The Con­cert­ed Attack on Aca­d­e­m­ic Free­dom in France

France is expe­ri­enc­ing at the moment a dis­cur­sive shift that puts aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom in dan­ger. Using the notion of islamo-gauchisme, right-wing actors as well as mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment con­nect Islamism with crit­i­cal aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines such as decolo­nial­ism, post­colo­nial stud­ies or inter­sec­tion­al fem­i­nism. The goal of this con­cert­ed action is to dele­git­imize cri­tique and dis­cred­it aca­d­e­mics as a threat to the val­ues of the République.

In the After­word to the 1995 edi­tion of Ori­en­tal­ism Edward Said react­ed sharply to his crit­ics, who claimed that his argu­ment is one of Anti-West­ern­ism [1]. He took excep­tion to the view of crit­ics, who con­tend that the idea of Ori­en­tal­ism is meant as a reproach to the entire West and its colo­nial vio­lence against East­ern and Islam­ic coun­tries. Islam­ic Fun­da­men­tal­ists, how­ev­er, use his analy­sis of Ori­en­tal­ism “as a pre­text for argu­ing the exact oppo­site, name­ly, that Islam is per­fect, that it is the only way (…)”. Thus both for the Fun­da­men­tal­ists and those opposed to the book’s alleged Anti-West­ern­ism “(t)o crit­i­cize Ori­en­tal­ism (…) is in effect to be a sup­port­er of Islamism or Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ism” [2].

The same sort of log­i­cal fal­la­cy con­tin­ues into the present. French schol­ars of post­colo­nial or decolo­nial stud­ies and of crit­i­cal race stud­ies are con­front­ed today with the cri­tique that they explic­it­ly, or implic­it­ly, sup­port Islamism – as if cri­tiquing a con­cept inevitably entails sup­port­ing its oppo­site. False equiv­a­lences such as these pre­vail not only in aca­d­e­m­ic but also in polit­i­cal and media dis­cours­es in France. In the wake of the lat­est series of ter­ror­ist attacks in Octo­ber 2020, they now affect law and poli­cies that many deem to be an attack on aca­d­e­m­ic freedom.

Islam­o­pho­bia and islamo-gauchisme

Abdel­lali Haj­jat points out in a recent paper that the cur­rent con­tro­ver­sy around Islam­o­pho­bia is tak­ing place at the mar­gins of French acad­e­mia. Major peer-reviewed soci­o­log­i­cal jour­nals only men­tion the term a few times [3]. Rather, the debate is pre­dom­i­nant­ly in crit­i­cal left-wing or con­ser­v­a­tive jour­nals, or in “aca­d­e­m­ic books in which the sci­en­tif­ic approach is sec­ondary,” and in the nation­al press [4]. Schol­ars well regard­ed in acad­e­mia have large­ly ignored the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture on Islam­o­pho­bia. Thus in Hajjat’s view their argu­ments, which are pri­mar­i­ly influ­enced by pub­lic debates, lead to an ill-informed debate with­in acad­e­mia as well as the media.

Neglect of the research on the top­ic has had a neg­a­tive influ­ence on the polit­i­cal dis­course. In a speech giv­en on Feb­ru­ary 3, 2021 in the French Assem­blée nationale, Annie Genevard (Vice-Pres­i­dent of the Par­lia­ment and mem­ber of Les Répub­li­cains) claimed: “The Uni­ver­si­ty is today tra­versed by pow­er­ful and destruc­tive move­ments. They are called decolo­nial­ism, racial­ism, indi­genism and inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty.” She invit­ed her audi­ence to read an open let­terAppel de l’Observatoire du décolo­nial­isme et des ide­olo­gies iden­ti­taires;” pub­lished in Le Point on 13 Jan­u­ary, in which 76 sig­na­to­ries oppose what they con­sid­er to be mil­i­tant, dog­mat­ic and intol­er­ant strands of thought with­in acad­e­mia. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, those being accused of intol­er­ance and destruc­tive iden­ti­tar­i­an ide­olo­gies here are researchers in the fields of decolo­nial stud­ies, inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty or advo­cates of a gen­der-neu­tral language.

Genevard is far from alone in her opin­ion. Polit­i­cal dis­course against eman­ci­pa­to­ry and crit­i­cal aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing has gained salience in France over the past years. In Jan­u­ary 2016, after the ter­ror­ist attacks on a kosher super-mar­ket, Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls con­demned every “cul­tur­al or soci­o­log­i­cal expla­na­tion” for the attacks because “to explain is already want­i­ng to excuse” [5].

After the assas­si­na­tion of the school teacher Samuel Paty in Octo­ber 2020, the nation­al min­is­ter of edu­ca­tion Jean-Michel Blan­quer claimed in an inter­view with Europe1 that French uni­ver­si­ties were being destroyed by what he called “islamo-gauchisme” (islamo-left­ism). Intel­lec­tu­als, mem­bers of the left-wing par­ty La France Insoumise, the stu­dent union UNEF,  mem­bers of all these groups are cul­pa­ble of intel­lec­tu­al com­plic­i­ty with ter­ror­ists in Blanquer’s eyes. To para­phrase Edward Said: Crit­i­cis­ing Islam­o­pho­bia is being equat­ed with sup­port­ing Islamist ide­ol­o­gy or Mus­lim fundamentalism.

Alt-right counter-hege­mo­ny

Crit­ics of the recent turn to illib­er­al­ism in Poland and Hun­gary have shown how con­cepts like ‘gen­der ide­ol­o­gy’ can be trans­formed into a deroga­to­ry short­hand for all kinds of ideas that do not con­firm to  the government’s agen­da. Such a move is key in “enabling right-wing actors to artic­u­late and entrench their counter-hege­mon­ic project” [6]; it func­tions as the sym­bol­ic glue which allows all illib­er­al actors to unite against a com­mon enemy.

Islamo-gauchisme should be under­stood as the suc­cess­ful attempt to trans­fer the threat of Islamism onto left­ist academics

In France, the so-called ‘gen­der ide­ol­o­gy’ is part of the dis­course that con­sti­tutes the new ene­my fig­ure of the islamo-gauchiste. This dis­cur­sive for­ma­tion has been cen­tred around Repub­li­can val­ues like uni­ver­sal­ism and laïc­ité, which are inter­pret­ed as egal­i­tar­i­an and anti-dis­crim­i­na­to­ry by def­i­n­i­tion. The result of this rhetoric is a para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: defin­ing and oppos­ing struc­tur­al racism, islam­o­pho­bia and dis­crim­i­na­tion against women or minori­ties is either ignored or, worse, seen as a re-essen­tial­i­sa­tion of racial, gen­dered and reli­gious iden­ti­ties. NGOs or activists, who for­mu­late such a cri­tique are con­sid­ered com­mu­ni­tar­i­an and sep­a­ratist by large parts of the pub­lic and by state representatives.

Islamo-gauchisme should be under­stood as the suc­cess­ful attempt to trans­fer the threat of Islamism onto left­ist aca­d­e­mics – and to unite con­ser­v­a­tive and extreme-right actors against one com­mon ene­my. By cre­at­ing this sin­gle hyphen­at­ed term, dji­hadism and aca­d­e­m­ic cri­tique are inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined in this dis­cur­sive field. As such, islamo-gauchisme can be seen as the cul­mi­na­tion of a far-right counter-hege­mon­ic project that has long been in the mak­ing and which has been nor­mal­ized over time. Fol­low­ing the ter­ror­ist attacks in Octo­ber 2020, it has now made its way into offi­cial gov­ern­ment rhetoric.  And, of course, this main-stream­ing has not gone unno­ticed by the far-right whose mem­bers con­grat­u­late them­selves on twit­ter for the suc­cess­ful nor­mal­i­sa­tion of their anti-intel­lec­tu­al propaganda.

Effects on leg­is­la­tion and civ­il society

This inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the vil­i­fi­ca­tion of intel­lec­tu­als is not with­out polit­i­cal con­se­quences. Just days after the ter­ror­ist attacks in Octo­ber 2020, the Col­lec­tif con­tre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) was banned, only to be dis­solved a few months lat­er. The non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion had been active since 2003, fight­ing against Islam­o­pho­bia and racist discrimination.

In addi­tion to the effects on civ­il soci­ety mobi­liza­tion and orga­ni­za­tion, these attacks also have direct leg­isla­tive impli­ca­tions. In a hasty process, the long-planned loi de pro­gram­ma­tion pluri­an­nuelle de la recherche (LPPR) was amend­ed by an arti­cle which reg­u­lates that “Aca­d­e­m­ic free­doms are exer­cised with respect for the val­ues ​​of the Repub­lic”.

The LPPR had already sparked mas­sive protest with­in acad­e­mia even before the recent amend­ments, as many con­sid­ered it to be the lat­est step in the mount­ing neolib­er­al attacks on aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom, which was also meant to intro­duce a ‘social Dar­win­ist’ log­ic into the com­pe­ti­tion for research funds. With this new amend­ment, the por­tal Acad­e­mia fears that “for the first time in the his­to­ry of the French uni­ver­si­ty, aca­d­e­m­ic lib­er­ties are sub­or­di­nat­ed to polit­i­cal val­ues for­mu­lat­ed in very vague terms”.This opens the doors to exert polit­i­cal influ­ence on crit­i­cal research.

France is wit­ness­ing today a sys­tem­at­ic and con­cert­ed attack on aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom. Despite – or rather because of – the cur­rent anti-intel­lec­tu­al cli­mate, a cri­tique of sys­temic racism, islam­o­pho­bia and all forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion must con­tin­ue to be upheld. Giv­ing in to neo­con­ser­v­a­tive, reac­tionary or alt-right attacks would send a fatal sig­nal at this crit­i­cal junc­ture. For, as Didi­er Fassin remarks, Edward Said “did not dis­own his cri­tique because he con­sid­ered it to be mis­un­der­stood or mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed. He expli­cat­ed it again and reaf­firmed it. Cri­tique needs open­ness, but it also requires con­sis­ten­cy” [7].


1 Fassin, Didi­er (2017) The endurance of cri­tique. Anthro­po­log­i­cal The­o­ry 17 (1): 4–29.
2 Said, Edward (1995 [1977]). Ori­en­tal­ism. Lon­don: Penguin
3 Haj­jat, Abel­lali (2020) Islam­o­pho­bia and French acad­e­mia. Cur­rent Soci­ol­o­gy. Octo­ber 2020
4 Ibid.
5 Legrand, Sté­pahne & Éleonore Parch­linikak (2016) . 9 jan­vi­er 2016 – Manuel Valls con­damne les expli­ca­tions. Lau­rent de Sut­ter éd., Le livre des trahisons. Paris cedex 14, Press­es Uni­ver­si­taires de France. P. 279–288.
6 Grze­bal­s­ka, Weroni­ka & Andrea Pető. 2018. The gen­dered modus operan­di of the illib­er­al trans­for­ma­tion in Hun­gary and Poland. Wom­en’s Stud­ies Inter­na­tion­al Forum, Vol­ume 68, Pages 164–172.
7 Fassin 2017, 5


Hagen Steinhauer

Hagen Steinhauer is a doctoral Researcher at the University of Bremen. In his PhD project he focuses on authoritarian and illiberal shifts in the French public discourse.