A national controversy blew up in France earlier this month over a ‘naming and shaming’ campaign by students at a political sciences school who accused two of their teachers of Islamophobia, prompting police protection for the pair. While there has been widespread political and media condemnation of the students’ campaign, this investigation by Mediapart found that the case is far more complex than so far presented, and that the controversy was fanned by the timidity of the school’s management to intervene in a simmering dispute within its walls. David Perrotin reports.
The Institut d’études politiques (IEP) in Grenoble, south-east France, one of the ten French public political sciences schools more commonly known as Sciences Po, became the centre of a national controversy earlier this month after students publicly denounced and named two of their lecturers who they accuse of Islamophobia.
The students’ actions have been criticised as placing the lives of the two men in danger, notably following the beheading last October of Samuel Paty, a secondary school teacher in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. He was assassinated by an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin after the Muslim father of a pupil at the school posted angry messages on social media over Paty’s presentation, in a class on free speech, of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The controversy at the IEP in Grenoble had already been building in the media when, on March 9th, around 20 students gathered at midday outside the entrance to their establishment. They had taped a banner on a wall which read “Islam ≠ Terrorisme”, below which were propped strips of cardboard with the slogans “Racism is an offence” and “Halt to Islamophobia”.
A few journalists were there to cover the event, waiting to interview the protestors. The atmosphere was tense; the young students present were wary of the press which they accuse of biased reporting.
One of the students addressed the gathering, and while the reporters present had expected that the group were ready to publicly excuse themselves for their actions, they in fact reiterated their accusations. “Do you realise that you are ‘assassinating’, between quotes, your prof?” asked one of the journalists angrily.
“I shouldn’t have spoken out. I didn’t make myself understood,” said, later, the tackled student.
A few days earlier, posters had been put up on those same walls at the IEP with the names of the two lecturers the students accuse of Islamophobia. One of them read: “Fascists in our lecture halls”, and “Vincent T. […] and Klaus K. resign. Islamophobia kills.” While the posters were rapidly taken down, they had already been posted on social media by the local branch of the UNEF, the principal French students’ union, before it also withdrew the contents, in which the lecturers’ names appeared.
The events were reported in French weekly Marianne and daily newspaper Le Figaro following which the Grenoble public prosecution authorities opened a preliminary investigation into potential offences of engaging in “public insults” and “defacement”.
The French political class were unanimous in denouncing the students for placing the lecturers’ lives at risk. “I firmly condemn [the fact that] just six months – not even – after the assassination of Samuel Paty, [people’s] names have been thrown to the lions,” said Éric Piolle, the EELV Green party mayor of Grenoble. “Freedom of expression is constitutional for teachers and researchers.”
Meanwhile, France’s junior minister for higher education, Frédérique Vidal, called for an internal administrative report on the matter, saying that “attempts at bringing pressure” on individuals, and “the establishment of doctrinaire thought”, had no place in universities.
At the gathering outside the entrance of the IEP on March 9th, the students were also apparently unanimous in criticising the naming of the two teaching staff. “The poster pasting was a true cockup and placed the two profs in danger,” commented one third-year student whose name is withheld. “The UNEF should never have relayed them either.” Emma, the president of the Grenoble branch of student union UNEF admitted that, “Our communication was clearly clumsy”. For Maxime Jacquier, a member of the IEP’s students’ union representative body, “We don’t tolerate [the fact] that posters can put the lives of profs in danger”. All of them said they do not know who put up the posters.
“Since all that blew up, the media compare this affair with what happened to Samuel Paty,” said Thibault, a master’s degree student at the Grenoble IEP. “There’s talk of intellectual terrorism, of Islamo-leftist entryism or fatwa. But there is a ginormous gap between the reality of what goes on at the IEP and the hijacking [of the events] by politicians. It’s a much more complex business that began well before.”
One of the two lecturers targeted by the posters is Klaus Kinzler, 61, who teaches German language and civilisation. He has been giving numerous interviews to the media in which he offers his version of how the affair began. What he calls a “cabal” came about, he has said, after he simply questioned the proper use of the term “Islamophobia” alongside “racism” and “anti-Semitism” in the title of a project at the IEP. He has also said that “freedom of expression no longer exists at Science Po”. In an interview with French weekly news magazine Le Point , he said of some of the students that, “They wanted to have my hide and that of my colleague.”
Questioned by Mediapart, Kinzler, 61, who has spent 35 years in the teaching profession, began by saying he was pleased that the media are “so many” to take an interest in the events. “It’s a proper marathon, but the most interesting was CNews,” he said, referring to a French TV news channel to whom he spoke at length. “There are extracts from the programme which have been seen more than 100,000 times on social media.” He said he now wants to concentrate on the legal aspects of the affair. “Thanks to the essayist Caroline Fourest, I took on the lawyer Patrick Klugman to prepare my riposte,” added Kinzler, who accused his colleagues of having deserted him.
Kinzler said he had been excluded from a staff-student working group at the IEP for having contested the use of the term “Islamophobia” in the title of the group’s project, and said he was accused of harassment after he questioned the contrary arguments of one of his colleagues, Claire M., (last name withheld) and who sat on the working group, in email exchanges on the subject. Kinzler also said the director of the IEP Grenoble, Sabine Saurugger, had made him remove a page of his own website for having published details of the exchanges.
“The problem is that there are lots of errors and lies in his account,” one of Kinzler’s IEP colleagues, whose name is withheld, told Mediapart, and who insisted that the lecturer received immediate support from teaching staff.
“We are scandalised by what he said on CNews,” said Florent Gougou, a senior lecturer at the IEP. “He regrets not having had support whereas there was a loop of emails [of support] straight after the posters were pasted. Our support was unanimous and immediate, and the condemnation of these posters was very firm.”
Earlier this month, the IEP supervisory board voted in favour of a motion which “firmly” disapproved of the posters “which are a matter of insult and intimidation”. But the motion also insisted on the importance of “a duty of confidentiality” and respect for “established and legitimate rules on academic exchanges” – a key element in understanding the build-up to the poster controversy, and which began last November. To trace the sequence of events, Mediapart has interviewed lecturers, students and management from the Grenoble political sciences school, and obtained access to the initial emails and exchanges that sparked the row.
It was at the end of November 2020 when seven IEP students and one of their teachers, senior lecturer Claire M., formed a working group for a project entitled “Racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism”. The project was created to prepare a one-day forum of discussion on the same theme in early January, as part of a yearly “Week of equality and against discrimination” programme in place since 2017.
Klaus Kinzler joined the working group after it had been constituted, and immediately brought into question the project’s title. “Good evening everyone,” began his email, addressed to his colleague Claire M. and with the students of the group copied in. “Concerning our group thematic ‘Racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism,’ I am quite intrigued by the revelatory alignment of these three concepts of which one should certainly not figure here (one can even debate whether this term has a real sense or if it is not simply the propaganda weapon of extremists cleverer than us).” Kinzler then went on to explain why he had chosen to join the group: “I won’t hide from you that it is because of this obvious nonsense in the name of our thematic group that I chose it.”
Claire M. responded the next day, when she defended the name of the project, although it was not her who was behind it. The name was chosen on the basis of an online poll organised by the IEP administration, and was approved by a committee. “The notion of Islamophobia is indeed contested and taken to task in the political and partisan field,” wrote Clair M. in reply. “That is not the case in the scientific field,” she added. She also commented that “to use a concept does not dispense with questioning its pertinence, to aske oneself if it is effective”.
A few hours later, Kinzler replied, with the students still copied in to the exchange. “To peremptorily affirm, as Claire does, that the notion of Islamophobia would be ‘not contested in the academic field’ seems to me to be an imposture,” he wrote. “Or, let’s be frank and recognise immediately this: the ‘academic field’ which [Claire] speaks about, and of which she is a perfect example, has itself, at least in certain social sciences (which at the IEP is called ‘soft sciences’), become partisan and militant since a long time.”
He continued: “Contrary to what Claire affirms, ex cathedra, the academic debate on the highly problematic notion of ‘Islamophobia’ is absolutely not closed.” Kinzler wrote of a “hotchpotch” of ideas “completely invented as an ideological weapon by the ‘Fous de Dieu’ [fanatics of god] (in the literal sense) against the ‘impious’ peoples, a notion which appears to have invaded numerous minds, including within our venerable institute […] It is because of that that I categorically refuse to allow it to be suggested that the (imaginary) persecution of Muslim extremists (and other Muslims led astray) today really has its place alongside millenary and almost universal anti-Semitism or the racism that our own Western civilisation (just like the Muslim civilisation indeed) has become world champion of during the course of centuries.”
He went on to denounce “the veritable scandal” of the name given to the working group, “a re-writing of history” that will “shame” the IEP, and concluded: “I have decided that, in the case that the group decides to maintain [what is] this absurd and insulting name for the victims of racism and anti-Semitism, I will immediately leave it (that’s almost the case, in fact).”
Shortly after that email was sent, Vincent T., a senior lecturer in political sciences, and who Kinzler had hidden in copy to his email, joined the discussion although he was not part of the group. He took up Kinzler’s defence and directly targeted Claire. M., writing that he had discovered “with alarm to what degree academics are sunk in militantism and ideology”, adding: “To associate the Grenoble IEP to the combat led by Islamists, in France and in the world, and what’s more at a time when the government has just dissolved the CCIF, well, have you become mad or what?”
The CCIF he referred to is the French acronym for the ‘Collective against Islamophobia in France’, which was dissolved after the murder of Samuel Paty, when it was accused by interior minister Gérald Darmanin as being a “radical Islamic” body and an “enemy” of France.
Claire M. replied citing several scientific publications to support her view that the use of the term “Islamophobia” was not problematical.
But the situation became further inflamed when Vincent T. responded to her, copying in the IEP management. He wrote of how the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, the target of a 2015 terrorist attack for having published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad which left 12 people dead, had been “accused of Islamophobia”, citing also the murder of Samuel Paty, “accused of Islamophobia”, adding that he could not imagine “for one moment that the Grenoble IEP finds itself in this camp”. He invited the institute’s management to make known its position.
Meanwhile, Klaus Kinzler followed up with a lengthy email, in which he noted that, “Every day, the departments in ‘gender studies’, ‘race studies’, and other ‘post-colonial studies’ (the list is far from exhaustive!) of the world’s most prestigious universities come out with their production of new ‘scientific’ books and articles, the conclusions of which are strictly staggering (for persons of a normal constitution)”. He deplored a “cancel culture” that was at work, and commented that social sciences produce “a whole lot of implausible things” unlike the “hard sciences”.
“I am going to be clear,” he wrote. “I absolutely refuse to accept that we can continue, as Claire proposes to the group, to keep the title for the planned day.”
When questioned by Mediapart, Kinzler admitted to a taste for provocation. Meanwhile, one of his staff colleagues, whose name is withheld, commented: “He and Vincent are two profs with a reputation for being rightwing, and sometimes very militant.”
In one email Kinzler wrote: “Were the Muslims made slaves and sold as such for centuries, like were the Blacks (who are still today numerous in suffering real racism)? No, historically Muslims were for a long while major slave traders themselves! And there is among them, still today, at least as much racism against Blacks as [there is] among Whites.” He added that Muslims had never been “persecuted”, “killed” or “exterminated” as have Jews, and that among them are “a very large number of virulent anti-Semites”.
Kinzler wrote that while he had “no sympathy” for Islam “as a religion”, he had no “antipathy” towards Muslims. Regarding a rejection of terrorism by Muslims, he asked, “Why aren’t there millions of Muslims out in the street to say it clear and loud, immediately, after each attack. Why?”
Finally, he proposed that the working group project be renamed as “Racism, anti-Semitism and contemporary discrimination”, the latter to encompass “homophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny”.
Police protection for all three teaching staff in the dispute
“Following these exchanges, Claire M. considered herself to have been the victim of an aggression, and even harassment,” commented one of her colleagues, who did not want to be named. Claire M. reportedly criticised Kinzler for opposing his personal opinions in face of scientific arguments, and also of denigrating her as being an extremist. For her, he had surpassed professional requirements of moderation, and also secular principles in his praising of the values of Christian religion.
Her request for the IEP management to intervene in the dispute was met with a refusal on the grounds of the right to free expression. “We accompanied her move because we felt that the management had a duty to react,” said a representative of the CGT trades union branch at the University of Grenoble, which is home to the IEP. “We even gave a warning of imminent, serious danger.”
Kinzler, who told Mediapart he had “never exceeded” the boundaries of politeness in his emails, said he was finally excluded from the working group. One of the students taking part said he had in fact excluded himself from the project. She added that, contrary to what Kinzler has said in media interviews, at the time of the email exchanges the students did not take part in the controversy.
“We asked to be left out of this loop of emails,” she said. “We contacted the management which didn’t want to react. As a result, we let it be known that in these conditions we didn’t want to work with [Kinzler] anymore. His aggressiveness and his anti-Islam talk put us ill at ease, but there was not a will to shut him up or exclude him […] These emails attacking Islam or Muslims in this way were difficult to live with for some students.”
In an email dated December 4th, Kinzler told Claire M.: “I have just re-read our exchange. On your side, a perfectly moderate and polite tone; on my side, I admit it, I did not have the same control of language and, in the heat of the action, I at moments let myself get carried away. I regret it.” Interviewed by Mediapart, he said: “I excused myself to calm things down, it was diplomatic, but I maintain that there was no problem in my emails.”
According to people close to her, Claire M. was upset at the IEP management’s refusal to intervene and she was even given sick leave between December 7th-11th. Shortly before that, she raised the case with her on-campus social sciences research unit, the PACTE, which is jointly run by the IEP, the University of Grenoble and the French national scientific research centre, the CNRS. The PACTE prepared a statement sent out to internal departments expressing its “full support” for Claire M., who it said had been the target of personal attacks. Although it refrained from naming Klaus Kinzler in person, it said her scientific work of several years on issues surrounding Islam and Muslims had been called into question, and denounced a form of “harassment” she had been subjected to, underlining that scientific debate required “freedom, calm and respect”.
A colleague within the PACTE told Mediapart: “We didn’t want to target management, but we couldn’t allow a teacher to denigrate the SHS [Human and Social Sciences] in this manner, to copy in a prof who has nothing to do with this working group, and to let them so violently have a go at a colleague in emails in front of the students. It was a call to order of form, given that management refused to intervene.”
According to the student from the working group cited above, the affair should have stopped there. All the more so given that the original title of the project, ‘Racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism’ had finally been changed to ‘Feminisms and anti-racism’.
“Besides, we were careful not to publicly mention his emails,” she said. “In reality, it’s Klaus who was the first to publicise them.” This was an important part in the chronology of events, and which Kinzler did not mention in his recent media interviews. For, angry at the reaction of the PACTE, he sent out numerous emails within the academic community exposing the row and complaining about Claire M.
“He even used the email exchanges and the response of the lab [PACTE] as a teaching tool to discuss with his students the ‘cancel culture’ which he said he was a victim of,” said one of Kinzler’s colleagues, who did not want to be named. “Claire M. had asked for nothing, and it was firstly her name which was thrown to the lions. He is careful not to say that he went so far.” Mediapart has seen a document illustrating how the row was used for a German-language course for third-year students on the subject of “cancel culture”.
Questioned by Mediapart, Kinzler confirmed that he had posted all the email exchanges on his website, but said he did so because the PACTE had made its statement public. In fact, the statement was sent by email to only those involved in the dispute and also the IEP management. “It was never made public on our site,” one member of the PACTE unit told Mediapart, although he admitted it had been a mistake to describe the text as a “statement”.
In its report on the controversy, weekly news magazine Marianne echoed Kinzler’s account that the student collective, “le collectif Sciences Po Grenoble en lutte”, published extracts from the emails on January 7th, when it denounced Kinzler’s arguments as “rooted on the far-right”. However, the extracts published, in which Kinzler’s name was not mentioned, were copied from among those he had already published on his own website.
“I don’t regret having circulated them because it was my only means of defending myself,” Kinzler told Mediapart, although he said he now regretted publishing the name of Claire M. “I should have withdrawn her name but I had other anger to deal with.” He finally withdrew her name when the row became the national controversy that erupted earlier this month. “But I don’t understand too well that a song and a dance is made about the safety risk for my colleague,” he added.
However, like Kinzler and Vincent T., Claire M. has been given special police protection since March 6th, and a CGT union official said earlier this month she had received a hate message by email.
In a riposte to the IEP management’s failure to intervene, Claire M. also made a complaint last December to the office of France’s rights watchdog, the Défenseur des droits, which, beyond its role as ombudsman with regard to administrative matters, also has authority to probe situations of alleged discrimination and deontological misdemeanours. Mediapart understands that the watchdog sent a letter on January 11th to IEP director Sabine Saurugger, through its regional office in Grenoble, in which, while not commenting on the substance of the issues behind the dispute, it underlined the requirement for mutual respect between staff, concluded that Vincent T. and Klaus Kinzler had failed to show proper respect to Claire M., and noted that the latter had not been given support by the management.
Questioned by Mediapart, Saurugger refutes any inertia over the affair. “These events led to very firm action by the management, which moreover led to the writing of apologies by Klaus Kinzler,” she said. Indeed, on December 16th Kinzler again offered his excuses – while also publishing the email exchanges on his website, and justifying his position in a message sent to the PACTE in response to their statement. “It is incorrect to say we didn’t react, but we tried to have a constructive dialogue,” added Saurugger
’Calm must be brought to this debate’
Contrary to what was reported, the IEP’s internal administration had, before the posters naming the Kinzler and Vincent T. were put up, been largely made aware of the problems. The students’ union council, which represents their different unions in one body, had also criticised the management inaction and sent a letter asking it to express its disapproval of Kinzler’s comments. “Islamophobia does not have its place in our institute, just like other discriminations that can be racism and anti-Semitism,” it wrote on January 9th, while expressing its support for Claire M.
In response, IEP director Sabine Saurugger underlined the importance of the teaching staff’s freedom of expression, but also principles of “tolerance and objectivity” as required by “university tradition and the code of education”. On January 13th, student representatives reiterated their demands, arguing that the IEP should “not hide behind pedagogic freedom to defend Islamophobia”. They also requested that the agenda for the next IEP board meeting include a motion to cancel a course led by Vincent T. called “Islam and Muslims in contemporary France”. On February 22nd, the students’ union council launched an appeal on Facebook asking students to report Islamophobic comments during lectures. “We had had several problematic reports,” said a students’ union representative.
Vincent T. is a member of an association of academics called the Observatoire du décolonialisme (“Observatory of de-colonialism”), signing an opinion article on the subject in the weekly news magazine Le Point in January, and also regularly contributes to the news website Atlantico. “His opinion articles are all cited in the IEP’s official press review,” commented a staff colleague, who said it was an illustration that the IEP is far from being “a university undermined by ‘Islamo-leftism’”.
“Islamo-leftist and decolonial ideologies have become so powerful that the official authorities try to protect them,” commented Vincent T. in an interview published by Atlantico in February. “Our best students are today conditioned to react in a stereotyped manner to the major problems of society,” he said, further into the interview. “They are for example convinced that French society is racist, sexist and discriminatory, that immigrants were brought by force to France to be exploited and placed in ghettos, that Napoleon was a sort of fascist, or that colonisation was synonymous with genocide.”
“Vincent is known for being on the right of sociology,” said a lecturer at IEP Grenoble, whose name is withheld. “Having said that, there is no element today that allows to prove that he made Islamophobic comments in his lectures […] What is certain is that he makes an obsession of it. But there is also a large [presence of] fright within him.”
Contacted by Mediapart, Vincent T. declined to personally comment on the events, and instead invited us to contact his lawyer and the management at the Grenoble IEP.
Following the murder of Samuel Paty last October, Vincent T. sent an email to the Grenoble university presidency. “The caricatures published by Charlie Hebdo have become a demarcation line between civilisation and barbarism, between us and our enemies,” he wrote. “Either we accept these caricatures, or either we refuse them: it is for each one to choose their camp.”
“In the framework of my teaching, it happens that, as certainly for other colleagues, I present these drawings when I broach the case of the caricatures,” he added. “For this reason, my life is therefore potentially in danger. It will stop being so if every academic takes up solidarity by posting the caricatures everywhere they can.” He concluded: “In the absence of such an elementary measure of solidarity and courage, you will put my life in danger.” The university administration said it would alert the police if it believed there was a need.
For that reason, some teaching staff and students believe the Facebook appeal by the students’ unions for reports of Islamophobic comments was a mistake. “This appeal for reports, even if it didn’t mention his name, should have been kept to internal [messaging] and not posted on social media,” said one. “Vincent was too identifiable.” After Vincent T. discovered the post on social media, he sent an email to the students: “For reasons I cannot explain by email, I ask all the students who belong to the union called ‘union council’ to immediately leave my lecture classes and to never set foot in them again.” He concluded: “I am Charlie and I will remain so.”
The same day, Klaus Kinzler sent an email to both students and management, presented as a humorous note, following a stormy meeting between students and teaching staff, during which he had drunk alcohol. “Good day, above all to our little Ayatollahs in germination (what is the gender-inclusive again for Ayatollah?),” he began. “I see that it is beginning to be a habit with you to launch fatwas against your profs […] It shocks you so much, you the self-declared ‘Guardians of good mores’ that, after four interminable hours spent with you […] I had the need to knock back a few glasses behind the tie in order not to blow a fuse?” he asked, before reiterating his support for Vincent T. He then signed off: “A teacher ‘in the struggle’, Nazi by his genes, an Islamophobe repeat offender.”
One of Kinsler’s colleagues described the events as, “A succession of faults, he went too far”. Once again, the students contacted the IEP management over the email, but to no reaction. The union council filed a formal legal complaint for “defamation and discrimination because of union activities”, which was eventually dismissed. It was four days later when the names of Kinzler and Vincent T. appeared on the posters pasted on the IEP’s walls.
While all the teaching staff have unreservedly condemned the posters, some are unhappy with the account Kinzler has been giving in television interviews and the accusations made against his colleagues, students, management and the PACTE research unit. “I very firmly condemn these posters but I contest any responsibility of the [PACTE] in the allegations made against these two lecturers, one of who is also a member of the PACTE,” said Anne-Laure Amilhat-Szary, head of the joint research unit.
All of the teaching staff, including Klaus Kinzler, agree that the contagious conflicts resulting from the countless exchange of emails had aggravated the situation. “The timid reactions from management as well,” said one teacher.
“We gave support to these two teachers, condemned the posters, but the affair that is reported in the media puts a slant on the matter that presents the educational community as thoughtless Islamo-leftists,” said IEP Grenoble lecturer Simon Persico. “That’s false. Calm must be brought to this debate which has become unprecedented in scale, aggravated by the lockdown situation which is very heavy for the students, and which prevents any peaceful and respectful discussion.”
French junior minister for higher education minister Frédérique Vidal has ordered two education authority inspectors to interview the different protagonists, and meanwhile Klaus Kinzler has continued with his media appearances. “Just after the programme I was on at CNews, I chatted twenty minutes with Serge Nedjar, the head of the channel, who wanted me to come along more regularly,” he told Mediapart. “That flattered me. I’m going to think about it.”