Le Wokism in France02-26-2023
Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the strong French disdain for American woke ideology, and finds that both the American and the French approaches are lacking. If the French are right to insist on universalism, Williams argues, they nevertheless ignore the real feelings of exclusion and discrimination by many in France. And if the Americans are better at attending to the feelings of those groups who are outside the established institutions, they forget that wokism is “philosophically incoherent—trying to end racism by elevating race—and, if taken far enough, dangerous.” In a long and nuanced account, Williams writes:
But France’s vehement reaction to wokeism has another cause, which is barely discernible in the U.S. It has to do with France’s complex relationship with America itself.
On September 13, 2001, beside an image of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in blooming clouds of smoke, the front page of Le Monde proudly declared, “Nous sommes tous Américains.” It was a grand and heartfelt gesture of solidarity in the face of incomprehensible hatred and barbarity, one that was returned in 2015 when a spasm of terror swept over France. That extraordinary year began with the massacre by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants of 12 people in the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. It concluded with a citywide rampage in November, in which 130 were slain and hundreds more were injured in cafés, restaurants, and the Bataclan concert hall—most of them by homegrown radicals declaring allegiance to the Islamic State. The immediate outpouring of grief in the American press, and the millions of Facebook profile pictures filtered with the tricolor, was as moving as it was justified.
Over the next five years, the U.S. could no longer muster such empathy. By the fall of 2020, America had fully turned its gaze inward. The police killings of George Floyd and others directed America’s attention to its own legacy of slavery and racism. These were the conditions in which a new and at times totalizing ideology, organized around a racial binary, gained traction. And practically overnight, the mainstream American press became reluctant to view what had been happening in France (namely, a spree of machete attacks, decapitations, and stabbings, from Paris down to the Riviera) through the lens of individual agency, ideology, religious radicalism, terrorism, or even plain old good and evil. Suddenly, it was all about identity and systems of oppression. Through the lens of racial reckoning, fanatically secular and color-blind France had, in a sense, brought this grief upon itself.
For many in France, a headline in The New York Times crystallized this new attitude of reproach. Following the beheading of a middle-school teacher named Samuel Paty in October 2020—for the transgression of showing those Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the classroom—the American newspaper of record’s first encapsulation of the attack focused not on Paty but on his assailant: “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The headline was subsequently changed, and the article itself was relatively balanced. But when it described Paty as having “incited anger among some Muslim families,” the implication to many French readers was unambiguous: Teaching the universal value of free speech to all students, regardless of ethnic affiliation, was what had really led to Paty’s murder. French audiences took this idea—which was echoed throughout much of the American media—as an exoneration of Paty’s assassin, an 18-year-old Chechen asylum recipient with extremist beliefs who had hunted down his victim only after learning of his existence from a social-media mob.
Reading such coverage in the American press was painful for many French people of all ethnicities and religious affiliations. For months, the perceived abandonment by an admired and influential ally was the subject of constant conversation. Why were American commentators using Paty’s killing to score points on Twitter by condemning a society they did not know? Why had the Times framed this act of savagery as a simple—and, one might infer, possibly excessive—police shooting? Why were journalists at other outlets, including The Washington Post, reinforcing a narrative that reduced complex issues of secularism, republicanism, and immigration to broad allegations of Islamophobia? Why were critics on social media resorting to the blunt racial catchall of whiteness? Did they not understand that French citizens of African or Arab descent were also appalled by such violence?
Many French people began to see their nation as a pivotal theater of resistance to woke orthodoxy. Macron himself became a determined critic, insisting that his country follow its own path to achieve a multiethnic democracy, without mimicking the identity-obsessed American model. “We have left the intellectual debate to … Anglo-Saxon traditions based on a different history, which is not ours,” he argued just before Paty’s killing, in his October 2020 speech against “Islamist separatism.” Macron’s minister of national education at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, spoke of the need to wage “a battle” against the woke ideas being promulgated by American universities.
The unease with le wokisme in France, then, is shaped and heightened by the country’s distinctive history and self-perception—its legitimate fears of homegrown jihad and its concerns about domineering Yankee influence. You can’t understand the French reaction to wokeness without understanding these domestic preoccupations. But at the same time, you can’t dismiss France’s more philosophical—and universalist—critiques of wokeism simply because of them.