On October 28, as the French Senate was discussing a bill on the organization of scholarly research – one step further towards the privatization of public education and the precarization of working conditions – Senator Laure Darcos (from the conservative party Les Républicains) introduced an amendment targeting academic freedom. Said academic freedom would now have to be exercised “with respect for the values of the Republic.” For the most part, the amendment, adopted that day, avoids naming these values. This vagueness is a strategic choice on the part of the Senate; it gives much leeway for authorities to interpret these values and to choose which would-be offenders they want to target.
Not by chance, then, does the amendment only mention secularism (laïcité) as “first and foremost” among these values. This amendment was proposed only a few days after Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer shamefully attacked in a radio interview alleged “islamo-leftist” presence in the University, accusing among others the student union UNEF of “intellectual complicity with terrorism.” Prior to this already, on several occasions, Blanquer had spoken of the “gangrene” of “an intellectual matrix coming from American universities spreading intersectionality and aiming at essentializing communities and identities” – a word salad straight out of the far right’s playbook. Attacks on researchers working on race and their have become commonplace. President Emmanuel Macron himself recently accused academia of having “broken the Republic in two.” The adoption of this amendment comes as racism and specifically islamophobia are on the rise in France, but also as more and more researchers of color can be found producing knowledge and analyses about race and colonial legacies in France, in academia but also in public-facing venues.
Far from being the haven for intersectional sedition described by members of the presidential majority throughout the French media in the past weeks, academia is a site permeated with power relations and ideological confrontations. Therefore, we see no reason to call for the defense of an idealized scholarly freedom, as the notion overall remains a fantasy. Those of us researching race know how hard it is for our work to be accepted and recognized as legitimate; how hard it is for us to obtain funding for doctoral research, and then go on, if lucky, to hold often precarious positions in the French university system. There’s no dearth of examples where researchers saw their doctoral contracts denied or even withdrawn, or found themselves kept in precarious situations for racist motives. In turn, interactions between academia and militant organizations, though they have allowed for the development and circulation of important theory and practices, also rest on predatory relations. Too often, researchers have used our militant spaces as laboratories for experiments, or mines from which to extract concepts only then to lock them up in the academic world.
Make no mistake: what the old guard is experiencing as an affront is our claim to not merely be objects of scholarly study but scholars in our own right, in the den of legitimate knowledge that is the university. Today the authorities want to subject academic freedom to an unqualified respect for secularism and other unnamed republican values so as to further control research and education. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean Castex, like a modern-day Joe McCarthy, claims that apologists of islamist extremism lurk among scholars; lamenting in the same breath “being made to feel remorseful for colonization” as another source for terrorism. These soundbytes reveal the horizon of their project: to thwart in advance any approach that might contradict fantasized representations of France as the eternal champion of human rights and democracy. In the obedient university senators and the government wish for, merely expressing the need for French critical race theory will certainly be understood as an attack against the Republic.
As the state furthers its racist agenda, academia must rally, not just around the question of academic freedom, but also around the question of race. The academic world must take this situation as an opportunity to question its own practices, notably:
how French academia stigmatizes and marginalizes students and scholars of color
how it censors students and scholars of color when they undertake to study matters of race
how scholars engage with militant groups
the lack of research centers focusing on race in French universities
This amendment makes into law the delegitimization of any analysis contesting the assimilationist and racist myth of colorblind, Enlightened France, or otherwise critiquing France’s national narrative. Petitions and newspaper columns will not suffice to slow down or stop the government’s mad, authoritarian rush to stifle research. We must act strongly! We call on all progressives in academia to join the efforts of the independent antiracist movements targeted by this amendment.