By launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the French government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics.
The French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has recently announced an investigation into so-called “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. She has accused scholars of colonialism and race of “looking at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide.” This attempt to discredit scholars working with critical and postcolonial perspectives by targeting them with an ambiguous pseudo-concept —“Islamo-leftism” — underlies a strategy of silencing conversations about racism, white supremacy, and the impact of the colonial past to maintain an unrealistic image of France as a post-racial and egalitarian society.
The use of the term “Islamo-leftism”—islamo-gauchisme in French— has gained traction in France among some academics and right-wing politicians. It refers to an unlikely political convergence between the far-left and radical Muslim movements standing against imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Today, it is used pejoratively by the current government, the far-right, and conservative media and academics in France to accuse left-wing anti-racist intellectuals of being overtly occupied with racism and Islamophobia and of justifying Islamism and terrorism. The widespread use of this tag by government figures risks stigmatizing all Muslims and left-leaning academics by lumping them into a crude category that carries extremist undertones.
Even the National Center for Scientific Research, which Vidal assigned the task of investigating the fields of study concerned, has described “Islamo-leftism” as a poorly defined term with no relation to scientific reality. The center has also warned against “the instrumentalization of science” and infringing academic freedom in France. While the fuss over the term “Islamo-leftism” appears to be restricted to France, similar political trends are visible across Europe, where ministers often attack critical social theories depicting them as being against the “people.” Extremism experts have also attempted to link postcolonial theory with certain Muslim communities.
The long-standing and dominant conviction about continental Europe having achieved a post-racial and egalitarian status still serves as a substantial barrier to recognizing systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonial legacy on Black and racialized minorities. While the removal of “race” from public and academic discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust has by no means diminished systemic racism, it has made it difficult to name or redress the profound consequences of racial inequity. France is no exception as it refuses to face up to its colonial past and denies racism by reproducing the rhetoric of a universalist and color-blind Republican ideal, which prioritizes national identification over racial or religious identity.
In other words, Frenchness is seen as essential to achieving integration, whereas references to racial inequities are interpreted as identity politics endangering societal cohesion and leading to segregation. The establishment refutes references to institutional or structural bias as racism is seen as an individual moral flaw rather than being systemic. There are no race- or ethnicity-based statistics, and the term “race” was removed from the constitution in 2018. Such a race-blind ideal based on the myth of shared universal rights disguises the harmful consequences of racism by serving to sustain structures of racial inequity rather than dismantling them. This, despite the persistence of widespread discrimination targeting racialized minorities across societal institutions.
Recent global and national incidents, such as the brutal killing of George Floyd in the US and the death of a Malian French man, Adama Traoré, in 2016 while in custody in France, triggered riots and protests against police violence and brutality in France. They have fuelled heated debates about race, discrimination, and the widespread concern about the racialization of security targeting young men living in French banlieues. People are demanding justice for those exposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and the systematic discrimination entailed in targeting racialized populations.
In France, young activists particularly have been vocal in defying the national narrative of color-blindness. The protests have galvanized long-brewing grievances leading to intense discussions about white supremacy, deeply ingrained systemic racism, and demands for decolonization. While fostering broader awareness and encouraging activism among a younger generation, such nation- and European-wide debates and protests have also increased fears that racial identity politics—ridiculed as woke culture—is being imported from the US.
President Macron, who is tilting further to the right, made derogatory comments accusing academics of racializing socio-economic issues in the aftermath of anti-racist protests in France. By defying calls for racial justice as the influence of American multiculturalism and constructing demands for racial equity as a divisive threat, Macron’s government is attempting to gloss over the impact of racism on the everyday realities and experiences of France’s racialized minorities. In fact, Dan Hicks, a professor from Oxford University working on colonial violence, interprets the French government’s pushback against the progress made by anti-racist movements as the “invention of a culture war.”
Macron’s hardening rhetoric and attacks on academics and his recent campaign against the so-called “Islamist separatism” following the murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, need to be understood within the context of wider socio-political circumstances in France. Macron portrayed himself as a defender of free expression after the beheading of Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression and censorship. The recent attacks by Macron’s government on certain fields of academic inquiry, however, suggest otherwise. Some see Macron’s pandering to the French far-right on immigration issues, Islam, and labeling academics with defamatory terms as a strategy to capture support from conservative voters against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. Such divisive and stigmatizing government narratives targeting selected groups carry the perilous risk of aggravating existing social and systemic problems and further harming the very social cohesion it purportedly seeks to protect.
Indeed, by launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics. The concern over being targeted by the French government has been expressed by some academics on social media, including Michael Stambolis, an American sociologist teaching race in France, who wrote on Twitter: “When you’re literally an American sociologist in France who studies sexuality, runs a gender studies program, and teaches race, intersectionality, etc., it’s impossible not to feel targeted. I’m most concerned for my students and colleagues of color.”
Despite the French government’s unprecedented attacks targeting academics working in postcolonial, race, and intersectionality studies, only 2 percent of publications in French academic journals since the 1960s have been dedicated to these studies, according to Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics. So, if these studies are incredibly marginal in French academia, why is there so much concern about them? This is because their findings strongly challenge the national myth of a race-blind and egalitarian French society with no issues of systemic racism or colonial abuses.
According to Macron, however, the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants “revisiting their identity through a postcolonial or anticolonial” discourse poses the risk of nurturing “self-hatred” against France. Against Macron’s claims, these fields of academic inquiry mainly offer a way of critically engaging with the colonial legacy and a racialized system drawing inspiration from minority epistemological perspectives that have long been ignored. If anything, what they offer the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants who study them is a deeper sense of knowledge, understanding, and a critical awareness about their position in a societal structure that fails to acknowledge and value their realities and experiences.
Studying these critical perspectives is particularly important for racialized students who are trying to make sense of their place and negotiate their multiple identities in higher education settings, which often function as spaces of exclusion and marginalization. Suppose Macron wants the (grand)children of immigrants to forge positive identities as multicultural French citizens. In that case, he should better encourage universities to decolonize their curriculum and more actively participate in structurally engaging with the (post) colonial past and the experiences of racialized minorities in contemporary France. Because persisting racial inequities in a society cannot be solved by pretending that race does not exist and smearing academics who are researching it.