Black director says France 'in denial' of its racism and its past

by Alain JEAN-ROBERT, Fiachra GIBBONS
"They are right to rise up": Oscar-nominated director Raoul Peck lacerated French denial of racism

Acclaimed black film-maker Raoul Peck has accused France of being in denial of its racism, its colonial past and its wealth "built on the misery of others".

The Haitian-born maker of the Oscar-nominated documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro", said he was with young people who have taken to the streets in France and the US to protest against police violence in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

"They are right to rise up. They are right to protest, they may even be right to smash everything," Peck wrote in a piece to be published Wednesday in the French weekly, Le 1.

Headlined "I Can't Breathe", echoing Floyd's last words as a white US police officer kneeled on his neck, Peck said "France is in denial and its 'adulterated' children no longer have the time to wait," he added, referring to its ethnic minorities.

"Every citizen has to take their part of the burden and to stop looking on from a distance," he said.

"I thought that another world was possible without burning everything," said the director, who made his name with "Lumumba", the story of the murder of DR Congo's independence leader Patrice Lumumba in a plot involving the CIA and the country's former Belgian colonial masters.

"Now I am not so sure," Peck added.

- Macron: No statues will fall -

His comments come after French President Emmanuel Macron all but ignored the wave of protests in a major address Sunday except to warn that he would not take down statues of controversial historical figures from the country's past.

"The Republic will not wipe away any trace or any name from its history... but lucidly look at our history and our memory together," he said.

His government also backtracked Tuesday on a ban on the use of chokeholds by the police after a backlash by police unions who deny claims of systemic racism and violence.

Angry officers staged protests across France and threw down their handcuffs to protest the ban on the highly controversial technique, which Black Lives Matter activists say can be deadly.

But Peck, who was once culture minister on his native Caribbean island, said France could no longer hide behind denial.

"We have simply come to the end of a far too heavy heritage of injustice, denial and profit built on the misery of others.

- 'It's not up to blacks' -

"France is in denial because it refuses to accept that it has lost its predominant place and empire," said Peck, who has spent most of his life in the country.

Peck, who won a French Oscar, called a Cesar, for "I Am Not Your Negro", his portrait of the American writer James Baldwin, admitted he was a "privileged black man".

Even so he was horrified at how "racist words, gestures... decisions and laws" were becoming normalised, and called for society to change from top to bottom.

"We have to take it by the root, put everything on the table and rebuild everything. No institution should escape," he wrote.

"It's everyone's problem, every institution, the press included... We have to start rebuilding and it is not up to the blacks, or Arabs or women, or gays or the handicapped to solve this," Peck insisted.

In France, protest about racism and police violence has coalesced around the case of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black man who died at a police station shortly after his arrest in 2016.

Traore's family claim he was suffocated as officers held him down, an accusation that medical assessments ordered by French investigators have rejected. Experts hired by his family, however, have questioned this. Prosecutors said this month that the inquiry was still open.

"They are right to rise up": Oscar-nominated director Raoul Peck lacerated French denial of racism