France’s New Public Enemy: America’s Woke LeftBreaking News
tags: French history, multiculturalism, Academe, critical race theory
PARIS — The threat is said to be existential. It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.
The threat? “Certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States,’’ said President Emmanuel Macron.
French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas — specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism — are undermining their society. “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities,’’ warned Mr. Macron’s education minister.
Emboldened by these comments, prominent intellectuals have banded together against what they regard as contamination by the out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture.
Pitted against them is a younger, more diverse guard that considers these theories as tools to understanding the willful blind spots of an increasingly diverse nation that still recoils at the mention of race, has yet to come to terms with its colonial past and often waves away the concerns of minorities as identity politics.
Disputes that would have otherwise attracted little attention are now blown up in the news and social media. The new director of the Paris Opera, who said on Monday he wants to diversify its staff and ban blackface, has been attacked by the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, but also in Le Monde because, though German, he had worked in Toronto and had “soaked up American culture for 10 years.”
The publication this month of a book critical of racial studies by two veteran social scientists, Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, fueled criticism from younger scholars — and has received extensive news coverage. Mr. Noiriel has said that race had become a “bulldozer’’ crushing other subjects, adding, in an email, that its academic research in France was questionable because race is not recognized by the government and merely “subjective data.’’
The fierce French debate over a handful of academic disciplines on U.S. campuses may surprise those who have witnessed the gradual decline of American influence in many corners of the world. In some ways, it is a proxy fight over some of the most combustible issues in French society, including national identity and the sharing of power. In a nation where intellectuals still hold sway, the stakes are high.
With its echoes of the American culture wars, the battle began inside French universities but is being played out increasingly in the media. Politicians have been weighing in more and more, especially following a turbulent year during which a series of events called into question tenets of French society.
Pap Ndiaye, a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies in France, said it was no coincidence that the current wave of anti-American rhetoric began growing just as the first protests against racism and police violence took place last June.
“There was the idea that we’re talking too much about racial questions in France,’’ he said. “That’s enough.’’
Three Islamist attacks last fall served as a reminder that terrorism remains a threat in France. They also focused attention on another hot-button field of research: Islamophobia, which examines how hostility toward Islam in France, rooted in its colonial experience in the Muslim world, continues to shape the lives of French Muslims.
Abdellali Hajjat, an expert on Islamophobia, said that it became increasingly difficult to focus on his subject after 2015, when devastating terror attacks hit Paris. Government funding for research dried up. Researchers on the subject were accused of being apologists for Islamists and even terrorists.