Are universities dividing France?

Minister criticises “militancy of opinion” and launches academic research inquiry

Frédérique Vidal, France’s Higher Education Minister, in 2019

According to France’s higher education minister, Covid-19 is not the only disease chasing the country’s citizens. For Frédérique Vidal, “Islamo-leftism is making gangrenous our society as a whole” and “universities are not impermeable”.

In a recent television interview (CNews), the minister, who is a biochemist and former university principal, appeared to attack some academics for adopting theories which she believes are too divisive.

Mrs Vidal said: “What we are seeing in universities is that there are people who can use their titles and the aura they have to support radical ideas or to support militant ideas”. 

The minister added that some are “always looking at everything through the prism of their willingness to divide, fracture and designate the enemy”.

Mrs Vidal must have had professors of a liberal, pro-global and multicultural persuasion in mind when making these comments as, when defending her remarks in a follow-up interview with the Journal du Dimanche, the minister criticised “radicalities”, “postcolonial studies” and “intersectionality”.

The higher education secretary’s remarks have thrust universities into the centre of an ongoing conversation about “separatism” and Republican values in France. The debate is taking place within the context of recent acts of religiously motivated terrorism and has been amplified by the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by radical Islamists last October.

In response, French MPs approved last month a bill aiming to strengthen laïcité (France’s policy of state secularism) by controlling foreign donations to religious associations and enabling the closure of religious organisations by the Interior Ministry, upon evidence of wrongdoing.

But what President Emmanuel Macron says is a national mission to stamp out “Islamist separatism” has opened up a controversial discussion among politicians and voters about religious and cultural diversity more broadly, in relation to the universalist and rationalist Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and state secularism.

Appearing to believe that liberal universities are part of the separatism problem, Mrs Vidal has now commissioned the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) to carry out a “scientific study” of all academic projects currently underway in France in order to determine “what falls under academic research and what falls under the militancy of opinion”.

Whilst Mrs Vidal has said that “I have always defended academic liberty and academics”, this is a blow for free speech in the country which has produced some of the world’s finest works of philosophy and criticism.

Many academics, including Thomas Piketty and Judith Butler, are outraged. More than 10,000 French academics called for Mrs Vidal to resign after she “diffame[d] a profession” and “mumbl[ed] the repertoire of the far-right” by speaking of “intellectual repression”; they likened her criticism of studies of racial discrimination, gender and postcolonialism to the policies of Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro and Andrzej Duda. 

Additionally, whilst agreeing to lead Mrs Vidal’s research inquiry, the CNRS itself denounced “an emblematic controversy of the instrumentalisation of science” and a soundbite which “doesn’t correspond with any scientific reality”.

Interestingly enough, more than 130 other academics have taken a different stance. Whilst agreeing that a politician ought not to rule on matters of academic free speech, they have supported the higher education minister’s desire to start a conversation on what they see as a “problem which is not necessarily one of ‘Islamo-leftism’ but one of the militant corruption of teaching and research”. 

For them, some academic works “are nothing more than militancy disguised as pseudo-science with the help of frivolous theories”. They argue that work focusing on “intersectionality” and critical theories showing that boundaries are “socially constructed” place inordinate emphasis upon political convictions and are obstacles which prevent the “production and validation of knowledge”, even if their proponents are well intentioned.

This is, however, a reactionary argument. Academic work must, of course, be balanced and outward-looking; no single theory explains everything. Research which places too much emphasis upon one set of convictions achieves nothing if it does not spark dialogue with individuals whose opinions differ.

But this counterargument of some intellectuals demonstrates a rigid attachment to a universalist Republican ideology which is, in fact, not so universal and can restrict. Surely, amidst the increasing diversity of 21st-century France, well-evidenced, critical approaches towards making sense of a changing Fifth Republic should be welcomed. In a world where some political actors contest basic human rights, more attention may well be paid over the next decade to work which uses critical, yet balanced, lenses.

What’s more, fixed interpretations of Republican ideals appear to be similarly ideological. Setting out to limit the presence of cultural individuality in the name of laïcité, or liberté, égalité and fraternité, can sometimes lead instead to unsubstantial fraternité.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Mrs Vidal’s comments about “Islamo-leftism” are above all political.

The political overtones of her remarks have already been identified by the French public. A recent poll commissioned by Franceinfo and the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro showed that whilst almost two-thirds of French people approved of the minister’s comments, 53 percent believed that the government hoped to “capture or keep a part of the right-voting electorate”.

This is likely to be the case. Current opinion polls indicate that the 2022 presidential election will be a battle between the centrist Mr Macron from La République en Marche and Marine Le Pen from the far-right Rassemblement national. A number of security and spending policies promoted by Mr Macron have been popular with voters who might normally support France’s traditional centre-right party, Les Républicains.

As the 2022 election approaches, Mr Macron will be keen to keep these voters on side in order to prevent them from defecting to RN. This must be why Gérald Darmanin, the Interior Minister, controversially accused the far-right Ms Le Pen of “softness” on “Islam” during a televised debate in February (Ms Le Pen, of all people, criticised Mr Darmanin for merging Islam and Islamism). Events such as this, along with the remarks of Mrs Vidal, set an alarming precedent for France’s centrist leadership.

Mrs Vidal’s use of the term “Islamo-leftism” is ultimately a stab at the left, which is currently portrayed as weak on dealing with terrorism and upholding laïcité. The fact that 60 percent of those supporting the Parti socialiste approved of Mrs Vidal’s remarks shows that the right have gained from what has been condemned by some left-oriented members of President Macron’s centrist movement as “essentialisation, which doesn’t allow anymore debate”.

Left-wing candidates such as Anne Hidalgo, Yannick Jadot and Arnaud Montebourg are, however, trying to boost their standing on such issues. But following Mrs Vidal’s comments, they will have even more work to do in order to convince voters of their seriousness when it “Republican values” within a political climate controlled by discussions of national security.

The higher education minister’s remarks may have enabled her to one-up the left on security and terrorism. But what she sees as an attempt to “protect the pluralism of ideas in universities” is a damaging threat to free speech in the country of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Photo Jérémy Barande / Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay (Wikimedia Commons)

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