PC - if you believe you can get it without addressing issues of institutional discrimination and racism.

    • 2 April 2016 at 8:52am
      Graucho says: @ joaoaorodrigues
      The man was committing a criminal offence and should have been arrested and charged. Cases like this and Stephen Lawrence are ones that do need to be addressed as they involve physical acts that directly affect peoples lives as opposed to mere words.

  • 3 April 2016 at 1:39pm
    Graucho says:
    Quite recently a famous British actor got into hot water for using the word coloured, yet I can remember when the main organisation fighting for civil rights in the U.S. was the NAACP where the C stood for coloured. The whole area of acceptable terminology has become a minefield and reactions disproportionate. There is a world of difference between people being stupid/lazy/forgetful/boorish e.g. the minister and Mr. Clarkson and Mr. Griffiths who infamously campaigned in Smethwick on the slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote labour" and to the eternal shame of the constituency and the Conservative party won against the national trend. This was politics well within the audible range, the dog whistlers, on the other hand, are the most scrupulous of all when it comes to avoiding pejorative language that will overtly reveal their true intent. What sticks out for me is that when the Met refused to investigate a murder case just because the victim was black, it was a campaign by one of the U.K.'s most notoriously right wing papers that actually got something done about it. The brouhaha's over the inadvertant use of terminology are in comparison full of sound and fury signifying very little.

    • 9 April 2016 at 8:00pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Graucho
      Listening to a public radio broadcast a few days ago, I heard the following. The show was about an upcoming folk-music festival to be held in Brooklyn, NYC. The interviewer asked one of the two guests, a black performer with the colorful name of Jerron "Blind-boy" Paxton, a question about how this music came to be popular in the neighborhood in L.A. where Paxton lived. He said, "Well, you know this neighborhood is full of colored people from Louisiana who brought their music with them . . ." "Colored people" was the informal polite term for American black (or Afro-American) citizens back in the 1950s, when I was a kid. If you use it today, folks - both black and white - seem a little confused in their reaction. But both the "polite formal" and polite informal" terms for a lot of things, including group or ethnic identities, is always changing.

  • 4 April 2016 at 1:30am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Boy, is Graucho grouchy on this point, though his intentions appear benign. Back in the good old USA, "the land of opportunity", whose streets paved with gold lead the innocent wanderer into perdition, I remember the academic brouhaha that broke out some years ago when well-intentioned people got very exercised over the issue of whether or not the word "nigger" should be excised from Twain's "Huckleberry Finn". I suppose Conrad's novella, "The Nigger of the Narcissus" was treated with equal wariness. There were objections to the use of this word in the book's title, but not on account of any ethnic sensitivity - as a current Wikipedia entry puts it: "In the United States, the novel was first published under the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence by the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word "nigger" in its title, not because the word was deemed offensive, but because a book about a black man would not sell." A novel today using the N-word in the title would be OK if written by a black author, but not so if written by a white author. Maybe this represents some kind of progress in human affairs, and it should not be chalked up to hypocrisy or a double standard. Such cases don't really present any cause for perplexity for either the black or white reader who exercises common sense, knowing that whitewashing history or retroactively censoring specific words from the historical record is a bad idea in general. We should know what our ancestors thought even when those thoughts were malicious or just plain carelessly offensive.

  • 4 April 2016 at 5:46am
    Joe Morison says:
    I hate the colour terms, they are all so absurdly inaccurate: we’re all people of colour, and nobody has ever been black or white. When my daughters were little and started becoming aware of it, I used to say ‘I’m pink, your mother’s brown, and you are gold’.

  • 4 April 2016 at 1:38pm
    mototom says:
    Nawal al-Saadawi has remarked that "makeup is the post-modern veil."

    Laurence Rossignol would do well to consider the significance of this observation.

    • 5 April 2016 at 8:14pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ mototom
      Mr. or Ms. Saadawi's remark is witty, but incorrect. The rationale of the veil is to conceal beauty or sexual attractiveness that might arouse sinful thoughts in men who are not the woman's husband. The purpose of make-up is just the opposite. Or perhaps not -- my wife of nearly 50 years has been telling me that women get dressed up and made up not for men, but to impress other women. Given the irrelevance of Saadawi's aphorism (a form of generalization that is always deficient with respect to messy reality), why would Rossignol benefit by paying attention to it? Ir's a nice one-liner, but shallow as can be

    • 6 April 2016 at 9:55am
      mototom says: @ Timothy Rogers
      If you bothered to investigate the thoughts of Nawal al-Saadawi, - and you should - you would see that her point is that "western" women are wrong if they think they are not complicit with patriarchy.

      If Laurence Rossignol really wanted to be progressive she would act in real solidarity with her Muslim sisters.

    • 7 April 2016 at 7:35pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ mototom
      Thanks for the invitation to further wisdom, but, no I won't be investigating those particular thoughts. The issue is too far down on my personal "bucket list" of reading projects to realistically expect that I'll ever arrive there.

  • 9 April 2016 at 10:22pm
    Rufo says:
    "Nègre" is also a way of saying "slave" - that is why ghost writers in France are referred to as "nègres". Translating it as "nigger" would be too strong in this context, translating it as "slave" would make sense since Rossignol was talking about slavery but would not allow people to understand the racist connotations which got people upset and for which she has apologized (a rare gesture for a politician…) All in all I think "negro" is a good choice. Not perfect, but translation is a tough game.

    Incidentally, a lot of people in France now say "black" to refer to a black person since even "noir" seems potentially charged.

    But all this talk about choice of words is missing the real point. Is Rossignol's parallel between slavery and wearing the veil (which she has *not* retracted) an accurate one? Are women wearing the veil out of free choice or because they are being pressured to do so by male figures in their community?

    For me the debate about the veil is secondary to what the veil represents - because of decades of proselytizing by Islamic groups (first the Tablighs and then the Salafists) you have a generation of people born in France who are far more fundamental in their religious beliefs than their parents were. And this has had detrimental effects on women's rights within those communities.

    I think the analogy with slavery is going too far but at the same time I don't think these women are totally free. The problem is that attacking women who choose to wear the veil is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted; government officials should have acted earlier to halt the spread of fundamentalism and also to address the underlying social problems that made people easy to prey to these false prophets.

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