The French government drew criticism this week after it announced a probe into the influence of postcolonial studies and so-called “islamo-leftism” in the country’s universities.
The term islamo-leftism, in French islamo-gauchisme, is a catch-all word used to pejoratively describe left-wing anti-racist activism, which some see as imported from American campuses. Its use by government ministers has sparked outrage in France, among academics and left-wing politicians.
Higher Education and Research Minister Frédérique Vidal first said in an interview with TV channel CNews on Sunday that she would ask the National center for scientific research (CNRS) to open an investigation into islamo-leftism “so that we can distinguish academic research from activism and opinion.”
The move raised questions from opposition MPs at Tuesday’s session of parliamentary questions. “Don’t you have better to do than to launch a thought police?” France Unbowed MP Bénédicte Taurine asked Vidal.
In her response, which did not feature the word “islamo-leftism,” Vidal said that “some academics say others are preventing them from doing research,” without citing specific instances of the phenomenon she described.
The comments also provoked an angry reaction among academics. “This undignified minister must go,” left-leaning leading economist Thomas Piketty tweeted, saying this was the government “bypassing [far-right leader Marine] Le Pen on her right.”
Semantics gone wild
According to Le Monde, the term “islamo-leftism” was likely coined in 2002 by sociologist Pierre-André Taguieff — who later said the term’s use had gone beyond its original meaning — to describe what the author saw as a congruence between radical Islamists and far-left groups.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer used the term back in October, referring to activists’ “intellectual complicity” with Islamist terrorism.
“I think islamo-leftism is plaguing our society … and the university is part of society,” Vidal said on Sunday.
Following up on her answer, Vidal’s interviewer, veteran journalist Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, said: “There is a sort of alliance between Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini.” “You are right,” Vidal said.
The Conference of university presidents (CPU), which represents heads of public universities, responded to Vidal on Tuesday in an unusually scathing statement: “Islamo-leftism is not a concept. It’s a pseudo-notion for which we could search in vain for the shadow of a scientific definition, but which it would be suitable to leave at least to CNews anchors, but more broadly to the far right that brought it into the mainstream,” the statement reads.
The CPU also said it was surprised to see the CNRS, an institution dedicated to public research, tasked with such an investigation. “The CPU demanding, at least, urgent clarifications on the ideological basis of such an investigation,” the statement adds.
Vidal said Tuesday that Athena — an alliance of social science research bodies including the CNRS — would be tasked with the investigation. “I’m going to ask for an overview of the research done in our country, for instance, research on postcolonialism,” she said.
“But you know,” Vidal added in a non-sequitur about the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, “I was very shocked to see at the Capitol a Confederate flag. And I think it is essential that social studies look into these topics.”