The statement was based on Agatha Christie’s famous novel, “And Then There Were None,” which sold over 100 million copies around the world. Until this year, France was one of the last countries where the novel was still sold using its original 1938 title — which includes the slur. During her lifetime, the novelist had accepted changes to the offensive title for the release of the book in the U.S. market in 1940. Several European countries, such as Italy and Germany, which also published the book in the 1940s, never used the title in question.
France was an exception. Finally, a few weeks ago, James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, announced that the book will be available in France under the new title “Ils étaient dix” (“They were ten”).
The fact that the French market would no longer be exposed to the racist title, 80 years after the “queen of crime” accepted this in her own language, should have been a nonevent. No reasonable person could have imagined that such a simple decision would infuriate so many among the French intelligentsia. But it did.
Convinced that it was a sign of a new type of censorship that would ultimately threaten freedom of speech, many public figures stood up to firmly defend the right to use an offensive word. Calling the change “absurd,” “monstrous” and “miserable,” they protested as if the change forced them to lose their own landmarks.
On another television show, journalist and pundit Gérard Carreyrou displayed his strong opposition to the change, asking: “According to the popular usage, I am a fat person, should we remove the word ’fat’?” When the host explained that “fat” is a factual term and not a slur, Carreyrou insisted, “We do not dare anymore in our society.”
Then Sarkozy added his voice to the national hue and cry. “Because … we’re no longer allowed to say … What do we say? ‘Ten Little Soldiers’ now? Is that it?” he said. “Society is really progressing,” he concluded sarcastically.
No one reacted on the TV set. Sarkozy never even bothered to apologize, calling the controversy “unworthy.”
It is not the first time that this has happened in France. In 2010, the perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain said, “I worked like a [n-word]. I don’t know if [n-word] have always worked like that, but anyway.” He was ultimately fined, but the presenter responded at the time with an embarrassed laugh.
Six years later, Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister of women’s rights, expressed her opposition to the right of Muslim women to wear a hijab, comparing women who do to “American [n-word]s who supported slavery.” She apologized for her “error in language” but declined to withdraw her words, and continued to stay in government despite the social media outcry.
In fact, in France, there seem to be no consequences to using the n-word and defending its use. So why do so many people feel attacked when they are told about the racist history of the slur? What deprivation do they feel to put so much energy into the defense of a word known for hurting a large portion of their fellow citizens?
The book has finally been released without its racist title. But, incredibly, the phrase still exists in capital letters at the bottom of the book’s cover, where it says: “Previously published under the title ’Ten little [n-word]s.’ ”
Instead of turning the page on the controversy and moving toward a more inclusive wording that makes all of French society feel respected, the publishers decided to keep in writing a word recognized as racist. That choice shows how little France is ready to change the status quo. The new title is out, but the old one cannot be totally removed — nor can the traditions inherited from colonialism, which still shape some parts of our language.
The real reason for so much agitation lies in the desire to keep in place power dynamics rooted in the colonial past. The fact that the debate largely took place in the French media, which is overwhelmingly White, should have gained more attention. The gap between the social media response from people of color who are justifiably furious and upset, compared to the reaction of the elite gasping in opposition to the change, illustrates perfectly how those in power are resisting progress.
In France, as in other societies, there is a strong will to maintain the privileges of people who are determined to keep inequalities the way they are — to their advantage.