The attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January 2015, during which fourteen people were killed, pose a specific problem for the white left. The call to contextualize Charlie Hebdo foregrounded a structurally white French context, in which people of colour and Muslims could be included only as loyal subjects of the Republic. The translations of France offered by French and Francophile leftists for their “Anglo-American” interlocutors, while revealing of the French dynamics of secularism, universalism, and coloniality, marginalised those “who could not be Charlie.” Instead, to use Barnor Hesse’s formulation, a “white analytics” was advanced that denied the centrality of the “black analytics” crucial for a complete understanding of both historical and contemporary French conflicts around race and religion (Hesse 2014). “Context,” therefore, stand in for racial neutrality: in reality, an impossibility.

The demand to contextualise Charlie Hebdo was summed up by British journalist, Leigh Phillips in Ricochet,

the last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘obvious racism,’ only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.

The “French speaker” linked to in the article is Olivier Tonneau, a self-defined “Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK,” who, along with the unnamed authors of the “Understanding Charlie Hebdo” website, does all in his power to explain why he “was puzzled and even shocked” by the proposition that Charlie Hebdo could be perceived as “rampantly islamophobic” (Tonneau 2015). The attempt by these interventions to cordon off France from the rest of the world — particularly an imagined and essentialised Anglo-American world — is notable considering the impossibility of such a separation, given the messy realities of both historical global interdependence (Bhambra 2007) and the contemporary entanglements afforded in large part by the digitality of communications.

The outrage at the suggestion that Charlie Hebdo may be emblematic of a particular form of racism that naturalizes Islam, Muslims (and by extension those misidentified as Muslim), as intrinsically anti-democratic, anti-women, homophobic and violent, is exemplary of the French left’s self-belief in the inherent anti-racist principles of the ideology of the Republic. The ability to separate racism from Islamophobia on which this depends rests upon the mobilization of an arbitrary separation between racism and blasphemy. However, as analysts of France’s relationship to race, religion and coloniality have pointed out, such a separation relies on a thin and inaccurate historicisation of the terms of laïcité. Pierre Tévanien and Christine Delphy have pointed out the erroneous presentation of French laïcité as equatable with religious neutrality. Based on an examination of the oft-cited but rarely read laws of 1880, 1882, 1886 or 1905, Tévanien shows that there is nothing in them that equates the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religion with the compulsion of individuals to be religiously neutral in public. And as Delphy explains, the only way in which the law can be misinterpreted is due to the polysemous nature of the word “public”:

[R]eligion, while evidently not being of the State, is nonetheless not ‘private,’ meaning ‘without public expression,’ because the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the law implies freedom of expression, and because public space does not belong to the state.

Ignoring this vital commentary, in the comments section under Tonneau’s article, a commenter notes that for “Anglo-Saxon leftists,” “laïcité is a barbaric custom of the Gallic tribe, against which it is necessary to defend the wearing of the veil as a form of anti-imperialist resistance, and to excuse the fascist killers who they see as being poor, working class, oppressed youth.” Tonneau responds: “Yes, the reactions in England — especially on the Left — are really shocking.” The folding together of themes in the comment reveals why it was problematic to seek out purportedly authentic voices for providing ‘context’. Because no effort is made to scrutinize the laws that brought laïcité into effect, it is possible for the ways in which the meta-discourse on laïcité is utterly inseparable from the racism faced by those of migrant origin to be considered irrelevant.

Paradoxically, legally-inconsistent, ideological misappropriations of laïcité lead to exclusions from the very republican structures (schools, public spaces) in which participation is deemed vital for full incorporation into the French nation. For example, in 2010, the Nouvel parti anticapitaliste (NPA) dropped one of its electoral candidates, Ilham Moussaïd, because she wore the hijab. Tévanien cites the General Secretary of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, who said she “would never accept a veiled woman on the socialist list” because “it’s a statement of religion that should remain in the private sphere.” Despite Moussaïd’s identification as a “pro-choice feminist,” Ni putes ni soumises, a militantly republican feminist group, established with the support of the then Sarkozy government, condemned the NPA’s list as “anti-laïque, anti-feminist and anti-republican” because of her presence on it.

Public notice posted in a French public hospital stating that due to the “laïque and neutral” space of the hospital, anyone wearing an “ostentatious symbol linked to a religion” would be denied entry © Alana Lentin
Public notice posted in a French public hospital stating that due to the “laïque and neutral” space of the hospital, anyone wearing an “ostentatious symbol linked to a religion” would be denied entry © Alana Lentin

The same logic is at play in the March 2015 appearance of a notice in the public hospital in the Paris suburb of Villeneuve-Saint George stating that due to the “laïque and neutral” space of the hospital, anyone wearing an “ostentatious symbol linked to a religion” would be denied entry, again in defiance of the actual law. Neither does the law presuppose that observant Muslim children should be forced to be offered no alternative to pork at the school canteen in Gironde or that mothers who wear the hijab be forbidden from accompanying their children on school trips, as the organization Mamans toutes égales (Mothers, all equal) highlights is often the case.

These accounts of the ways in which the authoritarian imposition of laïcité seeks to homogenise and effectively whiten French public space are well-known. But what has received less attention is how interpreters of French context post-Charlie Hebdo whitewashed French antiracist history in defence of the publication. “Understanding Charlie Hebdo” admonishes the “Anglo-Saxon” world for its inability to read behind the apparent vulgarity of the magazine’s caricatures. For example, the cartoon of a simianised Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, may have been intended as a ridiculing of the far-right Front national, as the website claims. However, beyond the fact that the use of racism to negate racism can only be a strategy of those for whom racist caricature is personally meaningless, the question of just what is meant by antiracism for “the Charlies” is left untouched. As my research into anti-racism in Europe revealed, the term anti-racism is contested; many organisations refuse the appellation due to its association with a particular brand of state-aligned, Republican and militantly secularist activism. And so it was troubling to read, in the explanations of French context, that Charlie Hebdo was an antiracist publication because of its alignment with organisations such as le MRAP and SOS racisme.

Take the MRAP. “Understanding Charlie Hebdo” explains that the Taubira cartoon “was drawn by Charb. He participated in anti-racism activities, and notably illustrated this poster for MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), an anti-racist NGO.” What was not mentioned was that the association has been widely criticized by decolonial activists and academics for endorsing the existence of ‘anti-white racism’. As pointed out in a collective critique,

how can the idea of ‘anti-white racism’ not be seen as having emerged from a political debate in France bent on the inversion of responsibility? The ‘victim’ is no longer the immigrant or the descendent of immigrants but the white person, an inversion that could be put in another way; if there is growing hostility to immigration, it is the immigrants’ fault.

Anti-white or “reverse” racism has been a persistent theme of the neocon right in France, such as nouveaux philosophes Alain Finkielkraut or Bernard Kouchner. So it is irksome that the terms of “anti-white racism,” which deflate “the seriousness and specificity of colonialist crimes […] through a suggestion of equivalence,” are deemed acceptable by the MRAP (Lentin and Titley 2011: 65). More recently, the MRAP accused the decolonial Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic of anti-Semitism for its criticism of French philosemitism and support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement.

Then there is SOS Racisme. In some ways it is surprising that Phillips claims that “SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics.” It is surprising because in the thirty years of its existence so much has been written, in English as well as in French, on the origins of SOS as an elite project of the French Socialist Party, funded to the hilt by a Mittérand, chasing the youth vote in 1981 (cf. Jazouli 1986, Malik 1990, Lentin 2004). But some myths no doubt endure. This is why Tonneau could evoke the secularist intent of the 1983 Marche pour l’égalite et contre le racisme. Only a complete lack of engagement with the history of how a social movement that rose out of the banlieues of Lyon to march for citizenship rights was destroyed from the top down by SOS racisme, and its powerful political backers could lead to Tonneau making the following amalgamation: “The spirit of the Marche des beurs is that of Charlie Hebdo: justice for all citizens, including migrants and minorities.” Highlighting that the 1983 marchers were not “making religious claims; they were not walking as Muslims but as French citizens,” Tonneau effectively denies the possibility of being what Mayanthi Fernando calls “Muslim French.” Whatever ire he undoubtedly has for the participants of the anti-gay Manif pour tous, Tonneau would be hard-pushed to say that, as Christians, they were not also French.

When applying a black rather than white analytics to the discussion of the French context, it is clear that Tonneau, Phillips, et al’s failure to understand why Charlie Hebdo could be seen as racist is based in their partial (white) understanding of what racism is. Racism is interpreted as both externally produced and affective, a feeling instilled in some (i.e. workers) by those who seek to manipulate them (i.e. the far right). In reality, racist like antiracist feeling is tangential to structural conditions underpinned by racial logics. So, to declare Charlie Hebdo opposed to racism does not axiomatically negate the racist nature of many of its cartoons. Phillips’ proposition that “accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true,” is consistent with his irritation with what he calls “an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess.” Any attempt to really contextualize Charlie Hebdo, by submitting the unproblematised white account of its self-declared antiracism to a black analytical reading that questions race-blind accounts from a complex race-critical point of view is rejected as incoherent identitarianism!

It would be easy to dismiss those who took to the web to protest the neglect of French context in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks as simply ignorant of this more complex picture. More correctly, this widely propagated ‘authentic French context’ is filtered through a white analytics that, due to its partial reading of that context, is unable to be holistic. From such a perspective, steeped in what Etienne Balibar calls the ‘“simulacrum’ of universalism…[which] (is in a sense much more real, or effective, than the ‘true’ version),” any antiracism which problematizes, not only the policies and actions of the state and its successive governments, but the ideology of republicanism itself, is seen as part of the problem not the solution. For this reason, the politics of individuals and organisations who take a decolonial standpoint, muddying the waters of the multi-hued yet united Republic by declaring themselves (still) indigènes, or by demanding a hyphenated French-other identity, are either actively ignored or radically opposed. The discussions of context have the effect of flattening, not invigorating, debate, paradoxical given the criticism of Islam and its adherents as “obscurantist.” We did not hear, for example, that the sociologist, Saïd Bouamama and the Zone d’expression populaire singer Saïdou, were taken to court on January 20 2015 by the right-wing Catholic organization, the AGRIF, accused of “anti-French racism.”

Saïdou, commenting on the variable approach to freedom of speech accorded to France’s citizens and preempting the discussion of hypocrisy post-Charlie, said in 2009: “the white person who whistles the Marseillaise will be tolerated more easily than the Arab who whistles it… The Arab will be an ‘anti-French racist,’ the white guy just a ‘leftist.’ The Arab doesn’t have the right to be a leftist.”

Those white leftists, wishing to be on the right side of the argument for justice and equality, are perplexed when they fail to recognize themselves in their interlocutors. How can these progressives reconcile their desire to defeat racism with their suspicion that the very objects of their commitment — the “victims” of racism — are standing in the way of a universalist idea of freedom and equality? What happens when the knowledge that systemic discrimination denies the equality of fellow human beings conflicts with the feeling that the struggles of these “brothers and sisters” are misguided? In other words, how can the White Left fight against racism if its leadership is questioned? It appears that these, by no means new, questions about the very nature of antiracist solidarity are at the core of the quest to explain Charlie Hebdo.

Editor’s Note: On September 16, 2015, this article was changed to correct the misattribution of quotes on Mr. Tonneau’s website.


Bhambra, Gurminder. 2007. “Multiple Modernities or Global Interconnections: understanding the global post the colonial” In: Nathalie Karagiannis and Peter Wagner, eds. Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization: Liverpool University Press 2007, pp. 59-73.

Hesse, Barnor. 2014. “Racism’s Alterity: The After-life of Black Sociology,” In Racism and Sociology, edited by Wulf D. Hund and Alana Lentin, 141–174. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Jazouli, Adil. 1986. L’Action collective des jeunes maghrébins de France. Paris: Editions Harmattan.

Malik, Serge. 1990. Histoire Secrète de SOS Racisme. Paris: Albin Michel.

Lentin, Alana. 2004. Racism and Anti-racism in Europe. London: Pluto Press.