(Bloomberg) — Elisabeth Moreno, a Black woman in charge of diversity in Emmanuel Macron’s government, slammed “cancel culture” in a strong rebuke of U.S.-style wokeness.
“The ‘woke’ culture is something very dangerous, and we shouldn’t bring it to France,” the French delegate minister for gender equality and diversity told Bloomberg Tuesday on the sidelines of a TV interview, saying that the excesses of cancel culture “kick out people from ongoing debates because they think otherwise.”
The 50-year-old, born in the African archipelago of Cape Verde, said that while the greater awareness of social, gender and racial inequalities and injustice that comes with “woke culture” in the U.S. is a welcome development, no one should be shut out of the conversation.
“People are speaking up and that’s good,” Moreno said. “Everyone should fight discrimination. You can’t ask someone not to speak about a topic because the person doesn’t feel legitimate. It makes no sense.”
While the term “woke” has French roots and was quickly adopted by some in France, the notion is being criticized as a U.S. import that leads to censorship and intolerance in the name of political correctness. Moreno herself once said that White men were usually favored when it comes to finding a job, but quickly added that she didn’t want to use the term “White privilege” because it was a controversial U.S. notion.
It won’t be the first time Macron and his government have presented a different read on social campaigns that have taken the U.S. by storm. Although the MeToo movement made some ripples in France, Macron criticized it, saying he didn’t want a “society where every man/woman interaction is suspected of domination,” adding that he didn’t want to live in a “puritanical society.”
In France, a diverse country that has yet to come to terms with its colonial past and is proud of having provided refuge to Black people fleeing U.S. racism in the 20th century, from author James Baldwin and singer and composer Nina Simone to entertainer Josephine Baker, conversations about race and ethnicity create deep discomfort.
With ethnic profiling by the Nazis and their allies during World War II scarring the country, such statistics are taboo and subject to legal scrutiny, making it difficult for companies and police forces to assess diversity among their ranks. But Moreno says that misses the point.
“It’s wrong to focus on the issue of ethnic statistics — you don’t need stats to see that there are problems of inclusion in companies,” Moreno said. “We are not lacking laws, we are lacking compliance of laws.”
French officials are reluctant to introduce racial quotas or affirmative action, citing the country’s self-professed Republican and color-blind culture. Moreno says she doesn’t want to be seen as successful because of her gender or race, but for her accomplishments.
“French universalism means that, in the French Republic, we want to recognize people per se, not because they are women or LGBT+ or because they have a different ethnicity or whatever.”
That universalism, however, has largely failed to give racial minorities a shot at top slots in most walks of French life. None of the biggest companies in France is led by a minority. A study by Institut Montaigne showed that people with Muslim-sounding names on resumes are less likely to be called in for job interviews. Inequalities were also laid bare by the pandemic, with the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, predominantly housing Black, Arab and other minorities, one of the worst affected by the crisis.
France has had more success on the gender front, propelling women onto companies’ supervisory boards — thanks to mandatory quotas introduced a decade ago. Still, almost all top executive positions are held by White men. Macron’s party is pushing to impose a 40% quota for women in executive committees by 2030. An election campaign proposal for Macron from 2017, it is still being reviewed by parliament and criticized by the business lobby Medef.
Moreno said she’s disappointed that only one of France’s biggest traded companies is led by a woman. French yogurt maker Danone SA recently considered applications from women to replace Emmanuel Faber as CEO, but eventually settled for a man, Antoine de Saint-Affrique.
Macron’s own government lacks diversity, with White men holding the most important roles — from prime minister to ministers for finance and foreign affairs. Feminists have criticized the appointment of a man accused by women of abusing his power as interior minister.
Still, Moreno — a former CEO of Lenovo in France who was appointed minister in July last year — defends the track record of Macron’s government. She points to the extension of paid leave for fathers to 28 days.
While Macron hasn’t said he’ll seek reelection in 2022, his teams are getting into campaign mode. His closest rival would be Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant, far-right leader running neck-and-neck with him in the polls, who has a shot at becoming the first female president of France.
For Moreno, Macron is the right choice for minorities. “It’s time to stop talking and acting, and that’s exactly what France is doing,” she said.