translated by Deren Ertas
This article was originally published in French on Le Monde on March 4, 2021.
Translator’s Note: In the past two months, Emmanuel Macron’s Minister of Higher Education and Research, Frédérique Vidal, has commenced a witch-hunt against French universities. Under the unfortunate title of “Islamo-leftism,” she is attacking academics whose research is located in the field of “postcolonial studies.” The charge against them is that they threaten the unity of French society. Macron is following along the dangerous footsteps of Orban, Duda, and Bolsonaro—to name only a few—in curtailing academic freedom. The text translated below is a petition drafted by academics from the United States and elsewhere expressing their concerns with the steps taken by Vidal.
We write to express our profound concern about the recent request of Frédérique Vidal, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, asking the National Center of Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique—CNRS) to launch an investigation on “Islamo-leftist” intrigues in French universities.
After the French government’s passing of a law on “separatism,” which already has accentuated the stigmatization of Muslims in France, we regret that time has now come for academics to be accused of polarizing public debate. The idea that teacher-researchers can be monitored under the pretext of “militant commitment to research” is effectively a direct threat of censorship, which worries us in more ways than one.
First of all, the state neither has the right nor the competence to censor the works of academics who rely on their expertise to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in our societies. This is a dangerous precedent that should not be tolerated in a democratic society.
Fanon, Sartre, Bourdieu…
The argument that academics, the so-called “Islamo-leftists,” risk dividing society is a visible effort to defame our colleagues. What is more, this attack is justified in the name of protecting the Republic in the face of a supposed alliance between a part of the left and a religious group.
We cannot fail to underline the resonance with the most somber moments of French history, and notably with the discourse attacking the “Jewish-Bolsheviks” that once served to create an amalgam between political and religious engagements.
Furthermore, the approaches currently under fire were directly inspired by some of the most brilliant figures of the philosophical, literary, and sociological tradition of France. As researchers working in the United States and elsewhere, we are intellectually indebted towards France for having contributed by its universities to the emergence of thinkers like Franz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Hélène Cixous, Aimé Césaire, Paulette Nardal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
Most of these figures were not only thinkers, but also individuals implicated in extended political struggles to better our societies. These engaged intellectuals have become pillars of diverse approaches that are now attacked under the name of “postcolonialism.”
That a country that has contributed so much to advance critical thinking has turned its back to its national heritage is not only alarming, but it is also deprived of a long-term vision. We do not demand that everyone embrace these approaches and recognize their merits, but simply that French academics be able to discuss and share them with their students if they so desire.
Finally, those who govern higher education would do well to look for concrete solutions to the problem of racial discrimination in France, rather than launching a witch hunt against researchers. Unfortunately, rather than supporting academics to advance the common struggle for equality, the Minister of Higher Education and Research threatens [them with] censorship.
Rather than responding to the suffering of students in the context of a global pandemic, or to economic problems confronting public education, Frédérique Vidal and her colleagues identify teachers as the main threat to French universities.
The numerous signatories of this forum have benefited from their prolonged exchanges with French universities, be it with individuals or in an institutional capacity. We hope that this collaboration with our French colleagues will continue in a spirit of open and free debate. This is why we draw your attention, once again, to the serious danger posed on academic freedom by these threats of censorship.
To view the list of signatories, please click here.
Collective’s Note: This translation, published with permission from Le Monde from the letter as it appeared there, is one of several expressions of frustration, concern, and firm rejection of the barely crypto-fascist turn that Emmanuel Macron’s administration has taken in the past few months. Although this particular article has also been published in English elsewhere, we hope publishing it here on Ramparts will guide readers to these other crucial discussions on the issue of “islamo-leftism” and the crackdown on critical academic study in France.
For additional context, please see:
The New Arab: “‘Islamo-Leftism’: A Word to Smear and Silence French Academics”
Verso Books: “Islamophobia, ‘Islamo-leftism’, (post)fascism”
Open Democracy: “Open Letter: the threat of academic authoritarianism – international solidarity with antiracist academics in France”