Skip to main content

Why do French think Bob Dylan's racist?

By Matthew Fraser
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT