“Many of these topics in which France used to excel academically have been undermined, and we have abandoned them,” Macron declared. French intellectuals, he lamented, have “yielded to other academic traditions,” specifically “Anglo-Saxon traditions based on
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“Many of these topics in which France used to excel academically have been undermined, and we have abandoned them,” Macron declared. French intellectuals, he lamented, have “yielded to other academic traditions,” specifically “Anglo-Saxon traditions based on a different history,” a history that, he claimed, “is not ours.”
The speech received significant media attention in France and the United States. On the American side, a spate of opinion pieces questioned whether “woke” culture would irrevocably polarize French society, and saluted Macron’s effort to protect “classical liberal values.” Others asked if we were witnessing “the end of French intellectual life.”
France, of course, has long feared Americanization. But the fascination triggered by this latest episode in a centuries-long culture war between the two nations stems from an unexpected role reversal. Typically, the United States is imagined to export Hollywood blockbusters, fast food, and bloated naïveté on the order of Netflix’s Emily in Paris; France is imagined to export fine wine, radical ideas, and François Truffaut.
What is really at stake is the use of the university as a pawn in a concerted anti-Islamic campaign.
But the United States smuggling radical ideas into France? That’s a very different proposition.
A tidal wave of recognition about how power is wielded along axes of race, gender, and sexuality has breached the fortress of French culture. France’s sense of its cultural superiority thrives in insularity — it is a function of a liberality, not to say a libidinality, unencumbered by the clichés of morality.
This exceptionalist posture has long been wearing thin. It has definitively outlasted its welcome when it is deployed, as Macron has deployed it, as a tool for courting the far-right electorate.
Macron’s dog-whistle attacks on postcolonial studies — a catch-all term covering everything from anticolonial thought to critical race theory, intersectional theory to Black Lives Matter — leverage racism and xenophobia, laced with a general anti-intellectual sentiment, to woo conservative voters in view of the 2022 presidential election. Long gone is the 2017 candidate who presented himself as the last bastion against Marine Le Pen’s quasi-fascist Rassemblement National (formerly known as Front National). Macron’s new strategy is to position himself as the guardian of French traditions and law and order.
The president’s accusations, in other words, are not an isolated incident but the preliminary stage in a calibrated government offensive.
In late October 2020 the French minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, declared in an interview that there was “a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix coming from American universities.” In Blanquer’s cross hairs were “intersectional theses” whose supposed essentialism he deemed incompatible with French republican ideals. According to Blanquer, intersectionality fosters communalism, rather than universalism. As such, it is aligned with “Islamist interests.”
On February 14, 2021, the French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal — another Macron surrogate — upped the ante by announcing that she would commission an official research investigation into “Islamo-leftism,” which, she claimed, “gangrenes all of society, and the university is not impervious.” The phrase “Islamo-leftism,” until recently confined to far-right platforms, describes a fantasized alliance between anticapitalist and Islamist militants.
French scholars responded immediately by writing an open letter denouncing a “witch hunt” that scapegoated critical race studies and postcolonial studies as a way of distracting from the heightened precarity of students and workers as a result of the neoliberal restructuring of the university. More recently, international scholars issued a powerful statement of solidarity with postcolonial academics and activists in France.
To present these figures as the naïve disciples of “social-science theories entirely imported from the United States” is to erase a long tradition of anticolonial thought. It is the tradition of Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, and many others who argued that we must break the artificially nationalist frame, championed by countless others before Macron, if we are to reckon with France’s role in a racist and extractive history of empire.
So to characterize the history of racism and colonialism as “not ours” disavows France’s colonial past and present. Similarly, to identify the insurgent critical moment as originating in the United States ignores that much of the so-called American Theory that troubles the French government has roots in what came to be known as “French Theory” in the 1970s and '80s.
This irony is redoubled if we take into account that, as the French intellectual historian François Cusset influentially argued, French Theory is an American invention. Many French intellectuals derided the American academy’s embrace of Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous, among others.
Building on their work, thinkers like Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Edward Said laid the foundations of postcolonial, queer, and gender studies. (Those scholars working in the United States were themselves not immune to the accusation that they had wrongly derived a politics that was not native to French theory.)
The biggest irony of all, in the end, might be that, in feigning to defend France against American influence, Macron has borrowed a page from the American conservative’s playbook. And treating criticism of France’s colonial history, discriminatory practices, and police brutality as byproducts of a new form of American imperialism only reproduces the disavowal of an intellectual tradition based on a different history, which is very much France’s.
Recognizing this is all the more urgent in light of the rise of neofascism in Europe and globally. It will take more than symbolic gestures like Macron’s recent proposal to rename French streets after notable figures from the former colonies (among them, Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, whom he called “cultural heroes”). It will take engaging these thinkers seriously — not as cultural heroes but as anticolonial thinkers.
Césaire uses the phrase “boomerang effect” in his 1955 essay “Discourse on Colonialism” to describe how colonialism returned to haunt Europe under the guise of fascism. If we want to understand how something like Nazism came out of the so-called enlightened West, Césaire contends, “we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer.” When the French refuse to recognize this history as theirs, Césaire warns, “a universal regression takes place.”
What threatens France is not the pseudo-notion of Islamo-leftism or the influence of foreign thought, but the persistent regression of its own historical feedback loop, a narrative of exceptionalism that must be disrupted by a new generation of scholars and activists.