Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

Attacks on academic freedom escalate in France and Denmark

The social sciences have been under attack from right-wing populists for years. What’s worrying is that mainstream politicians are now joining in

Susi Meret
30 July 2021, 12.01am
French president Emmanuel Macron castigated academics who “ethnicize the social question”
John Heseltine / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
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According to French anthropologist Didier Fassin, there is a “reactionary wind blowing over France”, affecting the country’s political and intellectual life, and distracting the public from major economic and societal concerns. The same wind, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, seems to be blowing outside France as well, and it is threatening the future of higher education and academic freedom in several European countries including Italy, Hungary and Poland.

Radical right-wing populism is defined by its supporters as being for ‘the people’ and against ‘the elites’ (whether political, economic or intellectual). As a result, attacks have often targeted university academics, who are perceived as being part of the advantaged group that can rely on secure jobs, high incomes and public pensions.

Several academic fields within the humanities and social sciences have been written off as inaccessible, obscure and of no real use when it comes to addressing concrete societal problems, or providing students with the necessary knowledge to find a job. Some research fields have been directly accused of being politically biased – in other words, dominated by ideological and militant left-leaning positions, promoting minority rights and interests and supporting the ‘feminization of Western societies’.

These were the arguments behind Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s 2018 ban on gender studies courses at universities in Hungary. Deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén claimed that gender studies are “an ideology, not a science”.

Soon after, the government effectively “forced out” the Central European University (founded by philanthropist Georges Soros), which had to relocate from Budapest to Vienna. These measures spurred harsh criticism from the rest of the EU and vocal protests from academics and the international community.

Such rhetoric and behaviour from the populist Right are not new. What is more worrying about the recent wave of attacks against academic freedom is the support they have gained among mainstream parties.

​​The French minister of higher education warned against the ‘cancer-like’ spread of ‘Islamo-leftism’ within French academia

In February, in a television interview with the right-wing channel CNews, the French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, warned against the “cancer-like” spread of “Islamo-leftism” within French academia. Vidal accused some academics and researchers of taking advantage of their positions to promote “radical or militant Islamo-leftist ideas” that instigate division and conflict within society.

Research fields, including gender, race, postcolonial and critical migration studies, are allegedly responsible for this militant, ideological drift within academia. Vidal’s words echoed those of French president Emmanuel Macron, who castigated academics who “ethnicize the social question”, saying that it amounts to “splitting the Republic into two”.

However, Vidal went a step further. She announced the need to implement concrete preventive measures to assess the scientific quality of the research output of the French National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS). The CNRS replied promptly to the minister, declaring that “Islamo-leftism” is a “political slogan” that does “not correspond to any scientific reality”.

Vidal’s pronouncements alarmed the academic community, as well as French public opinion. Deep concerns were expressed about politicians breaching academic freedom and endangering whole research fields as well as the work of internationally acclaimed academics.

Several observers suggested that the issue of “Islamo-leftism” had more to do with the upcoming presidential elections (due in spring 2022) than with any real concerns and problems within French universities.

Currently, the opinion polls do not look so promising for the incumbent, Macron. The likely scenario is another head-to-head race in the second round with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-Right party Rassemblement National (RN), who has gained ground compared to the last presidential elections in 2017.

Vidal’s statements suggest that the government is trying to appease voters from the radical and populist Right, by accommodating anti-Islam positions on the political agenda.

Academic freedom threatened in Denmark too

A similar reactionary wind is blowing in Denmark. Last month, 262 academics and researchers specialising in gender and critical migration studies published an open letter to the minister of research and higher education, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (from the Social Democratic party).

The letter condemned attacks and the atmosphere of political suspicion and intimidation that has been spread by populist right-wing politicians and commentators, whose aim is to sow doubt about the scientific quality and value of their research.

The academic freedom debate had an interesting genesis in Denmark. It was sparked by newspaper articles from early spring. Shortly after Vidal’s comments about “Islamo-leftism” in France, Weekendavisen published an article cunningly titled Hvidensproduktion (‘white production’), unleashing the Danish variant of the French debate.

Framed as journalistic reportage, the article asked: “Who politicises the research on integration and immigration?” The answer is readily available in the rest of the piece: gender, critical migration and postcolonial studies, which are accused of lacking objectivity, and being politically and ideologically motivated.

The Danish article spurred a wave of right-wing populist attacks against academics. Radical Right bloggers and pundits jumped in, asking to “close down the university madhouses” where “studies of race, gender, whiteness, and postcolonialism are not research, but attitudes that create hatred”, and suggesting that “of course, feminist activism is not a research field […] and [feminists] want to unleash the revolution, fight against the white man and do away with objective research.”

Danish People’s Party MP Morten Messerschmidt and Liberal Alliance MP Henrik Dahl – who are well known for their anti-gender and anti-immigration positions – seized the opportunity to send an interpellation to Halsboe-Jørgensen, asking whether the minister thought race, gender and migration studies are really worth the use of Danish taxpayers’ money.

During a debate in parliament discussing “the overdriven activism in certain research milieus”, Messerschmidt and Dahl named both individual academics and entire research groups, calling them “pseudoscientists”, “untrustworthy”, “left-wing leaning” and “militant activists”.

The origins of anti-intellectualism are not new in both French and Danish politics. Conservative and neoliberal parties complained 20 years ago about “the experts and the ‘arbiters of taste’ [that] decide on our behalf”. But recent events in both countries show how far mainstream politics is willing to go to appease a politically disaffected electorate, which continues to be seduced by right-wing populism.

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