A serious threat to academic freedom in France

JVL Introduction

Some 100 French academics expressed their agreement when French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, declared that ‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America, were responsible for ‘conditioning’ the violent extremism behind Samuel Paty’s assassination.

This is highly dangerous ground, heralding the launch of a McCarthyist process to be led by the French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation to weed out the wrong kind of thinking.

The authors of this open letter see this as “part of a global trend in which racism is protected as freedom of speech, while to express antiracist views is regarded as a violation of it”.

It is a perverse and ahistorical vision, in which critical research and teaching in the interests of learning from past injustices is portrayed as engaging in ‘anti-white racism’.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Thu 5 Nov 2020. Read the original here.

Open Letter: the threat of academic authoritarianism – international solidarity with antiracist academics in France

A critical response to the Manifesto signed by over 100 French academics and published in the newspaper Le Monde on 2 November 2020, after the assassination of the school teacher, Samuel Paty.

At a time of mounting racism, white supremacism, antisemitism and violent far-right extremism, academic freedom has come under attack. The freedom to teach and research the roots and trajectories of race and racism are being perversely blamed for the very phenomena they seek to better understand. Such is the contention of a manifesto signed by over 100 French academics and published in the newspaper Le Monde on 2 November 2020. Its signatories state their agreement with French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, that ‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America, were responsible for ‘conditioning’ the violent extremist who assassinated school teacher, Samuel Paty, on 16 October 2020.

This claim is deeply disingenuous, and in a context where academics associated with critical race and decolonial research have recently received death threats, it is also profoundly dangerous. The scholars involved in this manifesto have readily sacrificed their credibility in order to further a manifestly false conflation between the study of racism in France and a politics of ‘Islamism’ and ‘anti-white hate’. They have launched it in a context where academic freedom in France is subject to open political interference, following a Senate amendment that redefines and limits it to being ‘exercised with respect for the values of the Republic’.

The manifesto proposes nothing short of a McCarthyist process to be led by the French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation to weed out ‘Islamist currents’ within universities, to take a clear position on the ‘ideologies that underpin them’, and to ‘engage universities in a struggle for secularism and the Republic’ by establishing a body responsible for dealing with cases that oppose ‘Republican principles and academic freedom’. The ‘Islamogauchiste’ tag (which conflates the words ‘Islam’ and ‘leftists’) is now widely used by members of the government, large sections of the media and hostile academics. It is reminiscent of the antisemitic ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ accusation in the 1930s which blamed the spread of communism on Jews. The ‘Islamogauchiste’ notion is particularly pernicious as it voluntarily confuses Islam (and Muslims) with Jihadist Islamists. In other words, academics who point out racism against the Muslim minority in France are branded allies of Islamist terrorists and enemies of the nation.

This is not the only contradiction that shapes this manifesto. Its signatories appear oblivious to how its feverish tone is redolent of the antisemitic witch-hunts against so-called ‘Cultural Marxists’ that portrayed Jewish intellectuals as enemies of the state. Today’s enemies are Muslims, political antiracists, and decolonial thinkers, as well as anyone who stands with them against rampant state racism and Islamophobia.

Further, when seen in a global context, the question of who is in fact ‘importing’ ideas from North America is worth considering. The manifesto comes on the back of the Trump administration’s executive order ‘on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping’ which effectively bans federal government contractors or subcontractors from engaging what are characterised as ideologies that portray the United States as ‘fundamentally racist or sexist’. Quick on Trump’s heels, the British Conservative Party moved to malign Critical Race Theory as a separatist ideology that, if taught in schools, would be ‘breaking the law’.

We are concerned about the clear double standards regarding academic freedom in the attack on critical race and decolonial scholarship mounted by the manifesto. In opposition to the actual tenets of academic freedom, the demands it makes portray any teaching and research into the history or sociology of French colonialism and institutionalised racism as an attack on academic freedom. In contrast, falsely and dangerously linking these scholarly endeavours to Islamic extremism and holding scholars responsible for brutal acts of murder, as do the signatories of the Manifesto, is presented as consistent with academic freedom.

This is part of a global trend in which racism is protected as freedom of speech, while to express antiracist views is regarded as a violation of it. For the signatories of the manifesto – as for Donald Trump – only sanitised accounts of national histories that omit the truth about colonialism, slavery, and genocide can be antiracist. In this perverse and ahistorical vision, to engage in critical research and teaching in the interests of learning from past injustices is to engage in ‘anti-white racism’, a view that reduces racism to the thoughts of individuals, disconnecting it from the actions, laws and policies of states and institutions in societies in which racial socioeconomic inequality remains rife.

In such an atmosphere, intellectual debate is made impossible, as any critical questioning of the role played by France in colonialism or in the current geopolitics of the Middle East or Africa, not to mention domestic state racism, is dismissed as a legitimation of Islamist violence and ‘separatism’. Under these terms, the role of political and economic elites in perpetuating racism both locally and on a global scale remains unquestioned, while those who suffer are teachers and activists attempting to improve conditions for ordinary people on the ground.

In the interests of a real freedom, of speech and of conscience, we stand with French educators under threat from this ideologically-driven attack by politicians, commentators and select academics. It is grounded in the whitewashing of the history of race and colonialism and an Islamophobic worldview that conflates all Muslims with violence and all their defenders with so-called ‘leftist Islamism’. True academic freedom must include the right to critique the national past in the interests of securing a common future. At a time of deep polarization, spurred by elites in thrall to white supremacism, defending this freedom is more vital than ever.


Associate Professor Alana Lentin, Western Sydney University
Associate Professor Gavan Titley, Maynooth University
Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
Professor Michael Rothberg, 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies, UCLA
Professor David Scott, Ruth and William Lubic Professor, Chair, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University
Professor Gurminder Bhambra, University of Sussex
Professor Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, Columbia University
Professor Laleh Khalili, Queen Mary University of London
Professor David Theo Goldberg, Director, University of California Humanities Research
Professor Emeritus Talal Asad, CUNY Graduate Center
Professor Anne Phoenix, University College London
Professor David Roediger, University of Kansas
Professor Lewis R. Gordon, University of Connecticut
Dilip M Menon, Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, Director Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand
Professor Lisa Duggan, New York University
Professor Johnny E. Williams, Trinity College, Connecticut
Professor Ramón Grosfoguel, University of California Berkeley
Distinguished Emerita Professor, Genevieve Rail, Concordia University
Professor Claudia Breger, Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Professor Karim Murji, University of West London
Professor Joan Scott, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
Professor Gil Anidjar, Columbia University
Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Brown University
Professor David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University
Professor Ghassan Hage, University of Melbourne
Professor Jean Beaman, University of California, Santa Barbara
Professor Philippe Marlière, University College London
Professor Michael Cronin, Trinity College Dublin
Professor Andrew Ross, New York University
Professor Ann Whitney, Chair, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Barnard College
Professor Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge
Dr Adrián Groglopo, University of Gothenburg
Professor Ann L. Stoler, The New School for Social Research
Professor Umut Erel, The Open University
Dr Yiva Habel, Södertörn University
Associate Professor Ravinder Kaur, University of Copenhagen
Dr Zahra Bayati, University of Gothenburg
Dr Scott Burnett, University of Gothenburg
Associate Professor Aylwyn Walsh, University of Leeds
Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University
Distinguished Professor Sarah Schulman, City University of New York College of Staten Island
Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University
Professor James Schamus, Columbia University
Professor Michael Harris, Columbia University
Professor Diana Mulinari, University of Lund
Professor Anders Neergaard, Director of REMESO, Linköping University
Dr Nicholas Smith, Södertörn University
Professor Sindre Bangstad, KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion And Worldview Research) Norway
Professor Stephen Sheehi, Sultan Qaboos Professor of Middle East Studies, William and Mary
Dr Jason Toynbee, Open University
Dr Max Ajl, Wageningen University
Dr Hamza Hamouchene, Transnational Institute
Associate Professor Hanna Wikström, University of Gothenburg
Dr Getahun Yacob Abraham, Karlstad University
Professor Emeritus John Holmwood, University of Nottingham
Professor Miriam Ticktin, The New School for Social Research
Professor Karen Seeley, Barnard College
Professor Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
Professor Richard Peña, Columbia University
Associate Professor, Barzoo Eliassi, Linnaeus University
Ben Ratskoff, UCLA
Associate Professor (retired) Ronit Lentin, Trinity College Dublin
Dr Aurelien Mondon, University of Bath
Dr Nicholas Guyatt, Reader in History, University of Cambridge
Dr Simon Dawes, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
Professor Emeritus, Jordi Marsal, University of Barcelona
Professor Francisco Marquès, Polytechnic University of Barcelona
Associate Professor Pamila Gupta, University of Witwatersrand
Dr Justine Feyereisen, Wolfson College, Oxford University
Dr Jamila Mascat, Utrecht University

To add your signature, go here.

Comments (7)

  • Philip Horowitz says:

    It is ironic that “‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America” may have got their initial impetus from ideas imported from France. See “French Theory” by Francois Cusset.

  • RC says:

    Who can doubt that ‘indigenist’. – apparently a badge of shame – will be applied to those who insist that the indigenous Palestinian population should have been and still needs protected from the Zionist invaders?
    Fortunately the Tories are pretty sluggish in adopting new ideas but sooner or later Cummings’ minions will wake Williamson up and stiffen his resolve to turn English education into capitalist-imperialist propaganda.
    In passing, have you noticed that Evans is threatening LP members with a charge of antisemitism if we criticise the EHRC report (his circular letter to party officers/)

  • Will Podmore says:

    Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, has said that Western multiculturalism does not do enough to protect democracy, as his country doubles down in its defence of secular values over Islamism.
    He said, “I think there are people who don’t want to understand him because they see the principles of democracy as their enemy. This is a war against democracy that is being waged, not against Emmanuel Macron.”
    Under a landmark 1905 law on the separation of church and state, laïcité guarantees freedom of belief and thought, while banning any outward signs of religion from state schools, including headscarves.

    “The secular model of the French Republic is best-suited to face the challenges of the 21st century, namely to live together with our differences in peace. We don’t believe in the model of communautarisme (a French conception that translates loosely as multiculturalism). We don’t think it has proved its worth in American society today, nor has it proved itself to be particularly peaceful,” he said.

    Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau last week appeared to criticise France’s stance on freedom of expression: “In a pluralistic, diverse and respectful society like ours, we must be aware of the impact of our words, of our actions on others, particularly these communities and populations who still experience enormous discrimination.”
    Mr Blanquer riposted by saying: “If you follow the logic that you mustn’t displease anyone, you end up saying nothing.”
    “Those who say so support models that result in a loss of freedom, split society into silos, and turn communities in on themselves, while our model is one of freedom that allows religions to flourish but while respecting others.”
    President Macron had singled out ‘Islamist separatism’ that had led to 263 deaths in the past five years in France. “I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims,” said Mr Macron in a Financial Times op-ed.
    “France — we are attacked for this — is as secular for Muslims as for Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all believers. The neutrality of the state, which never intervenes in religious affairs, is a guarantee of freedom of worship. Our law enforcement forces protect mosques, churches and synagogues alike.”
    “We oppose deception, fanaticism, violent extremism. Not a religion,” he added.

  • Philip Ward says:

    Reply to RH: Williamson has already done what you say, as the statement here points out and I think it has been mentioned in other articles on the JVL web site.


  • Clarissa Smidt says:

    It is very interesting to see the institutions who are missing from the list of signatories to this letter. Not much representation from Russell Group or Ivy League…

  • David Richardson says:

    I presume this letter has been translated into French and other European languages., and distributed to relevant newspapers, broadcasters, etc.

  • John C says:

    For a measure of the hypocrisy of the French Govt’s position, look no further than the treatment of allegedly antisemitic cartoons. Yes, there is grounds for censure of offensive material whenever it appears. This not a free speech issue.

Comments are now closed.