France’s National Digital Council (CNNum) is in chaos after almost all its members resigned in protest on Tuesday at a government decision to force Rokhaya Diallo out, apparently yielding to criticism over her appointment.
The 39-year-old writer has been an outspoken critic on issues such as police stop-and-searches of young black and Arab men and the country’s ban on full-face veils, and has described France as “institutionally racist”.
Digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi — himself a rare non-white face in the cabinet, who led the CNNum before quitting to join Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign — said Diallo had to go because the controversy had become a distraction.
“After this nomination, everyone forgot what the CNNum was supposed to be doing,” he told Le Figaro newspaper.
For her critics, including the rightwing lawmaker Valerie Boyer, as well as some on the left, Diallo’s defence of the Islamic veil as a “mark of femininity” in secular France made her inappropriate for a government position — as did her repeated criticism of France as rife with discrimination.
“The country sees itself as a white country,” Diallo told Al-Jazeera this year.
Her support for “nonwhite” anti-racism events is also problematic for many in France, where the concept of communities isolating themselves is seen as deeply opposed to the ideal of everyone uniting around shared republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
But anti-racism campaigners say this makes it difficult to discuss problems around race, such as widespread complaints of discrimination in the workplace, particularly from those living in immigrant-heavy suburbs.
It is illegal to collect data on ethnicity in France — a principled effort to build a colour-blind society — but activists say this also makes it harder to fight racism.
“To explain that France is a country that is structurally racist ultimately gives rise to the idea that there is a form of apartheid in France, and that idea is unacceptable,” said Amine El-Khatmi of the anti-racism group Republican Spring.
– New generation of activists –
Axiom, a rapper who has called French people “pigs” and rapped about race and deprivation in the suburbs, was also forced off the CNNum committee after the government ordered an overhaul.
He and Diallo were among 30 people from business, academia and civil society appointed just a week ago to the committee, which advises the government on preparing for a digital future.
All except four have now resigned, in an embarrassment for Macron’s centrist government.
“At what point, in our country, do we not want to hear dissident voices?” said its chairwoman, the start-up investor Marie Ekeland.
The French League of Human Rights deplored the move to remove Diallo and Axiom, saying: “In a democracy, the state must respect pluralism of opinions.”
Raised in the Paris suburbs by Senegalese and Ghanaian parents, media-savvy Diallo is at the vanguard of a vocal new generation of anti-racism campaigners.
She founded a group in 2007 called Les Indivisibles which aimed to fight prejudice through humour, notably with a tongue-in-cheek annual award ceremony for the year’s most racist remarks.
She has criticised long-established anti-racism groups, branding them “clubs for white intellectuals, disconnected from the ground and from working-class neighbourhoods”.
“And they’ve completely failed to crack the internet,” she said.
– ‘I am a citizen’ –
Diallo argues that it is ridiculous to think of events reserved for minorities as a form of racial segregation — for her, it’s about giving people who are suffering from a shared problem a chance to talk about it.
“I don’t know anyone who isn’t alcoholic but insists on going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the name of the Republic,” she once quipped.
But such events have repeatedly caused an outcry in France, including in May when Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called for a black women’s festival to be scrapped.
A “decolonisation summer camp” in the city of Reims elicited similar outrage last year.
Diallo, meanwhile, does not appear likely to stop railing against what she sees as endemic racism.
“I am a citizen,” she told Cnews television on Wednesday. “Even if I sometimes criticise my country very heavily, I do it as a citizen.”