Can Europe Make It?

Open letter: a response from the '100' French scholars

"We want to reply to the open letter written by academics from mostly English-speaking universities that was published by openDemocracy on November 5, 2020."

Andreas Bikfalvi and co-signatories
25 November 2020, 10.05am
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a homage in front of Samuel Paty's coffin, inside Sorbonne University's courtyard, Paris, October 21, 2020.
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Pool/PA. All rights reserved.

We want to reply to the open letter written by academics from mostly English-speaking universities that was published by openDemocracy,* and which was in turn a response to the open manifesto we published in Le Monde (2 November 2020), supporting the statements made by Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Secretary of Education (“Ministre de l’Education Nationale”) in the Macron government.  Blanquer had pointed to the development of certain dominant ideological positions in French Academia that ultimately undermine the universal ideals that are fundamental to the French Educational System as well as to the country and that encroach upon any given University's obligation to deliver knowledge and quality research. We take this opportunity, not only to defend our arguments, but to address the ideological attitudes as well as the implicit and explicit mischaracterizations of our manifesto. Overall, we want to describe how the open letter provides a very biased and misleading view of our text.

We begin by pointing out that our manifesto was signed by scores of prominent academics who represent multiple disciplines so, to start off, we point out that the patronizing attitude of the Open Letter was wholly inappropriate and off-putting. The debate that we aimed to engage in, by issuing our manifesto, is not between right and left. Rather, it is between those, on one side, who trust in universalism and believe that the bonds of a nation, if not a civilization, are primarily expressed through its shared values and those, on the other side, who view society as a collection of antagonistic groups – defined on the basis of sex, gender-identity, sexuality, ethnicity and even skin colour (what some even call “race”) – that determines all power-driven relations. We are on the side of those who defend universalist values and we thereby reject the claims made by those who signed the Open Letter who, in our view, fracture society by breaking it down into an ever-increasing number of often-grievance-driven subgroups. In what follows, the signatories of this letter present a detailed rebuttal, with each section focusing on a claim made against us and our manifesto.

In what follows, the signatories of this letter present a detailed rebuttal, with each section focusing on a claim made against us and our manifesto.

Point 1: “At a time of mounting racism, white supremacism, antisemitism and violent far-right extremism, academic freedom has come under attack. The freedom to teach and research the roots and trajectories of race and racism are being perversely blamed for the very phenomena they seek to better understand.”

Reply: We find this statement not only curious but false. It is false because it leaves the impression that we are back in the 1930's and that white supremacist organizations and violent far-right extremists are threateningly roaming the streets. Nothing in the legislative debate or in the organization of western societies reflects such a narrative. True, there might be some right-wing movements in several western countries but there is no violent far-right extremism in the streets, at least not in France. While there have been exceptions to this general assertion with respect to other European countries, such as the Anders Breivik attacks in Norway or the appearance of organizations such as the AFD in Germany, these are far from being leading movements. We agree that political polarization may bolster such extremist groups, but we also argue that such polarization occurs mostly as a response to (both left- and right-wing) identitarians. There lies the danger because, while everyone is pointing fingers at each other, the source of violent extremism in our country is currently coming from another place entirely, bringing along with it an increasing death toll among our citizens. That is, France has seen more than 300 of its citizens killed in the past few years and this fact has nothing to do with identity politics.

We also find it deeply concerning that the signatories of the letter should state that (through the appearance of our manifesto) academic freedom is under attack. In our manifesto, we simply mention highly contentious aspects of social activism that are at the heart of scholarship in the social sciences and that even invade STEM research, where they should have no place at all. Several of us have extensively analyzed the theories that are attached to this activism and point out how they foster a divisive social environment. The scientific value of these theories is furthermore highly contestable. Take post-colonial theory, which stands out as an example.

From a purely scholarly and intellectual standpoint, the post- or de-colonial movement is a sham. It is not a school of thought per se. There is no actual theorizing involved in its assertions. There cannot be a post- or de-colonial theory since it is not grounded in a scholarly corpus of concepts, intelligible procedures and hypotheses. A theory must exhibit a number of features to be legitimately called scientific or scholarly. It must have predictive value, internal consistency, testability which includes falsification criteria. None of the above-mentioned features is present in post-colonial theory. That is, they have a pre-determined answer for all the topics they talk about which adds up to a classic case of myside bias. For example, the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism is supposed to be at the root of ‘systemic racism’, ie ‘white’ racism in contemporary western societies. In the meantime, there are two significant elements missing in this simplistic claim — African slave trade and Arab-Muslim slave trade. Such blind spots invalidate their positions and actually betray their ideological bias. Adhering to a self-verifying principle alone is by itself insufficient since it introduces significant bias. Historical indictment is not an investigative method; it only generates a set of beliefs and accusations. As a matter of fact, post-colonial ‘studies’ do not so much study as produce texts with a political agenda; in the meantime, it creates a perception of the West as fundamentally guilty, thereby weakening its legitimacy and political clout.

Point 2: This claim is deeply disingenuous, and in a context where academics associated with critical race and decolonial research have recently received death threats, it is also profoundly dangerous.

Reply: This is another claim that ignores some general truths. From our perspective, the most pernicious threats have been issued from the antagonist-activists side. We remind the reader that cancel culture and de-platforming is rampant in North American and British universities! A full list of cancelled events and individuals can be found here. We should not have to point out how massive pressure is consistently exerted on US and UK universities to rename their departments or to remove their statues. We remind the signatories of the open letter that activist groups threaten the teaching of the Western canon in universities (which translates into no Shakespeare or Proust). We remind them of the attack on art and music. We remind them of the incursion of activist theory on the sciences and biomedicine. We remind them of the problems encountered when teaching “divisive” subjects such as sex differences or evolution. We point out that many academic institutions and companies are falling into the virtue-signalling trap where they must show allegiance. We remind them that all this has consequences on society because it creates a divisive social environment at all levels, in the Academy and in broader society. We do not want this to happen in continental Europe and so we refuse the promotion of identitarian tribalism. As a final point, signatories of the manifesto have also been threatened and one of the scholars is, at present, under police-protection.

Point 3: The scholars involved in this manifesto have readily sacrificed their credibility in order to further a manifestly false conflation between the study of racism in France and a politics of 'Islamism’ and ‘anti-white hate’. They have launched it in a context where academic freedom in France is subject to open political interference, following a Senate amendment that redefines and limits it to being ‘exercised with respect for the values of the Republic’.

Reply: The signatories of the letter clearly think they can win an argument by simply looking down on accomplished academics who are internationally recognized and who publish their work in books and leading journals. Such a patronizing attitude is contemptuous and indeed shows a great misunderstanding of the situation. They even manage to reverse the stakes: academic freedom is threatened precisely by the movements within academia that want to stifle diversity of opinion and to attack the core values of a secular society. Reaffirming the values of the French republic is precisely what protects academia from viewpoint conformity and this is exactly what the state aims to, and must, protect.

Point 4: The manifesto proposes nothing short of a McCarthyite process to be led by the French Ministry for Higher Education... The ‘Islamogauchiste’ tag (which conflates the words ‘Islam’ and ‘leftists’) is now widely used by members of the government, large sections of the media and hostile academics. It is reminiscent of the antisemitic ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ accusation in the 1930s which blamed the spread of communism on Jews.

Reply: This is insulting. It is also an example of strategic equivocation, reminiscent of the motte-and-bailey fallacy. Why on earth should one equate the Nazi ‘Judeo-Bolshevist’ label with the “islamo-gauchiste” tag?! To be fair to the signatories of the letter, it is more appropriate to call it “islamist-gauchiste”, but the underlying meaning is the same. Islamic fundamentalism is an enduring presence in France, with organizations promoting a separatist ideology trying to divorce well-integrated Muslims from the secular project of French society. There are many Muslims who are fully integrated, including cultural Muslims who do not believe in the religious doctrine as well as Muslim believers and imams who fully respect secular society, one in which they can freely exercise their religion. Conversely, however, there is – objectively – an alliance between extreme-left-wing movements that are opposed to an open and liberal society and Islamist activism. The “Parti des Indigènes de la République” is a case in point, standing as the main “islamist-gauchiste” movement in France. The former spokesperson of the movement, Hourija Boutelja, even endorsed Mohamed Merah, the 2012 jihadist killer: ‘Mohamed Merah is me and I am him. We are of the same origin and of the same condition. We are post-colonial subjects. I say tonight that I am a ‘fundamental’ Muslim’.1 We remind the signatories of the letter that Merah killed not only French military men of Muslim ancestry but also Jewish children in a school in Toulouse. We draw a clear line between Islam and Islamism, the latter of which is a radical implementation of a doctrine. Unfortunately, it is estimated that a third of young people of Muslim ancestry in France assert their support for a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine. This is, at the very least, a subject of concern for France’s secular future.

The Islamist agenda is, furthermore, promoted by foreign powers such as Turkey. President Erdogan himself, an objective ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, insulted President Macron and called him deranged. Raising the specter of “anti-Semitic witch-hunts” is another unworthy instance of rhetorical sophistry, a gratuitous insinuation that does not deserve further comment here, especially given the number of scholars within our ranks who specialize in the study of anti-Semitism.

1 "Mohamed Merah c’est moi et moi je suis lui. Nous sommes de la même origine mais surtout de la même condition. Nous sommes des sujets postcoloniaux. Nous sommes des indigènes de la république. (…) Je dis ce soir, je suis une musulmane fondamentale "

Point 5: We are concerned about the clear double standards regarding academic freedom in the attack on critical race and decolonial scholarship mounted by the manifesto. This is part of a global trend in which racism is protected as freedom of speech, while to express antiracist views is regarded as a violation of it. For the signatories of the manifesto – as for Donald Trump – only sanitised accounts of national histories that omit the truth about colonialism, slavery, and genocide can be antiracist. In this perverse and ahistorical vision, to engage in critical research and teaching in the interests of learning from past injustices is to engage in ‘antiwhite racism’, a view that reduces racism to the thoughts of individuals, disconnecting it from the actions, laws and policies of states and institutions in societies in which racial and socioeconomic inequality remains rife.

Reply: The rhetoric here is truly obnoxious in its blatant use of a perverted misrepresentation of reality. In France, racist language is NOT protected under freedom of speech so this much strikes us as surreal, while also questioning the grasp of world-knowledge of the Open Letter signatories. There is no demand for a ‘sanitized’ account of French national history or of French culture in our Manifesto. Claiming otherwise is clearly intended as a smear. Of course, slavery, colonialism and genocide are studied in history classes, as well they should be. However, critical race theory (CRT) and decolonial scholarship is another matter. CRT is an outgrowth of applied post-modernism connected to political activism. It is not what a sound theory should look like; ‘learning from past injustices’ is not the basis of a scholarly method. Decolonial scholarship is a deconstructionist device used to attack every accomplishment of Western society in literature, art, music, and even science. Talk about ‘perverse ahistorical vision’!

The implicit statement of the letter is that racism is systemic at every level of society, a notion which we completely reject. Racism is clearly condemned in law in France and it is a non-starter in French culture. There’s no need to fall for Ibrahim X Kendi’s overly simplified duality trap of racist vs antiracist. The new-age anti-racists just promote a form of tribal and racist world-view. We completely reject the terms coined in the newspeak, such as ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’, ‘present-day white supremacy’, and various absurdities such as ‘cultural appropriation,’ which are completely devoid of any scholarly basis. By the way, hinting at Donald Trump is another rhetorical smear aimed at painting an unpleasant picture of our manifesto. We fail to see the remotest connection between the 45th President of the US with our positions or with the topic at hand.

Point 6: In the interests of a real freedom, of speech and of conscience, we stand with French educators under threat from this ideologically-driven attack by politicians, commentators and select academics. It is grounded in the whitewashing of the history of race and colonialism and an Islamophobic worldview that conflates all Muslims with violence and all their defenders with so-called ‘leftist Islamism’. True academic freedom must include the right to critique the national past in the interests of securing a common future. At a time of deep polarization, spurred by elites in thrall to white supremacism, defending this freedom is more vital than ever.

Reply: This is a blatant example of intellectual dishonesty, a frequent behavior among academics subscribing to the activist-antagonists school of thought. They are inventing the notion that there is rampant whitewashing of the history of race and colonialism. The Islamophobia tag is yet another rhetorical device aimed at conflating the critique of a fundamentalist doctrine that aims to abolish secular society with people exercising peacefully their religion in a secular society. It is a disgrace and infuriating to the memory of all the people who died at the hands of Islamist terrorists in France. True academic freedom must include the right to criticize and oppose incoherent activist theories that are dominant in the academic field. As the number of signatories implies, it appears that those who subscribe to these activist theories are far from being a minority, contrary to what they would have us think under the guise of a PC consensus. Moreover, these activist theories are contributing to discord within society. It is not the case that white supremacists are presently the main problem in Higher Education; rather, the theories promoting a divisive ideology by well-paid academics from the regressive left are. There seems to be a fight for the soul of the left whose definition is seriously endangered by such a movement. We are hoping to make those ideological stakes clear.

* https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/open-letter-the-threat-of-academicauthoritarianism-international-solidarity-with-antiracist-academics-in-france

The views expressed in this letter represent the signatories personal opinions, not those of any institution with which they are affiliated.

Achard, Jocelyn, PhD, Professor, University Sorbonne Paris Nord

Albouy, Michel, PhD, Professor (Emeritus), University Grenoble Alpes

Anceau, Eric, PhD, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Andrieu, Valérie, PhD, HDR, Assistant Professor, Aix-Marseille University

Angenot, Marc D Phil & Lit MSRC, Professor (Emeritus) McGill University (Support of the Response Letter)

Assaraf, Roland, PhD, Senior Lecturer, CNRS, Sorbonne University

Balanche, Fabrice, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Lyon 2

Barberis, Isabelle PhD, Senior Lecturer, Université Paris Diderot

Barrau, Patrick. PhD, Honorary Senior Lecturer, University Aix-Marseille

Bassac, Christian, PhD, Professor, (Honorary) University Lyon 2.

Bergeaud-Blackler, Florence, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at CNRS, “Paris Sciences et Lettres” (PSL) University

Bertheau, Gilles, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Tours

Bikfalvi, Andreas, MD PhD, Professor, University of Bordeaux

Boré Catherine, PhD Honorary Professor, University Cergy- Pontoise- INSPE

Brandao de Carvalho, Joaquim, PhD, Professor University Paris 8 / UMR 7023

Braunstein, Jean-François, PhD, Professor, Sorbonne University

Brohm, Jean-Marie, PhD, Professor (Emeritus), University of Montpellier III

Bruno, Olivier, PhD, Professor (retired) associated to CNRS

Cabanel, Patrick, PhD, Research Director (« Directeur d’Etudes »), Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris

Cannone, Belinda, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Caen

Casajus, Dominique, PhD, Research director (Emeritus) CNRS.

Col, Norbert, PhD, Professor, University of Bretagne-Sud

Copinschi, Georges, MD PhD, Professor Emeritus,«Université libre de Bruxelles» (Support of the Response Letter)

Coutel, Charles, PhD Professor, University of Artois

de Mecquenem, Isabelle, Professor, University of Reims Champagne Ardenne

Doja, Albert, PhD, University Professor of Anthropology, University of Lille, France.

Ehrenberg, Alain, PhD, Research Director (Emeritus), Centre de Recherche Médecine, Sciences, Santé, Santé Mentale, Société, Université de Paris, EHESS, CNRS, INSERM

Fedi, Laurent, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Strasbourg

Fichant, Michel, PhD, Professor (Emeritus). University Paris-Sorbonne

Fourcaut, Annie, PhD, Professor (Emeritus), University Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne

Fregosi, Renée, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Sorbonne University

Gady, Alexandre, PhD, Professor, Sorbonne University

Grinshpun, Yana, PHD, Senior Lecturer, Sorbonne Nouvelle University.

Heckmann, Hubert, PhD, Senior lecturer, University of Rouen

Heinich, Nathalie, PhD, Research Director at the CNRS, « École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)», Paris

Hénin, Emmanuelle, PhD, Professor, University Paris 3-Sorbonne University

Khalifa, Jean-Charles MA, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Poitiers

Kuntz, Marcel, PhD, Director of research, CNRS, Grenoble

Loty, Laurent, PhD, Researcher at CNRS (« Chargé de recherche ») (CNRS—Sorbonne University)

Margolin, Jean-Louis, PHD, Senior Lecturer, Aix-Marseille University

Masson, Jean-Yves, PhD, Professor, Sorbonne University

Mélin-Soucramanien, Ferdinand, PhD, Professor, University of Bordeaux

Mervant-Roux, Marie-Madeleine, PhD, Emeritus Research Director, CNRS

Neveu, Franck PhD, Professor, Sorbonne University

Pages, Gilles, PhD, Research Director CNRS, University Nice-Sofia Antiopolis.

Palma, Hélène, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Aix-Marseille University.

Pantazopoulos, Andreas, PhD, Associate Professor, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece (Support of the Response Letter)

Pradelle, Dominique PhD, Professor, Sorbonne University

Ramond, Charles, PhD, Professor l’University Paris-8 Vincennes Saint-Denis.

Rastier, François, PhD, Research Director (Emeritus), CNRS, Paris

Ricard, Virginia, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Bordeaux Montaigne.

Rolland, Marc, PhD, Professor, « Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale » (ULCO)

Salvador Xavier-Laurent, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University Paris 13

Santamaria, Jean-Baptiste, PhD, Lecturer, University of Lille

Schapira, Pierre,PhD, Professor (Emeritus) Sorbonne University, Cnrs IMJ-PRG

Simon-Nahum Perrine, PhD, Research Director at CNRS

Szlamowicz, Jean, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Université of Bourgogne Dijon (France)

Taguieff, Pierre-André, PhD, Research Director CNRS, Research Center for Political Science, Science Po

Tainturier Jean-Christophe, PhD, Professor, University Franche-Comté

Tavoillot, Pierre-Henri, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Université Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV,

Tellier, Thibaut, PhD Professor, Sciences Po Rennes.

Vermeren, Pierre, PhD, Professor, University Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Wlassikoff, Michel, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Haute école d’art et de design (HEAD), Geneva.

Zawadzki, Paul, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University Paris 1

Zonabend, Françoise, PhD, Research Director (retired), « Ecole des Hautes Etudes de science sociale » (EHESS)

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