The Weaponization of Republican Values in France

There is an ongo­ing bat­tle for cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny in France. Far-right ide­olo­gies are being nor­mal­ized, their stig­ma­tiz­ing vocab­u­lary thus not only gains pub­lic accep­tance but also comes to shape the government’s agen­da on minor­i­ty rights. Two deroga­to­ry terms have gained salience dur­ing the last year: islamo-gauchisme and wok­isme. They fuse togeth­er exist­ing and new sce­nar­ios of puta­tive threats to the Repub­lic. Mus­lims, crit­i­cal aca­d­e­mics and those who speak up against Islam­o­pho­bia are tar­gets of the new gov­ern­ment rhetoric.

One year after the bru­tal assas­si­na­tion of school­teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist ter­ror­ist, the French min­is­ter of nation­al edu­ca­tion launched a new Repub­li­can think tank labelled “lab­o­ra­toire répub­li­cain” on Octo­ber 13th. Jean-Michel Blan­quer declared last month that his repub­li­can lab­o­ra­to­ry is designed to “win the bat­tle of ideas” and “defend human­ism and uni­ver­sal­ism” against “wok­ism”.

Wok­ism, the new obses­sion of the French pub­lic dis­course, was described by Blan­quer dur­ing the pan­dem­ic as a fast-spread­ing virus. His lab­o­ra­to­ry, to stay with the metaphor, is now sup­posed to devel­op the “cure” for this virus. The ingre­di­ents to be used are good old-fash­ioned repub­li­can val­ues, of course. But what exact­ly does the patient suf­fer from?

In his address deliv­ered in Paris, Blan­quer iden­ti­fied four areas in which wok­ism creeps in: first and fore­most, it befalls the aca­d­e­m­ic field. Accord­ing to the min­is­ter, it suf­fers due to the spread of a can­cel cul­ture, where “real pow­er strate­gies have been put in place”.  More­over, the media, the cul­tur­al world and pol­i­tics are equal­ly affect­ed by wokism.

A year ago, Blan­quer stat­ed, the uni­ver­si­ties were rav­aged by islamo-left­ism, an ide­ol­o­gy which in his words, made crit­i­cal aca­d­e­mics accom­plices of ter­ror­ism. In his Inter­view with radio Europe1, he denounced “ideas that often come from out­side, from a mod­el of soci­ety which is not ours. We have a Repub­li­can, uni­ver­sal­ist mod­el. (…) I will be very firm against all those who, today, believ­ing them­selves to be pro­gres­sive, in real­i­ty make the bed for a form of tol­er­ance to rad­i­cal­ism. This is unac­cept­able and it leads to the worst.”

While it was then unclear which ideas he meant, one year lat­er, the French dis­course has pro­duced a label for such ide­olo­gies: le wok­isme. This deroga­to­ry term includes post­colo­nial stud­ies, inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, crit­i­cal race the­o­ry (among oth­ers) and oppos­es them to the French Repub­li­can mod­el of uni­ver­sal­ist val­ues. This right-wing catch-all-phrase is used to dele­git­imize claims for equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion or the respon­si­bil­i­ties aris­ing from France’s colo­nial past.

The goal is, clear­ly, to present these schools of thought as incom­pat­i­ble with French val­ues. They are said to stem from abroad, name­ly the U.S, and to car­ry in them a divi­sive qual­i­ty. Besides they are pre­sent­ed as cor­ro­sive to nation­al uni­ty as well as abet­ting Islamism, as Pres­i­dent Macron main­tained is his speech on sep­a­ratism in Feb­ru­ary 2020 (see also Norim­it­su Onishi’s piece in the New York Times).

The government’s ver­bal attacks against crit­i­cal research did not miss their tar­get. Only days after Blanquer’s state­ment, the result­ing polar­iza­tion with­in acad­e­mia was clear­ly vis­i­ble, among oth­er places in le Monde. In an open let­ter sup­port­ing the min­is­ter, 100 researchers and intel­lec­tu­als deplored an ide­o­log­i­cal decay import­ed from the US, a grow­ing “hatred against whites and France” and a “vio­lent mil­i­tan­cy” against “those who still dare to defy the anti-West­ern doxa and the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist preach­ing.” The oppos­ing side empha­sized the his­tor­i­cal­ly obliv­i­ous char­ac­ter of such a view and point­ed to the Islam­o­pho­bia of the state, which places reli­gious minori­ties under gen­er­al sus­pi­cion in the name of secularism.

This col­lu­sion between crit­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als and Islamism is very much in line with what Aure­lien Mon­don calls the French “sec­u­lar hypocrisy”: “the hege­mon­ic rise of an exclu­sivist under­stand­ing of the con­cepts of the Repub­lic and, more par­tic­u­lar­ly of one of its cor­ner­stones, one with pur­pose­ful­ly fuzzy and mul­ti­ple mean­ings: sec­u­lar­ism or laïc­ité” (Mon­don 2015: 407).

Ramazan Kil­inç shows in a his­tor­i­cal account of the Mus­lim immi­gra­tion and sec­u­lar­ism in France, how the increase in immi­grant Mus­lims in the 1960s led to the state reshap­ing its gen­er­al poli­cies toward reli­gious minori­ties. “This was espe­cial­ly the case after 2001, when Euro­pean publics became con­cerned about the so-called ‘Islamist threat.’ French law­mak­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers revised the laws and reg­u­la­tions about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Mus­lims in civ­il soci­ety and toward the state, the con­struc­tion of mosques, sup­port for Mus­lim schools, and the man­i­fes­ta­tion of Mus­lim reli­gious sym­bols in the pub­lic sphere” (Kil­inç 2019, 62). While laïc­ité, accord­ing to the orig­i­nal 1905 act is sup­posed to pro­tect the rights of reli­gious groups, in today’s France it is used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for all kinds of con­straints and crack downs on Mus­lim groups, NGOs, char­i­ties or Mosques.

As law schol­ar Rim-Sarah Alouane puts it, Repub­li­can val­ues – espe­cial­ly laïc­ité – are an “argu­ment used to jus­ti­fy repres­sive, dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, and iden­ti­tar­i­an poli­cies, in par­tic­u­lar toward Mus­lims.” With the pos­tu­la­tion of Islamo-left­ist and woke ide­olo­gies as a threat to the major­i­ty, those who oppose this weaponiza­tion of sec­u­lar­ism can eas­i­ly be dis­qual­i­fied as ene­mies of the Republic.

In fact, fre­quen­cy data sug­gest that wok­isme has tak­en the place of islamo-gauchisme as the new buzz­word. Both link crit­i­cal research to an assumed inter­est of out­side ene­mies to under­mine French democ­ra­cy and nation­al uni­ty. The use of islamo-gauchisme peaked in Octo­ber 2020 and Feb­ru­ary 2021, right after the two min­is­ters respon­si­ble for edu­ca­tion and research linked it to an assumed dan­ger from with­in acad­e­mia. Wok­isme was estab­lished at the same time, but used more and more fre­quent­ly after the imme­di­ate shock of the 2020 ter­ror series had worn off. Wok­isme seems to be made for qui­eter times. Nev­er­the­less, both terms do the work of lump­ing togeth­er crit­ics, activists, schol­ars and Mus­lims into a vague group of ene­mies of the majority.


The data­base includes 104 French media out­lets and press agen­cies accessed via the data­base Fac­ti­va on 22 Novem­ber 202

Arguably, this polit­i­cal devel­op­ment and its accep­tance by the major­i­ty goes hand in hand with the extreme right’s strug­gle for cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny. This bat­tle of ideas shapes the media dis­course, polar­izes the pub­lic and nor­mal­izes con­spir­a­cy myths. As a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­vey from Octo­ber 20th 2021 shows, 61% of the pop­u­la­tion agree with the state­ment that a “big replace­ment” is under­way in France. This con­spir­a­cy myth, first described by French alt-right pio­neer Renaud Camus, main­tains that the white, Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tion in Europe is being out­num­bered by Sub-Saha­ran and Mus­lim immi­grants in a con­cert­ed attack sup­port­ed by a glob­al elite. The “big replace­ment” is one key ide­o­log­i­cal frame of the Nou­velle Droite. It sug­gests not only the neo-racist view of incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty of dif­fer­ent cul­tures but also the anti­se­mit­ic myth of a pow­er­ful glob­al elite pulling the strings in the back­ground and the threat of a vio­lent replace­ment of white pop­u­la­tion in the West.

In France, these con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and pan­ics about white extinc­tion fall on fruit­ful ground. Decades of failed inte­gra­tion pol­i­tics, con­cen­tra­tion of Maghre­bi pop­u­la­tion in the ban­lieues and con­sol­i­dat­ed, often racial­ized, social inequal­i­ty have pre­pared a fer­tile soil for these per­ni­cious ideas. As Charles Tay­lor puts it “This is a prob­lem not just for inte­gra­tion, but for democ­ra­cy as such. When you get grow­ing inequal­i­ties, peo­ple at the low­er end check out of democ­ra­cy and become recruitable for par­ties offer­ing this utter­ly sim­plis­tic solu­tion”. In com­bi­na­tion with the main­stream­ing of extreme right ide­olo­gies such ideas have made neo-racist stances wide­ly accept­ed and make the elec­toral suc­cess of Le Pen’s Nation­al Ral­ly more and more likely.


Ref­er­ences

Kılınç, Ramazan. 2019. Sec­u­lar­ism and Mus­lims in France. In Ramazan Kılınç (ed.), Alien Cit­i­zens, vol. 33, 61–84. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 

Mon­don, Aurelien.2015. The French sec­u­lar hypocrisy: the extreme right, the Repub­lic and the bat­tle for hege­mo­ny. In: Pat­terns of Prej­u­dice 49 (4), S. 392–413. DOI: 10.1080/0031322X.2015.1069063

About

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.