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French intellectuals engage in a new culture war over wokeism

Paris Letter: Establishment wants no part of ‘social science theories imported from US’

Michel Wieviorka, a prominent leftist sociologist, has been labelled an islamo-gauchiste by his anti-woke colleagues. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/ Getty Images

Fifty French academics and intellectuals declared war on the latest scourge from the US at a two-day colloquium at the Sorbonne earlier this month.

After fast food and internet giants, what president Emmanuel Macron has called "certain social science theories entirely imported from the US" are perceived to threaten the French ideal of an indivisible, secular nation.

Macron referred to theories of race, gender and postcolonialism, which in France are lumped under the rubric of wokeism. Woke is an African-American term for consciousness of injustices endured by ethnic, sexual and religious minorities.

Events at Sciences Po Grenoble show how the French war over wokism is tearing academia apart

It is associated with cancel culture, the public shaming of individuals or institutions accused of discrimination, sometimes in the distant past. And the French establishment want no part of it.


The fierce debate among intellectuals embraces a jargon that includes such terms as deconstructivism, intersectionality and islamo-gauchisme (islamo-leftism). Both sides accuse the other of intolerance, censorship and “neo-Stalinist” methods.

French media have lined up on either side. The conservative publications Le Figaro and Valeurs Actuelles and CNews television deride wokeism. Leftists at Libération and Mediapart liken the anti-woke camp to US senator Joseph McCarthy, who carried out a witch-hunt against communist sympathisers in the 1950s.


The January 7-8th conference at the Sorbonne was opened by the anti-woke warrior and education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has repeatedly spoken of his fear that US-style wokeism will fragment France by dividing individuals according to their ethnic origins, gender or sexual orientation.

“The [French] Republic is diametrically opposed to ‘wokeism’,” Blanquer told Le Monde last October. “In the US it was the reaction to this ideology that brought Donald Trump to power, and French youth must be spared that.”

At the Sorbonne conference the sociologist Dominique Schnapper accused social scientists of using the concept of "domination" to "divert rationality". The linguist Jean Szlamowicz called words such as transphobia, appropriation and inclusive "a mush of poetry and militancy". Proponents of woke culture "invent an injustice so they can denounce it", he said.

Michel Wieviorka, a prominent leftist sociologist who has been labelled an islamo-gauchiste by his anti-woke colleagues, told the Anglo-American Press Association that new cultural movements in the US, in particular Black Lives Matter and #metoo, had profound repercussions in France. But there is one major difference between the US and France: mass immigration by north African Arabs to France has made Islam the focal point of controversy here.

"The debate over wokeism is froth," Wieviorka says. "In six months people will have moved on to something else. But the hatred of Islam is central." The jihadist attacks of recent years, in particular the beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty, dramatically increased Islamophobia, he added.

Fifteen of Wieviorka’s academic colleagues signed a long diatribe against him in Marianne magazine last year in which they accused him of “presenting himself as the antidote to the poison that he has abundantly distilled through universities, via different currents of islamo-gauchisme”.

He had, they added, “regularly defended multiculturalism versus republican universalism” and “claims that Islamophobia is tending to replace anti-Semitism”. Wieviorka was, they wrote, “blinded by an ideology which sees Muslims as underdogs”.


Events at Sciences Po Grenoble show how the French war over wokeism is tearing academia apart. It started at the end of November 2020, when Klaus Kinzler, a German teacher, objected to the use of the word "Islamophobia" in a title for a seminar during the "week for equality", alongside the words "racism" and "anti-Semitism".

The very word was “a weapon of propaganda for extremists”, Kinzler said. In an email signed “a struggling teacher, genetically a Nazi and a repeat-offender Islamophobe”, he called activist students “sprouting ayatollahs”. Kinzler was suspended after he published a newspaper article in which he wrote of “political re-education” at the political science institute.

During the same period students at Sciences Po Grenoble launched a hashtag called “sciencesporcs” to encourage the victims of sexual harassment or aggression at the university to denounce offenders. A report by the education ministry said it created “terror” on the campus.

In December the hardline conservative president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, announced he was suspending €100,000 in scholarships for Grenoble because of its "ideological and sectarian drift" characterised by the suspension of Kinzler.

The head of the institute is recruiting a director of communications in the hope of ending the crisis. And she is inviting “qualified speakers” to lecture on freedom of expression, religion and laicité (state-enforced secularism). It’s a risky move, far from certain of ending the culture war.