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Islamophobia versus Islamo-Leftism: a French University at War by Hélène de Lauzun

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Islamophobia versus Islamo-Leftism: a French University at War

Laurent Wauquiez, president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

Photo: Fondapol, CC BY 2.0.

For the first time, a French political authority has reacted against the ideological drift of a higher education institution. Laurent Wauquiez, president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, the second largest region in France, has just announced that he would put an end to the public subsidy previously granted to the branch of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, better known as Sciences Po, located in Grenoble. The reason is what he calls its “ideological and communitarian drift.”

The institution has been under the spotlight for several months. The scandal originated at the beginning of 2021 in a research seminar that was to be entitled “Racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” One of the professors at the Institute for European Politics (IEP) in Grenoble, Klaus Kinzler, sent an email to his colleagues saying that he disapproved of the title of the seminar, and that he found it inappropriate to present anti-Semitism and Islamophobia side by side. With this remark he wanted to draw attention to the fact that Islamophobia was a vague concept that was often used for political purposes. His contention aroused the hostility of some of his colleagues, who accused him of equating the word with a “propaganda weapon of extremists.” Kinzler nevertheless received support from his colleague in charge of a course on Islam. 

The e-mail exchange in which Klaus Kinzler intervened was not intended to be made public and reflected only internal exchanges within the teaching staff. But someone published it, and a collective of about twenty students took the opportunity to denounce the alleged Islamophobia of Klans Kinzler, by posting banners associated with his name on the walls of the institution, with the slogan: “Fascists in our halls. Islamophobia kills.” Their militant action was conducted by the local branch of the National Union of Students (UNEF), the main French left-wing student union. 

The Kinzler affair provoked various reactions. The Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal condemned the attacks against the teacher and criticized the response of the student unions. Citizenship Minister Marlène Schiappa also defended Kinzler, and her reference to the murder of another teacher, Samuel Paty, from October 2020, contextualized the danger of the situation. Despite all this, the justice system did not defend Kinzler. The students responsible for the attack on the teacher went before the disciplinary council, but the vast majority were acquitted. The teacher, on the other hand, received no support from the management and was suspended for four months.

It was the decision to suspend him that prompted Laurent Wauquiez to withdraw the €100,000 subsidy that the region usually gives to the Grenoble IEP. 

The management, in response, took offense at this decision, defending the reputation of its establishment. The IEP is a “republican” institute, in the words of its director Sabine Saurugger, who is committed to defending secularism as well as freedom of expression and academic freedom. She deplores the loss of this funding, which she believes will penalize students who rely on scholarships. Sabine Saurugger’s rhetoric is well practiced: by choosing the social argument, she redirects blame to the president of the right-wing region, with whose political opinions she does not share. Interviewed by France Bleu, Sabine Saurugger said she condemned the attacks on Klaus Kinzler, and, as the journalist rightly points out, these attacks have not been sanctioned. But Director Saurugger skillfully avoided any responsibility, explaining that the decision to drop charges brought against the students (a decision made unanimously) was in the hands of a commission totally independent of the IEP of Grenoble. 

This scandal, with its many twists and turns, is indicative of a fundamental problem within the French university, troubled by the ‘woke’ movement particularly active in the humanities department.

Klaus Kinzler is not the only one to point out the abusive use of the word “Islamophobia” in the academic debate. In February 2021, the Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal caused a controversy in a statement televised by CNews that “Islamo-leftism was gangrenous to society as a whole” and was also contaminating the university. The Minister then announced that she wanted to entrust the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) with “an investigation into all the currents of research on these subjects in the university,” in order to “distinguish between what is academic research and what is activism and opinion.” These statements unleashed torrents of indignation among left-wing academics, who interpreted the Minister’s remarks as a challenge to their academic freedom. The response of the CNRS was not long in coming: the public organization disavowed the Minister on the grounds that Islamo-leftism does not exist, and “does not respond to any scientific reality.” 

‘Islamophobia’ versus ‘Islamogauchisme‘ (Islamo-leftism): the war has been declared and it continues. In May 2021, published in the weekly Marianne, a tribune of academics pointed out the omnipresence of the concept of Islamophobia, judged it to have no scientific basis, and to be much too vague to be useful.

Both camps defend their positions based on ‘scientific character,’ and ignore the incriminatory elements of their platforms. The CNRS’s response, for instance, is insincere: while on the one hand, it refutes as ‘unscientific’ the concept of Islamo-leftism, it defends, on the other hand, all research fields within the ‘woke’ movement—such as indigenous studies, post-colonial studies or gender studies, and all other intersectional subjects—as fully, scientifically valid.

Frédérique Vidal’s approach was clumsy, particularly because the CNRS was not the right organization to conduct such an investigation, which should have been entrusted to an independent administrative body. But her initial intuition was grounded in the astute observation that ideologies stemming from militant wokism have the French universities and academic research in a tight stranglehold. Laurent Wauquiez’s retraction of university funding is particularly interesting because it is the first time that a committed politician has taken the measure of this problem and decided to respond to it with the most effective weapon at his disposal: the allocation of public money. Laurent Wauquiez is all the more legitimate to do so as he is himself an alumnus of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, one of the most prestigious French institutions of higher education. Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour both welcomed Laurent Wauquiez’s decision. Marine Le Pen soberly tweeted “Bravo.” As for Éric Zemmour, he emphasized the regulatory role that public institutions should assume to prevent the development of Islamo-leftism by withdrawing subsidies. 

Yet the amount withdrawn by Laurent Wauquiez remains laughably inadequate: it is €100,000 out of a total budget of €15 million. Even so, it is a powerful symbolic gesture. Will it be imitated by other political figures?

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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