The French Minister of Higher Education has sparked a backlash from university leaders after warning of the spread of “Islam-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions.
The term “Islam-leftism” is often used in France by right-wing extremist politicians to discredit left-wing opponents they accuse of being blind to the dangers of Islamist extremism and overly concerned about racism and identity.
“I believe that the Islamic Left is eating away at our society as a whole, and universities are not immune and are part of our society,” Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal told CNews TV on Sunday.
The comments came amid a divisive debate in France over what President Emmanuel Macron has called “Islamist separatism”, in which Islamists are said to be violating French law in closed Muslim communities and carrying out terrorist attacks on French soil.
Parliament’s lower house approved a tough bill on Tuesday that expands the state’s powers to close religious groups deemed extremist.
Macron has recently been accused by critics of pandering to the far right ahead of next year’s presidential election, which polls show is likely to be a reconsideration of his 2017 duel with Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Rally.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin caused concern within the ruling Center Party last Thursday after accusing Le Pen of “softening” against Islam during a televised debate.
In response to Vidal’s comments, the Conference of University Presidents (CPUs) on Tuesday issued a statement on “its shock at another sterile controversy over the issue of” Islam-left “at the university.”
In October last year, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer had also warned that “Islam-leftism” “created havoc” in the French academy.
The CPU group, which represents the heads of French universities, condemned the use of the ill-defined label that it said should be left to the right “which popularized it.”
Focus on race
Vidal also announced that she would order an inquiry into the researchers’ problems “looking at everything through prism to want to break and share”, which she said included those that focused on colonialism and race.
But the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the research body Vidal responsible for the study, has already hit back.
Although it agreed to carry out the investigation, the CNRS condemned “attempts to delegitimize various areas of research such as postcolonial studies”.
He was asked to comment further in parliament on Tuesday, saying the inquiry would determine “what is academic research and what is activism and opinions”.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal seemed to distance himself from the idea on Wednesday when asked about Macron’s views on the issue in a news report.
The president has an “absolute commitment to the independence of academic researchers,” Attal said, adding that it was “a fundamental guarantee of our republic.”
Movements against racism over the past year, such as Black Lives Matter, which resonated in France after arriving from the United States, have led to fears that the country’s import of American racial and identity policies is sometimes ridiculed as “awakened culture.”
A new generation of younger French activists is also increasingly talking about the problem of racism in France and the legacy of the country’s colonial past in Africa and the Middle East.
Both Macron and Education Minister Blanquer have commented on the dangers of focusing on race and discrimination, which they see as promoting divisions between societies and undermining France’s founding ideals of a united society.
Mame-Fatou Niang, a black academic studying race and identity in France, condemned Vidal’s proposed investigation and said it would put those studying colonialism and racism under unfair scrutiny.
On Twitter, she wrote that “minority researchers have been considered activists through the ages”.
But Vidal’s announcement was well received by right-wing politicians who share her concerns.
Several right-wing Republican lawmakers had called for a parliamentary inquiry into what they called “ideological intellectual exaggerations in universities” in November.
Some French academics have also formed an “observatory on decolonialism and identity ideologies” to strike back at what they see as an unhealthy focus on race, identity and colonial history in academia.