If You Thought The Culture War in the US and UK Was Dumb, Check Out France's

Protesters burn an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron during an anti-France demonstration in Pakistan last November. Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS, France – On the 17th of October, the day after French school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his school, threats from France’s far-right began to rain down on liberal academics across the country.

Éric Fassin — a professor of sociology at the University of Paris 8 who had written a blog arguing the reaction to terror attacks “must at all costs avoid falling into their trap” of becoming a “conflict of civilisations” — became a lightning rod for their anger.

“Traitor” wrote one far-right supporter on Twitter; “collaborator” added another. But one individual known in the neo-Nazi scene struck a more chilling tone with an overt death threat: “I’ve put you on my list of assholes to decapitate when it begins”.

Fassin is among a group of French academics that supposedly embody the concept of “Islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-leftism), a term suggesting an alliance between extremist Islamists and left-wing academics that had until recently only been used in neo-Nazi circles. The insult is levelled at those whose so-called “woke” theories point out the discrimination suffered by Muslims in France, where deep-set discrimination touches hiring, housing, policing and beyond — paralleling culture wars currently raging in the US and the UK.

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The term has found its way into the lexicon of prominent members of the French government. “Islamo-gauchisme is an ideology which, from time to time, leads to the worst,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told French radio station Europe 1. Then Gérarld Darmanin, France’s right-leaning Minister of the Interior, used the term in the National Assembly, referring to “intellectual accomplices” in terrorist acts.

On Sunday, events took a dramatic turn. Frédérique Vidal, the University Minister, went on TV channel CNews and denounced how Islamo-gauchisme “plagues society as a whole” and pledged to launch an investigation into academic research considered in breach, particularly postcolonial studies.

“They are in the minority and some do it to carry radical ideas or militant ideas … always looking at everything through the prism of their desire to divide, to fracture,” she said, likening it to an alliance between Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini.

The comments have sparked outrage. On Tuesday, France’s Conference of University Presidents called for the debate “to be elevated” and that the government should not talk “nonsense.” On Wednesday, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, who Vidal said should carry out the investigation, criticised the “political exploitation that is… emblematic of a regrettable instrumentalisation of science.” On Thursday, daily newspaper Libération dedicated its front page to the debacle, quipping that Vidal had “lost her faculties”.

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However, for Fassin, and numerous other academics across France, the efforts to target them are cause for serious concern and could pose a very real danger. “This is very worrying,” he told VICE World News. “This is a political attempt to control knowledge. One imagines that it will not succeed, but the effect sought is intimidation. Above all, it helps to justify repression.”

Frédéric Sawicki, professor of political science at Paris 1 University Panthéon-Sorbonne, said he felt “targeted” by the move. “If you declare yourself hostile to the ban on the wearing of the veil or to the organisation of a mandatory minute of silence in schools after a terrorist attack,” he said. “You are therefore an accomplice and as a consequence, you become an ‘Islamo-left-winger’!”

“I am outraged,” he added. “The French Republic, except during the period of the Vichy regime, has always protected academic freedom. The Minister should protect this freedom at the foundation of any democracy.”

Eyebrows have also been raised at the timing of the move by Vidal, with protests in response to the widespread problem of sexual assault on campus and huge numbers of students forced into financial uncertainty during the pandemic – leading to snaking queues for the subsidised university canteens. 

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“The minister’s words are just a political diversion to make us forget her catastrophic management of higher education and research,” said Léon Thébault, a student at SciencesPo University Paris. “If Frédérique Vidal put as much energy into fighting these problems as she does into the media show, we wouldn’t have any more students living in precarity. She is out of touch with universities and students.”

Michel Deneken, president of the University of Strasbourg, said the underlying motives behind Vidal’s announcement are purely political. “The regional and presidential elections are on the horizon,” he said. “The government is using this as a way to capture the support of the right. [Right-wing daily newspaper] Le Figaro writes every day about Islamo-gauchisme every day now.”

French Muslim campaign groups express little doubt that it is an attempt to flirt with the far-right. “One has the impression that every week they want to find a new reason to talk about Islam,” said Sefen Guez Guez, a lawyer for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

But the French government’s crackdown on campuses also extends to legislation to limit research that is deemed unacceptable. The Senate last month adopted a bill setting the research budget for French universities, and while it is yet to pass through the National Assembly, critics say will curtail student protests and put freedom of research at stake by requiring it to “align with the values of the republic.”

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Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal academic and PhD candidate in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole, said “the vast majority of people working in academia are shocked and terrified for the future of research in this country”. She added that French academia has been “falling apart” due to budget cuts and lack of recruitment.

For Alouane, it’s the latest in a long line of tightening of civil freedoms, including the controversial separatism law – aimed at tackling the Islamist terrorism that has grown since 2015 but labelled Islamophobic by rights groups – that was passed by the National Assembly, and the Global Security law, which at the end of last year proposed banning the filming of police, despite several high-profile cases of police violence. 

“You need to integrate this kind of announcement into a broader scope which is the hyper securitisation of our society, that is processed by limiting civil liberties on the ground of national security and public order,” she said.

It comes as part of a wider reckoning in France, with “woke” leftist theories on race, gender and post-colonialism said to be imported from the US and the UK the target of the government’s ire. “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities,’’ Blanquer said in October.

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Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European Politics at University College London, says that those Anglophone countries are themselves facing battles over freedom of speech, “wokeness” and so-called “cancel culture” at universities.

“I think that there’s a bit of a deja-vu with what’s happening in the UK,” he said. “But the French situation is far worse. In the UK, the attacks remain quite implicit, but in France the government is trying to taint the personalities and reputations of academics. These are highly dangerous means that is the usual approach of the far right.”

Marlière, who has himself been the target of far-right attacks – including in a recent article claiming he “has not ceased to work to promote racialist ideology” – warns there could be serious repercussions for this approach.

“France is in complete denial when it comes to race,” he said. “Islamo-gauchisme is of course an insult. It’s almost a physical aggression because you put people at risk. What is remarkable is that it’s becoming more mainstream.”

The Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation did not respond to a request for comment. But government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday that French President Emmanuel Macron has “an absolute attachment to the independence of teacher-researchers.”

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