February 12, 2021 5:00:33 am
What American export could have got the French all het up? No, it’s neither McDonalds, nor the dubious pleasures of Hollywood, but, hold your artisanal baguette, social science theories from American universities. From ministers to intellectuals and journalists, an influential section in France has given voice to dark mutterings against theories of race, gender and postcolonialism — which they see as importing an extreme woke scrutiny alien to French life. President Emmanuel Macron has blamed such ideas for an “ethnicisation of the social question’’ that runs the risk of dividing the country further.
Forgive the Americans if they choke on the irony. For decades, American campuses have grown up on a diet of French theory. Beginning in the 1970s, the work of French thinkers and philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Julia Kristeva animated — some would say colonised — US universities, offering them a toolkit to understand the nexus of power, knowledge and society. What then explains the current backlash? Some of it might have to do with the over-exuberance with which a certain section of left demands a performance of political correctness. But a lot more has to do with France’s contemporary fault lines. For a country that officially does not recognise race, it has meant reckoning with the new opposition to “blackface” in acting. The challenge of Islamist violence and the questioning of laicite has led certain universities to turn reluctant to host research on Islamophobia. The education minister has even accused universities of providing intellectual justification to Islamist terrorism. Conservative scholars have said questions of race do not apply to France.
This culture war has resonance anywhere in the world, where the old consensus cracks under the weight of the present. France might want American theories to stay away from its “internal matter”, but that’s the thing with ideas: It’s hard to stop them from travelling.
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