One crisis can conceal another. While France has been distracted by COVID, a new menace is lurking. The specter haunting the republic is le Wokisme, the mutating ideology of race and identity that has found unexpectedly fertile ground here. French elites are unsettled. Those who assumed the French possessed herd immunity against such barbaric American ideas are having their complacency tested.
Superficially a modern country, with iPhones, Amazon and electric cars, France is still often introspective and late to understand what’s happening in the wider — especially Anglophone — world, which is how wokeness has somewhat taken it by surprise. Woke had been happening in America for many years before the French noticed.
The often riotous Black Lives Matter demonstrations in France last year were the wake-up. The French protests, though triggered by the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, were more about muscular over policing at home. As elsewhere, the anger soon turned into a broader expression of the idea that France is inherently racist and the not-unfounded claim that its riches are partly a result of colonialism and slavery. ‘Woke’, a word and idea born in African-American English, had finally blossomed in France.
But Wokeness had been quietly implanting itself here a little longer. If the Woketarian revolutionaries have established a citadel, it is in the modernist fortress of what used to be Paris Diderot University, or Paris 7, before it was maneuvered into merging into the ungovernable University of Paris.
The germination of French Wokeness can perhaps be dated to a conference at Paris 7 in fall 2018, on ‘racism and racial discrimination, from school to university’.With the objective of refocusing curriculum on racial equity, this seminal event was described witheringly in Le Figaro by professors Barbara Lefebvre and Anne-Sophie Nogaret as bringing together the ‘cream of racial-theory researchers and their usual soup-servers’.
The conference was opened by Christine Clerici, the president of the university, attended by an all-star cast of grievance academics including Fabrice Duhme, an advocate of Muslim religious rights in France, and Abdellali Hajjat, a lecturer at the University Paris-Ouest Nanterre and the co-author of Islamophobia: How French Elites Fabricate the ‘Muslim Problem’. Present also were the inspector general of national education, Benoit Falaize, and Judith Klein from the general directorate of school education. From these origins, Wokeness has subsequently torn through French campuses. In time, as students graduate, it will march through schools, government, corporations and social institutions, just as it has in America and Britain.
The idea that the French have some innate immunity protecting them from such ideas is fanciful. While professing disdain for vulgar America, the French are seduced by American culture. They eat one million McDonald’s hamburgers a day. They watch Netflix. If they’re ready to swallow Wokeness it will not surprise.
The powers that be are certainly fretting. President Emmanuel Macron has zigged and zagged. He’s spent much of his presidency jetting around Africa apologizing to former French colonies for the horrors of colonialism, which seems Woke enough. He seems recently, however, to have himself awoken to the dangers of a progressive ideology that is inherently incompatible with the liberal ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité.
Macron has belatedly denounced Woke ideology, drawing the line at demands to reframe the national curriculum around racism. Referencing the desecration of statues and monuments in the United States and Britain, he promised that French history and culture will be protected from such violent ex post facto revisionism.
His education minister and higher education minister have described the surge in colonial and racial studies in provocative terms. They call it an ‘Islamo-leftist’ plot to divide France, a phrase offering a window to their state of mind — in a country at war with Islamists, this is how they fear Wokeness will evolve. Recently the higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, said that ‘Islamo-leftism corrupts all society’ and criticized radical academics for always ‘looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide’.
Vaguely defined ‘Islamo-leftism’ has become Macronian code to categorize divisive research on race, gender, Islam and social class, all of it existentially threatening to the constitutionally ‘indivisible’ Republic, and decidedly so to his prospects in next year’s presidential election, which could see Macron hold his center lane though the electorate could just as easily swing to the right or the left.The historian Édouard Husson says the labels don’t matter: ‘Whether you call it woke culture, cancel culture, Islamo-leftism or something else, complete intolerance is imposed on public debate, the media and above all, on academia.’
In ‘critical race theory’, a pillar of Woke ideology, even failing to view people on the basis of their skin color becomes racist. Yet for the French republic, racism is impossible even to discuss, because everyone is equal. It’s an example of the French love of theory over what works in real life. In France there can by law be no official consideration of race. It’s illegal to record race on official documents or to count the Maghrebian kids in a classroom to target their special needs. It’s not even clear how many minorities exist in France. Because officially, they do not. Everyone is equally French, in theory. Obviously this is ridiculous, but as the French say, c’est comme ça.
In France, religious faith itself is also officially unrecognized. The French Revolution was violently anticlerical, and the state remains at arm’s length from ‘cults’. This anticlerical tradition is also threatened by critical race theory, especially a particularly French variant which is the specific demand for recognition by Muslims, who now comprise a hardly integrated community of perhaps six to eight million among the 65 million people in France.
The oppositional propositions of Woke identitarianism and constitutional racial and religious blindness are in absolute terms equally unrealistic and absurd, but culture wars have been fought over less. The skirmishing is intensifying with attacks on the paternalistic French language, the very citadel of national identity. The French language is gendered, which is bad, according to reformers. They have produced such remarkable innovations as ‘cheres lecteur.rice.s, déterminées à écrire différemment?’ A sentence that is inclusive to men, women and even asexual thems. Inclusive pronouns include ille, ellui and ol. Please don’t ask me to explain.
Campuses are temporarily silent this spring as the country enters yet another lockdown. But the conflict is bubbling under the surface and with the great reopening to come, perhaps by the fall, looks certain to spawn. UNEF, a left-wing student union, has provoked a row by organizing meetings that are off-limits to white members.
Audrey Pulvar, a black former news anchor running as a Socialist party regional candidate, has demanded that whites ‘be asked to keep quiet and be silent spectators’ in debates on race. That provoked a rebuke from Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor and socialist presidential hopeful. ‘Politics isn’t therapy,’ she said. She might once have been right, but Pulvar is being roundly endorsed by many on the left, even as she is denounced by her own party.
France is a nation susceptible to hysteria and mobs. History, culture and language are threatened as the establishment frets that the academic freedom they feel they won during the événements of 1968 is in peril. And Paris is a target-rich environment for excitable racial separatists and merchants of grievance. Just walk around. The city is one of the most racially divided and unequal places on Earth, with a vast and resentful under class and hundreds if not thousands of statues of racists, patriarchs and slave traders in easy tipping distance of the Seine.
The scholar Gilles Kepel may denounce the ‘Islamo-leftists, decolonializers and assorted inter sectionals’ on campus, and their obsession with race, gender and colonialism, but there’s nothing to suggest that the French can be quarantined from the Wokeness parasite taking over the Anglophone academy from Ann Arbor and Oxford to Delhi, Melbourne and beyond. It could be said that this pot pourri of grievance-oriented American obsessions is a just reward for France having exported existentialism, feminism and structuralism to American campuses in the Fifties and Sixties, where the revered thought of Deleuze, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida mutated into barely recognizable thought-variants ultimately including political correctness, which in turn mutated into the hyper infectious Woke strain, before returning to France, only to mutate again to the circumstances and the times.
Etymological note: Woke, a verb form being used as an adjective, is hard to translate. It might normally be somewhat inadequately rendered as réveiller (to wake up) or réveillé (woken up), or the verb éclairer might be useful, but these miss the African-American cadence. Fortunately for translators, and in a final insult to the language police of the Académie française, the American word has been adopted (appropriated?) here and is now being used in everyday speech and on magazine covers. Woke has become, in the blink of an eye, as French as un hot-dog or le weekend.
Wokeness à la française (who knows if woke is masculine or feminine?) continues its march. A women’s demonstration scheduled in Paris on April 25 will have separate columns for white lesbians and black lesbians, and you can hardly get more intersectional than that.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.