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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT