“Islamo-leftism,” or how to conceal substantive debate about discrimination in France

In France, “Islamo-leftist” has become a label used to cast suspicion on activists and academics. The purpose is not only to distract from discrimination against French Muslims and migrant minorities, but also to discredit left wing political and intellectual opposition, in general. The left should note the parallels with the way more recent accusations of “wokism” are being used, and respond with political clarity.

Konstantinos Eleftheriadis

On 21st February 2021, more than 600 researchers and higher education professionals in France signed a letter published in the daily Le Monde that called for the resignation of then Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal. The cause? Five days earlier, during a hearing in front of the National Assembly, Vidal had addressed a request to the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) to investigate all scientific research conducted at French institutions and establish what is linked to real academic knowledge, and what derives from activism.

The request did not come out of the blue. Some days earlier, Vidal had stated during a TV interview that “Islamo-leftism cancerizes society as a whole and the university is not impermeable (…). What we observe in universities is that there are people who can use their titles and the aura they have (…) to spread radical or militant ideas”. 

What is this “Islamo-leftist” ideology “cancerizing French society” and why is it officially declared the enemy of rational scientific neutrality? Answering this question requires tracing the emergence of the term and how it came to be used, not only by intellectuals but also various actors from the political far-right, right, and center. The term has important parallels to the more recent label of “wokism,” both of which have no empirically based meaning. Rather, they have been strategically used to delegitimize and stigmatize opponents – either in the academic world or on the left – but also to prevent and conceal substantive dialogue about discrimination in France. The French left needs to seize this moment to clarify its politics on matters of race, identity differences, and discrimination, and revisit its position vis-à-vis traditional universalist political blindness and correctness. 

After the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, the notion of Islamo-leftism was resurrected, mostly by the media.

The term “Islamo-leftism” was coined by Pierre-André Taguieff, researcher at the CNRS, and respected philosopher and historian of ideas, antisemitism, and racism. In the early 2000s, during the second Intifada, Taguieff first mobilized the word to describe a group of French intellectuals who, at that time, supported the Palestinian cause and were perceived, according to him, as allies to political Islam. A word with no empirical ground, it was used as an umbrella term to include all those activists and intellectuals who would remain silent, according to Taguieff, about Islamist movements outside Europe. 

Once this new political label was invented, and legitimized by Taguieff’s institutional status, far-right networks integrated it into their repertoire to discredit and stigmatize intellectuals who had nothing to do with Palestine or the Intifada, but whose academic work focused on ethnic and racial discrimination, gender/queer and postcolonial studies. Islamo-leftism’s initial, very targeted use for supposedly leftist supporters of movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah, was then gradually extended to social actors from more “mainstream” positions, who were struggling at that time to introduce topics such as the social construction of race or intersectionality into the academic and public debate. The edited volume published in 2006 by Didier and Éric Fassin De la question sociale à la question raciale? (“From a social to a racial question?” La Découverte editions) marks a strong turning point for the introduction of race-sensitive and postcolonial analytical tools into French social sciences. Not by coincidence, 2006 is also the year when Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, emblematic for the inception of the field of queer studies in the early 1990s, finds its first translation in French, 15 years after its original publication in English. 

After the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, the notion of Islamo-leftism was resurrected, mostly by the media. It was used to describe intellectuals denouncing Islamophobia and the restriction of public liberties brought in by new security laws. It was, however, during Emmanuel Macron’s first presidential term (2017-2022) that mainstream political actors integrated the word into their vocabulary. In November 2020, Jean-Michel Blanquer, then Minister of National Education, stated that: 

“What is called ‘Islamo-leftism’ wreaks havoc. It wreaks havoc at the university, it wreaks havoc when the UNEF [National Union of Students of France] becomes complicit, it wreaks havoc when, inside La France insoumise [Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-wing party], there are people of this current (…). These people promote an ideology which, from time to time, leads to the worst.”

When, four months later, Vidal made her above-mentioned call for the CNRS to investigate the links between Islamo-leftism and scientific research, Blanquer backed her during a TV interview on 20th February 2021, seemingly proud of this quick appropriation of the term by another minister of the government, and ready to use it against left-wing political rivals: 

“Islamo-leftism is an unquestionable social fact. It’s obvious in the statements of specific politicians. You have Mister Mélenchon who participates in a CCIF [Collective against Islamophobia in France, founded in 2003 and dissolved by the Ministry of Interior in 2020] demonstration, where it was clear that there were radical Islamists participating. Mister Mélenchon is part of Islamo-leftism”.

Attempts to raise suspicions about academics’ work were intended to distract the public from the major structural deficiencies of French public universities that had come to surface around this same time

More generally, in the last two years, Islamo-leftism has been used to target two groups: on the one hand, researchers and intellectuals working on race, discrimination, intersectionality and, more broadly, minority studies; on the other hand, politicians from the left, with a special focus on Mélenchon’s party, which became increasingly popular among youth, minorities, and some Greens. Both groups have responded to the criticisms and the attacks. 

To begin with, the CNRS published a statement on its website immediately after Minister Vidal’s request to investigate “militant research”: 

“Islamo-leftism is a political slogan used in the public debate. It does not correspond to any scientific reality. This term, with ill-defined boundaries, is the object of several public positions, editorials, and petitions, often not rational ones. (…) The CNRS condemns attempts to delegitimize various fields of research, such as postcolonial studies, intersectional studies or work on the term ‘race’, or any other field of knowledge.”

Other actors, such as the CPU (Universities’ Presidencies council), denounced the Minister’s claims as an attempt to limit academic freedom. All these statements highlight the timing of the construction of Islamo-leftism as a problem within academia. For some, the attempts to raise suspicion about academics’ work were intended to distract the public from the major structural deficiencies of French public universities that had come to the surface around this same time: underfunded infrastructure, impoverishment of students visible in the long queues for free food, increase in psycho-social risks for the community – including isolation and suicide – aggravated by the pandemic’s restrictions.

As for Mélenchon and his party La France Insoumise, they perceived the attack as pure political opportunism. They recalled that back in 2007, Blanquer had been director in the Minister of Education’s cabinet, and had put pressure on Lyon’s chief education officer to accept the construction of a Muslim school whose founder was later proven to have links with Al-Qaida in Syria. In fact, Blanquer’s goal at the time had been to follow the newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy to maintain good relationships with the Muslim community. In the early 2000s, Sarkozy was indeed the first to propose a rather original current within the traditionally assimilationist right-wing. He encouraged “integration” instead of “assimilation” policies for Muslims, and he was the first to introduce racial anti-discrimination laws in 2008, one year after his election. His multi-racial cabinet, which included black and Muslim women, was the first of its kind in French political history. Are Blanquer’s attempts to stigmatize Muslims and their supposed supporters a surprise, then? Not really. His positions now align with Sarkozy’s recent shift to a promoter of strictly secularist (and therefore exclusionary) policies, which, to this day, constitutes the dominant current within the right-wing. 

Islamo-leftism has remained an empty signifier labelling intellectuals, academics, and activists who attempt to make visible the increasing level of discrimination and growing inequalities

No collective has ever claimed “Islamo-leftism” as a political identity that would define its political goals and strategies. A few editorials in left-wing magazines with titles such as “Je suis Islamo-gauchiste” (referencing the famous “Je suis Charlie” slogan) were published to denounce the stigmatization of Muslim communities, but no wave of contestation coalesced around a reclaiming of the term. Islamo-leftism has remained an empty signifier labelling intellectuals, academics, and activists who attempt to make visible the increasing level of discrimination and growing inequalities on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, and their intersections with other social dimensions such as gender and sexuality. The term functions as a reminder of the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable – as a subject of knowledge and political debate – at a given historical moment, producing collateral effects for researchers and intellectuals who work against the grain of French political correctness. 

As a result of this increasing verbalization of racial and ethnic discriminations and inequalities in the streets and the public sphere by intellectuals, movements and the youth, another word has recently been added to the public debate in parallel with Islamo-leftism. In 2021, the term “woke” and its Frenchified version, “wokisme,” entered the two most important dictionaries of the country: Larousse and Le Robert. The term was originally used by African Americans in the US to refer to awareness about racism and injustice, and then became relegated to a slur against the adherents of progressive and anti-racist politics. In France, it was never really used by antiracist movements themselves but entered the public sphere in a similar way as “Islamo-leftism.” Articles and editorials in the most prestigious dailies of the country, as well as public broadcasters, attempted to explain what this new “dangerous” phenomenon of wokism was and why it had been attracting the younger generation, in particular.

Behind the first uses of “woke” in the French public debate, we find once more… Jean-Michel Blanquer, who stated in October 2021 that: 

“‘Wokism’ is a new obscurantism. (…) You must know how to look at what undermines democracy and the Republic: wokism clearly does that. (…) It is deleterious. Breaking statues [and] putting all historical figures on trial (…) is an absurd and dangerous approach. It means the abolition of the past. These are things you see in George Orwell. These are things that pave the way to totalitarianism.”

In January, 2022, the same minister participated in a conference at La Sorbonne on “the dangers of wokism”.

During the 2022 electoral campaign, disproportionately long spans of time were allocated to wokism and Islamo-leftism, leading to a lack of substantive debates on discrimination

Since then, many politicians have been using the term, wokism, to denounce the “Americanization” of society – an obsession that has deep roots in France – without commenting or discussing the main object of it, which is racial discrimination. By the time of the 2022 campaign for the presidential election, the term was already firmly established in the public debate, which facilitated its political manipulation by far right and right-wing formations, including Macron’s supporters.  

Islamo-leftism, and to some extent wokism, have been targeting movements, researchers, and intellectuals attempting to make discrimination visible and a subject of public debate. It is significant that during the 2022 electoral campaign, disproportionately long spans of time were allocated to wokism and Islamo-leftism, leading to a lack of substantive debates on discrimination and access to fundamental rights for non-white French and foreigners in the domains of housing, employment, protection from police violence, and arbitrary arrest. These realities are documented daily and denounced by international organizations and non-governmental organizations, despite the lack of official statistics linked to ethnic and/or racial discrimination. Even more interestingly, they are also highlighted by independent national authorities, such as the Défenseur des droits (The Defender of rights) and the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (CNCDH-National consultative commission on human rights) in all their reports.

Islamo-leftism and wokism deliberately occupy public space so that substantive issues relating to race, discrimination, and inequalities do not find sufficient space and time to get addressed and therefore democratically debated. But what makes the story of these terms even more interesting is the ease with which a word coined to describe (and stigmatize) small minorities ends up encompassing larger segments of the population: from supposedly pro-Palestinian intellectuals to a large part of the scientific community, as well as the youth and parties or movements struggling for social justice. 

On the other hand, isn’t this discursive antagonism an opportunity for the left and the progressive political space more broadly? Since 2015 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks, questions about race and social justice increasingly occupy the agenda of social movements and left-wing political parties that have been traditionally impermeable to such topics, due to having seen them as “American-imposed” and even antithetical to left-wing, republican values. The opportunistic obsession with both Islamo-leftism and wokism is a reaction to the successes of race, gender, and anti-discrimination politics in gaining traction within academia and progressive politics by disrupting a long-established universalist status-quo. For political progressives, an immediate new challenge will be to appropriate these attacks as symbols of renewal and openness for an emerging constituency that longs for social and racial justice in a political space that, for decades, has denied their existence.

Konstantinos Eleftheriadis has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences. He is an Adjunct Lecturer at Sciences Po-Paris and a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant.

Photograph: Mathias Reding