France’s ideological wars have found a new battleground: Universities

University of Nantes lecturer Olivier Ertzscheid speaks in a square outside a church in La Roche-sur-Yon, western France, on Dec. 15. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)
University of Nantes lecturer Olivier Ertzscheid speaks in a square outside a church in La Roche-sur-Yon, western France, on Dec. 15. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, a tweet by Julien Aubert, a member of the French National Assembly, shocked France’s academic circles. “We request [that] the president of the National Assembly create a fact-finding mission about the intellectual ideological abuses within the university community,” Aubert wrote. The tweet seemed to put forth the idea of using legislative power to control the work of scholars, thereby infringing on academic freedom. It is part of a larger pattern taking place in France.

The statement attached to Aubert’s tweet, co-signed by National Assembly member Damien Abad, criticized “the importing from the United States of a ‘cancel culture’ that aims to silence everyone who speaks or behaves in a way that is considered ‘offensive.’ It added that MPs should be able to “evaluate the scale of that problem to explore the measures that could be taken to remedy it.”

Aubert and Abad also accused the higher education system of being filled with “powerful ‘Islamo-leftist’ currents.” That phrasing has been increasingly used by France’s political elite since the terrorist attacks in October, including the brutal beheading of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher, in a Paris suburb. The definition of “Islamo-leftism” is still unclear, but it implies complacency with extremist ideologies from terrorists who claim to operate in the name of Islam.

According to historian Jacques Julliard, who in the same interview made statements hostile to Islam, it apparently refers to “a small handful of far-left intellectuals, very influential in the media and in the sphere of human rights.” But that hasn’t stopped a number of French political and cultural figures from attacking the so-called trend. A week after the gruesome terrorist attack against Paty, who showed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in his class, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer denounced what he called the “intellectual complicities with terrorism” and “Islamo-leftism” that “wreaks havoc in university.”

The backlash from academics over Aubert’s proposal was instant. Given the consequences of the pandemic on the living standards of students, professor of French linguistics Laélia Véron replied caustically on Twitter: It is true that these days we are very ideological, we organize Islamo-leftist food distribution to cancel-culture the extremely precarious situation of students, which is not our job. Can’t wait for the government to solve the problem.”

The tension increased when Aubert then shared on Twitter screenshots of tweets from seven scholars who criticized his initiative, saying “the guilty self-identify themselves.” One of them, professor Mame-Fatou Niang, said that she would “hold Aubert personally accountable if her physical integrity was jeopardized.”

This is part of a broader trend in 2020, which has seen several attacks against scholars and intellectuals whose work is focused on race or gender. Several weeks ago, about 100 scholars published an op-ed supporting Blanquer’s accusations, writing that “racialist and decolonial ideologies (imported from the North American campuses) are existent, feeding hatred against the ‘Whites’ and France.” Overwhelmingly White, most of the signatories are well established in academia. The argument sounded like a fearful response to the emergence of younger and more diverse scholars who are pushing for more research on gender and race.

Beyond criticism about ideology in universities, sociologist Vincent Tiberj told Le Monde that “social science research on immigration, integration or multiculturalism is no longer treated as a science but as a political camp that would have a hidden agenda.”

A bill adopted on Nov. 20 to set the budget for universities garnered disapproval when senator Laure Darcos, with the support of Frédérique Vidal, the minister of higher education, proposed a provision stating that academic freedom should be exercised with “respect of the values of the Republic.” The bill also criminalized potential student movements, such as taking part in gatherings, viewed as “troubling the tranquility and good order of the establishment,” with penalties of more than $50,000 and three years in prison.

The first provision was ultimately dropped, but the attempt to control activities in campuses widened the distrust between social science researchers and the government. After a year in which France has seen stark disparities in health and well-being by race in particular, government officials should listen to what these academics and experts are saying, instead of trying to silence them.

Particularly in a context where the government is using counter-terrorist imperatives to push for more surveillance, there are numerous reasons to be concerned. This month, the Ministry of the Interior published three decrees on intelligence and administrative investigations. One of them modifies an existing decree meant to monitor suspect activities, authorizing law enforcement to collect data in police files on “political opinions, philosophical or religious convictions or union membership,” and also “lifestyle,” “sport practice” or a “fragility factor” that can lead to “addictions.” This is yet another way people are coming under scrutiny for their political or philosophical beliefs.

The pandemic and the budget restrictions have left French universities with major challenges that make the delivery of a decent education for students more and more difficult. That should be the main concern of the government — not trying to limit the work of researchers because of ideology.

Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.

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