Voices: French people have discovered the word ‘woke’ and it’s terrible

·5-min read
France Macron (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
France Macron (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It’s been a busy few days in France. Before you start, no, it’s not because there’s been a shortage of baguettes, or because everyone forgot how to pronounce “hon hon hon”, or because three people couldn’t untangle themselves from a ménage à trois. The truth is much worse than that. French conservatives, I’m sad to report, have discovered the word “woke”. And reader, it has been hell.

“Woke”, in French, means roughly the same thing as it does in English: it’s a way to describe someone who is attuned to progressive issues, particularly concerning social and racial justice. And of course, to American right-wingers, then you are a bleeding-heart liberal. You don’t care about real problems. You are a snowflake. You are hysterical. Tucker Carlson, a former boarding school kid and son of a US ambassador who somehow has gaslit half the country into believing he is a man of the people, thinks it’s lame that you care so much.

In France, it’s much the same, except with an added dimension: not only are the “woke” all bleeding-heart, uber-liberal, positively hysterical snowflakes, but they have also had their heads turned by THE AMERICANS. Americans, with their fanciful ideas about social progress. Americans, with their thoughts and ideas about accountability and justice. Imagine that.

Trying to untangle French conservatives’ usage of the word “woke” has, therefore, been an exhausting exercise. There’s just so much bad faith, so much misunderstanding – sometimes willful, sometimes less so. I am French, by the way, and have lived in the US for seven years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t cut-and-paste one person’s cultural concepts onto another. (The idea and the lexicon of “wokeness”, which dates back at least to the early 20th century and arose from Black activism in the US, is especially ill-suited to such a reductive treatment.) But if you choose to deploy that tactic, then it’s alarmingly easy to peddle erroneous ideas without being challenged, because the people around you lack the necessary context.

Take, for example, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. Allow me to share a little backstory on Monsieur Blanquer: Last year, he tried to settle a national debate over dress codes in school (which disproportionately police girls’ outfits compared to boys’) by saying kids should wear “a republican outfit” when going to class. Fourteen months later, everyone is still trying to figure out what he meant.

More recently, Blanquer recently decided to have a bit of fun throwing around the word “woke” during an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Monde. I guess he just didn’t feel like talking about the rising number of Covid cases in elementary schools, which – a few days after the interview was published – made it necessary to ask students across the country to wear masks again. The French republic, he claimed, is “the polar opposite” of “wokism” (a word that’s been thrown around to designate, vaguely and hazily so, the ideas that woke people supposedly subscribe to). “In the US,” he claimed, “this ideology paved the way for Donald Trump to ascend to power.”

Of course, this isn’t true. If anything, people leaned into their progressive beliefs harder after Trump was elected, because the Trump years were a horrifying wake-up call for many during which we realized that our system guarantees nothing, that democracy isn’t something we can take for granted, and that the political ecosystem will allow a human rights menace to sit in the White House.

What Blanquer appeared to be alluding to during this section of his interview was the rise – or attempted rise – of some far-right figures in France. The far-right has long loomed over presidential elections over there, and the threat has only increased over the past two decades. In 2002, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was one of two final candidates along with Jacques Chirac. In 2017, Marine Le Pen (Jean-Marie’s daughter) faced off against Emmanuel Macron. Both Le Pens lost, but every year, the fear that they – or another extremist – will break through becomes a little more real.

Of course, “wokism” didn’t get Trump elected. The electoral college got Trump elected. Some unbelievable stroke of luck got Trump elected. A statistical improbability got Trump elected. One privileged man’s decades of somehow convincing swathes of people he’s a good businessman (fact check: he really is not) got him elected.

Blaming progressives for the rise of the far-right is a fallacy. It’s a convenient way to defang the left, too: Stop demanding change, stop asking for a more just society, quit talking about wealth redistribution and racial equality, or you’ll scare the reasonable people away, and the next time we end up with a populist in power it’ll be your fault.

It’s also quite bold of Blanquer to declare that “woke ideology” is “the polar opposite” of the French republic. If you pause for a second and remember that “woke” generally stands for “in favor of equality and progress”, then I guess that means we’re just going to admit once and for all that France is still massively conservative, racist, and unequal? A refreshing bit of honesty from the Minister of Education! I’m sure he’ll be keen to rectify that situation at his earliest convenience!

It always saddens me to see French politicians latch on to US concepts and weaponize them in diminishing – and frankly silly – ways. The cliché that paints us as a nation of intellectual, refined thinkers is flattering, but it is just that: a cliché. Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, we French people are just as stupid as everybody else. And the latest “woke” discourse showed that up pretty clearly.

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