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PARIS – French left-wing parties have spiraled into a bitter fight over whether white people should be asked to shut up – or be banned outright – during meetings about minority issues.
The controversy erupted after revelations that a left-wing student union, called UNEF, organizes meetings that are off-limits to white members.
Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor and Socialist presidential hopeful, stepped in Wednesday after a candidate from the same party, Audrey Pulvar, failed to condemn such meetings.
“The field of politics is not a therapy session, it’s the domain of the universal, where we seek unity, and defend our secularist values,” Hidalgo said on BFMTV.
Pulvar, a Black former news anchor running under the Socialist banner in the upcoming regional elections, said on Sunday that white people should not be banned from discussion groups on minority issues, but that “they can however be asked to keep quiet and be silent spectators.”
Asked whether she would have said the same thing, Hidalgo said “obviously not.”
The clash over non-white discussion groups has reignited a debate in France about the growing influence of U.S.-style identity politics, and how it challenges the country’s existing political traditions.
Pulvar’s comments incensed the far right and the right, with Valérie Pecresse, a rival at right-leaning Les Républicains, accusing Pulvar of promoting “an ‘acceptable’ shade of racism”.
But they also sparked anger among the old guard of the Socialist Party, which is seeking to rebuild itself after a stunning defeat at the 2017 elections.
For many on the left, the universal values of égalité, fraternité, liberté should transcend religious or ethnic alliances, and more integration and assimilation, not less, is needed in the fight for social justice. This faction does not understand the new guard coming up through organizations such as UNEF.
Pulvar’s words are “more than clumsy, they are regrettable, it doesn’t correspond to our common ideas, nobody should be asked to keep quiet,” said Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist Party on French television channel LCI.
“Ultimately, [non-white discussion groups] lead to segregation and that is something I cannot agree with,” said Richard Yung, a Socialist senator. “We should be able to talk together, disagree, even oppose each other in the same room.”
Not what I meant
The backlash against Pulvar was such that she felt compelled to justify her statements, while stopping short of apologizing. “Some thought I was telling people to be silent. That is wrong,” she wrote in Le Monde. “Some thought I wanted to exclude them, that is not what I said nor what I meant. I have always been in favor of speaking, of discussions.”
Chloé Morin, a researcher for the Jean Jaurès Foundation and former adviser to a Socialist government, said this was the latest sign of “a real chasm between the generations”.
“And the chasm is becoming greater because what was an ultra-minority movement a couple of years ago, is becoming more and more present within the staff of the far left and the Green Party,” she added.
Pulvar found more supporters among her rivals in the far-left party France Unbowed and with the Greens than among the Socialist Party which officially backs her.
“Audrey Pulvar is not racist,” tweeted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed. “She understands what a discussion group is. Those attacking her are putting their sexist and prejudiced opinions on display.”
The far left sees the claimed defence of traditional political values as a veiled attack on minorities seeking emancipation.
“Nobody complains when you see board meetings at big companies in France that are all-male, all-white,” said Eric Coquerel, an MP for France Unbowed.
“You can’t deny victims of racism the right to say it and to denounce it in the name of universalism. Universalism is a nice idea but is not a machine that effaces discrimination.”
A taste of things to come?
The controversy is the latest example of the left’s internal divisions at a crucial time.
The Greens, the Socialists and France Unbowed stand little chance of making it to the second round in next year’s presidential election if they don’t present a united front, recent polls show.
However, there have been few signs of this happening over recent months.
The Greens and the Socialists have failed to rally behind one candidate for regional elections, currently planned for June, in key regions including the Paris area.
On Monday, green leader Yannick Jadot called on left-wing leaders to unite and discuss a common left-wing project to fight President Emmanuel Macron, “who doesn’t protect us from the far right, nor from climate change.”
The main left-wing parties have agreed to meet while signaling that it might be difficult to find common ground.
“The problem of the left is that it keeps shooting itself in the foot,” said the researcher Morin.
“Instead of creating controversy over issues that unites it, such as the environment or social justice, and where it is supported by a majority of voters in the country, it keeps tripping over issues that divide it.”