Victor Hugo
Statue of Victor Hugo on Human Rights' esplanade in Besançon, the historical capital of watchmaking in France Image Credit: Shutterstock

The United States exports roughly $1.5 trillion worth of goods each year, but the intellectual effusions it exports, be they provocative political ideas, modish cultural trends, zestful semantic turns of phrase and the like, are offered free.

Yet the French, who see themselves, one and all, as heirs to their country’s proud La Mission Civilizatrice, believe the price is still too high.

Fear by France of American encroachment on its culture, even on language itself, goes as far back as the time when the French public intellectual Jean-Jacque Servan Schreiber came out with his book, Le Defi Americain (The American Challenge) — a wildly popular tome that sold 2 million copies after it was released in 1967 — which appraised not only the sclerosis of French politics but the putatively intrusive forays American culture was making into its French counterpart.

The one foray that has bedevilled a great many French folks in recent years has to do with how woke culture, or wokeism (in French wokisme), a uniquely American conceptualisation of race relations, has insinuated itself into the consciousness of progressive discourse in France.

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Statue of Victor Hugo

Yes, Victor Hugo of The Hunchback of Notre Damme and Les Miserable. Then take Bensancon, a city located in eastern France, close to the Swiss border, which happens to be the birthplace of the celebrated late 19th century novelist and where this statue has stood on the enchantingly named Esplanade of Human Rights, across from City Hall since 2003.

Recently, the colour on the bronze statue — and “colour” figures greatly in this tale — began to fade and the mayor of Besancon, Anne Vignot, a progressive politician from the Green party — and “progressive” figures equally greatly here — hired an expert to refurbish it.

So, what’s the big deal? The bid deal is that the expert rendered the colour of Monsieur Hugo’s features way too dark.

Alors, c’est wokisme! And to those in town who objected to the colour of Hugo’s skin, it was time, as the New York Times correspondent, Catherine Porter wrote in a piece filed from Besancon last week, to go on the warpath, unwittingly triggering a national debate on the perils of importing woke ideas from the United States on race, identity politics and racial justice, sure to impose a race-centred view on French society where one is not needed.

Conditions endured by Black workers

Woke, as in “stay woke”, entered the African-American Vernacular (AAVE) dictionary in the mid-1930s, though it was first used by the great Blues artist Willard (Rambling) Thomas as part of the lyrics in his song “Sawmill Moan” — If I don’t go crazy/ I’m gonna lose my mind/ ‘cause I can’t sleep for dreamin’/ sure can’t stay woke for cryin’ — which clearly was a muffled lament of the harsh conditions endured by Black workers in Southern sawmills.

Woke remained exclusively a black semantic fashion of expression, whose goal was to alert Blacks to “stay woke” lest they run afoul of White authority.

Later, after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which followed the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase took on a political life of its own. And later still, it was appropriated by the American left in its public debate on identity politics, critical race theory and social equity.

Meanwhile, in Besancon Porter tells us, comments rolled into City Hall’s Facebook, many critical of — yes, you guessed it — of the colour of Hugo’s skin, with one wise-guy commentator writing, “We’ve gone from Victor Hugo to Morgan Freeman”.

But what happened in Bensancon did not stay in Bensancon. “What might have been forgotten as part of complicated restoration process — and quietly corrected — was immediately sucked up into an ugly, protracted battle over the social media”, wrote Porter. “Right wing politicians accused the city’s Green Party mayor of literally trying to paint her politically correct views onto a French hero”.

I am woke

For her part, the mayor retorted: “It signifies a sickness, a crisis in our society in relation to the themes of immigration and racism. I will always fight against discrimination, so for me, if wokisme is the fight against discrimination, then I reaffirm, I am woke”. Not to be outdone, Max Brisson, a senator with the rightist party, La Republicain, retorted on Twitter: “Just how far will wokisme and stupidity go?”

After the national press picked the story, militants vandalised the “black statue”, repainting Hugo’s face “a beautiful white colour”, as they called it online, adding that it was now “truly French”.

You see, this fear of the other — fear almost primal in its intensity — stems from the perceived threat, felt by a not insignificant number of Europeans, of Le Grand Replacement, first advanced by Renant Camus — no relation, please, to Albert — that sees White Europeans replaced, effectively reverse-colonised, by black and brown migrants flooding the Continent.

What’s more, Camus’s argument was picked up by right wing and White nationalist circles not only throughout Europe, but also in places as far apart as Charlottesville, Virginia, where demonstrators, in August 2017, marched with torches, chanting, “You will not replace us” and Christchurch, New Zealand, where in March 2019, a lone, White nationalist gunman went on a shooting spree inside two mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51 worshippers and injuring 40 more.

I’m sure you feel as I do that it would make sense to fear less ideas imported from the US — ones that seek to promote a sensitivity in White society to the systemic injustices inflicted on minorities — and fear more home-grown, dehumanising ideas like The Great Replacement.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.