French Feminism from the Intersections

“The main difference between Black people in France and in the U.S. is that in the U.S. people don’t question if you are American. In France you are always questioned.” Rokhaya Diallo—journalist, filmmaker, author and one of France’s most ardent activists—stands at the intersection of race and feminism, shouting through a bullhorn, holding a mirror up to France and demanding it come to terms with the fact that, as Baldwin concluded, “this world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

© Brigitte Sombié

Born in France to Senegalese parents, Diallo articulates the stratified experience, or “double consciousness” of being born and raised in a country that presents itself to the world as a post-racial empyrean where all its citizens are French sans hyphenation, yet its proclivity for bias persists.

Diallo offers an example of so-called ordinary racism she encounters frequently: “Oh, your French is so good. Where are you from?” When she affirms she was born and raised in France, she is met with further incredulity. “You need to give an explanation about your blackness,” she explains. “They need to understand how and why you are black. The feeling that you have is that you don’t belong. You are not truly French. It’s complicated because on one side you’re supposed to be only French, but when people see you they want you to say you are from another place.”

Diallo was one of 30 appointees named to France’s national digital council, an independent advisory commission called CNNum, last December. Far-right commentators, in response, stormed the Internet to denounce her appointment on the basis of her activism against state-sponsored racism and Islamophobia—and the government cowered in response. Diallo was expelled from the advisory body; the head, Marie Eckland, and a majority of the members stepped down in solidarity. “I was shocked because I have done or said nothing illegal. I felt that I couldn’t benefit from the freedom of speech that was the [subject of] the attack on France three years ago,” she says, referring to the Charlie Hebdo attack. “I would turn the TV or radio on and there was a national debate about whether I should stay or go.”   

Last February, a youth worker named Theo was a victim of a violent stop-and-search that ended with police tear gassing, beating and sodomizing him. The officers claimed Theo’s pants “slipped down on their own” and an expandable truncheon was “accidentally” inserted into the victim’s rectum. Diallo points to this case and another high profile case—that of Adama Traore who died of asphyxiation in police custody in 2016—as incontestable demonstrations of police brutality in France. Though the frequency of these events occurs on a different scale to that of the U.S., the scope of depravity is the same—yet conversation around racism in France is limited, despite conversations about racism happening there.

“Everyone is interested in racism as long as it happens in the U.S.,” Diallo declares in her documentary Not Yo Mama’s Movement, which exposes the French media’s double-standard for covering police brutality stateside, but not in France. Diallo traveled to Ferguson on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s untimely death and the birth of the Ferguson uprising to support her comrades on the ground and learn more about the roots and evolution of anti-racist activism and mobilization in the U.S.
Women of color in France, however, are affected differently. Religious symbols, like veils, have been banned in French public schools since 2004. In 2011, it became illegal to cover one’s face, which includes any type of face covering from a niqab to a helmet. Women who wear the hijab have been victims of harassment, assault and discrimination, with politicians bent on banning veils altogether. Diallo’s open support of a Muslim woman’s right to wear the veil is one way she is contributing to the reshaping of essentialist feminist dialogue in France.

Mainstream feminism in France has been mostly white,” says Diallo plainly. “The hijab ban was supported mainly by French feminists who said Muslim women must liberate themselves by removing the headscarf, which to me is quite oppressive. I see this as a very colonial way of thinking about how women should liberate themselves. They should free themselves while assimilating and looking like the traditional French woman? So there has been a divide in the feminist movement from that point.”

When asked to name an ally, Diallo calls up a member of the old guard: Christine Delphy. “She is a feminist from the 70s,” Diallo reminds me. “She’s a white French woman, but she went to the U.S. in the 60s and was inspired by the Civil Rights movement. She kind of imported [its ideals] to the feminist movement [in France] and she is still standing for minorities today. When the law that banned hijabs in schools [went into effect] she stood with Muslim women.”

Diallo is concerned too, with decolonizing homogenous standards of European beauty that for too long shamed women of color into acts of aesthetic inauthenticity. Her book Afro, featuring 100 portraits of Afro Parisians rocking natural hair, is an attestation of the repositioning of the black aesthetic. “The beauty promoted [in France] is white,” she counters. “Covers of French magazines do not show the plurality of beauty.” The project was accompanied by an exhibition last October, featuring 35 portraits from the book standing as a point of departure for discussions on race, identity and aesthetic values. An additional exhibition will take place next month, which will include headscarf and natural hair workshops, and film screenings—extolling and reifying the truth of black beauty.

It is Diallo’s inexhaustible dedication to anti-racist activism and intersectional feminism that have earned her a distinguished invitation from the United Nations. Declaring 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent, the UN brought Diallo and other notable figures from around the world, including the inimitable Michelle Obama, together this March for a panel discussion to “further underline the important contribution made by people of African descent to our societies and to propose concrete measures to promote their full inclusion and to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Unfazed by opposition and motivated by a truer sense of France’s ternary motto, Diallo is an envoy of black excellence recognized internationally for confronting the heteropatricarchy in tireless combat. And yet, her fight is only for the sake of self-love that will elude France so long as it rejects every freckle, kink, curl and wave in its own image.

Maria Luna is a freelance writer and associate lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London who has been published at the Huffington Post, LatinTRENDS and Latino Life UK, among others. When she is not writing about culture, intersectional feminism and race, she is editing her collection of short stories and critiquing pop culture.

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