Academic Freedom under Attack in France
For many years, in what now seems the distant past, France was known as the nation that welcomed refugees from authoritarian countries; revolutionary activists, artists, exiled politicians, dissident students, could find sustenance and support in the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is also the country whose philosophers gave us many of the tools of critical thinking, including perhaps the very word critique. In recent years—at least since the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989—that image has been replaced by a more disturbing one: a nation unable to decently cope (and increasingly at war) with people of color from its former colonies (black, Arab, Muslim) as well as Roma; a nation whose leaders are condemning critical studies of racial discrimination and charges of “Islamophobia” in the name of “the values of the Republic.”
The years since the bicentennial have seen a dramatic increase in discrimination against a number of groups, but Arab/Muslims, many of them citizens (according to the settlement that ended the Algerian War) have been singled out. The charge against them has been that they practice their religion publicly, in violation of laïcité, the French version of secularism, the separation of church and state. Enshrined in a 1905 law, laïcité calls for state neutrality in matters of religion and protects individual rights of private religious conscience. Although the state is extremely supportive of Catholic religious practices (state funds support churches as a matter of preserving the national heritage, and religious schools, the majority of them Catholic, in the name of freedom of educational choice; the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted that Catholicism is an integral aspect of laïcité), Islam has been deemed a threat to the “values” upon which national unity is based.
National unity is a peculiar concept in France, at least from an American perspective. The nation “one and indivisible” is imagined as culturally homogeneous. Anything that suggests division is scrupulously avoided. Thus there is no exact calculation of the numbers of Muslims in the French population because no official statistics are kept on racial, ethnic, or religious difference. To make those very real differences visible is thought to introduce unacceptable divisions in the representation of the unity of the national body.
The presence of an estimated 6 to 10 million Muslims (in a country of some 67 million) has become a potent political weapon. Initially claimed by the far Right National Front party (now renamed the Rally for the Republic), the “Muslim problem” has become a concern of parties across the spectrum (in differing degrees from Right to Left). In 2003, in the face of increasing electoral success on the far Right, the conservative government of Jacques Chirac commissioned a report that redefined laïcité for the twenty-first century’s “clash of civilizations.” Titled “The New Laïcité, “ it extended the demand for neutrality from the state to its individual citizens, forbidding any display of religious affiliation in public space. Although said to be universally applicable, everyone understood this to be a policy aimed at Muslims. Thus the hijab (the Islamic headscarf) is prohibited in public schools; women are fined for wearing the niqab (the full face covering) on the streets of their towns; veiled women are prevented from serving as witnesses at weddings conducted in city halls; burkini clad women were forced to undress on some beaches in the summer of 2016….the list goes on. Women were the target of these rules and regulations (for reasons I have analyzed in my The Politics of the Veil (2007), but men, too, experience economic and social discrimination, as well as violent police surveillance in their homes and on the streets.
In the wake of a number of horrific terrorist attacks in the name of Islam in French cities—the assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and the murders at the Bataclan theater in 2015, and most recently, in 2020, the beheading of a school teacher, Samuel Paty—all Muslims are increasingly defined as a threat to the security of the nation. The Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, has effectively declared war, defining not religion but Islamist ideology as “an enemy within.” Despite this careful distinction, a wartime, ethno-nationalist mentality has identified Muslims as a dangerous class. Antipathy to Muslims has become evidence of patriotism; those who argue that not all Muslims are terrorists and that discrimination against them might contribute to their radicalization, have been met with denunciations and vehement attacks. University professors are among these groups, and they have faced particularly nasty accusations of treason. The campaigns being mounted against them don’t just target individuals; in their insistence that teaching cannot deviate from “the values of the Republic,” the charges amount to a sustained attack on academic freedom.
The call to rally around the Republic has come not only from the expected quarters—politicians and publicists on the Right—but also from the current (neo-) liberal administration and from within the academy itself. Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who work on the history of colonialism, on issues of ethnic and racial discrimination, and who seek to account, within the problematics of their disciplines, for the inequalities evident in French society, have been labelled “islamo-gauchistes” for their presumed support for or identification with Muslims. The term is used as an insult, and it is employed regularly by intellectuals such as the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and the feminist writer Caroline Fourest, neither of whom are considered to be on the Right. In 2018, following a conference at the University of Paris, 7, on “Racism and racial discrimination in the university,” some 80 intellectuals signed a letter condemning as “ideological” the increasing number of “racialist” university events and they called upon “the authorities” to put an end to their “use against the Republic.”
The “authorities” have responded. In 2020, the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer declared that anti-racist intellectuals were “complicit” in Samuel Paty’s murder. He accused “islamo-gauchistes” of “wreaking havoc” in the university. Those employing ideas of “intersectionality,” he denounced as “intellectual accomplices of terrorism.” He deemed intersectionality a pernicious import from multicultural America that “essentializes communities and identities, the antithesis of our model of the Republic.” If Muslims were “separatists,” these intellectuals were too. President Emmanuel Macron charged that “The academy is guilty. It has encouraged the ethnicization of the social question, thinking it’s a good subject to study. But, the outcome can only be secessionist. It will rebound to split the Republic in two.” In October, a bill was proposed in the Senate stating that “academic freedom must respect the values of the Republic.” And Frédérique Vidal, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, whose portfolio most directly pertains to the academy, asserted that “the values of laïcité, of the Republic, are not open for debate.”
Although no one has yet been fired from a university position, the warning signs are clear. If the nation is at war with Islam, those who struggle to find alternatives to this divisiveness are, ironically, accused of dividing the nation. When professor of sociology (University of Paris 8) Eric Fassin was threatened on Twitter with decapitation for his “islamo-gauchiste views” by a right-wing extremist, his university president offered support (as did academic collectives from Turkey to Brazil), but there was no comment from those higher up in the education ministries. [Fassin sued and won a ruling against the man, but the court treated him not as member of a domestic, neo-Nazi, terrorist network (which he is), but as a lone aberrant individual.] Calls to rein in teachers who address racism and discrimination are widespread, and the threats of disciplinary action are particularly severe against the still relatively rare academics of color, many of whom hold junior, therefore vulnerable positions. State surveillance of research can make it difficult for those studying discrimination, as well as aspects of Islamic culture, to get access to the archives and repositories of data that they need. And then there is the self-policing that inevitably accompanies state surveillance and disapproval.
But the resistance is impressive. There is no national organization equivalent to the AAUP in France, yet faculty have nonetheless mobilized. Courses continue to be taught, books and articles published, and conferences held on race and discrimination, and these are rightly justified as realizing the values of the Republic—those that stand for liberty and equality above all. There is a site, Université Ouverte where information on protests and other activities can be found, as well as the blog Academia with in-depth critical analyses. In response to a denunciation of their work by 100 intellectuals as “racializing” (racialiste) because it allegedly taught students to “hate whites and France,” more than 2000 academics replied this way in Le Monde: “To call the approach that examines, among other things, the impact of social, sexist, and racist oppression, ‘racialist,’ is despicable. [Racialist] signifies racist thought and regimes based on a supposed hierarchy of race….[But our] sociological and critical approach to racial questions, as the intersectional approaches so often attacked, do the opposite by exposing oppression in order to combat it.” An international letter of support for these efforts was circulated in November, 2020. It makes the case very clear: an increasingly ethno-nationalist politics is posing a dire threat to French academic freedom.
As I write this in early 2021, the old slogan from May ’68 in France sums up the state of things: La lutte continue (the struggle goes on).