France and the spectral menace of ‘Islamo-leftism’

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For Macron, who appears to be wheeling right ahead of presidential elections next year, the challenge is broader and discursive. In a speech last October, he said the alienation felt by some French citizens of Arab or African descent was in part a consequence of many seeing “their identity through a post-colonial or anticolonial discourse,” gesturing to academic social and cultural theories he claims are being imported into France from the United States. Those theories, he and some of his political allies contend, introduced “identitarian” visions of society that are both alien and corrosive to France’s rigidly secular, institutionally race-blind society.

This past week, Frédérique Vidal, France’s higher education minister, stoked the flames even further, announcing a probe into “Islamo-leftism” in French universities. “I think that Islamo-leftism is eating away at our society as a whole, and universities are not immune and are part of our society,” Vidal said last weekend on CNews, a television channel popular on the right, accusing a coterie of left-wing academics of “always looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide, to fracture, to pinpoint the enemy.”

The backlash within France has been scathing. On Saturday, some 600 university professors called for Vidal’s resignation for “defaming a profession” and dabbling in rhetoric more familiar in countries with democracies in decline. A statement from an organization representing the presidents of French universities declared that “Islamo-leftism is not a proper concept but a pseudo-notion of which we would try in vain to provide even a hint of a scientific definition. It ought to be left, if not just to CNews presenters, then more broadly to the far right that popularized it.”

Even France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the public institution tasked by Vidal to carry out the probe, issued a statement condemning any “attempts to delegitimize different fields of research, such as post-colonial studies, intersectional studies and research on race.”

An editorial in Le Monde described the usage of “Islamo-leftism” as “hazardous” and panned Vidal for seeking a distraction at a time of public health crisis. Vidal may be trying to “make people forget her silences on the terrible health crisis which is shaking up universities and forcing students to queue in front of food banks,” observed the French daily, questioning her “capacity to assume her responsibilities in the face of the main issue of the moment.”

Macron’s office sought to distance itself from the controversy, with a spokesman insisting midweek on the president’s “absolute commitment to the independence of academic researchers.” But Macron still remains a leading participant in a much bigger tussle.

“The seemingly esoteric fight over social science theories — which has made the front page of at least three of France’s major newspapers in recent days — points to a larger culture war in France that has been punctuated in the past year by mass protests over racism and police violence, competing visions of feminism, and explosive debates over Islam and Islamism,” noted the New York Times last week.

It’s a culture war that echoes in other parts of the world, too. Illiberal, nationalist governments from Hungary to Turkey to India have taken aim at certain academic institutions and, in some instances, installed regimes of censorship. In the United States, the political right has spent years grousing against the intellectual left. Anger over “Islamo-leftism” may be an explicitly French concern, but it can already be heard in the American conversation, with far-right commentators still stirring fears over open border invasions of refugees in almost the same breath as they inveigh against the supposed proponents of left-wing “cancel culture” on campuses and elite media institutions.

Some critics likened the charge of “Islamo-leftism” to that of “Judeo-Bolshevism” a century ago. That anti-Semitic slur cast Jewish communities in Europe as dangerous, subversive fifth columns and foreshadowed the hideous genocide to come.

The present term, at best, highlights “the difficulty of the French state to think of itself as a state within a multicultural society,” Sarah Mazouz, a sociologist at CNRS, to the Times. She added the invocation of “Islamo-leftism” was aimed at “delegitimizing” new thinking on race, gender and other subjects, “so that the debate does not take place.”

French scholars criticized both that chilling effect the term seems to have, as well as its crass mischaracterization of the fields of academic inquiry in its crosshairs. That was already apparent in Vidal’s own rather confused rhetoric — in one interview, the minister appeared to link the presence of a Confederate-flag waving Trump supporter at the U.S. Capitol to the spread of left-wing cultural studies on American campuses.

“We’re dealing with a form of McCarthyism,” Audrey Célistine, a lecturer in political sociology and American studies at Lille University, told Mediapart journalist Lucie Delaporte. “I’m all for debate, but with people who read the books they’re talking about.”

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