A Coded Word From the Far Right Roils France’s Political Mainstream

Historians in the News
tags: France, racism

PARIS — The word “ensauvagement” has been a favorite dog whistle of France’s far right in recent years, used to suggest that the nation is turning savage. With its colonial and racist overtones, it has been wielded in discussion of immigration and crime to sound alarms that France is being transformed into a dangerous, uncivilized place, stripped of its traditional values.

“Behind it, there is an underlying imaginary world, with savages on one side and civilized humanity on the other,” said Cécile Alduy, a French expert on the political use of language who teaches at Stanford University.


As with many things in France, an unresolved colonial history lies below the surface of the battle over the word ensauvagement.

The word is a direct outgrowth of France’s colonial and slave-trading past, a history that the French have yet to come to terms with and that they have often preferred to ignore, said Pascal Blanchard, a historian on French colonialism and its enduring impact on French society.

More than any other imperial power, France justified colonialism by describing it as a “civilizing mission,” Mr. Blanchard said.

“The idea of guiding savages out of the darkness into the light was omnipresent in France’s discourse,” he said. “The idea of the savage is still deeply rooted in French society.”

Aimé Césaire, the anticolonial writer from Martinique, even tried to turn the word ensauvagement against Europe in the 1950s. In “Discourse on Colonialism,” he wrote that Europeans had dehumanized themselves through the brutality of colonialism in Africa and that they themselves had turned into savages.

“Césaire goes further by saying that Nazism was the product of the ensauvagement of Europe,” said Pap Ndiaye, a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies in France, adding that a genocide committed by Germans in their former African colony in what is now Namibia in the early 20th century is widely regarded as a precursor of the Holocaust.

But stripped of its historical meaning, ensauvagement can literally mean, in French, the state of becoming wild.

“The word benefits from ambiguity and works in France’s collective consciousness by letting the person using it avoid being directly called a racist,” Mr. Blanchard said.

That is why the word appeared to have slipped into the mainstream recently, he said.

Read entire article at New York Times