InternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 16

‘Islamo-leftism’: France enters its McCarthyist era

In recent weeks, another wave of political polarisation hit France, as the concept of “Islamo-leftism” occupied centre stage in a heated cultural debate.

In an interview with CNews, the French equivalent of Fox News, Higher Education and Research Minister Frédérique Vidal was asked whether or not she agreed that “Islamo-leftism is plaguing universities”. Her response was instant and shocking: “Islamo-leftism is plaguing the entire society,” she declared. She went on to say: “I am going to call for an investigation into all the currents of research on these subjects in the universities, so we can distinguish proper academic research from activism and opinion.”

Vidal’s statement on “Islamo-leftism” is the latest in a string of similar pronouncements by elected officials in France. In June, President Emmanuel Macron told journalists: “The academic world has its share of blame. It has encouraged the ethnicisation of the social question, thinking this was a good line of research. But the result can only be secessionism. This means splitting the Republic in two.” In October, Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer warned that “Islamo-leftism” was “wreaking havoc in society” and denounced what he called “the intellectual complicity in terrorism”.

These vicious attacks on academia and leftist intellectuals have been repeated across French mainstream media and among the pseudo-intellectual elite. They aim to whip up public hatred against the left – a traditionally secular force – by linking it to “Islamism”, the eternal bogeyman in French society. This kind of incitement, while politically expedient for the government, is slowly but steadily pushing France into its own McCarthyist era. Macron and his supporters are laying the groundwork for a witch-hunt similar to the one in the United States led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s which was aimed at “purging” American institutions of suspected communist agents, militants or sympathisers.

It is important to understand the political context in which this process is taking place. All these statements should be viewed as part of an electoral ploy. Macron is set to run for reelection in 2022, but his government has done poorly handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has seen over 4 million infections and more than 90,000 coronavirus-related deaths to date. Last year, the French economy shrank by 8.3 percent, while poverty rates almost doubled. In a September survey, 33 percent of respondents said their income is just enough to make ends meet; 18 percent said it was not enough at all. In an October poll, 61 percent of those surveyed felt Macron had failed to lead an adequate response to the pandemic.

With the COVID-19 crisis likely to heavily impact next year’s elections, Macron is expecting fierce competition at the polls and is looking for an effective strategy to galvanise support. At the moment, nothing seems to work better in distracting the public from the many failings of the government than attacking Islam and pursuing “Islamist conspiracies”, and Macron seems to have jumped at the opportunity to raise his flattening ratings.

His government already launched a brutal campaign aimed at intimidating the Muslim community and suppressing its civil society organisations. Among other repressive measures, it dissolved the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (Collective against Islamophobia in France), which defended Muslim victims of Islamophobia within the legal framework of the Republic.

But Macron wants to go beyond attacking the Muslim community and is now taking aim at the left as well. And in doing so, he is taking a page from the playbook of one of his main rivals, Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally. The idea of “Islamo-leftism” is something she popularised in her first presidential campaign in 2012. It now appears that Macron’s politics have swung so far to the right that he has fully embraced the language of the National Rally. By starting a public crusade against the imagined Islamist-leftist conspiracy in French society, he hopes not only to steal some of Le Pen’s votes but also to undermine the left.

Macron is specifically taking an aim at the leftist La France insoumise (France Unbowed) party. Its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the only politician to denounce Islamophobia and French Muslims’ stigmatisation – he was the only party head who attended the March against Islamophobia in 2019. Today he is also the only prominent leftist who stands a chance at the presidential polls next year.

By adopting Le Pen’s racist language and demonising the left, and specifically Mélenchon’s party, Macron hopes to emerge again as the compromise candidate, the “lesser evil”, who the French people will vote for to avoid a far-right government and still feel protected from the “Islamist bogeyman”. But in pursuing re-election with ruthless, unscrupulous ploys, the president is causing much damage to French society. By putting academia in the crosshairs, he is directly threatening academic freedom.

Shortly after Vidal’s interview was aired, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the most prominent academic institution hosting the country’s finest minds from all scientific disciplines, published a statement rejecting her accusations and condemning “those who try to use (the term “Islamo-leftism”) to call into question academic freedom”. It emphasised that “the political exploitation” of this term “is emblematic of a regrettable instrumentalisation of scholarship” and “does not correspond to any scientific reality”.

In the meantime, Vidal has doubled down on her words and insisted that an investigation into the “Islamo-leftism” in academia will take place. If she makes good on her promise, this could have a devastating impact on academic life in France. Purging educational institutions of any intellectual or political opposition that may question the government’s policies or mainstream attitudes would seriously curb public debate on important political and socioeconomic issues.

Coming after academics accused of being “Islamo-leftists” would certainly limit academic freedom and lead to self-censorship. It would disrupt the work of the so-called decolonialists who challenge the narrative about France’s colonial past promoted and sanctioned by the French state, thus highlighting the ills of French colonialism. It would also solidify the position of the Muslim community in France as the ultimate scapegoat for the political and moral bankruptcies of the ruling elite. “Islamo-leftism” is the latest ploy in this war on dissent in France. It is a useful tool to silence both political adversaries and those Muslims who oppose the Islamophobia and racism that plague the French administration and society. It ushers France ever closer to an autocratic rule where anyone who dares to criticise, oppose or question directives dropped from above is smeared and silenced.