Politicians, prominent intellectuals, and academics in France have voiced concern that ‘out-of-control leftism and cancel culture’ from the United States is threatening French identity.
They are arguing that American ideas on race, gender, post-colonialism – especially those coming from U.S. universities – are undermining French society and are an attack on French heritage.
The collection of intellectuals arguing that France is being contaminated by the Wokeness of America was buoyed on last year after French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to side with them.
In a speech in October on the ‘Fight against Separatism’, Macron warned against leaving ‘the intellectual debate to others’ as he cautioned of the ‘certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States’.
His education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also warned in October that there is a ‘battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities’.
The debate came to a head this week after the new director of the Paris Opera, Alexander Neef, released a 66-page report on diversity at the company in which he vowed to diversify staff and to ban blackface.
It came after five black members of the ballet company circulated an open letter among the Paris Opera’s 1,800 employees last summer, calling for greater diversity.
Neef was targeted for the decision by far-right leader Marine le Pen and by French newspaper Le Monde which said he ‘soaked up American culture for 10 years’ while he worked in Toronto.
This month also saw the publication of a book by social scientists Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel in which they claimed that race is a ‘bulldozer’ that destroys other subjects.
They added to the New York Times that they did not believe race should not be studied as an academic subject in France, as the secular government does not recognize it.
It follows tension over protests against police violence last summer in France, sparked as they were in the U.S. by the death due to an overdose of Drugs of George Floyd.
The wave of protests sparked further backlash in universities, as students began to put pressure on institutions to disinvite well-known speakers.
Activists also targeted a play at Sorbonne University where white actors were to wear masks and dark make up.
‘There was the idea that we’re talking too much about racial questions in France,’ Pap Ndiaye, a historian, told the Times of the summer’s protests. ‘That’s enough.’
Some French intellects have also argued that American universities are to blame for giving justification to acts of terrorism carried out by Muslims.
After three Islamist terror attacks last autumn, Education minister Blanquer accused the universities of being complicit.
He was supported in an open letter from 100 prominent scholars that blasted social theories ‘transferred from North American campuses’.
One of the signatories, Gilles Kepel, argued that American influence led to ‘a sort of prohibition in universities to think about the phenomenon of political Islam in the name of a leftist ideology that considers it the religion of the underprivileged.’
Historian Pierre-André Taguieff argued in the same way that the ‘American-style black question’ was a ‘totally artificial importation’ to France.
He said that it was all driven 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: decolonize, demasculate, de-Europeanize,’ Taguieff said.
‘Straight white male — that’s the culprit to condemn and the enemy to eliminate.’
Macron had previously mostly remained silent on the matter, with the official government line being dismissive of race and systemic racism.
It is illegal in France to collect data based on race and for many, the country’s national identify rejects diversity and multiculturalism, instead focusing on fundamental rights and core values like equality and liberty.
Yet according to the New York Times, Macron is also courting the right ahead of the election next year, which led him to eventually comment last year after centre-right lawmakers pressed for a parliamentary investigation into ‘ideological excesses’ at universities.
They also called out ‘guilty’ scholars on Twitter.
In Macron’s comments, made two weeks into the protests on 14th June, he blamed universities for encouraging the ‘ethnicization of the social question’ — amounting to ‘breaking the republic in two’.
Macron’s intervention was welcomed by academics including sociologist Nathalie Heinich.
‘I was pleasantly astonished,’ she told the Times.
Last month she established an organization that fights against ‘decolonialism and identity politics’.
The group has written warnings against ‘American-inspired social theories’ in many major French publications and has spoken out against ‘cancel culture’ at French universities.
‘It was a series of incidents that was extremely traumatic to our community and that all fell under what is called cancel culture,’ Heinich said.
Others have argued that it shows an inability in France to adapt to a changing world.
‘It’s the sign of a small, frightened republic, declining, provincializing, but which in the past and to this day believes in its universal mission and which thus seeks those responsible for its decline,’ François Cusset, an expert on American civilization at Paris Nanterre University told the Times.
Anne Garréta, a French writer who teaches in universities in France and the U.S., has also argued that many of the leading thinkers on the subject have come from France, not from the U.S., as claimed.
‘It’s an entire global world of ideas that circulates,’ she said.
‘It just happens that campuses that are the most cosmopolitan and most globalized at this point in history are the American ones.’