French minister doubles down on university ‘Islamo-leftism’ probe

But Frédérique Vidal admits the term ‘has no scientific definition’, and it remains unclear who will conduct the investigation

February 22, 2021
Entrance to the Palais de Justice in Paris
Source: iStock

France’s science minister has doubled down on her plan for an investigation into “Islamo-leftism” at the country’s universities despite the organisation initially tasked with carrying it out refusing to do so.

Hundreds of academics have called for the resignation of Frédérique Vidal since she announced the probe last week, accusing her of attacking academic freedom and pandering to the far right.

More than 600 scholars, including the economist Thomas Piketty, wrote in Le Monde that the minister had “defamed” academics in a move reminiscent of the actions of authoritarian governments in Hungary, Brazil or Poland. One researcher who fled Turkey wrote that the rhetoric reminded her of the oppression faced by academic colleagues in her homeland.

Defending her decision in an interview published on 21 February, Ms Vidal admitted that Islamo-leftism “has no scientific definition” but insisted that it “corresponds to a feeling of our fellow citizens”. The term has been picked up by the French government to describe a supposed convergence between Islamic radicals and the far left against secular, republican values, playing up division and difference in French society.

Ms Vidal pointed to flashpoints at universities, where, she claimed, free speech was under threat, including an incident in which readings from a murdered Charlie Hebdo journalist had been halted. There are lecturers “who do not feel free to teach as they wish”, she told Le Journal du Dimanche.

France needed an inventory of research to make sure there was “pluralism of ideas” at universities, she said. Post-colonial studies and intersectionality would naturally continue; rather, the intention was to prevent academics from using their work to “promote an ideology and nurture activism”.

Pressed on whether individual researchers would be identified, Ms Vidal responded: “Not at all.” The freedom of research must be defended “at all costs”, she said.

It remains unclear exactly which organisation will conduct the probe. Athena, a grouping of social science and humanities organisations originally lined up by the government, said in a statement on 18 February that it was not within its remit to “conduct studies that would not be based on the respect of the founding rules of scientific practice, that would lead to questioning the relevance or legitimacy of certain fields of research, or to questioning the scientific integrity of certain colleagues”.

Both France’s Conference of University Presidents and its National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) have put out stinging statements criticising the minister for her rhetoric around “Islamo-leftism”, although the CNRS did appear to be willing to carry out some form of study.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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