Natives, under-dogs, whatever

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Johanna Decorse, "Case of anti-white racism on trial in France", AP 12/14/2011:

TOULOUSE, France—As protesters massed outside, the spokeswoman for a movement representing immigrants from France's former colonies went on trial Wednesday for allegedly insulting white French in what may be the first anti-white racism case in France.

The verdict, expected Jan. 25, may turn on a hyphen.

The trial grew out of a legal complaint from a far-right group, the General Alliance Against Racism and Respect for French and Christian Identity, Agrif, against Houria Bouteldja for using a word she invented to refer to white French that she claims was misconstrued. She was charged with "racial injury" and, if convicted, risks up to six months in prison and a maximum 25,000 ($32,500) fine, though courts usually issue far lighter sentences.

The background is as follows. In June of 2007, Houria Bouteldja appeared on a television talk show, Ce soir (ou jamais!) ["This evening (or never!)"], where she argued against the view that immigrants to France need additional cultural education in order to become better assimilated, countering that in fact it's the native population that needs historical and cultural remediation. In doing so, she referred to the non-immigrant population of France as "souchiens", an ethnonym derived from the noun souche.

According to Émile Littré's Dictionnaire de la langue française, the core meaning of souche is "Le bas du tronc d'un arbre, accompagné de ses racines et séparé du reste de l'arbre" — "the base of the  trunk of a tree, together with its roots and apart from the rest of the tree". Like its English counterpart stock, souche has a figurative genealogical sense, so that "souche paysanne" means "peasant stock".

Therefore, as the French-language Wikipedia explains,

Français de souche est une expression courante ou une catégorie statistique désignant, dans son sens le plus communément admis, les personnes de nationalité française n'ayant pas d'ascendance étrangère immédiate et n'étant donc pas issues de l'immigration récente.

Français de souche is a common expression or a statistical category designating, in its most widely accepted sense, people of French nationality without immediate foreign ancestry and not from a recent immigrant background.

And just as gens de Paris ("people of Paris") in French are Parisiens, and gens d'Egypt are Egyptiens, it's plausible to call gens de souche by the invented term souchiens.

So what's the problem? Why is Ms. Bouteldja in court? Well, some people have argued that that she intended a punning equivalence between souchiens and sous-chiens. Literally "under-dogs", sous-chiens is felt to be interpreted as in the French translation of the Nazi racist term Untermenschen, "sous-hommes", thus suggesting that Français de souche are lower than dogs. The complainant is the organization AGRIF, apparently an acronym for "L'Alliance Générale contre le Racisme et pour le respect de l'Identité Française et chrétienne" ["The general alliance against racism and for respect for French and Christian identity"].

The AGRIF website explains that

Houria Bouteldja a déclaré avoir joué sur l’homonymie entre les termes de « sous-chiens » et de « souchiens » puisqu’ « il faut bien leur donner un nom à ces blancs ! », ne dissimulant ainsi nullement sa claire volonté d’injure raciste. Mais cela était renforcé encore par sa précision de mépris : « Il faudra bien les rééduquer ces blancs ».

Après les atrocités exterminatrices des camps nazis, communistes, ou encore de ceux du FLN algérien où moururent atrocement au long des années les milliers de françaises et de français enlevés en 1962 à Oran et ailleurs, on sait ce que cela signifie !

Houria Bouteldja has proclaimed that she played on the homonymy between the terms "sous-chiens" and "souchiens" because "we need to give them a name, these whites!", thus not hiding at all her clear intent of racist insult. But this was further reinforced by her detailed contempt: "These whites must be re-educated".

After the exterminating atrocities of the camps of the Nazis, the communists, or indeed those of the Algerian FLN where thousands of French women and men died atrociously who were seized in 1962 in Oran and elsewhere, we know what that means!

And amazingly enough, from the perspective of an American, it's apparently a crime in France to insult a racial or ethnic group, even punnishly and in passing. Putting aside the absurdity of such laws, let's take a look at what Ms. Bouteldja actually said. Here's the relevant part of the audio, along with my attempt at a transcription (she talks very fast, so parts are no doubt wrong — corrections to the transcription and the translation will be gratefully accepted):

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On met toujours la focale sur les quartiers populaires
euh les quartiers populaires sont en déficit de connaissance,
de conscience politique, euh il faut les éduquer, etc.
et on ((et ja- et )) on occulte complètement le reste de la société et ses privilèges
les privilèges du reste de la société
et moi, j'ai envie de dire, c'est le reste de la société qu'il faut éduquer,
c'est le reste de la société à qui il faut dire par exemple
((ne serait-ce que sur la question)) de l'histoire c'est- c'est-
c'est le reste de la société ((occidenta-))
de ce qu'on appelle, nous, les "souchiens", parce qu'il faut bien leur donner un nom, les "blancs",
euh à qui il faut inculquer l'histoire de- de- de- de l'esclavage, la colonisation, ((j'en reviens toujours là-dessus)) parce que c'est tres important, la question de l'identité nationale,
elle doit être partagée par tout le monde,
et c'est là qu'il y a un déficit de connaissances.

People are always focusing on the immigrant ghettos,
"the immigrant ghettos lack understanding,
lack political awareness, uh we need to educate them, etc."
and they completely ignore the rest of society and its privileges,
the privileges of the rest of the society,
and me, I want to say, it's the rest of society that needs to be educated,
it's the rest of society which needs to be told for example
it's the rest of west-
of what we call the "souchiens", because it's necessary to give them a name, the "whites",
uh who need to learn the history of- of- of- slavery, of colonization,
I keep coming back to this
because it's very important, the question of national identity,
it needs to be shared by everyone,
and that's where there's a lack of understanding.

For what it's worth, I personally disagree with Ms. Bouteldja's rejection of the idea that France has failed to assimilate its immigrants, and that something should be done to fix this. And contrary to her assertion, my impression is that French students of all backgrounds are already thoroughly educated in the history of slavery, colonization and so on (or at least as thoroughly educated as they are in any other aspects of history). However, it seems preposterous to me that her use of the term souchiens constitutes a criminal insult to les Français de souche, even if we grant that insulting speech ought to be criminalized in such cases.

Specifically, I don't see any evidence in the passage cited above that she intended the term souchiens punningly, any more than than the center-right politician Jean-Louis Borloo did in a 2006 TV interview:

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… pour la premiere fois de l'histoire de france, monsieur duhamel,
il y a des français arabes, des français africains, des français asiatiques,
des français bourguignons, des français d'ile de france.
Ils ont le meme passeport,
mais ce qui est en train de s'installer dans la société française,
c'est l'idée que si je suis de souche,
si je suis souchien,
je ne comprends pas les autres.
La république elle est belle et grande,
pourquoi on- on- on a ces tensions, cette incomprehension, cet ((enfin))
Et si on est non souchien,
on n'a pas le sentiment que la république donne un avenir.

… for the first time in the history of France, Mr. Duhamel,
there are arab french, african french, asian french,
burgundian french, french from the ile de france.
They have the same passport,
but what's becoming established in french society
is the idea that if I'm of [original French] stock,
if I'm "souchien".
I don't understand the others.
The republic is big and beautiful,
why do we have these tensions, this lack of understanding, this ???
And if someone is non-"souchien",
they don't have the idea that the republic offers a future.

The worst thing that happened to Mr. Borloo as a result of this passage, as far as I can tell, was a joke at his expense in Bernard Leconte, À la recherche du bon français, 2007 (a collection of French-style French style-peevery):

And Borloo doesn't even get credit for the neologism — there's apparently an earlier history of usage in Quebec (Pierre Gendron et al., Le pays de tous les Québécois: diversité culturelle et souveraineté, 1998):

Si le calcul des immigrants est juste — et ils ne peuvent tous être dans l'erreur en même temps — , alors pourquoi les Québécois francophones, les fameux «souchiens», voudraient-ils se priver de tout accès à l'école anglaise?

If the reasoning of the immigrants is correct — and they can't all be wrong at the same time — then why would francophone Quebecois, the famous "souchiens", want to deprive themselves of all access to English schools?


  1. anne said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    Here's my understanding of what's missing.

    "et on, et ja– [she's going for "jamais" but changes to], et on occulte […]"

    "ne serait-ce que sur la question de l'histoire, c'est, c'est, c'est, c'est le reste de la société occidenta– [she stops before finishing "occidentale"] enfin, de ce qu'on appelle, nous, les "souchiens", puisqu'il faut bien leur donner un nom, les "blancs"…"

    "je reviens toujours là-dessus parce que c'est très important, la question de l'identité nationale…"
    Alain Duhamel is about to ask a question
    "Autrement dit, pour vous–" and gets cut off by Borloo:
    "Pour la première fois de l'histoire de France, […]"

    "[cette] incomprehension, cet– [fumbling, maybe "enfin", then he just goes for something else]…"

    [(myl) Thanks! ]

  2. Joe Fineman said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    Cf. "WASP".

  3. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    The passage from the AGRIF web-site is interesting in that it sounds like it's saying that Ms. Bouteldja declared herself to have been punning, but on a second read (and with her words handy) it's clear that the web-site is actually presupposing the pun, and merely saying that she declared her reasons for said alleged pun to be such-and-such. Is there a term for this sort of ambiguity, where a given clause can be read either as an assertion or as a presupposition? I don't remember having encountered such a thing before. (I also wonder if the web-site is intentionally being deceptive, or if it's just trying to pack in as much emotional content as it can, and giving a deceptive result by accident?)

    Also interesting is that the "OUAH OUAH" passage only makes sense if one presupposes that Mr. Borloo did not intend any such pun, since the passage is making the pun in order to mock Mr. Borloo's word choice.

    Conclusion: apparently some people think it's a pun, and some people think it isn't, but either way, everyone seems to agree that the thought can only be expressed as a presupposition. Saying "this is a pun" or "this is not a pun" is apparently forbidden.

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    "And amazingly enough, from the perspective of an American, it's apparently a crime in France to insult a racial or ethnic group, even punnishly and in passing."

    Actually, I believe what is going on is that defamation is a civil crime in France, and the crime in question is probably "Diffamation publique raciale, nationale ou religieuse" or "Injure publique raciale nationale ou religieuse" which (intuitively, I may be completely wrong) are defamation/insult of a national/racist/religious nature (i.e. "nigger" would presumably fall under this) more than "insult toward a group" as such (which would fall in the pro-discriminatory speech provisions).

    Ultimately though the silliness here resides not so much in the law itself as in the obvious SLAPP-iness of the suit brought abusing the intent of the law.

  5. Bernhard said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    Totally off topic for this post, but not for the Log, I hope: Regarding the ‘agrif’, the translation in your opening quote ("the General Alliance [Against Racism and Respect for French and Christian Identity]") is semantically half the opposite of the real translation you give later ("the General Alliance [Against Racism] and [*FOR* Respect for French and Christian Identity]"). Just another case of ‘negation scope adjustment’, I guess, similar to (without) impunity, but in the opposite direction, namely negation ‘scoping “into”’ a phrase ([[against x]] ~ [[in favour of NOT x]]] ~ [[ for NOT x]]).

    I admit, it might be just a forgotten word – but why is it so difficult to notice these? I had to read twice to notice what was wrong.

  6. Graeme said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    To be the 'underdog' as opposed to 'under-dog' is of course a good thing.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    @Graeme: I think "under-dog" is the same as "underdog". Probably to get the (supposed) connotation of "sous-chien" in English, we'd have to say something like "subdog" (cf. "subhuman").

  8. Janice Byer said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    Jean-Sebastien, in the US justice system, "civil crime" would be an oxymoron, which is to say, civil courts judge offenses on behalf of individuals not the state, with penalties strictly limited to compensation to plaintiffs, who must prove material damage.

    In the case of defamation, words must be proven false and maliciously intended to promote falsehood to meet the burden of materially damaging. "Nigger", offensive as it is, does not, nor would any slur, meet that burden.

    Further to your point, fines and imprisonment can't be levied in civil cases. Only violations of statutory law with charges filed by governments on behalf of all people of their jurisdictions, not just injured parties, are subject to penalties owed the state. Thanks to the First Amendment of our Constitution, no word can be outlawed in the US.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    A deliberate mispronunciation of an otherwise inoffensive word can also be a slur. Such as the Southern lawmen who used to say "nigra" for "negro", back in the day. But I don't hear anything in the audio clip to indicate that that was Ms Bouteldja's intent.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    I personally disagree with Ms. Bouteldja's rejection of the idea that France has failed to assimilate its immigrants

    Do I detect overnegation?

    [(myl) You certainly detect the opportunity for confusion.

    However, in this case, I believe that I managed to write what I meant.

    There's an idea out there, that France has failed to adequately assimilate its recent immigrants, and that additional (or improved) cultural education — formal or informal — is therefore in order. That idea was in the background of the discussion that Ms. Bouteldja took part in. She rejected that idea, and countered that the real problem is that the native stock, the "souchiens", don't know enough about the history of slavery, colonialism, etc. I generally disagree with her on both points, to the limited extent that I understand the facts and the issues.

    I originally explained all of that in more detail, but decided that it involved too much discussion of my (not very relevant) opinions. However, I wanted to make the point that I'm not defending her because I agree with her, since there are some readers who seem to think opinions about a linguistic question must always be decided on the basis of political affinity.]

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    In these highly-sensitive times, there is perhaps a risk that any newly-coined exonym will be taken as derogatory, esp. when the only reason the speaker needs such a coinage is to say something critical (perhaps justifiably so, I don't know in this particular instance) about the group in question, whether or not some sort of punnish negativity can actually be detected lurking in it. WASP in AmEng had the advantage of starting off as a kinda/sorta endonym – even if its jokiness was in part at its subject's expense, the original social-science jokesters (e.g. Digby Baltzell) were often themselves members of the group.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

    Actually, I guess the original coinage of "souchien" is unclear, but it's apparently little enough used in (non-Quebecois) French that it's endonym/exonym status may be up for grabs?

  13. John O'Toole said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    There is an additional somewhat mean-spirited pun in the Ouah Ouah citation in which the author rings the changes on all the “dogs,” chiens in souchien. Chienne is of course a female dog, or bitch, so a souchienne would also be an “underbitch.” But more significantly, a chiot (puppy) in the putative feminine, chiotte, is in reality familiar French for the bog, the crapper, the can, the terlet, as older residents say in these parts (Brooklyn). Thus a “young girl of French stock” is, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, an “undercrapper.” It is all very facile; any French speaker having even a nanogram of wit, would immediately see the connection and, depending on the company kept and the quantity of alcohol consumed, would run through them in an instant. For the general enlightenment, there is a mini-tradition of these kinds of designations qua digs in French: Rabelais famously coined the portmanteau Sorbonnagre, a pejorative term for members of the Sorbonne that makes them out to be asses, wild asses actually (onagre, or onager in English), while the Nazis, with their Aryan nonsense, provided French people with the opportunity to speak of the bon Aryan, the “good Aryan” that is immediately understood as a bon à rien, a good-for-nothing.

  14. Robert said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 1:36 am

    I personally disagree with Ms. Bouteldja's rejection of the idea that France has failed to assimilate its immigrants…

    France has failed to assimilate its immigrants.
    Ms. Bouteldja rejects this idea?
    But… you disagree with her rejection.
    So… you think she should accept this idea. (?)

    The discussion on the television talk show was essentially about apportioning blame for the unassimilated state of France's immigrants, with Ms. Bouteldja meting out most of it to the 'souchiens.' The argument here assumed a failure, and to say it was on the part of 'France' is horribly ambiguous, requiring contradictory assumptions vis-à-vis (sorry) the participants' positions. One almost sympathizes with Ms. Bouteldja's use of the original word in question.

    Inserting a confused one line defense against attacks ad hominem was not the best idea. Only so many disagreements, rejections, and failures can happen in one sentence.

  15. Warsaw Will said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    "And amazingly enough, from the perspective of an American, it's apparently a crime in France to insult a racial or ethnic group, even punnishly and in passing."

    And it is amazing from a British point of view that you should even find this amazing – as this is standard in Europe (well maybe not the 'in passing bit)' . In Britain 'Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden. Any communication which is threatening, abusive or insulting, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden' (Wikipedia) – Sometimes what seems to be called freedom of speech in the US appears to us over here as simply a license for hate speech.

  16. Dan T. said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    When they show the cartoon superhero Underdog in France, what do they translate his name to?

  17. C. Jason said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    I grew up in Quebec, and although (or perhaps because) my French isn't anywhere near as good as it used to be, my eye caught the 'pun' long before it caught the supposedly intended meaning.

    If Ms. Bouteldja honestly imagined that using such a term in the middle of a hot-button debate wouldn't upset or offend anyone then my opinion is that she personally, at least, has thus far failed to assimilate into French culture.

    I'm not arguing against her right to use the expression, mind you, but at the very least it was a display of poor taste and judgement.

  18. Janice Byer said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    Will, a license entails permission granted at the discretion of a government. Americans founded a nation to secure certain rights – upheld at the time by the British enlightenment as God-given, and nowadays embraced by the west, we like to think, as universal human rights – for the people, not the government to parcel out as a privilege. We don't have a license to speak hate, we have the freedom.

  19. RP said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    In practical terms it is still a licence, since even if it is a moral entitlement, you could not realistically rely on it being enforced if it wasn't granted by the state (in this case, by the Constitution).

    As a Brit I think some UK laws go too far. Libel law is too stringent, copyright law is too restrictive, and I don't think it should be against the law merely to offend someone, which potentially it could be on a strict interpretation of certain repressive statutes. However, I have no problem with a law against incitement to racial hatred.

    Americans don't have complete freedom of speech – defamation laws exist in the US (although they rightly are less open to abuse than the UK ones), copyright laws exist, incitement laws exist, etc. (Even such a political crime as sedition has been prosecuted in the US at various times.) Though there are better safeguards than in the UK, the same limits to speech exist in the US. So it seems to have many of the same restrictions on speech that Europe has – the big difference is in restrictions on racist speech, it would seem.

  20. Bob Couttie said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    This might be the place to bring up the allegation that some dictionary or other, usually the Oxford English Dictionary, uses, of has used "domestic helper" as a definition of "Filipina". A bit of Googling shows it's a widespread claim but I can find nothing to support it.

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