Are ’woke’ academics a threat to the French republic? Ask Macron’s ministers | Didier Fassin
Amid the crises of the last year, certain members of Emmanuel Macron’s government have managed to identify a new threat to French society: “Islamo-leftism”. During a recent interview, the French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, declared that “Islamo-leftism corrupts all of society, and universities are not impervious”. She criticised “radical” academics for always “looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide”, and announced that she would be requesting an investigation into university research on these subjects. While the meaning of the term is elusive, the political intent behind Vidal’s statement was clear. “Islamo-leftism”, which Vidal has associated with research on race, gender and social class, is indicative of a broader culture war that is sweeping both the political and academic establishment in France.
Vidal is not the only politician in Macron’s government to have recently used the term. In a radio interview about the tragic beheading of a high-school teacher who had shown his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoons ridiculing the Prophet, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the minister of education, declared that “Islamo-leftism wreaks havoc in universities”, and blamed France’s oldest national student union for being “the intellectual perpetrator of the assassination”.
In France’s heated political climate, the ill-defined neologism has found an audience among mainstream politicians. The growing public presence of minorities demanding that their rights be respected, together with a burgeoning interest (particularly among younger scholars) in ideas and theories that help analyse religious prejudice, racial discrimination and social injustice, have disturbed a comfortable belief in the supposedly universalist values of the French republic. In response, a reactionary movement has emerged in France that crosses ideological lines between left and right, combining anxiety about an envisioned future with nostalgia for an imagined past.
Although Macron distanced himself from Vidal after a scathing backlash to her proposed investigation, his apparent disapproval seems feigned; indeed, the French president has also singled out scholars working on racial discrimination and the stigmatisation of Muslims. Days before huge demonstrations took place against police violence and racism that resulted in multiple unpunished deaths of Arab and Black men across France, Macron accused universities of encouraging “the ethnicisation of the social question” and “breaking the republic in two”. Three months later, he announced a new law against Islamist “separatism” that is designed to exercise greater control over Muslim schools and mosques. Although an Elysée official said the bill is “not against Islam”, but rather “against people who in the name of a wrong or reconstructed vision of a religion behave in a way contrary to the republic”, many French Muslims feel the new law will unfairly target them.
It has been clear for some time that Macron’s machiavellian calculation (the French president wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the author of The Prince) is that leading his party on the tails of the far-right will help him win against Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in the second round of the 2022 presidential election, which polls predict to be very close. Yet a narrowly political reading of terms such as Islamo-leftism misses the broader picture. The term is a signal not only to conservatives, but to an influential segment of French intellectuals.
In recent years, a lively reactionary movement has taken off among French intellectuals, targeting research in a long list of fields – from ethnicity, race, gender and intersectionality to colonialism, decoloniality and Islamophobia. This movement is best understood as a rejection of the evolution of society, politics and ideas, and an endeavour to re-establish the old social and political order of things. It has rallied mostly senior or retired scholars, and while their targets are distinct, all are concerned with the same menace: the advent of what is often called “identity politics”.
From their perspective, race studies, research on racial discrimination and the idea of white privilege all pose a threat to the universalist values of the French republic. Some even see these ideas as forms of anti-white racism. They regard analyses of France’s colonial past (which has long been a blind spot in French history and sociology) as divisive and ideological. Meanwhile, organisations such as the influential La Manif pour tous, which was founded in 2012 to oppose France’s gay marriage bill, have taken a strong stance against education programmes covering gender studies.
Curiously, France’s culture warriors believe that these new ideas and critical theories are imported from US campuses. Yet race relations were initially studied in Britain, while the concept of “decoloniality” was created in Latin America. And, ironically, many of the ideas that have been developed in North America were influenced by French theorists. A remarkable feature of this movement is its disregard for the international literature nourishing these new ideas. Instead of understanding them, it appears more interested in caricaturing them.
A revealing example of this intellectual moment is the recently published book Race et Sciences Sociales by the sociologist Stéphane Beaud and the historian Gérard Noiriel. These two respected scholars lament what they see as the substitution of “class struggle” with “race struggle”. They scorn the “gender bandwagon”, are dismissive of intersectionality and criticise the “racialisation” of social problems and public discourse.
Their book begins and concludes with the death of George Floyd. Of Black Lives Matter, they write that the movement obscures “the power relations structuring our societies”,and therefore accentuates divisions among working-class people (a remarkable argument, given that Black Lives Matter has been more involved in deconstructing and denouncing power relations than any other social movement in past decades).
By asserting the primacy of class, and an idealised account of republican values, France’s culture warriors devalue the ideas and movements that help to better understand – and act against – current social injustices. Allegations of a menacing Islamo-leftism have revealed an improbable convergence between Macron’s En Marche and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, on the one hand, and a reactionary segment of France’s intellectual world on the other. Comparisons have been drawn by some between the term Islamo-leftism and Judeo-Bolshevism; both identify the leftwing followers of a particular religion. The latter term was however used in the 1930s to cast European Jews as dangerous subversives. Although history never repeats itself, witch hunts are never a good sign for democracy.
Didier Fassin is an anthropologist. He is professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and professor to the annual chair in public health at the Collège de France