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Why France is more resistant than many countries to wokeism

The government launched a think tank to tackle ‘US-imported wokeism’ in 2022 - here sociologist Nathalie Heinich says France’s unique brand of universalism is the counterbalance we need

Some believe US-influenced wokeism is creeping into French society Pic: ViDI Studio / Shutterstock

Wokeism (le wokisme in French) has been stirring debates in the media for many months. 

The term has its roots in African-American vernacular, with usage dating to the 1930s. 

In the past decade, however, it has been used to describe someone who is aware of social injustices, including racism and sexism. 

Its spread to France has been gradual, in part because France does not collect any demographic data on ethnicity. 

Wokeism creeping into society

However, it is creeping into French society, and not without controversy. 

In 2021, French reference dictionary Petit Robert was forced to defend its official recognition of a gender-inclusive pronoun, while Renault’s decision to change the colour of its logo to the LGBT rainbow as a show of solidarity also made headlines, not least because in certain countries where gay rights are not defended the logo remained controversially unchanged. 

Read more: Le Petit Robert sparks debate by adding neutral pronoun to dictionary

A defining moment came in February 2022 when senators debated how wokeism poses “threats to universities, higher education and academic freedom”. 

It followed the introduction of a think tank in 2021 to coordinate the fightback against what it sees as a US-imported ideology. 

 France’s fundamental value of ‘universalism’

The debate was brought by politicians from the right-wing Les Républicains, who tend to criticise wokeism as being incompatible with France’s fundamental value of ‘universalism’, a broad term that relates to accepting all people under a single identity. 

They also see wokeism as a threat to the freedom of ideas, arguing that debates are being shut down because they are not deemed ‘politically correct’. 

Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist and director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, says supporters of wokeism in France come mainly from the extreme left, but drawing traditional political lines is not useful. 

“Of course, supporters never stop claiming that their detractors are ‘right-wing’, or worse, because they consider themselves the only representatives of progressivism, but this is a rhetorical strategy that lets them disqualify the arguments of opponents without having to answer them.” 

In 2021, Ms Heinich published a book examining the wokeism debate, called Oser l’universalisme: Contre le communautarisme (Daring to be universal: Against communitarianism), and she insists the subject more than merits parliamentary scrutiny. 

Senate under control of public authorities

“Wokeism was debated in the Senate because, in France, universities and major cultural institutions are under the control of public authorities and survive off subsidies granted by the state. 

“It is therefore legitimate for the representatives of the national community to ensure that these institutions function in accordance with their missions.” 

As to her own opinion of wokeism, Ms Heinich says that, along with many colleagues, she is “concerned” by its progression. 

Leads to ‘lowering of the intellectual level’

“Wokeism leads to a lowering of the intellectual level because it is based, not on a desire for discovery, but on the repetition of clichés. 

It does not create individuals open to new knowledge, to an enlarged discovery of the world, to the comprehension of ambivalence or the plurality of points of view.” 

She adds that critics of wokeism in France fall into two main groups: 

“First, in the academic world, opponents believe it produces only low-level research and teaching because it is filled with activism, aimed at transforming society rather than enriching knowledge. 

It is based on concepts reduced to the status of slogans, with nothing to contribute other than confirming highly ideological points of view. 

“The other group accuse the movement of being based on a communitarian concept of citizenship, which reduces individuals to the status of representatives of an authoritatively assigned identity, such as gender, race, religion. 

“This is the opposite of the French idea of citizenship, which recognises only individuals belonging to the national community, and grants no civic rights to communities. 

“In this, France is at the forefront of resistance to wokeism.”

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