“How does it feel to be a white man?” Simeon was not a white man. He was an African American who had left his homeland to escape the ferocious racism every African American faced and sought shelter in Paris. There, he had got into a fight in a bar with an Algerian. The police threw the Algerian into jail. Simeon they let go. In Paris, it was the light-skinned Algerian who was treated like blacks back home, the dark-skinned American to whom the authorities show deference. “How does it feel to be a white man?” taunted the Algerian.
Simeon is the central character in William Gardner Smith’s newly republished 1963 novel The Stone Face. Smith, like Simeon, like many black Americans in the middle decades of the last century, found in France a refuge from the segregation and bigotry that scarred America. “There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America!” claimed the novelist Richard Wright in his essay I Choose Exile.
Unlike Wright, however, Smith became increasingly aware of the ambiguous place he occupied in French society. “We’re the n****** here,” an Algerian tells Simeon. African Americans may have felt free in France, but for others, freedom was as circumscribed as it was for blacks in America.
African Americans may have felt free in France, but for others, freedom was as circumscribed as it was for blacks in America
The Stone Face can be clunky and didactic at times. Yet, as the American cultural critic Adam Shatz observes in the introduction to the new edition, it not only “resonates with contemporary concerns about privilege and identity”, but “its treatment of these questions is defiantly heterodox”. Having a white skin, Smith insists, is not always a sign of privilege; being black is not necessarily to be disadvantaged. Context is all-important. The novel is equally acute in its portrayal of France. A nation that prided itself on its universalist principles, that had embraced black Americans, but had, no less than America, constructed its own “n******”.
I was reminded of The Stone Face while watching the almost simultaneous news from Paris last week of the honouring of Josephine Baker and the announcement by Éric Zemmour that he is standing in next year’s French presidential elections. Exposed here were both sides of France’s attitude to race.
In an elaborate ceremony, Baker was afforded a place in the Panthéon, the Paris mausoleum where many of France’s greatest sons and daughters are buried. Born in St Louis, Missouri, in the 1906, at the height of Jim Crow apartheid, Baker was among the first African Americans to take refuge in France. After making her name as an entertainer at the Folies-Bergère, she joined the Resistance during the Second World War, before playing her part in the postwar civil rights struggle in America.
For the French authorities, celebrating Baker was a means of extolling a form of colour-blind universalism while challenging perfidious Anglo-Saxon politics of identity. “Her cause was universalism,” President Macron told the Panthéon audience, her goal not “to define herself as black before defining herself as American or French”.
Zemmour has a very different notion of what it is to be French. A writer, broadcaster and polemicist, Zemmour views French Muslims as “colonisers” and immigration as an “invasion”. He promotes the “Great Replacement theory”, which claims that whites are being deliberatelyreplaced by black and brown immigrants. Zemmour is Jewish but is sympathetic to the wartime Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis, insisting that it protected French Jews by allowing only foreign-born ones to be deported to Nazi concentration camps. This is a historical calumny, but even were it true, it would be a deeply immoral defence of Vichy.
Zemmour belongs to a reactionary tradition that harks back to opponents of the French Revolution and views liberalism, secularism and cosmopolitanism as enemies of the social order and of true French values. The liberal universalist ethos is corrosive because, as the 19th-century novelist Maurice Barrès insisted, it seeks to “detach” French people “from the soil and from their social group, to take them out of their prejudices”.
In Barrès’s day, Jews were the embodiment of everything the reactionaries despised – a people unrooted, un-French, liberal, cosmopolitan. Today, it is primarily Muslims who are seen as the enemy within. And not just by reactionaries but by many liberals, too; by many who would applaud the honouring of Josephine Baker and see themselves as standing within the universalist, republican tradition.
“Zemmour’s ideas are extremist, racist and exclusionary,” Shatz observed in a recent essay, “but the groundwork for his rise was laid by mainstream intellectuals and politicians.” Intellectuals and politicians who have responded to the rise of the far right by embracing hardline rhetoric about immigration and the threat of Muslims to “our way of life” and, in so doing, providing even more fuel for reactionary ideas.
The universalist belief that one should treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is a valuable principle. In practice, however, French policy has entailed being blind to racism in the name of being “colour blind” and deeming certain groups, whether Jews or Muslims, as not belonging to the nation, the “Other” against which French national identity is defined.
The Stone Face ends with the events of 17 October 1961, when a large demonstration in support of the Algerian independence struggle was met with unprecedented police brutality. Between 100 and 300 people are likely to have been killed, many after having been tortured. Dozens were thrown into the Seine, their bodies washing up on the banks in the following days.
It was the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in western Europe in modern times. Yet, until relatively recently, there was silence about it. Not until 2012 did a French president, François Hollande, even acknowledge the massacre. This year, on the 60th anniversary, President Macron called it an “unforgivable crime”.
It is a silence that speaks of a universalism that refuses to be truly universal but finds succour from the exclusion of particular groups from the national body. And as long as it does so, it will provide cover for figures such as Zemmour. As William Gardner Smith reminded us half a century ago, one cannot challenge identity-based politics or embrace a universalist vision without challenging also the reality of racism and the politics of exclusion.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist