Skip to main content

Why do French think Bob Dylan's racist?

By Matthew Fraser
updated 7:25 AM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette circa 1966. Dylan's music spoke to a generation of people during the 1960s, a tumultuous decade that forever changed America. He went on to become a rock 'n' roll legend and influence many musicians to come. Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette circa 1966. Dylan's music spoke to a generation of people during the 1960s, a tumultuous decade that forever changed America. He went on to become a rock 'n' roll legend and influence many musicians to come.
HIDE CAPTION
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
Bob Dylan through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Dylan has been charged with inciting racial hatred in France for some comments
  • Matthew Fraser: It's ironic since he just won France's highest public award
  • He says racism is a sensitive issue in France, and Dylan controversy touches a nerve
  • Fraser: This isn't surprising, because in France hate-speech accusations often reach courts

Editor's note: Matthew Fraser is a professor of communications at the American University of Paris and a lecture at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. His most recent book, "Home Again in Paris," is a personal memoir about expat life in France.

(CNN) -- Less than a month ago Bob Dylan could justifiably feel he was revered in France. The singer was in Paris to receive France's highest public award, the Legion d'Honneur.

As France's most prestigious medal was pinned to Dylan's lapel, his French hosts heaped praise on the 72-year-old legend for his contribution to music -- and notably his songs inspired by French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine.

It was impossible to predict that, only three weeks later, Dylan would be embroiled in an ugly controversy that has resulted in preliminary charges against him in France for inciting racial hatred.

Matthew Fraser
Matthew Fraser

Ironically, Dylan's comments were made about America, not France. In a Rolling Stone interview published in 2012, the singer was quoted as saying: "If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood."

A Croatian group in France pressed charges against Dylan for his remarks. Now Dylan, who has performed in both Croatia and Serbia, finds himself in legal trouble in France for comments he made last year about racism in America.

The Croatian group claimed that Dylan was equating all Croatians with the small minority of Croatian war criminals.

The tension between Croatians and Serbs has deep historical roots, most recently with the breakup of former Yugoslavia, during which accusations of genocidal massacres were made on both sides. Farther back, during World War II when the political movement Ustasha ruled Croatia, it erected concentration camps for Jews, Serbs, Roma gypsies and other non-Catholic minorities. It is believed that roughly 320,000 ethnic Serbs were killed under the Nazi-allied Ustasha.

Did Bob Dylan "incite hatred"?
Bob Dylan charged with 'inciting hate'

In France, a country where racism is a sensitive issue, the controversy surrounding Dylan touches a raw nerve. The French have questioned themselves whether they are racist and xenophobic, especially toward the minority African and Muslim populations whose integration into French society has been rife with tensions and sometimes violence.

French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, one of the country's most prominent black politicians, has been subjected to racial slurs. A right-wing French magazine, "Minute," featured a headline about her: "Crafty as a monkey, Taubira gets her banana back."

The famous French movie actress Brigitte Bardot has been convicted and fined for inciting racial hatred for her comments about Muslims in France after complaining on her website that Muslims were "destroying our country by imposing their ways."

The French have also struggled with its history of anti-Semitism, which flared up during the infamous Dreyfus Affair at the end of the 19th century when a Jewish military officer was wrongfully accused and convicted of treason. France's collaboration with the Nazis during World War II is a shameful chapter in the country's past that was for decades swept under the carpet of collective memory.

Today it is illegal in France to deny the Holocaust and incite racial hatred, and sell Nazi memorabilia on the Internet. (For example, a French judge in 2000 found the U.S.-based company Yahoo guilty of facilitating neo-Nazi auctions.)

Dylan's published comments have opened old wounds in France. Yet there is something curious about the timing of these charges against him. First of all, the singer made the remarks to Rolling Stone last year; they were later published in a French version of the magazine. And the Croatian group's complaints against the singer apparently date to November 2012.

It is interesting, too, that the preliminary charges by French prosecutors against Dylan were filed on November 11, only two days before the legendary singer was to receive his Legion d'Honneur from a Socialist government that is usually admiring of engagé pop singers with a strong anti-establishment political message.

In the stuffy precincts of the Legion d'Honneur's Grand Chancellerie, it appears that the government's nomination of Dylan for the award had originally been received sniffily. In May, French press reports claimed the 17-member Legion d'Honneur council had tossed out the nomination on the grounds that Dylan had been an anti-war radical during the Vietnam War and, moreover, had used drugs. It was only after some backroom intrigue that it was announced that Dylan would receive the Legion d'Honneur after all.

Dylan fans doubtless find this whole thing perplexing. Yet it's not surprising that this blew up in a country where hate-speech accusations often reach the courts.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Fraser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT