Protesters from La France insoumise at the La fête à Macron. Protesters from La France insoumise at the March 5, 2018 La fête à Macron. Photo: Tyseria / Wikimedia Commons / cropped original image / licensed under CC 4.0, linked at bottom of article

In France, ‘Islamo-gauchisme’ is the watchword of a widening attack on basic freedoms, targeting anti-racists and the left writes Susan Ram

One month after the gruesome killing of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a suburban street not far from Paris, the weaponisation of the tragedy for political ends is gaining momentum. At every stage – whether in the immediate aftermath of the murder or subsequently – the response of the French state, as articulated by its current head, President Emmanuel Macron, and some of his senior ministers, has been to taunt, provoke, ratchet up tensions, and in general stoke hostility towards France’s six million or so Muslim citizens. These are heady days for French racism – and for those seeking to make political hay out of a teacher’s death.

In tandem, there has been an acceleration of the authoritarian push already underway in France. The past few weeks have seen a series of government interventions designed to tighten the screw on the exercise of a range of liberties, from freedom of dissent in the classroom to the right to record the actions of police and security personnel. That 10-year-old children have been taken from their homes to undergo hours of police interrogation (as happened at Albertville, a town in the Savoie department of eastern France, on November 5) is a frightening indicator of the direction of travel. 

Cometh the hour, cometh the new slogan or watchword for deployment on the battlefront. In the Republic of Islamophobia that is contemporary France, combating ‘Islamo-gauchisme’ (Islamo-leftism) has become the war-cry of the Macron government, its supporters in the mainstream media, the political right, and a growing swathe of reactionary intellectuals and academics. Initially raised against the radical political left, in particular La France Insoumise (LFI) and its combative leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, this slur is now being invoked by some French academics as part of an account-settling exercise with ideological adversaries, specifically scholars and teachers critical of imperialism, racism and French colonialism.

‘Islamo-gauchisme: origins and insinuations

The term ‘islamo-gauchisme’ asserts the existence of an unholy alliance between the radical left and reactionary Islamism. Its initiator is generally thought to be the right-wing historian Pierre-Andre Taguieff, who back in 2000-2001 used it against the emerging anti-globalisation movement, which he described as “a new configuration [that is] third worldist, neo-communist, neo-leftist.”

Use of the term rose in the context of global protests against the Iraq War and during the fevered atmosphere of 2004, the year when the French government imposed a ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools. By 2010, the far-right philosopher Alain Finkelkraut was drawing a direct connection between ‘islamo-gauchistes’ and antisemitism, arguing that the former was “openly indifferent to the memory of the Shoah.”

The unstoppable rise of this portmanteau term has much to do with its conceptual slipperiness and its artful conflation of categories. While the ‘islamo’ half cleverly confuses Islam (and Muslims) with Jihadist Islamists, the inclusion of ‘gauchisme’ invokes another putatively negative force: that of ultra-leftism on the march.

The phrase by this token joins an ugly and dangerous tradition. As anti-racist academic signatories to an open letter in support of French colleagues have pointed out, “The ‘Islamo-gauchiste’ tag … is reminiscent of the antiSemitic ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ accusation in the 1930s which blamed the spread of communism on Jews.”

Buzz phrase to the nation

An investigative piece by journalists at Acrimed, an independent news and analysis organisation, documents the bizarre, co-ordinated invocation of ‘Islamo-gauchisme’ by the French mainstream media immediately after the Paty killing. From Monday, October 19 onwards, a feeding frenzy to alert the nation to this purported existential threat was evident across every major TV and radio channel.

Leading the charge was none other than ‘media intellectual’ Pascal Bruckner, a key figure in the sustained assault on any public discussion of Islamophobia in France over recent years (titles of his op-eds include ‘The invention of Islamophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia doesn’t exist!’). Interviewed on Europe 1, Bruckner was in fulmination mode, invoking a hallucinatory, hellish vision of an ‘Islamic hydra’ which, he claimed, had penetrated every sector of contemporary France: from schools and universities to administration, the world of sport, perhaps even the police and national security services. As for ‘accomplices’, he had names at the ready: La France Insoumise, ‘guilty’ by virtue of having participated in a national demonstration against Islamophobia in Paris in November 2019; journalists such as Edwy Plenel, editor of the independent online news site Mediapart; anti-racist activists – and the totality of the radical left.

As if a dam had given way to accumulated sludge, other reactionaries, in some cases proto-fascist figures were soon passing from one television studio to another. Before the cameras of BFM-TV, Julien Odoul, a deputé (MP) for the fascist Rassemblement National (the rebranded Front National) faced no comeback when he characterised  La France Insoumise as “collabos” and “a fifth column of Islamism.”

At no point did interviewing journalists intervene to challenge such outrageous claims. Why indeed would they bother, given the larger message being put about by Macron, his senior ministers and other political hard-hitters?

On October 22, it was the turn of national education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to take to the TV studios. Appointed to his post at the start of Macron’s presidency, Blanquer has proved a reliable strongman, implacable in his adherence to Macronite notions of educational ‘reform’ and by that token deeply unpopular among teachers and students. Now the pugnacious politician seized his moment to reinforce the witch-hunt building within his particular sphere of interest: the educational sector.

“What’s known as Islamo-gauchismeis wreaking havoc — it’s wreaking havoc in universities when Unef [the national union of French students] falls in line with it. It’s wreaking havoc within the ranks of La France Insoumise: you have people there who are up to speed with it, who fully sign up to it. These people back an ideology which can have the worst possible results.”

Blanquer then drew a direct link between schoolteacher Paty’s assassin (a refugee of Chechen origin, only recently arrived in France) and those who had “conditioned” his action: “in a manner of speaking the intellectual authors of this attack… the intellectual accomplices of crime.”

Amplifying this theme in an interview with the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche on October 24, Blanquer called for a war to be waged against

“an intellectual matrix coming from American universities and intersectional theses that want to essentialise communities and identities. [These notions] are poles apart from the Republican model, which postulates the equality between human beings irrespective of their origin, sex, religion. It is a breeding ground for the fragmentation of societies, one which converges with the Islamic model.”

Brave new world: the state attack on academic freedom

On October 30, the French Senate (upper house of parliament) approved a new law on academic research programmes: in essence, a further penetration of Macronite neoliberal reform into French academic life, geared at the precarisation of teachers, the concentration of funds on ‘centres of excellence’, and the promotion of competition among individuals and institutions. But the new law takes things further: it hacks away at the existing legal definition of academic freedom in France by attaching to it the addendum: “Academic freedoms are exercised with respect for the values of the Republic.”

This is the emerging brave new world of academic enquiry and debate in France. It’s a world in which right-wing academics deeply hostile to new intellectual currents, especially those drawing connections between contemporary racism and French colonialism, actually find it appropriate to mobilise against their colleagues while demanding even more rigorous state intervention and control.

Such are the purposes of the ‘Manifesto of One Hundred’, the pompously titled open letter published in the newspaper Le Monde on November 2. Two features of this call to arms stand out: its uncritical duplication of the words of Blanquer, and its willingness to contribute its own pennyworth to the state-sanctioned project of ‘protecting’ academic freedom through curbs, restrictions and tighter policing. Among its proposals: new measures to sniff out ‘Islamist tendencies’ (derives islamistes) in universities and the higher education sector, and the drawing up of guidelines for the defence of laîcité (the specifically French reading of secularism.)

The superb open letter in which academics from France and countries across the world have rebutted every egregious element of this project merit the attention of every anti-racist, every defender of liberty and academic freedom.

“We are concerned about the clear double standards regarding academic freedom,” notes the letter, written in English, signed by hundreds of scholars and researchers, and published on November 5:

“In opposition to the actual tenets of academic freedom, the demands made [by the Manifesto of 100] 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 theses 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 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.”

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.