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France: What is the ‘Islamo-leftism’ debate really about?

The latest controversy, critics say, has less to do with Muslims or academia, and more with Macron’s electoral strategy and the country’s broader right-wing turn
A French conspiracy alleges an alliance between left-wing academics and Islamists has been taken up by Macron's government (AFP/Getty/MEE/Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

A French conspiracy theory that alleges an alliance between left-wing academic circles and Islamists has taken hold in the government of President Emmanuel Macron, spurring calls for a crackdown on the spread of the supposed movement in higher education. 

Dubbed Islamo-gauchisme - or "Islamo-leftism" - what was once a fringe talking point more commonly heard among members of the far-right in France has gained unprecedented visibility as the debate has reached the mainstream.

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On 14 February, Frederique Vidal, the higher education minister, announced on right-wing channel CNews that "Islamo-leftism is corrupting society in its entirety and universities are not immune". Two days later, she called for an investigation into France's university research sector in order to identify "what falls under academic research and what falls under activism and opinion".

Her statements provoked an uproar in French academia. The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the country's leading state research body, reacted by saying unequivocally that "Islamo-leftism is not a scientific reality". A petition calling for the minister's resignation had surpassed 22,000 signatures by 4 March.

Vidal is the third French minister since October to denounce the purported spread of "Islamo-leftist" ideology in the country, after Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin and Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer.

Following the uproar over Vidal's suggested investigation, Blanquer called for "serenity" in the debate on 2 March, while nonetheless insisting that "there is something at work that is ideological and must be made explicit" in academia.

"Too many things progress undercover and can be severe for our future," he told France Inter radio, after accusing social studies academic research of being "regressive" and at odds with values of the Enlightenment.

Amid the uproar, questions remain over what Islamo-gauchisme even means, and why French academia, a seemingly unlikely terrain for alleged Islamist radicalisation, is being targeted.

From geopolitical concept to far-right catchphrase

The term "Islamo-leftism" was reportedly first coined by historian Pierre-Andre Taguieff in his 2002 book The New Judeophobia, to refer to the alliance between leftist and Islamist activists over a common cause: opposition to the Israeli occupation during the Second Intifada.

This definition, academics say, is a geopolitical phenomenon that could already be observed in the 1960s. It includes the People's Mujahedin Organisation in Iran, French philosopher Michel Foucault's own fascination with the 1979 Iranian revolution, or the Black Panther movement in the United States.

'The far-right is leading - and winning - a battle for cultural hegemony by the imposition of a certain kind of language'

- Jean-Yves Pranchere, political scientist

Over the decades, some far-left figures, such as British Troskyist Chris Harman, have argued that the western left should consider allying with Islamist movements internationally in the proletarian struggle against capitalism, although whether those arguments translated into actual collaborations was anecdotal at best.

"In reality, these left-wing intellectuals have long deserted this fascination" with Islamist alliances, French philosopher and sociologist Raphael Liogier told Middle East Eye. "Paradoxically, it is at the moment when this doesn't fascinate anyone on the left, in academia or elsewhere... that they are accused of Islamo-leftism. This is suspect, bizarre and incoherent."

The term was claimed in the 2010s by the far-right in France, and has been used as a derogatory accusation to discredit opponents.

"The first difficulty of the term is that it doesn't distinguish between Islam and Islamism, which allows all sorts of slipperiness," Jean-Yves Pranchere, a political science professor at the Universite Libre in Brussels, told MEE.

"The far-right is leading - and winning - a battle for cultural hegemony by the imposition of a certain kind of language. In Islamo-leftism, there is the fear of Islam and the fear of the left... This term represents rather well a means to create the intersection of fears by aggregating into a collective people who have nothing in common."

Sociologist Amel Boubekeur, meanwhile, points out that despite accusations of leftist-Islamist collusion, French Muslims have in effect been excluded from actively participating in politics in the country.

"French Muslims believe and feel that they have only been used by the left to compete against the right on social issues, but they never had a say or any kind of responsibility within these movements," she told MEE.

Accusations of complacency 

In recent years, "Islamo-leftism" has gained ground in public discourse, including within the government of the ostensibly liberal centrist Macron.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks in 2015, and more recently with the murder of high school teacher Samuel Paty on 16 October, "Islamo-leftist" has become a catch-all term for those deemed to be too complacent against the threat of Islamist violence in France.

Since October, Macron's government has multiplied initiatives to seek to crack down on Islamism, whether through the global security law, a controversial imam charter condemning discussion of "state racism," or an anti-separatism bill, which has been accused of singling out Muslims.

This battle of hawkishness led the conservative Darmanin in February to accuse Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Rally (RN) party, which praised Vidal's comments, of being "too soft on Islam," shocking many.

"What is happening is not a rational analysis of things, but an emotional analysis," Anais Voy-Gillis, a researcher focused on far-right movements in Europe, told MEE. "However, these kinds of topics need rationality."

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Despite its usage passing into the mainstream, "Islamo-leftism" has little foundation in reality, Liogier said.

The Macron government, he argued, "has succeeded in a few months to do what the National Rally [formerly known as the National Front] hadn't managed to do in over 10 years with Islamo-leftism - meaning to legitimise in public debate notions that are clearly fantasised, purely populist, and purely far-right".  

Research published in the wake of the Vidal controversy has shown that the term "Islamo-leftism" has been overwhelmingly used by the right on social media since 2016. In December, sociologist Fabrice Dhume-Sonzogni told Le Monde that nearly half of references to Islamo-leftism in national print media since 2003 occurred in the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper.

For Pranchere, "Islamo-leftism" has become a convenient way to create "easy scapegoats" while distracting from criticism of the right.

"The Islamism that poses a problem in France is real, there is no denying it, but it is not at all leftist. It even has more ties with the right than the left," he said, mentioning the example of conservative demonstrations against same-gender marriage in 2012. "If ties of clientelism with Islamists are shameful, then we should really question all the ties between right-wing politicians who were in power and petro-monarchies like Saudi Arabia."

Academia under fire

Macron has been keen in recent months to show his government is cracking down on Islamist extremism, at the risk, some have warned, of fostering more hostility against the country's Muslim population.

But why is academia suddenly in the crosshairs?

"There are always exceptions, but universities are not the favourite recruitment grounds for people who belong to a radical ideology seeking to commit attacks," Voy-Gillis said. "The debate is treating academic research not as a science, but as a political camp that deserves to be fought. Through these different attacks against the academic world, they try to delegitimise the work of researchers who seek to point out the dysfunctions of our society."

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Amidst the supposed threat of "Islamo-leftism," universities find themselves accused of being allegedly overtaken by US concepts of intersectionality, gender theory and post-colonial studies.

"Indigenist, racialist and 'decolonial' ideologies (taken from North American campuses)... feed a hatred of 'whites' and of France," read a letter signed by 253 intellectuals including Taguieff, the father of "Islamo-leftism," in October in support of Blanquer's comments.

Macron himself had also provoked reactions in June, after comments were leaked of him blaming youth activism against police violence and racism at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests on "the academic world... that encouraged the ethnicisation of social issues". 

For Pranchere, the use of "Islamo-leftism" ends up chiefly attacking research on progressive issues with no ties to Islamism.

'The debate is treating academic research not as a science, but as a political camp that deserves to be fought'

- Anais Voy-Gillis, researcher

"We are here in a discourse of civil war that has nothing to do with reality," he said. "Everything is thrown together; even gender-inclusive writing has become an element of Islamo-leftism, as if Islamists and Daesh [the Islamic State] were known for their queer activism."

Pranchere rejected claims that "Islamo-leftism" was infiltrating French academia via theories that allegedly emerged in the United States, pointing out that France has its own long history of reflection on gender, colonial and racial issues, with prominent thinkers including Frantz Fanon and Colette Guillaumin.

"All those who denounce Anglo-Saxon importation are themselves importing 'culture wars' like the ones led by the American right," he said, adding that the hunt against academic "Islamo-leftism" amounted to "genuine McCarthyism".

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, contested reforms of the educational system, and with the 2018 Yellow Vests protest movement marking a blow to Macron's popularity, Voy-Gillis views the polemic as a deliberate distraction.

"The number one problem of universities isn't this - it's the lack of means for research and to care for students," she said. "When you want to lead an investigation into Islamo-leftism, you're not asking yourself the fundamental questions that concern universities."

A dangerous electoral game?

With presidential elections scheduled for April 2022, the Islamo-leftism controversy comes in politically charged times.

The general consensus seems to be that the far-right's Le Pen is best poised to once again make it to the second round of the vote.

"The far-right manages to create an intersection of hatreds, fears and moral panics that the left - and certainly not the far-left - could never succeed in creating, which allows it to bring together voter blocs that the left could never bring together," Pranchere said. "Only Marine Le Pen could score votes of both Yellow Vests [protesters] and police officers who shot at the Yellow Vests."

Macron ran his presidential campaign in 2017 presenting himself as "neither left nor right," and his victory was hailed as a "barrage”"against the far right. But as the 2022 vote inches nearer, his government has increasingly embraced right-wing talking points, focusing on Islam and securitarian issues.

"What is happening with this notion of Islamo-leftism is indissociable from the separatism bill and the global security law," Liogier said. "It's on a continuum as part of the change in Macron's presidential term."

Head of National Rally party Marine Le Pen, right, poses in front of French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin during a meeting regarding the draft "separatism" law on 6 October 2020 in Paris (AFP)
Head of National Rally party Marine Le Pen poses in front of French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, left, during a meeting regarding the draft "separatism" law on 6 October 2020 in Paris (AFP)

Despite having openly right-wing figures in his cabinet, Liogier said he didn't believe Macron himself was a populist. "But his rationalisation will end up giving a wider margin to populism... Macron has ended up forgetting his original convictions, as do all politicians as elections draw nearer."

Boubekeur sees Islam and Islamism as convenient pretexts in longstanding political feuds in France.

"It's a debate that feels more tied to French history and the struggle between the right wing and the left wing, between the nationalist and republican movements, which has very deep historical roots in France, predating [questions on Islam]," she said.

For Voy-Gillis, Macron is playing a "dangerous game" with the election by "trying to hunt on the grounds of the far-right" like former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"There is an awareness that the election will not play out like in 2017, because left-wing voters won't cast their ballots for Macron tomorrow, this is more or less certain," she said. "But I am not convinced that, with regards to the economic and social context of France today, we will see the same results in 2022.

"This is an unhealthy game, because it contributes to dividing a society that is already fragmented," she added.

France's Muslims silenced

While the "Islamo-leftism" debate has paradoxically been more focused on attacking left-wing viewpoints, the discourse has nonetheless had a negative effect on France's Muslim community, already suffering from discrimination and hostility.

'The Muslim population is offered up to popular punishment without being involved in these very elitist debates'

- Amel Boubekeur, sociologist

A coalition of civil society organisations urged the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in January to open formal infringement procedures against the French government over what they called "entrenched Islamophobia" in the country.

While countless controversies have erupted over the years regarding the hijab or the burkini in France, Muslims have in effect been excluded from such debates, Boubekeur explained. 

"The Muslim population is offered up to popular punishment without being involved in these very elitist debates about academia," she said. "They don't have a say in public debate because they will be accused of being communitarian, or, even worse now, separatists. So we only hear from white leftist academics or white pundits, but not from this population."

A necessary change to counter such trends, Boubekeur said, would be for France to become more comfortable discussing social and historical issues that have often been swept under the carpet.

"Discussions about class and race need to be normalised in public debate, and it needs to be done scientifically, not by pundits on TV sets with no real knowledge of what they are talking about," she said.

Voy-Gillis, who wrote The European Union Put to the Test of Nationalisms, said France was undergoing a "right-wingisation," but that the situation there was far from unique.

"Questions of identity are common to all western nations," she noted. "There is this disorientation, this tension surrounding the issue of Islam - and through Islam, the issue of identity." 

Pranchere also saw the current climate in France as symptomatic of problems far beyond the question of Islam's place in the country, which, if addressed, could be the key to counter the seemingly inevitable rise of far-right influence.

"When there are moral panics, it means that there are insecurities, which in my opinion are deeply social insecurities," he said. "This would require to address the issue of social policies, educational policies... But we cannot counter [this kind of discourse] in the arena where they are trying to take us."