Reader question: Is there a French word for ‘woke’? I have only heard it in its English form in France.
There is a French version but the question is interesting since, as a French person writing this answer, I would say it does not work.
For information, ‘woke’ and ‘wokeism’’ were included in the 2023 edition of the Larousse dictionary, both in their English forms – although the latter is spelt ‘wokisme’ in France.
French translation unsatisfactory
Larousse specifies in its definition that woke is taken from African-American slang and derives from the verb ‘to wake’. It was translated as “a school of thought denouncing any form of injustice or discrimination experienced by ethnic, sexual and religious minorities.”
Subsequently, le wokisme (wokeness) was defined as an “ideology from what is dubbed ‘woke’. It focuses on issues of equality, justice and the defence of minorities, which is sometimes seen as an attack on ‘republican universalism’.”
The closest French translation of this is éveillé since it is the closest word to its African-American vernacular origins.
Eveillé has the same two meanings in French as in English – woke and to wake up. It has a literal meaning of the end of sleep but can also mean being alert, aware or intellectually sharp.
The verb éveiller means to arouse, to stir, to provoke a sentiment, a feeling or a reaction, as in éveiller les consciences (awaken consciousness or raise awareness), éveiller la curiosité (awaken curiosity).
The translation has not been taken up much in France, mainly because éveillé is no longer commonly used in this last sense.
French people would favour lucide (lucid), clairvoyant (clear-sighted), éclairé (enlightened), sagace (sagacious) or perspicace (perspicacious) to characterise someone aware.
It is interesting to note that being éclairé derives from Les Lumières (The Enlightenment), a period of scientific, political and philosophical discourse that characterised European society in the 18th Century, in which France had a prominent role in promoting philosophical concepts such as critical thinking.
Fought by conservatives
Woke and wokisme entered into mainstream media in the summer of 2020 when throngs of Americans took to the streets to denounce the killing of George Floyd, an African-American killed by police brutality in Minneapolis.
France piggybacked on the demonstrations, organising its own under the Comité Adama, a collective set up to denounce the death of 24-year-old Adama Traoré following police intervention in 2016.
An ideological importation of US issues, defenders of wokisme in France follow on from American activists and denounce the existence of systemic racism within French police forces.
The concept, however, is less objectively quantifiable since France forbids racial statistics.
Larousse also pointed out that the term was seen by conservatives and critics as an attack on French universalism. Wokisme is fought fiercely by conservative newspapers and political parties, some drawing a similarity with fascism.
“Wokeism leads to a lowering of the intellectual level because it is based, not on a desire for discovery, but on the repetition of clichés,” said Nathalie Heinich, author of a book examining wokeism, to The Connexion in its May 2022 edition.
“It does not create individuals open to new knowledge, to an enlarged discovery of the world, to the comprehension of ambivalence or the plurality of points of view,” she added.
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