Don’t Bring Wokeism to Our Country!

France Rejects American-Style Culture Wars

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article about criticisms of the “out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture.” They talked about a group alleging that the Woke were using race, gender, and post-colonialism to “bulldoze’’ all subjects, reducing whole academic disciplines to trite cliches and simple binaries.

Who was this anti-woke group the New York Times saw fit to report on? The answer might surprise you. It was “French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists” including President Emmanuel Macron.

French concern about Wokeism was echoed again this morning when The Week ran an article about French journalist, Raphaëlle Rerolle, sounding the alarm. “America is erasing our contributions” Rerolle warned, after activists agitated to cancel the memory of Jean Ribault, the first Frenchman to settle in the New World. Though Ribault promoted peaceful relations with the Native Americans, a woke mob associates him with later colonization and seeks to tarnish his memory.

The French Fight Back

French universities have become a particular battleground for American-style culture wars, as social justice warriors attempt to bring Wokeism, cancel culture, and CRT into France. But the French are fighting back.

Last October, 100 prominent French academics signed a letter warning that ideologies “nourishing a hatred of ‘whites’ and of France,” were being imported from North American campuses to French universities. Some of these ideologies, the signatories allege, feed Islamic radicalism, via the strange alliance that is developing between left-wing Wokeism and right-wing Islamic fundamentalism.

Senator Jean-Michel Blanquer picked up on the mood when he denounced “very powerful Islamo-leftist currents in the sectors of higher education which are damaging people’s minds.”

The education minister in Macron’s government concurred, adding, “There is a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.”

Why the French Want to Stay Un-Woke

Why are so many French intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and academics so concerned? One answer is that Wokeism is seen as an American import. Wokeism hinges on racial ideas that have their origin in America’s segregationist past and only makes sense in an American context. France does not have the same history of racial division, and thus Wokeism, and its philosophical correlate of CRT, are seen as anachronistic within a French context.

Pierre-André Taguieff, an historian and opponent of American influence, has called the “American-style Black question” a “totally artificial importation’’ in France. He added, “The common agenda of these enemies of European civilization can be summed up in three words: decolonize, demasculate, de-Europeanize…. Straight white male — that’s the culprit to condemn and the enemy to eliminate.”

Although it may seem strange to Americans, the concept of “race” officially does not exist in France. Ever since 1978, the French have prohibited the collection of racial statistics, which they view as antithetical to the values of equality, liberty, and universalism (treating all citizens equally under the law).

Even the type of LGBTQ activism advanced by Wokeism is of a distinctly American variety, as it borrows concepts from the American civil rights movement—concepts that do not always easily transfer to other cultural contexts.

Still another concern has to do with Islam. As immigration and Jihadic violence threatens French values and way of life, concern is growing about the role of “multiculturalism,” “diversity,” and “leftism,” in feeding radicalism. As bedfellows in their co-belligerence against Western values, left-wing Wokeism and right-wing Islamism have become a powerful force, using concepts like “Islamophobia” to short-circuit rational discussion and inquiry.

Wokeism vs. French Intellectual Heritage

Another reason Wokeism is perceived to be un-French is that it is perceived to be opposed to French intellectual values. The French take pride in their intellectual tradition, even mandating the teaching of philosophy in schools. Yet many French now believe that their intellectual and cultural heritage—including values like equality and free speech—could be compromised by the over-simplified agendas of American activists. These oversimplifications have led to a kind of left-wing fundamentalist anti-intellectualism which is completely antithetical to the values of the French intellectual tradition.

The French believe free speech is central to their cultural heritage. The very idea of “cancel culture”—where bullying and force are used to silence viewpoints that are not politically correct—causes immediate antennas to go up in the land of Voltaire and Rousseau.

No Thanks America!

Glenn Reynolds summed up the French angst against all things woke in a February 11th article in The New York Post, titled “The French are absolutely right to say ‘no thanks’ to US woke-ism”:

“If you’re Macron or any sensible European observer, seeing a United States in which playing the national anthem or displaying the flag is deemed ‘offensive’ and ‘problematic,’ in which professors are suspended or threatened for quoting Supreme Court opinions verbatim when they contain unapproved language and which has seen months of urban riots tearing apart some of America’s biggest cities, how could you not say ‘no thanks’?”

The deep irony here is that the theoretical basis for Wokeism originated with 20th century French philosophers. But now that it is being imported back to France in the crude and simplistic form it takes on American campuses, French academics and politicians want nothing to do with it.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Master's in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant with the Fellowship of St. James and is a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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