Academics under fire for studying race and racism in colour-blind France

The Sorbonne university in Paris. Academics in universities around France are being called out for studying race and racism, which some say is threatening French universalism and colour-blindness.
The Sorbonne university in Paris. Academics in universities around France are being called out for studying race and racism, which some say is threatening French universalism and colour-blindness. © Eric Piermont/AFP

The recent focus on the concept of ‘islamo-gauchisme’ or islamo-leftism in French universities has opened the door to a broader critique of academia, which some see as veering dangerously away from French universalist ideas. Researchers studying race and racism have become the target of criticism, even if they remain on the periphery.


When French Higher Education minister Frédérique Vidal called for an investigation into ‘islamo-gauchisme’, or 'Islamo-leftism', in French universities last month, she angered academics and institutions who said it was an infringement on academic freedom.

Since then, a petition calling for Vidal's resignation has been launched. Protesters and union leaders marched to the prime minister's office in Paris on Thursday, to hand over the document, signed by 23,000 academics.

But others have welcomed the chance to broaden the critique of academia, which they see is going too far in embracing critical race theory, post-colonial studies and ideas of intersectionality.

Critical race theory focuses research on race as a social construct, considering the ways in which economic and legal systems are set up to maintain the interests of the dominant, white population at the expense of people of colour, so-called systemic racism.

For sociologist Sarah Mazouz, systemic racism is “the fact that you can have racism produced by the bureaucratic decisions and behaviours from people who are not actively racist, but they just produce it, without even being aware of it.”

French colour-blindness

In France, which has a tradition of universalism and not recognising racial and other differences, this approach has run afoul of those who say it is divisive.

France has a “strong idea of colour-blindness and race blindness, which is very easy to use to prevent engagement with race issues,” says Mazouz, who studies race and racism at the CNRS, France’s national centre for scientific research. “You can say: ‘We are already a colour-blind society, so don't we don't need studies on race and racialisation’.”

About 100 academics signed an open letter in November 2020, after the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, arguing this point.

“Nativist, racialist and ‘de-colonial’ ideologies... feed a hatred of ‘whites' and of France," they wrote, supporting Education Minsiter Jean-Michel Blanquer, who had said that a “very strong Islamo-leftist currents” in French universities had set the stage for Paty's murder.

Mazouz says this kind of criticism of academics is not new, pointing to uproars around feminism or gender studies in the early 2000s.

Listen to an interview with Sarah Mazouz in the Spotlight on France podcast:

Spotlight on France, episode 51
Spotlight on France, episode 51 © RFI

Today’s critique of race and post-colonial studies is out of proportion to how many people are actually working in the field, says Mazouz: “You've got few people working on this, but they are presented as a hegemonic group trying - and succeeding - to control the university.”

Researchers have shown that the subject remains marginal in French academia. In a sociological study of 176 sociologists working on race and racism in France, Inès Bouzelmat looked at their academic positions, the resources at their disposal and where their research was being published.

“Work on minority issues, racialisation or post-colonialism remain ‘niche’ subjects, largely relegated to their own publications and academic spaces…with a small academic audience,” she concludes.

At a conference in May 2020, two sociologists, Patrick Simon and Juliette Galonnier presented a study of 18,000 articles from a dozen social science publications between 1960 and 2020, in which they found that only two per cent were about race.

American influence

Studies on race and gender are often accused of being imports to France. French President Emmanuel Macron, in his speech in October 2020 about Islam and against separatism, called for investment in French social sciences and the study of Islam, to counter “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States”.

Critical race theory was developed in the US, based on the work of French postmodernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. One of the most important thinkers who informs the theory is is Fratz Fanon, from the French West Indies, who wrote about the effects of colonialism, during Algeria’s war of independence against France.

For Mazouz, blaming the US feeds into denial that the issues are relevant to France.

“It's a way to say that talking about race, or showing how different things such as gender, sexuality, race and class intersect is not something that is relevant for French society,” she says.

“You've also got the way in which France perceives itself in opposition, culturally, to the US culture. And on this topic it's very easy to say, ‘We are trying to maintain our exception, our independence, and you [who study these topics] are Americanised’.”

Deflecting criticism

By attacking academics, Mazouz says that politicians and those on the left are trying to deflect attention from the real problems.

“What they don’t like about social sciences is that these disciplines deconstruct social relations, and try to put things in a kind of historical perspective,” she says. “We critically address social issues, and instead of saying, ‘We don't want criticism’, they try to delegitimise our work by saying it is ideology and activism.”

She is not discouraged by the criticism. Instead, she sees it as an opportunity, “to explain more precisely what we do, and how we do it, what we mean by using concepts such as race, gender, intersectionality etc. So it's also a good opportunity.”

Listen to an interview with Sarah Mazouz in the Spotlight on France podcast.

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