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A Martin Luther King tribute video containing white faces only shows how equality remains a dream for ethnic minorities in France.

September 2, 2023 at 11:38 am

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August, 1963

Even in an age when efforts towards inclusivity are sometimes overdone, the way France released a video commemorating Martin Luther King containing white faces only was truly jaw-dropping.

It is almost beyond comprehension that a country that regularly describes itself as the home of human rights, and high ideals including equality and fraternity, could behave with such wooden headed insensitivity.

Yet – despite the outcry which followed – Gabriel Attal, the bumbling new Education Secretary in Paris, has actually tried to make excuses for the outrage. His weasel words say much about France’s treatment of ethnic minorities, and indeed the racist sentiment that persists in a country that is meant to have gone through an Enlightenment.

To understand the depth of the scandal, we need to examine the thought processes and actions that created it. They involved senior French politicians and civil servants coming up with the idea of a video marking the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington D.C., led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The highpoint of the historic August 28th 1963 event was King making his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he spoke out against black Americans still being “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

King said they remained “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” effectively making a black man an “exile in his own land”.

It was as important to look towards a better world in 2023 as it was in 1963, the French decided, and so they wanted five children to appear in an English language video that followed in the tradition of King’s call for civil rights. Each would make their own speech, starting with the words, “I Have a Dream”.

So far so good: statistics suggest there are seven million immigrants in France, and that number doubles when you add anyone with an immigrant parent.

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Many have roots in France’s former colonial Empire and are thus black or brown skinned. A very large proportion – just like those who were being abused during the King era – are from African backgrounds, and they continue to suffer rank discrimination to this day.

In which case, it would have been entirely logical to make sure that at least some of the children chosen to make their “I Have a Dream” speech were from such minority backgrounds. As King himself put it: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

Instead, the children selected were all of “traditional” French heritage, to use the euphemism favoured by many nationalists in a country which regularly votes en masse for the far-Right Rassemblement National (National Rally, NR). Its leader, Marine Le Pen, is from a political dynasty that has routinely discriminated against immigrants, and particularly those who are non-white. Her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is a convicted racist, anti-Semite and Islamophobe who remains hugely popular with the NR rank-and-file.

Bigoted sentiment is by no means the exclusive domain of such extremists either. Attal, who is extremely close to President Emmanuel Macron, claims to be a moderate but thinks nothing of spreading prejudice for political capital.

Just before the King polemic, Attal was widely criticised for banning girls in state schools from wearing the abaya – a robe associated with Muslims, including plenty with brown skin. Attal alleged this was in line with France’s strict secularism laws – ones that ban religious symbols in most public places.

In turn, Loubna Regui, president of the ELF-Muslim Students of France, said such a move was “inherently racist”, because it made an issue of the kind of clothes ordinary Muslim women and girls choose to wear, so demonising them, and leaving them open to abuse.

Critics of the online video were similarly scathing, with Paris councillor Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu among the many who denounced its “cynicism, stupidity and absurdity”.

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In fact, abayas are not overtly religious garments, but ones that say more about a wearer’s cultural links with Africa or the Middle East than any devotion to Islamic scripture. Enforcers of the ban will certainly find it hard to tell the difference between a loose-fitting abaya and other types of long dress.

The truth is that France’s version of secularism – which is known as läicité – has long been weaponised to discriminate against Muslim women in multiple fields, from education to sport. The ambiguous, very confusing edicts linked to läicité also regularly violate religious freedom – something they are not meant to do.

While standing firm over the abaya, Attal tried to close down the attacks on him over the King commemoration film by saying that it was made in the presence of Pap Ndiaye, his predecessor, who was the first black person to become Education Minister in France.

The “one of my old colleagues is black” excuse sounded especially weak considering Ndiaye was sacked last summer. A common tactic among politicians acting in a bigoted manner is to involve ethnic minority members. The RN has done it, and Macron’s administration is clearly not averse to the practice either.

Moreover, Attal further attempted to justify the video by saying that all the white children in the clip had won an English Language competition. The implication was that black African or Caribbean kids, for example, were simply not good enough to succeed, which is equally outrageous.

The French reject multiculturalism in the name of their commitment to equality, arguing that the population should not be divided according to the colour of skin, or because of any kind of physical or cultural difference.

Rather than being fair, this in fact makes the problem of inequality impossible to deal with. The notion of the so-called “colour-blind Republic” – as its defenders call it – means that everybody is considered an equal citizen before the law, no matter what the specific problems that are holding them back, or even making their lives intolerable.

Thus, a black child who complains that he is continually racially profiled, while living in abject poverty on a sink estate where advancement is unattainable, is effectively told that he is just like everyone else, and should stop moaning.

Such a child is just the kind that King had in mind when he made his most famous ever civil rights speech in 1963. That – 60 years on – France remains full of such children says everything about how the global fight for equality and justice is still based on a dream.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.