According to French anthropologist Didier Fassin, there is a “reactionary wind blowing over France”, which is affecting the country’s political and intellectual life, and distracts the public from major economic and societal concerns, now exacerbated by the pandemic. Yet the same wind seems to be blowing also outside of France, as revealed by the way the future of higher education and academic freedom is threatened in several European countries.
Radical right-wing populism is notoriously defined as being for the ‘people’ and against the ‘elites’ (both political, economic and intellectual). Within this paradigm, the public sector has often been the main target of populist attacks for its alleged inefficiency, its internal privileges and lavish use of public money. Right-wing populist attacks have often also extended to university academics, perceived as part of the advantaged group that can rely on secure jobs, high incomes and public pensions. Several academic fields in the humanities and social sciences have been written off as inaccessible, obscure and of no real use to address concrete societal problems, with the key charge that it does not provide students with the necessary knowledge to find a job on the labour market. A few research fields have been directly accused of being politically biased, dominated by ideological and militant left-leaning positions, and to promote minority interests, besides supporting the feminization of Western societies. It was these arguments that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used to ban gender study courses in Hungarian universities in 2018, contending that gender studies are in fact rooted in (left-wing) ideology, not science. Soon after, the Hungarian government also withdrew the allowance to the Central European University (founded by philanthropist Georges Soros) to continue its activities. The university had to relocate from Budapest to Vienna. These measures spurred a harsh critique from the rest of the EU and vocal protests from academics and the international community against methods deemed as conflicting with the democratic European principles of European integration.
Yet, what is conspicuous with the more recent political attacks against academic freedom is the support that populist ideas have among mainstream parties. Take France as a first example. Last February, the Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal warned (in an interview broadcasted by the right-wing channel CNews) against the “cancer-like” spreading of Islamo-leftism within French academia. Vidal accused some academic milieus and researchers to take advantage of their titles and positions in order to promote “radical or militant Islamo-leftist ideas” that instigate divisions, conflicts and cleavages within society. Research fields (such as gender, race, postcolonial and critical migration studies) are held responsible for this ideological and militant drift in academia. Vidal’s words re-echoed an opinion expressed by Emmanuel Macron, who earlier castigated those academics that “ethnicize the social question” by inciting to “split the Republic into two”. Yet Vidal went a step further, announcing the need to implement concrete preventive measures that aim at assessing the scientific quality of the research output, to be conducted by the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS). Except that the CNRS promptly replied to the Minister that “Islamo-leftism” is a “political slogan” that does “not correspond to any scientific reality”.
Vidal’s positions obviously alarmed the French public opinion, just as well as the academic community, which was called into question. Deep concerns were expressed that political actors were breaching academic freedom and endangering whole research fields and the work of internationally well-known academics (such as Nonna Mayer, a doyenne of French far-right studies). Several of the articles published in response to the Minister’s positions also suggested that the issue of Islamo-leftism had more to do with the French upcoming election (Spring 2022) than with real concerns and problems within the academia. France is drawing closer to presidential elections, and opinion polls do not look so promising for incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity has significantly dropped in the months of the pandemic. Likely, the scenario is another head-to-head race in the second round with radical right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, the leader of Rassemblement National (RN).
Yet this time Le Pen seems to have gained terrain compared to in 2017. Vidal’s approach suggests that the government is trading on the terrain prepared by the radical and populist right, to appease voters by accommodating anti-Islam positions on the political agenda. An example of this was showcased under the heated TV-duel between Marine Le Pen and the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the prime actor behind legal initiatives to tackle so-called “Islamist separatism”. Darmanin contended Le Pen for being “too soft” on integration politics, ignoring the fact that Islam represents “a real problem” in French society, as the RN vote against his law displayed. Le Pen pragmatically replied she does “not intend to attack Islam, which she considers a religion like any other”, whose “freedom of organization and worship” is bestowed by the French Constitution and law. Darmanin played the part of the hardliner, showing the governing party is willing to go a step further down the line of appearing to be ‘tough against Islam’ and the battlefield of immigration politics.
Moreover, the accusation of ‘Islamo-leftism’ fits the purpose. The political discourse targets academic freedom by sowing doubts about the scientific quality of whole fields of research, about individual academics and intellectuals who engage with issues of gender, race, ethnic diversity and migration studies. Thus, the role of the academic as public intellectual figure is delegitimized by those same who should safeguard it. The academic, whose role – to paraphrase Edward Saïd- is “to publicly raise embarrassing questions… to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations” and who “represent[s] those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug” is here accused of being ideologically motivated, socially redundant, useless to the aims and needs of contemporary society.
Susi Meret is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Society, Aalborg University, Denmark. See full profile here.
© Susi Meret. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).