Protesters attend a demonstration against police brutality and racism in Paris in 2017.Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty

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.

Louis-Georges Tin demands that antiracism activists be allowed to accuse a theater company that used blackface of racism without being deemed “’enemies’ to French values.” (Mehdi Fedouach / AFP / Getty)

Over the past decade, a younger generation—powered by the children and grandchildren of immigrants from France’s former African colonies—has vocally challenged this national myth. Though on the surface the debate in France appears to mirror that under way in the United States, there are key differences. For one, the split in France goes beyond a left-right clash and pits a new set of activists against establishment antiracism groups, who are staunch defenders of universalism. France also espouses a more restrictive vision of free speech than the U.S., with narrow laws on hate speech, defamation, and, as of recently, apology for terrorism. Critics say this framework is applied selectively: After the 2015 attack at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, for example, much of the nation rallied around free expression. Those—often French Muslims—who refused to express full solidarity with the publication, which had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, were deemed unpatriotic, and some faced legal consequences, notably for “apology for terrorism.” “Everyone says, ‘Vive la liberté d’expression,’” Tin told me. “But there’s less and less freedom of expression for those deemed ‘enemies’ to French values.”

This is the context in which the blackface row at the Sorbonne began and subsequently escalated. Students at the university said they had tried to contact Philippe Brunet, the director of The Suppliants—a fifth-century play that tells the mythical story of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of the king of Libya, who flee forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins—to express their discomfort. But according to Tin, Brunet refused to engage in dialogue, and so they went to CRAN. Students also reached out to UNEF, the influential national student union, which called on the university to take action.

Brunet did not address Tin’s characterization of his communication with the students, but told me he hadn’t meant to offend. Besides, he said, this year the actors would wear masks instead of dark makeup. He also argued that the 2018 performance was not racist, and that accusations of blackface simply don’t apply to antique theater, but were instead used to discredit him—“undoubtedly for political reasons,” he told me by email. The art of “imitation,” he added, had been practiced since ancient times.

Still, on the night the play was originally scheduled to run in March, some 50 students, along with members of the Black African Defense League and the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade—two small antiracism groups unaffiliated with CRAN or UNEF—rallied outside the university. A dozen activists reportedly attempted to block the entrance and prevent the show from going on. Citing security concerns, the university postponed the performance, and condemned the blockade. The play was eventually performed in late May with masks, but the discussion it sparked took on a life of its own.

In the newspaper La Croix, the essayist Cécile Guilbert wrote that, in protesting the performance, the students had been ignorant and “crass,” and said their behavior was “absolutely revolting.” Pierre Jourde, a literary critic who was himself a UNEF member in the 1970s, called the student union “idiotic, totalitarian, illiterate and obscurantist.” The popular magazine Marianne, a longtime defender of French universalism, devoted a recent issue to what it called “the offensive of those obsessed with race, sex, gender, identity.” In a series of articles, its authors accused a segment of the left of “importing American political correctness; infiltrating universities, nonprofits and unions; wanting to put an end to universalism,” and “banning works of art.” The education minister, one of three senior politicians to weigh in, said the incident reflected an “identitarian and communautariste slide,” which he described as “one of the most serious challenges of our era.” Ignoring this “latent violence,” he warned, “would be like remaining blind to the rise of fascism in the 1920s.”

The incident highlighted enduring fissures even within the world of antiracism groups. LICRA, France’s most prominent antidiscrimination organization and a champion of the universalist, color-blind model, also condemned the incident. Its press release said UNEF and CRAN had supported the blockade; both groups say they didn’t. But Mario Stasi, the president of LICRA, contends they supported the blockade by default. “The CRAN acted like the morality police and denounced the play,” he told me. “What followed is their responsibility.”

I asked Stasi whether there was room to consider the students’ and activists’ perception that the play was offensive—even if the offense had been unintentional. “It’s not a question of their feelings,” he said. “It’s a communautariste political project. How can we debate, when the CRAN tries to impose its own vision—one of a fractured France? We want to maintain universalism.”

Why did the Sorbonne episode, one of many recent spats over race, hit such a nerve? According to Éric Fassin, a sociologist at Paris University 8, it combines the “double symbolism” of the Sorbonne—one of France’s most prestigious universities, which was central to the country’s May 1968 protests—and a protest against a classical text. “Preventing it [The Suppliants] from taking place is seen as an attack on the heart of the culture,” he told me.

The decision to stage the blockade—defended by a minority, but generalized to describe the actions of all parties involved—deepened polarization, he added. “Now conservatives are all too happy to talk about freedom of expression,” Fassin said. “They can say, ‘Look how intolerant these antiracists are, how they wage their war against the “politically incorrect.”’” From there, the debate lost its complexity, he argued, as LICRA and others glossed over the different organizations’ varied positions and the questions they raised: “What is the history of racial costumes in France? How do certain aesthetic choices fit into racism? Can we talk about racism in the arts, without involving the people it affects? Who determines the meaning of art—the artist or the audience?”

UNEF and CRAN, for instance, diverged on Brunet’s use of masks instead of makeup—a disparity worth unpacking. Whereas Mélanie Luce, UNEF’s president, described the masks to me as “extremely caricatured” and replete with “racist stereotypes,” CRAN didn’t take issue with them—Tin, who had written his doctoral dissertation on Greek tragedies, said they were “a theatrical tradition.” But he was struck by what he saw as a refusal to acknowledge that blackface had been used in the first place. “Dark makeup has a long history in France, not just in the U.S., that was used to justify slavery and colonialism,” he said, dismissing arguments that freedom of expression gave artists the right to use blackface in their performances. “Should it be their free expression to insult black people?”

Another issue that got lost in the controversy’s noise was minority representation in the arts: If more minorities were involved in the production of The Suppliants, for example, perhaps the performance and casting would have been approached differently. Just last year, a group of black actresses joined forces under the rallying cry “Noire n’est pas mon métier” (“Black is not my profession”), appearing together on the red carpet at Cannes to protest the film industry’s lack of racial diversity. “Is it that difficult to find black actors?” Luce asked. “There are so few people of color in theater that we don’t even raise the question.” On this point, Brunet told Marianne, “If there are black girls who want to act, they’re welcome. But I’m not going to do a racial selection.”

For Fassin, these were all important nuances that should have been part of the conversation. But for someone like him, who has spent a career trying to encourage a French reckoning on race, the debate nevertheless holds some promise. “The general ambience is disastrous,” he said. “But it’s also an opportunity—to finally have this discussion, one that’s been bubbling up for years.”

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