“Anti-White Racism” and “Anti-France Hatred”: Prosecution of Rap Music and the Paradox of Racist Use of Anti-Racist Legislation in France (2003–2019)

Emmanuelle Carinos Vasquez, Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques de Paris (CRESPPA)

 

In the United States, United Kingdom, and France, rap is the only musical genre to be subject to sustained prosecution over the last two decades. Rap song lyrics have been used as evidence in criminal trials in the United States (Kubrin and Nielson, 2014; Dennis and Nielson, 2019) and the United Kingdom (Fatsis, 2019; Owusu-Bempah, 2022). In France, the songs themselves constitute the grounds for indictment: they are then most often subject to the Law of July 29, 1881, on Freedom of the Press, and are therefore judged in the chamber devoted to press law.[1] The criminalization of rap music reveals the way that post-slavery and post-colonial countries deal with the artistic and political freedom of speech of “minority groups” (Guillaumin, 2002) to which the rap genre has been attached (Hammou, 2009).

Developments in France between 2000 and 2020 offer an especially significant example of the evolution of the accusation of “anti-white racism” in the prosecution of rap music. Researchers agree more (Möschel and Fournie, 2022) or less (Debono, 2020) that the struggle against anti-white racism very quickly became a hobbyhorse of the far right. However, in the 2010s it became a cause taken up by a major anti-racist association in France, the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA). LICRA joined the civil action in a lawsuit alleging anti-white racism in 2012, devoted its 2013 annual congress to this issue, and filed a complaint alongside the far-right association the General Alliance Against Racism and for the Defense of the French and Christian Identity (AGRIF) against the rapper Nick Conrad in 2019 for a music video entitled “Pendez Les Blancs” (Hang the Whites).

Through a chronological study of public denunciations of rap’s violent lyrics, I examine how this musical genre has served as what the French pragmatist sociologist Chateauraynaud has called a prise, a means of not only gradually bringing the category of anti-white racism into the public arena but also of making it a legitimate legal issue.[2] I focus on three moments that reveal this evolution. First, I examine the 2003 Sniper trial where the category of anti-white racism appears explicitly mostly on the far right. Second, I discuss the turning point of 2005 with the law proposed by the government deputy François Grosdidier, which attempted to legally recognize the term while penalizing rap music. Finally, I study the trial of the rapper Nick Conrad in 2019, where the attempts to reverse anti-racist legislation to protect the majority group instead of minorities extended well beyond the far right.

The Sniper Trial: Anti-White Racism is Mobilized but Still a Repulsive Category

The rap group Sniper, composed of one Black singer (Blacko), one Maghrebi DJ (DJ Boudj) and two Maghrebi rappers (Tunisiano and Aketo) from the Paris banlieue, enjoyed some success in the early 2000s. They wrote songs dealing with France’s working-class neighborhoods, particularly the racism experienced by their residents (“Pris pour cible“) as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Jeteurs de pierre“). One of their songs, entitled “La France,” became the subject of public denunciations in 2002, especially because of the chorus (“France is a bitch, and we’ve been betrayed …we need to change the law to see soon Arabs and Black ruling in the Elysée”) and one of Tunisiano’s lines: “a single mission, to exterminate ministers and fascists.”  Deputies belonging to the UMP (a French right-wing party) denounced the lyrics as “an inadmissible call to violence and racial hatred.”[3] The group targeted by this “call to racial hatred” is not always named in discussions in the National Assembly, but it is mentioned in the leaflets distributed in 2003 by militants of the far-right group Jeunesses Identitaires (Laroche, 2015). These leaflets claim that Sniper’s lyrics convey a “hatred of all that is French and white.” One leaflet is titled “Fed up with anti-white racism.” The term anti-white racism is associated with, or even taken as a synonym for, anti-French racism or anti-European racism.

These leaflets are based on a racialized conception of the nation: anti-white racism is equivalent to anti-French racism. Denouncing the violence of the lyrics then contributes to the othering of the rappers, despite their formal membership in the French community (they are all part of it according to the criterion of nationality). The textualization and accumulation of virulent lyrics (containing insults or descriptions of violent acts) outside their context of enunciation constitutes a “strategy of scandalization” (Offerlé, 1998: 123). The far right relies on this strategy to illustrate and support the idea of growing racism on the part of minority groups against the majority group.

This use of lyrics for scandalization is reflected in the strategy of AGRIF, an association specializing in legal matters. AGRIF played a decisive role in the attempt to recognize anti-white racism. While the initial strategy of the far right was to abolish all anti-racist legislation, AGRIF chose to hijack it in order to promote the notion of anti-French, anti-Christian, and anti-white racism (Bleich, 2018: 70–74), an objective far removed from the intentions of the authors of the 1881 Law (Möschel and Fournie, 2022: 61). In other words, AGRIF aimed to change the enforcement of legislation that was intended to protect minority groups into something used to defend the majority group. This strategy is especially deployed within press law (60). Indeed, in France, press law includes an article akin to hate speech legislation (Article 24 of the 1881 Law). Moreover, Article 132–76 of the French Penal Code makes it an aggravating circumstance to commit an offence “on the grounds of membership or non-membership, real or assumed, of a particular ethnic group, nation, race or religion.” AGRIF therefore relied on the abstraction of the law’s wording to ensure that it was applied in defense of the majority group. The initiatives of AGRIF mostly concern forms of verbal violence. Rap music has thus become one of its preferred targets—however, the specificity of rap in AGRIF’s strategy has been little discussed in the existing French literature.

Since the early 2000s, during the Sniper affair, the association has tried to ban the group’s concerts by taking it to court. After a first success in Toulouse, its strategy failed in Lille. The courts dismissed all of AGRIF’s claims and clearly stated that “the text of this song does not contain any racist remarks within the meaning of Articles 24 and 48–1 of the Law of 1881.”[4] AGRIF then wrote a letter to Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, who championed the moral crusade against the group in the National Assembly (AN) (Hammou, 2012) and referred to their songs as racist and antisemitic texts. However, in the archives of the AN, the term anti-white racism does not appear directly in the minister’s words. The complaint against the group does not contain any accusation of racism or antisemitism.[5]

In the early 2000s, the accusation of anti-white racism therefore appeared explicitly mainly on the far right. The term as such only occurs in the debates in the Assembly in euphemistic forms. Such charges were not prosecuted. At this point, AGRIF has not yet succeeded in getting its fight heard in the legal arena. In addition, the fact that the category of anti-white racism comes from the far right in itself delegitimizes its denunciation, as the defense of Sniper attested. In a letter addressed to the Minister of the Interior, the rappers (probably in consultation with their lawyer) wrote: “We regret to note that your remarks are identical to those of the movement Jeunesse Identitaire. It is strange for a great democrat like you to take up far-right remarks.”[6] The argument is echoed by Communist deputies. However, the idea of virulent rap that would target the majority group soon circulated far beyond the extreme right. In 2005, this idea was notably explicated and theorized by the initiatives of François Grosdidier, a UMP deputy and ex-member of the Parti des Forces Nouvelles, an offshoot of the Front National (Kauffmann, 2016).

The 2005 Turning Point: An Attempt to Legally Recognize Racism against the Majority Group by Penalizing Rap Music

The debate over anti-white racism became more widespread in 2005, after a high school demonstration in which groups of young people robbed and beat up demonstrators. Most of the media’s interpretation of events was then racialized: the high school students were cast as victims of “anti-white racism.” On March 26, an appeal against anti-white racism was signed by several intellectuals, but it also elicited numerous reactions of disapproval from other organizations, particularly anti-racist ones (Kokoreff, 2005).

A year later, Grosdidier attempted to legitimate this notion with a bill in the National Assembly.[7] The bill aimed to “reinforce the control of provocations to discrimination, hatred or violence,” a reinforcement justified by the quotation of lyrics taken from various rap albums, especially a song and music video by the rapper Monsieur R, “FranSSe.”[8] The track opens with a denunciation of France’s role in slavery and colonization, followed by the lyrics “France is a bitch, don’t forget to fuck her” while the clip features two dancers in pornographic imagery. To better understand the context that preceded this bill, we must go back to the riots in the fall of 2005 in the Île-de-France region, following the death of two teenagers chased by the police. As a result of rap being associated with the banlieue (Hammou, 2015), a group of right-wing deputies rallied around Grosdidier and accused rap of inciting “unstructured or lost” youth to commit this violence. The moral crusade led by Grosdidier took place in a context in which “spectacular images of burned cars” were repeated over and over for three weeks until they provoked “dramatic” reactions, like the images broadcast in the United States that presented France as being on the brink of civil war. Rap music was then “strongly emphasized to account for the contagion of the riots” (Kokoreff, 2008: 86).

 

Excerpt from the 2006 bill

One of the concrete modifications proposed by the group of deputies in their bill consisted of adding the phrase “whether it is a minority or a majority” after the sentence in Article 24 of the Law of 1881 that states, “those who…will have provoked discrimination, hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons.” The proposed addition is justified by a symmetrical conception of the social relations of race, denouncing in passing the inaction of anti-racist associations:

Associations of protection against racism…remain passive in the face of anti-white racism. The MRAP[9] even supports these singers under the pretext of expressing social distress. Any kind of racism is condemnable, there are none more legitimate than others. Racism is not simply the fact of a majority towards minorities, it can also come from a minority towards a majority. Whatever their form, racism feeds on each other, creating a climate of hatred.[10]

By making the rights of all groups and individuals equally defensible against a “climate of hatred,” the argumentation in Grosdidier’s bill relies on the same “appeals to judicial neutrality” underpinning AGRIF’s strategy since the mid-1990s (Bleich, 2018: 71). It trumps “classic antiracism beliefs” (72)—the historical inscription (Cervulle, 2013: 20) and asymmetric relational dimension of the concept of racism as formalized by the social sciences (Hajjat, 2020). Significantly, the accusation of antisemitism presented in the bill is depicted as a consequence of this “anti-white and anti-occidental racism.” It aims to strengthen the cause of the majority group, the Jews being described as “super-whites,” victim of minorities, and not as a minority group themselves.

Although the bill was not passed, it nevertheless testifies to a growing institutionalization of the concept of anti-white racism and its acceptance beyond the far right. In the mid-2000s, a considerable fringe of the French right attempted to establish the legitimacy of the denunciation of anti-white racism by pointing to rap music lyrics they deemed to be violent and whose harmful effect they perceived as contributing to the 2005 riots.

The 2010s: AGRIF Less and Less Alone

After Sniper in 2002 and Monsieur R in 2005, AGRIF filed an unsuccessful complaint against the group ZEP in 2012 for the song “Nique la France” (Fuck France). The instrumental is based on a few accordion chords, an instrument associated with traditional French folklore. The light-hearted atmosphere conveyed by the accordion contrasts with the critical content of the lyrics (“Fuck France / And its colonial past,” goes the chorus). Despite two appeals, the Court of Cassation confirmed the acquittal. Since press law is very precise, the court was able to justify the acquittal by noting that the vague group targeted by the remarks that were deemed offensive is not specifically covered. The term “white French people” was not considered “a protected group of people within the meaning of the provisions of the Law of 1881 on the freedom of the press”[11](which Grosdidier’s bill attempted to change). The acquittal invokes the context of the song, the specificity of the rap genre and, for the first time, explicitly recognizes that it is part of a “debate of general interest” concerning the consequences of colonization. In the case of ZEP, the incitement to violence against the “white” group is too difficult to demonstrate: the lyrics could instead be interpreted as targeting institutions or those responsible for colonization.

A turning point came with Nick Conrad, in 2019. This time, AGRIF was not alone in making the accusation. While the authors of “Nique la France” were not convicted because of the vagueness of the targeted category, Nick Conrad’s title is on the contrary very explicit in terms of ethno-racial category. The song is entitled “PLB” “Pendez Les Blancs.”[12] The video for this song is based on a reference to the opening scene of the film American History X, but the roles are reversed: the torturer, played by the rapper, is Black and the victim is white. At the end of September 2018, the video clip was condemned across the political spectrum, from the far right to France Insoumise (the main left-wing organization).

The argument promoted by the AGRIF’s strategy of hijacking anti-racist legislation seems to have been widely adopted even by the parliamentary left, though not for the same reasons. The leader of France Insoumisepublished on Twitter the following message: “All racists, all communitarian hatreds, are our enemies! … In France, racism is not an opinion, but a crime! #NickConrad.” The reference in the Tweet to an abstract universality, the equating of all forms of violence, justifies the condemnation of the song. This reference may be particularly effective in the context of the French “republican universalism” claimed by the majority of the political spectrum, which prescribes in the public sphere an “indifference to the particular attachments”[13] to which the ethno-racial categories are reduced.

Moreover, in the Nick Conrad case, the LICRA, a major anti-racist association in France, became a plaintiff alongside AGRIF. During the hearing, LICRA’s lawyer closed her argument on the will to make white people a category “protected by article 132–76.”[14] This article of the French Penal Code aimed to aggravate the sentences related to crimes committed because of a victim’s membership in “a so-called race, ethnic group, nation or determined religion,” directly responding to AGRIF’s goal. Although this objective was not achieved in the Nick Conrad trial, LICRA’s participation shows how, through the criminalization of rap, the fight against “anti-white racism” is no longer delegitimized by its far-right roots and connotations.

Conclusion: Hate as a Moral Prise to Depoliticize Racism

In the cases presented here (Sniper, Monsieur R, ZEP, Nick Conrad), the notion of “hate” appears to be central. It is one of the emotions specific to the enunciative regime favored by rap (Pecqueux, 2007) and more broadly, the part of a structuring opposition (love/hate) summarized by the expression “us versus them,” which is at the foundation of many popular cultures (Hoggart, 1970; Sonnette-Manouguian, 2015). Silverstein describes this message of hate in rap as a “masculine rhetoric of allegorical violence against a racist state” (Silverstein, 2012: 115). Yet, at first glance, hate has the characteristic of being both the emotion and the negative evaluation of the emotion (Ogien, 1995). Like violence (Claverie, Jamin and Lenclud, 1984), describing an emotion as hate implies a form of moral condemnation. Significantly, in Grosdidier’s bill, the terms hate and racism are juxtaposed; on several occasions, only the expression “racial hatred” is used. Thus, different political actors take rap songs at face value and selectively focus on the music’s stylization of strong emotions (such as hatred). These denunciations of “allegorical violence against a racist state” tend to create a proximity, even a confusion, between the notions of hate and racism. Hajjat sees in this reduction to a “primitive emotion” a depoliticization of the struggles against racial domination, “taken out of their social and political context” (2020: 73). Denunciation of racism here takes the form of a primarily moral condemnation.

This conclusion about the French case invites a more systematized comparison with the United States and United Kingdom. In the national context studied here, the racism battle is played out primarily on the field of freedom of speech and the inversion of the legislation against racist hate speech. The reversal relies not only on the principle of judicial neutrality, the abstract universality promulgated by the law and reinforced by the ideal of republican universalism, but also on the prominence given to the notion of public order, which in France can rival the freedom of expression. Does the specificity of the First Amendment (mobilized for example during the 2 Live Crew trials), make this type of conviction rarer in the United States?[15]

Above all, a comparison of the French case with the American and British cases reveals a similar pattern when it comes to the prosecution of rap music. In the three countries, rap lyrics and video clips are taken out of their context of enunciation. Their interpretation depends on not considering rap as an art form in its own right. In the American and British contexts, researchers demonstrated how treating lyrics as evidence for crimes led to the excessive incarceration of young Black men. In France, the imposition of the category of anti-white racism through rap’s criminalization tends to control the forms of anti-racist discourse and reverse legislation in favor of the majority group. Thus, the use of the legislation against racial hate speech against rap music has (paradoxically) racist effects.

Indeed, in the French context, pointing to rap songs to advance this message of “racial hatred” has a double effect. First, it can “scandalize,” and second, it confers a racial identity on those who originate the scandal. More generally, the world of rap is one of the few spaces where the majority group can be particularized (in other social spheres whites are usually not even named and embody the universal), and in some cases, criticized as wielding power over minority groups. Penalizing rap music in France through this lens then brings up questions about how accusations of anti-white racism can lead to “symbolically inverting a relationship of material racial domination in order to disqualify those who challenge the historically white-dominated racial order” (Hajjat, 2020: 72).

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[1] In France, the issue of freedom of expression and what English literature refers to as hate speech is mainly covered by press law.

[2] In the English translation published in 2015, the authors wrote: “Prise (from the verb prendre—to take) can translate into English as the ‘grasp’ a person has of things: their sense of things or their take on things. But in French it also works the other way round: prise can also be the ‘hold’ that things or people can have over (another) person.” (Bessy and Chateauraynaud, 2015: 2). “Les prises” refers to the possibilities for engagement that objects (here, rap music) offer to people and which they seize. The notion is close to that of affordance.

[3] National Assembly, question n°2618, September 16, 2002.

[4] Sniper’s criminal case file, forwarded by the group’s lawyer.

[5] The grounds for the indictment were “incitement to injure or kill officials of the Ministry of the Interior” and “insult.”

[6] This letter was also found in Sniper’s criminal case file.

[7] Proposition de loi n°2957 aimed at tightening controls on incitement to discrimination, hatred, or violence, registered with the National Assembly on March 14, 2006.

[8] The double S refers to the Nazi police, suggesting a parallel between the racism of contemporary France and that of the Nazis.

[9] Anti-racist association important in France.

[10] Quote from the Proposition de loi n°2957.

[11] Court of Cassation, December 11, 2018, reference number: 18–80525.

[12] Hang the Whites.

[13] A formula notably popularized by Dominique Schnapper, one of the crucial promoters of a “republican ideal of integration” in the 1980s and 1990s.

[14] Nick Conrad’s hearing, January 9, 2019.

[15] Cases where the lyrics are the crimes themselves can be found in the 500 trials surveyed by Dennis and Nielson (2019: 13–16), under what they call the “threat scenario.” In this case, the lyrics are considered as “true threats.” Thus, they are not protected by the First Amendment.