The “woke” movement has breached French shores, and to hear some of the intellectual and political classes speak, you’d think the country was in the midst of a full-scale American invasion.
The press is replete with stories about its rise. President Emmanuel Macron, courting right-wing voters in the run-up to April’s presidential elections, publicly fretted about the influence of “certain social-science theories entirely imported from the United States,” and Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer created the Republic Laboratory think tank specifically to fight “woke culture.”
In a letter on the organization’s website explaining why he felt it necessary to do so, Blanquer wrote that “identity-based claims of all kinds call into question the universalist heritage of the Enlightenment and dangerously fragment our political body.” Blanquer had said previously that the backlash against what in France has come to be known as “wokeism” was the force behind Donald Trump’s election. In January, Paris’ august Sorbonne University held a two-day conference deriding the perils of woke thought.
Presidential candidates on the right have jumped on the anti-woke bandwagon as well. Far-right presidential hopefuls Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen have denounced woke thought on multiple occasions, and Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the main center-right party, launched her campaign by saying she wouldn’t bend to it.
And yet, a poll conducted in France in February 2021 showed that 86 percent of those surveyed had never heard the term “woke thinking” and only 6 percent thought they knew what it meant. With a few notable exceptions, most of the cautionary tales of “wokeism” run amok involve events that took place in the United States.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Nothing less than the French identity, it turns out.
Where “woke” culture comes to die
Christophe de Voogd, a researcher of political ideas and rhetoric at Sciences Po — another elite French university — explained it this way: “France is really, in its culture, a country that aims for universalism … so everything that goes against it is not really welcome in this culture.”
In other words, anything smacking of identity politics flies directly in the face of the ideals at the core of the French Republic, whose constitution prohibits the gathering of statistics on race, religion or ethnicity. “We don’t see race in France, so we can’t be racist” is the general reasoning, Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar and researcher at Toulouse-Capitole University, told Grid.
The global “woke” movement, with its roots in the Black consciousness movement in the United States, emphasizes the disparate experiences of racial groups and other minorities and stresses rather than minimizes the experiences of different elements of society. That is anathema to many in France, a nation that sees itself as a beacon of colorblind universalism.
“There is a strong anti-American sentiment in [the resistance to woke thought],” said Alouane. “Importing critical race theory and intersectionality is deemed in France as a call to separatism.” Macron himself has criticized French universities for leaning into these issues and what he called “the ethnicization of the social question.”
Some see a certain irony in the entire debate, given that the same people who are wary of the American influence are using an English phrase — generally a no-no among French elites — without really grasping what it means. “They accuse the woke of importing their ideas from the U.S., but they import the word ‘woke’ without translating it,” Michel Wieviorka, a prominent sociologist who is a target of the anti-woke forces, told Grid. “Woke, cancel culture, intersectionality … they don’t understand it at all.”
While French opponents of woke thinking may tag it as American, wokeism in France actually bears little resemblance to its U.S. counterpart. If in the U.S. the primary focus is race, in France the heart of the debate is over what those on the right of the political spectrum have labeled “Islamo-leftism.”
The term has yet to be precisely defined, but what is clear is that it plays on fears that arose from a wave of Islamist terror attacks that began in earnest in 2015. The first was in January of that year, when gunmen stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, killing 12. That November, France suffered its single deadliest day of terrorism when more than 130 people were killed in a coordinated spate of shootings, grenade assaults and suicide bombings. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.
French anxieties about Islam and Islamists — the two are often conflated — reached new heights in 2020 when a secondary school teacher named Samuel Paty was murdered after showing his class cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as part of a unit on free speech. In much of France today, to be seen as “woke” is to be seen as a defender of Islamist terrorism.
Indeed, the incident of woke-related peril most cited in France involved a German professor at Sciences Po Grenoble named Klaus Kinzler. He came under fire from students when he objected to using the word “Islamophobia” alongside “racism” and “anti-Semitism” in the title of a planned seminar on equality, arguing that they are not equivalent.
“Anti-Semitism has resulted in millions of deaths. Genocide without end. Then there is racism, slavery. That, too, has led to tens of millions of deaths in history,” Kinzler told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. “But where are the millions of deaths linked to Islamophobia? … I do not deny that people of Muslim faith are discriminated against. I just refuse to put it on the same level.”
A left-wing union accused Kinzler of being Islamophobic himself, and someone hung signs around the campus saying, “Fascists in our lecture halls! Dismiss Professor Kinzler! Islamophobia kills!” Despite requests from the head of the political studies institute not to talk to the media, Kinzler gave several interviews in which he likened the university to a “political re-education camp.” He was subsequently suspended — not for his stance on Islamophobia, but for defaming his employer.
“Wokeism” and the elections
While Kinzler continues to make the media rounds, the anti-woke brigades look for other opportunities to fuel their fire. They oppose moves to make the gendered French language more inclusive and the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun, about which even first lady Brigitte Macron saw fit to express her disapproval, saying the French language has “only two pronouns.” The occasional flap has arisen over a statue depicting a colonial-era hero, a fresco at the National Assembly portraying caricatured Black figures or a student union meeting to discuss racial discrimination that was open to nonwhites only. But for the most part, these incidents have been few and far between.
“They take real examples, and they exaggerate and amplify,” Wieviorka said.
Alouane sees the war on the woke as a political tool, particularly with the presidential elections looming. “It’s a distraction from the real issues we are facing in France,” she said. “Macron is not exactly popular at the moment. We have had multiple crises, Yellow Vests, covid, multiple scandals.”
Meanwhile, the war on wokeism has been back-burnered to some extent by an actual war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has — in France and other countries — meant less attention on domestic issues. This has had the effect of taking some pressure off Macron and highlighting his position as Europe’s de facto elder statesman. It’s hard to get worked up about some of these questions in the midst of a European war and the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
But the debate over woke thought remains a powerful political cudgel, especially in the context of anti-immigrant pronouncements coming from the right. While France accepts fewer immigrants than many other countries in Europe, the numbers have been growing. Immigrants now represent 10.3 percent of the French population, and 47.5 of them were born in Africa, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. Many believe that the brouhaha over wokeism enables those in power to undercut those who question the status quo. “The more you say, ‘My experience goes against the values of liberty, equality, fraternity,’ the more you are deemed as being separatist and on the verge of being radicalized,” Alouane said. “It is the government creating separatism between those who are against them and those who are with them.”
Alouane noted that the younger, more diverse generation of academics, whose parents or grandparents may have been immigrants and worried about fitting in, are now “secure enough in their Frenchness” to challenge the egalitarian narrative of French republicanism which, in their experience, doesn’t reflect reality.
“The days of the establishment and the status quo are numbered. Of course they are threatened,” Alouane said. “French culture is a lot of things. It’s not limited to what the establishment thinks it should be. If France continues to perceive diversity as a threat and not an asset, we will fail.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.