The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion France heats up its war on all things ‘woke’

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer leaves Elysee Palace after attending the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris on Oct. 20. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
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Months after having identified “Islamo-leftism” — a so-called trend that nobody was able to precisely define — as wreaking havoc in universities, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has found a new opponent: “wokeism” and “cancel culture.”

Despite the fact that schools have not recovered from the major challenges caused by the covid-19 pandemic, Blanquer decided to focus his attention on the creation of a think tank, the Republic Laboratory, meant to reflect on the values of the French republic “at odds with wokeism.” According to him, young people should be prevented from “approaching their social life entering a resentment contest” and be protected from a “doctrine” that “fragments and divides,” “has conquered certain political, media and academic circles” and had brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.

The sudden explosion of a term directly imported from the other side of the Atlantic — one that was almost unheard of a few months before — is spectacular.

Unsurprisingly, members of the majority party have fallen behind Blanquer’s position, as has Sarah El Haïry, state secretary for youth, who is so vocal against “woke culture” that she does not hesitate to parallel it with the danger of the far right.

The concern about wokeism is shared across the political spectrum. While Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and socialist candidate for the presidential election, promised “not to campaign on wokeism,” Éric Zemmour — a potential candidate known for his far-right views and convicted multiple times for authoring racist statements — warns his audience against “the dangers of wokeism in French companies.” Xavier Bertrand, the leader of the right, for its part, labels it “an unparalleled poison for society.”

If the word “woke” echoes a political reality in the United States and was meant to underline the necessity of expressing awareness toward racial and, more broadly, social inequalities, it has no precise meaning in the French context. A poll conducted in February showed that only 6 percent of French people surveyed believed they knew what “woke thinking” was, and 86 percent of those interviewed had never heard the expression.

The “copy/paste” use of the concept to apply to the French setting led to an absurd situation: “Woke” was used to connote something negative, though no one among the figures accused of being woke ever claimed wokeism. And none of the accusers seem capable of giving it a fair definition.

Blanquer presents it as “a new obscurantism.” When describing it, he says that “breaking statues, suing all the historic figures … is absurd and dangerous. It means the abolition of the past. … It prepares the steps to totalitarianism.”

That outrageous depiction serves another purpose.

Combating wokeism is an excuse to discredit social justice activists and thinkers, especially those who work on race and gender, and to deny the legitimacy of their work.

When announcing the launch of his Lab, Blanquer felt the need to say that there were among its members a feminist “who embodies a republican feminism against the sex war” and a “figure of the antiracist struggle who is indifferent to skin color.” How is it possible to be feminist or antiracist while ignoring race or failing to see that sexism is inherently tied to patriarchy and gender-based violence? That basically means that the institution’s purpose is to oppose the ways the French public space has finally been able to make room for some of those who struggle, by naming oppressions, their perpetrators and the privileges that arise. In a post-#MeToo and Black Lives Matter era, in a time when climate is at the heart of the issues that galvanize young people, “anti-wokeism” is in fact a way for the elite to preserve their domain.

Alongside the education minister of Quebec, Jean-François Roberge, Blanquer recently co-wrote an op-ed arguing for saving “school from cancel culture, an ideology and methods directly imported from certain American campuses and which are far removed from the values of respect and tolerance, on which the foundations of our democracies are based.”

But the real challenges faced in education are much more concrete. If 81 percent of parents worry about the time lost by their children at school, it not because of any wokeism, but due to the pandemic. Most parents have serious doubts about the government’s ability to solve the problem. And several studies show that young people suffer greatly from issues related to mental health, school dropout and impoverishment.

In France, the main ideological danger is the far right. Since 2014, our country is among those that send the largest number of far-right members to the European Parliament. Nationally, the far right has never been closer to presidential power. So, attacking people who care about social justice and have no real power instead of targeting the real threat against our values is nonsense.

Questioning the balance of powers and demanding the republic meet its promises is the least so-called wokes can do — and they should be celebrated for keeping their eyes open when it comes to injustices.