PARIS — Welcome to the new frontline of the war on woke.
At the launch of a government think tank last week, one of the speakers quipped that France was now battling a new virus — one imported from the U.S. rather than from China.
“Our country has become a target of the woke movement,” said Pierre Valentin, an expert at the new think tank Le Laboratoire de la République. “If there was a vaccine against the woke virus, it would be French and the leaders of the movement know that.”
Le Laboratoire de la République is headed by French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer and is tasked with combating what the minister calls U.S.-imported wokeism — woke being a term from the United States that originally meant being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination but which has now become used by the right as a catch-all insult for the political left and progressive causes.
“The [French] Republic is completely contrary to wokeism,” Blanquer said in an interview with Le Monde. “In the United States, this ideology provoked a reaction and led to the rise of Donald Trump.” He added: “France and its youth have to escape that.”
Six months away from a presidential election, Blanquer’s boss Emmanuel Macron faces the possibility of one of his opponents being right-wing TV pundit Eric Zemmour, whose provocations and attacks on political correctness have drawn comparisons with Trump.
The setting up of the think tank is the latest move in the government’s campaign against wokeism and in favor of France’s own brand of secularism. In September, the education ministry launched an online and social media campaign to promote secularism. Last year, a group of 100 academics published an open letter in Le Monde in support of Blanquer and criticizing theories “transferred from North American campuses.”
For much of the political establishment, France’s brand of secularism — la laïcite — transcends race, gender and religion and is truly egalitarian. For its critics, that same secularism promotes a white and Christian ideal that perpetuates discrimination against minorities.
A new brand of McCarthyism?
Blanquer inaugurated the think tank on Wednesday, telling a gathering of lawmakers and academics in Paris that the new institute goes beyond party politics and is open to all those who want to “strengthen the Republic.”
“We have been always on the defensive with regards to woke theories,” said MP Aurore Bergé from Macron’s La République en Marche party, “instead we want to promote our model.”
“We are receiving signals of alert from university staff who tell us funds are being channeled towards a certain number of theories,” Bergé said. “There’s the feeling here that [freedom of] thought is being narrowed to a vision that is not ours.”
But the initiative has sparked controversy.
“It’s McCarthyism,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, from Toulouse Capitole University. “A minister is using a private entity to block discussions on these themes. He’s saying ‘this is my responsibility and I’m going to impose the state’s vision on these topics.’”
“They are trying to drain reactionary, conservative voters. And of course, voters who are attracted by Eric Zemmour,” she said.
In France, the world of politics is increasingly torn over whether French secularism is great on paper but in reality prevents minorities from seeking greater representation. France, for instance, does not allow studies of ethnicity statistics and has only taken timid steps towards introducing positive discrimination.
Emmanuel Anjembe, a Black managing director of an advertising company, said secularism in France is supposed to be blind to religion and color, but discrimination in the workplace shows that it is failing.
“I recently hired a veiled graduate with a double diploma from a business school, who burst into tears because she had spent over a year trying to get an internship,” said Anjembe. “You can talk for hours about what laïcité means, but this situation clearly shows that a person whose religion is apparent faces systematic discrimination in France.”
Recent figures show France has some of the worst ratings on diversity in the workplace among western countries, with white people having 83 percent more chance than non-whites of getting job interviews, according to Le Monde.
But for Bergé, secularism helps beat discrimination and France — unlike the U.S. — does not promote a vision that reduces people to their original community or ethnicity.
“The fight against discrimination concerns everyone, not just the people who are victims of discrimination,” she said. “The risk today in a more and more divided society is that people will fall back on their communities and that French citizens will become captive of their real or perceived origins.”