PARIS—Among the plays scheduled for Sorbonne University’s annual ancient theater festival this year was The Suppliants, by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus.
Just days before its performance in March, though, students contacted Louis-Georges Tin, the honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations, an antiracism group that goes by the acronym CRAN. They had news he found troubling: During the previous year’s performance, they told him, actors wore blackface; in now-removed photographs from the university’s website that advertised the festival, white actors appear in dark makeup. CRAN immediately called for a boycott.
What followed—a heated conversation that dominated opinion pages across France and reached high-level government officials—was the latest episode in the country’s ongoing struggle to grapple with race, identity, and freedom of expression. Tensions over what constitutes racism and how to combat it, and what that means for free speech, have riled college campuses from Middlebury to Manchester, but the subject is particularly toxic here.
France likes to see itself as color-blind, and abides by a national myth of strict universalism, in which citizens are expected to identify with the nation over any other particular ethnic or religious identity. The model’s proponents consider multiculturalism and hyphenated identities communautariste, a pejorative term to describe identity politics—inimical to social cohesion. The government is not allowed to compile statistics on citizens’ race or religion, and last summer the National Assembly voted almost unanimously to remove the word race from the constitution.