“Awakened” American ideas pose a threat, French leaders say

Paris – The threat is said to be existential. It nourishes Art Nouveau. It chews on national unity. It exudes excitement. It attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.

The threat? “Certain social science theories come entirely from the United States,” President Emmanuel Macron said.

French politicians, prominent intellectuals, and journalists warn that progressive American ideas — especially in the areas of race, gender, and post-colonialism — are undermining their society. “There is a fight going on against the intellectual matrix of American universities,” Secretary of Education Macron warned.

Encouraged by these remarks, prominent intellectuals have teamed up with the uncontrolled, awakened leftism of American campuses and the pollution of its accompanying culture.

They are confronted by a younger, more diverse guard who sees these theories as a means of understanding the deliberate blind spots of an increasingly diverse nation that still recedes to mentioning the race, still has no reunion with its colonial past, and often fluctuates in minority concerns as an identity policy.

Debates that would otherwise have received little attention are now inflated in the news and social media. The new director of the Paris Opera, who said on Monday he wanted to diversify his staff and ban blackface, was attacked by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, but also at Le Monde, because although he worked in German, he was soaked in Toronto and “for 10 years. American culture ”.

The release of the book on racial experimentation by two veteran social scientists, Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, this month has fueled criticism from younger scientists – and has received widespread news. Mr Noiriel said the race had become a ‘bulldozer’, crushing other topics and adding in an email that his studies in France were questionable because the government did not recognize the competition and was merely ‘subjective data’.

The heated French debate over a handful of scientific disciplines on American campuses may come as a surprise to those who have witnessed the gradual decline of American influence in many corners of the world. In some ways, it is one of the most pressing problems in French society, including national identity and the sharing of power. In a nation where the intelligentsia is still swaying, the stakes are high.

With echoes of American cultural struggles, the battle began in French universities, but the media is increasingly playing it. Politicians are considering more and more, especially after a stormy year in which a series of events have called into question the movements of French society.

Mass protests against police violence, inspired by the assassination of George Floyd, in France challenged the official rejection of race and systemic racism. The generation of #MeToo feminists has faced both male power and older feminists. The widespread retaliation following a series of Islamist attacks has raised questions about France’s model of secularism and the integration of immigrants from its former colonies.

Some have seen the availability of theories of American identity politics and social science. Some center-right lawmakers have called for a parliamentary inquiry into ‘ideological excesses’ in universities and alone out the “guilty” scientists on Twitter.

Mr Macron – who has shown little interest in these in the past but courted on the right before next year’s election – jumped in last June when he blamed universities for encouraging the “socialization of the social issue” – “Breaking the Republic in Two.”

“I was pleasantly shocked,” said sociologist Nathalie Heinich, who last month helped set up an organization against “decolonism and identity politics.” Consisting of established individuals, many retirees, the group issued warnings about American-inspired social theories. in major publications such as Le Point and Le Figaro.

For Ms. Heinich, last year’s developments were at the top of activism, which brought foreign debates into the shadows of cultural expropriation and French universities. At the Sorbonne, activists prevented Aeschylus ’play from being staged to protest against wearing white actors’ masks and dark makeup; elsewhere, some well-known performers have been abandoned under student pressure.

“It was a series of events that were extremely traumatic for our community, all of which fell under the so-called erasure culture,” Ms. Heinich said.

For others, the prolongation of perceived American influence revealed something else: a French facility unable to face a world, especially at a time when the government was mismanaging the coronavirus epidemic, deepened the sense of the inevitable decline of the once great power. .

“It is a sign of a small, dreaded republic, declining, provincializing, but believing in its universal mission in the past and today, and thus looking for those responsible for the decline,” said François Cusset, an expert on American civilization at the University of Nanterre in Paris.

France has long demanded a national identity based on a common culture, fundamental rights and fundamental values ​​such as equality and freedom, rejecting diversity and multiculturalism. The French often see the United States as a fragile society at war with itself.

But not many of the leading thinkers behind American, gender, race, post-colonialism, and queer theory came from France, as well as the rest of Europe, South America, Africa, and India, said French writer Anne Garréta, who teaches literature. at French universities and at Duke.

“It’s a whole global world of ideas circulating,” he said. “It just so happens that at this point in history, the most cosmopolitan and most globalized campuses are Americans.”

The French state does not compile racial statistics that are illegal, describe them as part of its commitment to universalism, and treat all citizens equally under the law. For many racial scholars, however, reluctance is part of a long history of denying racism in France, as well as the country’s slave trade and colonial past.

“What’s more French than the racial issue in a country built around those issues?” said Mame-Fatou Niang, who splits her time between France and the United States, where she teaches French studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ms. Niang led a campaign to remove the fresco at the French National Assembly, which shows two black figures with fat red lips and bulging eyes. Because of his public views on the race, he often became a target in social media, including one of the legislators who called for an investigation into “ideological excesses” at universities.

According to Pap Ndiaye, a historian who is leading efforts to establish French studies in France, it is no coincidence that the current wave of anti-American rhetoric began to rise just as the first protest against racism and police violence took place last June.

“The idea came up that we talk too much about racial issues in France,” he said. “It is enough.”

Last fall, three Islamist attacks reminded us that terrorism continues to be a threat in France. They also focused on another area of ​​one-touch research: Islamophobia, which examines how hostility to Islam in France, rooted in the colonial experience of the Muslim world, further shapes the lives of French Muslims.

According to Abdellali Hajja, an expert on Islamophobia, after 2015, when the desert was destroyed by terrorist attacks, it became increasingly difficult to focus on his subject. Public funding for research has dried up. Researchers on the subject have been accused of being apologists against Islamists and even terrorists.

Finding the atmosphere depressing, Mr Hajjat ​​left two years ago to teach at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, where he said he had found greater academic freedom.

“On the issue of Islamophobia, there is only such a violent word in France for rejecting the term,” he said.

Mr. Macron’s Secretary of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, accused American-influenced universities of complicity in the terrorists by providing intellectual justification behind their actions.

A group of 100 eminent scientists wrote an open letter of support for the minister and the destruction of theories “relocated from North American campuses” in Le Monde.

Signatory, Islamic expert Gilles Kepel, said American influence led to “a kind of ban on universities thinking of the phenomenon of political Islam in the name of a left-wing ideology that sees the religion of the disadvantaged”. “

In addition to Islamophobia, some have tried to paint a false picture of France guilty of “systemic racism” and “white privilege” by “completely artificially importing” the “American-style black issue” into France. said historian Pierre-André Taguieff and a leading critic of American influence.

Mr Taguieff said in an email that researchers of race, Islamophobia and postcolonialism were motivated by “hatred of the West as a white civilization”.

“The common agenda of these enemies of European civilization can be summed up in three words: decolonization, demasculation, Europeanization,” Mr Taguieff said. – Straight white male – condemn this sinner and eliminate the enemy.

Behind the attacks on American universities – led by aging white male intellectuals – lie tensions in a society where power seems to be seized, said Éric Fassin, a sociologist who was the first scholar to focus on racism and racism in France. , about 15 years ago.

Back then, racial scientists were usually white people like him, he said. He said he was often called a traitor and faced threats, most recently from a right-wing extremist who had been sentenced to four months in prison, decapitate him.

But the emergence of young intellectuals – some black or Muslim – fueled the attack, which Mr Fassin calls an “American horn”.

“That’s what turned things upside down,” he said. “Not just the objects we’re talking about, but the ones we’re talking about.”