ANALYSIS - From Islamist “separatism” to “white privilege”: Footsteps of racism in France

French president’s comments on the reality of “white privilege” have sparked heated controversy

Ali Maskan   | 11.01.2021
ANALYSIS - From Islamist “separatism” to “white privilege”: Footsteps of racism in France

*The writer is the author of two books: “Korsanlıktan Siyasal İslam’a: Cezayir’de Sosyal ve Toplumsal Değişim” and “Kalanlara Gurbet Gidenlere Memleket Rumeli (Makedonya Türkleri)”. He continues his work in the fields of colonialism and Africa, and the Balkans.


French President Emmanuel Macron made a speech at Les Mureaux, Paris, on Oct. 2, in which the main emphasis was on “Islamic separatism” and also spoke about the truth of the idea of “white privilege” in an interview he gave to L'Express on Dec. 22. [1]

But, what is “white privilege”? A phrase coined by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an African-American sociologist, “white privilege” came into use in order to draw attention to the class inequalities that existed long after segregation. This idea, conceptualized by Du Bois, also formed the social foundation of anti-racist movements that started in the US in the 1950s-60s. Peggy McIntosh, a White-American academic and activist, popularized this concept globally through an essay she published in 1988.

Racism, which began with the slave trade, symbolic of the colonial period, was the wildest gift granted to the world by the Western white man. With the notion of human rights finally gaining ground in international law, biological racism was turned into the sociologically rooted “white privilege”. Although it suggested some degree of soothing in the centuries-long horrible experiences and suffering, this transformation revealed that the “white privilege” mentality still persisted psychologically and sociologically in individuals and states. Therefore, although the term was invented by a black man, the white folk have welcomed it. So, why was the idea of white privilege imported to France? Why did Macron need such a concept?

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who started the debate on national identity, rejects the strict criteria of this identity and talks about the minimum necessities for being considered French, such as speaking the same language and sharing a common culture and way of life. In essence, Macron was simply trying to put the debate that his predecessor had felt compelled to open on a sound social and political basis. The only way to secure their future was to establish a common ground for the ever-increasing religious and ethnic separation in the country. In fact, it was not only Muslims who suffered in this process, but also Africans, Asians, and even Jews, all of whom came from different religious and linguistic backgrounds. France had now become a country that no longer tolerated any differences that it considers outside of itself.

James McAuley, the Paris correspondent of the Washington Post, criticized Macron’s speech calling for an “Islam of Enlightenment”, reminding that the 1789 revolution embraced both the French and Jewish identities and that the French republicanism of that time respected religious differences more than Macron. Jewish journalist Marc Weitzmann, however, said that he did not agree with McAuley, stressing that the Jews were recognized as citizens by the stagers of the French revolution only after giving up their own values. In his article published in Le Monde, Weitzmann stated that today it is Muslims who are being forced to renounce their own values, much as Jews, who had to do that back in their day. [2] Although the two journalists look at the issue from different angles, they do converge on one common ground, and that is French intolerance.

It is only natural for politicians to impulsively initiate “national identity” discussions with a populist approach every time their political system is in crisis. The national identity that was formulated to answer the question “Who is French?” essentially demands that the differences of minorities be erased. In that sense, it would not be wrong to say that the separatism law is the legal justification for assimilation.

Many in the US press writing that the separatist discourse and policies in France are endangering the future of French universalism has profoundly disturbed Macron. Describing Islam as a religion that is “in crisis all over the world”, Macron said that they wanted to create an “Islam of Enlightenment”, which sparked an outcry in the Muslim world as well. Weitzmann, on the other hand, raises many issues in his book “Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France”; starting with the Dreyfus affair and the Vichy regime’s sending 75,000 Jews to death camps in cooperation with the Germans in the 1940s, all the way to the violence and pressures Jews face every day in today’s France.

In fact, France’s desire to find a common ground between all the different ethnic and religious elements in the country within a national identity that they themselves have formulated is not a step only against the Muslims in the country. This process, which adversely affects the black and yellow races, Jews and Muslims alike, as well as all other minorities, is moving France in a very dangerous direction.

Little has changed in France despite the mild criticism from the Anglo-Saxon media, in addition to the harsh statements that came from a number of Muslim countries led by Turkey. In fact, as these discussions continued, to the L'Express correspondent’s question “Do you think that it is a privilege to be a white man?”, Macron answered that “It is a fact. We don’t choose it; I didn’t choose it. I note that, in our society, being a white man creates objective conditions that are easier to access my job, to have accommodation, to find a job, than to be an Asian, black or Maghrebian man, or an Asian, black or Maghrebian woman. In that sense, being a white man can be experienced as a privilege.” His comments have taken the course of the discussion to a different level.

There was an emphasis on a “secular republic” in Macron's previous speech on Islamic separatism, while the emphasis was placed on the “nation” in his most recent comment to L'Express. The only thing that France needed to do to preserve the secular republic was to establish a country with a shared language and culture of life. During the Sarkozy period, France recognized that the country’s basic vital values had started to deteriorate due to the very rapid phase of change that it had been undergoing. After this point, debates on national identity, republic, and secularism started in earnest. While Macron described secularism as not a threat but a shield that would eliminate the problems surrounding the country’s religious differences, Charlie Hebdo made the divide between Islam and secularism much more pronounced and, sadly, contrary to the current discourse, secularism ended up becoming a religion.

With the limitations imposed by the law on separatism on schools, clothing, places of worship and the activities of non-governmental organizations, the inequalities that have emerged against Muslims in social life will soon become more conspicuous. The idea of "white privilege" was naturally transferred from overseas to France by the privileged treatments arising in housing, the use of social spaces, judicial and police proceedings, the use of public property and spaces, and, eventually, human relations. In fact, it was no possible for Macron to describe this new process in the country in any other way. This was, in essence, also a statement of acknowledgment. Was this acknowledgment made for a clearer definition of the process that already existed in society and was reinforced by the dominant political discourse, or was it made in the consciousness of this separation in society for bringing the problem under control? It is a fact that this sociological transformation is reflected in the political system. Facts that must now be acknowledged by not just the right-wing but also the left-wing parties are driving the French people more and more towards xenophobia by the day.

Macron’s greatest dilemma was the inconsistency between the rhetoric and the actions taken during the election climate and the aspirations. In today’s France, the reestablishment of national identity in a secular republic should be seen as quite a luxury indeed. Recognizing the possibly negative turn of events in the future, the notion of white privilege has necessarily been embraced by French leaders in order to at least show their support for the French people, and this will set in motion events from which it will be incredibly difficult for France to recover.

Although it has given the impression of being used as a replacement for an anti-racist term, “white privilege” is more of the rhetoric of legitimacy targeted at white people who form the backbone of national identity. If we try to explain this national identity the French way, we might compare it to a croissant filled with the chocolate of the secular republic. The layers of the dough represent the coexistence of different segments of society that do not mix with each other. However, all of these layers protect the chocolate inside, and at the same time, they can enjoy their share of the flavor. For this reason, Macron insists that they are not disturbed by people speaking and worshiping in Arabic at home, but that, when in the public domain, they should respect the overarching culture of the country in which they live.

While it is claimed that white privilege is not racism, we must not forget that racism and prejudice constitute its premise. Is it not at all possible for this dangerous concept to be eventually restored to its origin, i.e., racism? Why not if this dangerous process were to be managed recklessly? Racism is based on prejudice and a false conviction. We will see together how “white privilege” will be received in France and whether it will morph into racism or not.

A real privilege is not having to think about what color and race you are, living as if you were the owner of everything in the public sphere, going to the school and the house of worship you want, dressing as you wish, walking the streets and taking the bus without being bullied as if you were a criminal. Not being able to do any of these means being subjected to discrimination and otherization irrespective of your skin color.

The French, who felt they could not have a common culture of life with another society after the colonial period, were naturally at a loss as to how to react when the need to establish a common culture of life arose. From now on, France’s political history’s most fundamental issue would be its sensitivity to not tarnish the superiority of its own people while committing itself to assimilate foreigners.

It seems that this process, which is developing on “separatism” and “privilege”, will haunt the French like a nightmare, like a curse because of all the atrocities they perpetrated in their colonies for hundreds of years. The spread of this process to the rest of Europe will become yet another cause of corruption in the continent, and make things considerably more difficult for the EU to handle. Are France and all of Europe ready to face the consequences of what looks like “white privilege” today, but that tomorrow will turn into racism?

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Can Atalay in Ankara.

[1] See below article [in Turkish] for detailed information regarding the topic. Ali Maskan,


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