Lupin star Omar Sy has hit back at critics of comments he made about differing attitudes to the war in Ukraine and further afield conflicts, saying the attacks against him are simply an example of racism.
Sy, who is one of France’s most popular actors and the country’s most successful Black actor, has found himself in the eye of a media storm at home this week over an interview in Le Parisien newspaper on his new WWI drama Father and Soldier.
The drama, released in France by Gaumont on January 4 after world premiering in Cannes Un Certain Regard, follows a Senegalese man in his 40s who voluntarily accompanies his conscripted son to the frontline in Verdun in 1917.
Inspired by the true stories of 200,000 men drafted from French colonies to fight in the conflict from 1914 to 1918, the work has personal resonance for the actor, who was born and raised in France by parents of Mauritanian and Senegalese origins.
Tackling the film’s anti-war theme, Le Parisien asked Sy whether he found the current conflict in Ukraine upsetting.
Sy replied that the war had not been “a crazy revelation” for him and that other conflicts taking further afield had already touched him in equal measure.
“Does it mean that when it’s in Africa, it touches you less… I feel equally threatened, whether it’s in Iran or Ukraine,” he replied.
“A war is a dark shadow over humanity, even when it’s on the other side of the world. We remember that man is capable of invading, of attacking civilians and children. It feels like we had to wait for Ukraine for us to wake up to this.”
“Ah, but my friends? I’ve seen it since I was small. When it’s far away, they say over there, they’re savages, we’re no longer like that. It’s like at the beginning of Covid, when people said, It’s only the Chinese.”
Within hours of the interview being posted on Le Parisien website, French centrist politician Nathalie Loiseau posted an angry response on Twitter, evoking 58 French servicemen who had died in the North African region of Sahel from 2013 to 2022, fighting extremists insurgents.
“No, Omar Sy, the French aren’t “less touched” by what happens “in Africa”. Some have given their lives so that Malians can stop being threatened by terrorists,” she Tweeted.
Her response was questioned by Le Parisien in a follow-up article, which clarified that Sy’s comments had been general in nature and made calmly in a conversational interview, in which he never once specifically mentioned “French” attitudes or Mali.
Sy initially took a phlegmatic approach to the controversy in subsequent TV and radio shows linked to the promotion of the film, saying he did not want to stoke the debate or give it value.
“What I said in French is in an interview which is available on Le Parisien… Read it and try to understand. If you don’t understand too bad for you,” he told Arte’s talk show 28 Minutes on Thursday.
When pushed, he added: “Of course, it’s racism and I’m saying it out loud. Is it because I’m the child of an immigrant that I can’t express myself on France? Because I’m Black, that I can’t express myself on France?” he said. “People who think that are racists, I’m calling it out and I stand by what I say.”
Left-leaning newspaper Liberation also questioned Sy’s critics.
Noting the actor was recently voted as France’s third most popular actor, in a poll by Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Libération said there was nothing extraordinary in Sy’s implied suggestion that the French were less interested in conflicts in Africa than when Russia invades part of Ukraine, “at the gates of Europe”.
“The far right, but unfortunately not only [the far right], has immediately stepped up to denounce the words of a “star” living in the United States, as a way to deny him any legitimacy of expressing himself as French.”