Posted on May 1, 2024

It’s Hard Being Black in France, Says Omar Sy After Aya Nakamura Racism Row

Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, April 28, 2024

The French actor Omar Sy, the star of the hit Netflix series Lupin, has said France must move away from the individualism that is fragmenting society and rebuild a sense of the collective if it is to hold back the far right.

In a series of media interviews to promote a new book about his life, Sy said the notions of justice, equality and fraternity had been shaken, and it was hard to be a black person in France.

In an interview in Sunday’s Le Parisien, Sy, one of France’s most popular celebrities, was questioned by readers. One asked him if it was difficult to be black in France, even for him. He said it was a dangerous question that required nuance but replied: “Of course there are instances when it’s difficult to be black in France. That doesn’t date from today and unfortunately it’s ongoing. It can happen at any time in one’s life.”

He cited the example of the racist row over the French pop star Aya Nakamura, the most listened to French artist in the world, who recently faced a backlash from the far right and the right after it was rumoured she might sing at the Olympics opening ceremony. “She has succeeded in her life, she has transcended her social background and she finds herself in a position where she’s victim of racism,” Sy said.

Asked about the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is expected to run again for the presidency in 2027 and who polls show is gaining in support, he said: “My optimism is a bit shaken at the moment, but I’m still optimistic.”

Sy, 46, released a book this week, Viens, on se parle, with the journalist Elsa Vigoureux, in which he talks about growing up in the banlieue outside Paris with his parents from Mauritania and Senegal, and friends who went on to be stars such as the footballer Nicolas Anelka and the comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze.

In a series of media interviews in recent days, Sy was asked about his political engagement, after he has supported justice campaigns over police violence in France, including the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died in police custody in 2016, and Nahel, a 17-year-old of Algerian background, who was shot dead by police during a traffic stop in Nanterre, outside Paris last summer.

Sy told Le Quotidien TV show that the notions of justice, equality and fraternity were lacking in France today. Asked about the rise of the far right in French politics, he warned against people “spewing hatred” and peddling an image today of a “France of the past”. Sy said those ideas historically had “led France to dark places”.

He said: “We must all ask ourselves how do we want to be together, to interact, to be part of a group. Because today everyone in the public space is talking about the individual, about themselves and has forgotten the group.” He said it was crucial in France to rebuild a sense of the collective.

Sy told Nouvel Obs magazine that he was aware that his background made him a kind of symbol: “The son of immigrants from west Africa, who grew up in the banlieue, black and Muslim. If you add all that together, you get a cocktail that you call symbolic and that becomes political.”

In 2012, Sy became the first black French actor to win a best-actor César award for the comedy Intouchables (Untouchable). His performance in Lupin as a gentleman thief with a conscience has made the show one of the most successful French series worldwide.

He lives between France, the US and Senegal.