The French Right Is Obsessed With Fighting Wokeness

The FrenPresidential candidate Marine Le Pen, of France's far-right Rassemblement National party, takes part in the evening news broadcast of French TV channel TF1 on April 12. Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Imagesch Right Is Obsessed With Fighting Wokeness
Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, of France's far-right Rassemblement National party, takes part in the evening news broadcast of French TV channel TF1 on April 12. Julien De Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

Just as in 2017, the second round of the 2022 French presidential election will see centrist Emmanuel Macron (of the party La République en Marche!) pitted against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (of the Rassemblement National party). While the war in Ukraine is a unique evolution in the political landscape, the priorities of French voters have largely stayed the same, focusing on the economy, climate change, and social welfare.

But this time, the French far right is taking a page out of its American counterparts’ playbook—or at least their dictionary. The months leading up to last Sunday’s first-round vote featured increasing emphasis on wokisme, which both Le Pen and her right-wing competitor Éric Zemmour frequently highlighted as a looming threat to French culture.

Wokisme is exactly what it sounds like: the French adaptation of the American term “woke”, a central signifier in the U.S. culture wars and one especially tied to attempts to highlight the impacts of structural racism. Like the American right’s use of “critical race theory”, wokisme took hold in France starting in 2021 as a catchall term for the threats posed by “leftist” ideologies. Despite the distinctive Republican Party flavor of this theme, candidates like Zemmour and Le Pen framed their opposition to wokisme as resistance to a progressive “American hysteria” invading French higher education and, from there, the rest of French society.

Given the real influence of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo in France, there is room to argue that the French far right is organically reacting to a foreign influence and just coincidentally sounding like the GOP in doing so.

But two key pieces of evidence point to a direct borrowing. First, while the term “woke” did diffuse as a positive colloquial term on Black French social media, it was not used in a negative sense until years later. Indeed, even in the immediate aftermath of the French Black Lives Matter protests, another term—communautarisme, or a sort of cultural separatism—was the dominant source of blame.

Second, the assault on wokisme is occurring within the context of a broader importation of North American themes and tactics, including a French truckers convoy, the growing presence of a QAnon français, and now exhortations to “stop the steal”.

In other words, the French far right borrows from the American right while pointing fingers at the American left.

Given American society’s unparalleled soft power, it is not unprecedented or surprising for the United States’ cultural trends to have global ripples. What is striking is for France to be importing a culture-war script wholesale, for that script to come from America, and for it to be happening most prominently among the French far right.

France is what social scientists call a “least likely” case for American influence. Traditionally, the influence goes the other way—on both the left and the right. French intellectuals were primarily responsible for postmodernism and poststructuralism, accused by U.S. conservatives of corrupting youth long before critical race theory made headlines. Intellectually and internationally, the 1949 publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was far more important for second-wave feminism than Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique 14 years later.

While certainly less influential within the universities, French ideas have had an equally powerful impact on Western radical-right politics. It was the Nouvelle Droite, a circle of intellectuals based around Alain de Benoist in 1960s Nice, that performed much of the intellectual labor of formulating a far-right politics that could successfully overcome postwar stigmatization and effectively co-opt the New Left’s development of themes centered on recognition of difference and the celebration of diversity. During the 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen drew liberally from the Nouvelle Droite in formulating a form of anti-elite, nativist politics that would become the model for European far-right parties.

Most recently, le grand remplacement, a conspiracy theory of supposed international genocide against white people, originated in France before spreading to constitute one of the core conspiracy theories of the global far right. Starting among fringe extremists online, it inspired infamous chants of “You Will Not Replace Us” at the fatal 2017 Charlottesville, Va., rally. Eventually, it reached the mainstream with multiple sympathetic airings on Tucker Carlson’s massively influential Fox News program.

French society at large, on both the left and the right, has long contained deeply rooted anti-American currents. Philippe Roger identifies such sentiments as a pillar of French culture, with Americans serving as the key “other” for the French to define themselves in opposition to. Longing for a lost period when French language and culture were the standard for “civilized” society worldwide, many French people resent the global ascendancy of American culture, which is often viewed as crude consumerism by the French left and as a soulless source of decadence by the country’s far right.

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 may have been the tipping point that made the latter reconsider. Marine Le Pen was one of the first international political figures to congratulate Trump on his presidential win. More recently, Zemmour proudly described a 40-minute phone call he had with Trump regarding campaign strategies.

While the war on wokisme demonstrates the continued potency of anti-American themes in French politics, it also represents a stealthier rapprochement—the possibility of a new relationship between the two countries’ far-right milieus.

In the United States, “woke” has a long history within Black culture but gained mainstream familiarity only following the killing of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It soon became a target.

The Republican Party’s concerted assault on “wokeness” began in 2020 and 2021. In a backlash against the surge of anti-racist ideas and activism following the murder of George Floyd, Republicans began to position themselves as the “anti-woke” party. Simultaneously, conservative-led groups pushed to combat the influence of what they claim is critical race theory in schools, libraries, and even, unusually, the U.S. military.

Which brings us to France.

Four months after Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., warned about the dystopian future posed by “woketopians” at the Republican National Convention in August 2020, the term wokisme made one of its first appearances in the French press. The conservative-leaning Le Figaro newspaper published an article titled “‘Cancel culture,’ ‘woke’: when the American left goes mad”. Wokisme hadn’t yet arrived on French shores; it was still described as a contagion of U.S. college campuses, an “aggressive [form of] censorship” in the name of “not being offended”. That rhetoric began to change by February 2021, when it was described as the sum total of leftist “dogmas” being imposed on France. A full moral panic set in by summer.

The French far right was not the only political force to discuss wokisme. Anne Hidalgo (of the Parti Socialiste) and Sandrine Rousseau (of the party Europe Écologie Les Verts) spoke out to express their discomfort at being labeled “woke” candidates. Macron’s own education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, launched an “anti-woke” think tank in October. The French Senate even recently debated the “threats” that wokisme poses for higher education—not at the request of the far right, but the mainstream conservative Les Républicains party.

The difference is that no other mainstream party made wokisme a central part of its presidential runs. With the exception of Valérie Pécresse’s denunciation of wokisme as “contrary to the [French] Republic” in her first major campaign speech—a move that some speculated was her attempt to snatch voters from Le Pen and Zemmour—this terminology was the exclusive territory of the far right. It was the destructive specter against which they defined themselves. As Le Pen asserted this February: “Macron is the incarnation of wokisme”.

Despite this uproar, according to an Ifop survey in February 2021, only 6% of respondents could offer a definition of wokisme. Nevertheless, it became a constant refrain in far-right candidates’ speeches—proof of an existential crisis for French patrimony, identity, and culture.

As Le Pen and Zemmour spent much of the last few months clamoring to position themselves each as the true leader of the French “nationalist right”, wokisme took center stage. Back in September 2021, Le Pen asserted that wokisme was “infiltrating respectable institutions … [with] anti-white racism”. Zemmour followed suit, claiming that wokisme was in service of “the Islamization of the Western world”. This January, he explicitly acknowledged the line of continuity between wokisme and previous far-right boogeymen: “Ideology can take a thousand shapes. Socialism. Communism. Anti-fascism. Anti-racism. Wokisme. But no matter what we call it, it’s always the same”.

As in the United States, French wokisme works in tandem with other threatening terms, easily integrating into the broader web of far-right discourse. In the United States, “woke” is associated with critical race theory, cancel culture, socialism, and political correctness. In France, it is usually tied to islamo-gauchisme—the idea of an alliance among leftist and Islamist political ideologies, decolonization, “racialization”, and feminist and LGBTQ movements, especially in terms of the push for l’écriture inclusive, a form of gender-neutral writing specific to the French language.

Clearly, these ideas are popular among far-right audiences in France. Some candidates even began to adopt “stop the steal” rhetoric over the last month, warning that the elections might be “rigged” or “stolen”, which suggests that this transnational diffusion is here to stay. French far-right Twitter is currently abuzz with conspiracy theories about how Dominion voting machines influenced the results of the first round of voting in Macron’s favor. There’s just one problem: Dominion doesn’t operate in France, and the vast majority of voting is done with paper ballots. As the French far right explicitly identifies American identity politics as a threat to French society, their unspoken reliance on American conservatives’ conspiracy theorizing continues to grow.

In a post-Trump, Bannon, and QAnon world, the Republican Party and its cultural and media spheres have not only radicalized but have moved toward being a center of gravity for the global far right. Current trends suggest this shift is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. That represents a step in the direction of a less fragmented, more globally unified far right.

It was Jean-Marie Le Pen who said voters “will always prefer the original to the copy”. As his daughter prevails over multiple far-right competitors, that may still be true, but the original now has an increasingly American flavor.

Lucas Dolan is a Ph.D. candidate at American University’s School of International Service. Kimberly Tower is a Ph.D. candidate at American University and a Fulbright scholar at CEVIPOF, Sciences Po.

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