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'Woke culture' has made its way into the French presidential election

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a runoff later this month. That's the result of a vote over the weekend. The presidential campaign has been dominated in part by a battle against woke culture that's seen as an import from the United States. Candidates of all stripes have shared a rare consensus in denouncing le wokism. And I asked French journalist, commentator and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo what that says about race, identity and extremism in France.

ROKHAYA DIALLO: You can have an open discussion on race in the U.S., on gender in the academy, which is still very, very difficult in France. I remember last year, the minister of higher education started a war against the academics who would work on race and gender and labelled them Islamo-leftists.

FADEL: As we're speaking, the one thing these politicians seem to agree on across the political spectrum is their rejection of, quote, "woke culture," describing it as an American import, a foreign concept. Why such outrage over wokism?

DIALLO: I think that France has billed itself as a colorblind country, which is, of course, not true. The politicians in France really love to oppose themselves to the so-called American idea of race. And you have a new generation of people in France who claim that it's important to address race, to address gender equality in the French context. And the fight against wokeness, which is called wokisme in France, is meant to just dismiss people who are involved and committed to social justice. And to me, it's outrageous because they are importing, like, the same debate that the Republicans are having in the states against critical race theory.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, you mention the backlash here in the United States, too. I mean, a similar thing - right? - in the end, it is about wokeness and cancel culture, and, you know, racism is in the past - a post-racial world. And you've been attacked for talking about these exact issues in the French context. Can you talk about being attacked and what it takes to talk about these issues and center them?

DIALLO: Yes, of course. The thing is that France, I think, still sees itself as a white Christian country. And it's not true because it's one of the most diverse country in Europe. But when you watch TV, when you watch French film, you don't see that diversity. So as a journalist, I'm one of the very few people of color and Muslim people to appear publicly and to tackle race and gender. And for that reason, I get threats from people online but also critiques even from the government.

FADEL: French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer even launched a publicly funded think tank focused on how French values are at odds with wokism. It's called the Republic Laboratory.

DIALLO: I'm really troubled because I think that they are using their money and the government attention on something that is not worth being supported instead of really focusing on the far right that is really at our doors.

FADEL: So you feel threatened by the far right and the possible outcome of this election.

DIALLO: I really feel threatened. And the fact that the government is focusing on wokeness rather than fighting racism or sexism means that the far right has won; they have made their idea mainstream. And whatever the result of the election is, those ideas will remain in the public space, and we will have to deal with them for the upcoming five years.

FADEL: Diallo says that, in part, one event prompted her to fight racism and bigotry in France, a 2004 law banning the wearing of clearly visible religious symbols or garb in French public schools that many saw as a law that targeted Muslim women and girls.

DIALLO: To me, it was a shock because as a feminist, I would think that it was important for all the women to go to school and to get education. So it was one of my first shock because it was every day on television debating about Muslim women without having any of them being part of the debate. And that really pushed me to try to tackle racism in the media and to make sure that our voices as Muslims, as people of color, would not be erased and that people would not speak for us instead of trying to make space for us to speak about ourselves.

FADEL: These questions of representation are also at the heart of Diallo's latest documentary, "The Parisian Uncovered," which shatters stereotypes of what the Parisian woman looks like.

DIALLO: If you type Parisian woman in Google - you know, to search it - you will find always the same type of women, which would mean a white, bourgeois, slim and young woman that doesn't really look like all the women that you can find in Paris. And the reason why I made the documentary is that I was born and raised in Paris from a Senegalese and Gambian family, which means I'm Black. And I've never seen someone who looks like me impersonating the idea of the Parisian woman. So the effect that it had on me is that I understood that I couldn't be naturally seen as a French person.

FADEL: French journalist, writer and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo, thank you so much.

DIALLO: Thank you so much, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.