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Why the French fear American ideas

Ideas imported from US campuses are said to threaten French identity, but radical French thinkers have long inspired Americans, and vice versa
A French flag flies over the entrance of the Elysee Palace in Paris in 2018 (AFP)

Why are the French up in arms about critical theories and progressive ideas from US campuses and protest movements? What have we done right on US campuses, and in such historic events as the sustained course of the indigenous, civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, to make the custodians of French imperial racism uncomfortable?  

According to an article in the New York Times: “Politicians and prominent intellectuals say social theories from the United States on race, gender and post-colonialism are a threat to French identity and the French republic.” This is auspicious news. We must be doing something right.

“The threat is said to be existential,” the report notes. “It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.” Which part of the particularly nasty, racist, delusional, world-domineering “cultural heritage” of the French would that be? How utterly brilliant to read this.  

Vast schism of differences

But is this really between the Americans and the French - and which Americans, which French? As with anything else you read in the New York Times, it is a bit off-kilter.     

Elated as I was by this report, I soon realised that it conflates and confuses a vast schism of differences between one kind of American and another, as it does between one kind of French person and another. So, as usual, we need to adjust the lenses of the piece to enable us to read it better. 

French critical thinking and philosophy over at least the last century have been definitive to the rise of critical ideas on American campuses

First and foremost, there are millions of Americans led by former President Donald Trump and his Republican Party who are equally afraid of the ideas coming from US campuses and social movements. It was a notorious Islamophobic Zionist American, David Horowitz - not a French author - who in 2006 published an infamous book titled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, featuring yours truly and about half a dozen of my Columbia University colleagues. We frighten racists, misogynists, homophobes, Islamophobes and antisemites all over the world, not just in the US and France.   

To be equally sure, French critical thinking and philosophy over at least the last century has been definitive to the rise of critical ideas on American campuses. French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray have been the staples of critical thinking on US campuses.  

But still, the rise of this particular brand of anti-Americanism in France, with its notorious xenophobic history against all other Europeans and North Americans - and which becomes positively barbaric against people in Asia, Africa and Latin America - is something to be carefully noted, not just happily celebrated.  

Critical thinkers and reactionary hacks

France is not just the home of critical thinkers and progressive philosophers such as Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and countless others. It is also the home of notorious reactionary hacks such as Eric Zemmour, Michel Houellebecq, Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, who promote hatred against Arabs, Africans and Muslims. We also know of the notorious Islamophobe Brigitte Bardot, but she is not all that there is to France.  

I am utterly delighted to know France’s racist hatemongers are displeased with anti-colonial, anti-racist ideas emerging from US campuses. But we have solid French critical thinkers as our source of inspiration, too - so perhaps they are targeting their own critical thinkers by allowing their xenophobic nervous ticks to get the better of them.  

French columnist Eric Zemmour speaks in Paris in September 2019 (AFP)
French columnist Eric Zemmour speaks in Paris in September 2019 (AFP)

To reverse the angle: notorious racist French purveyors of hate have a serious following in the US too. The New York Times article fails to address this.  

Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints (1973) has been promoted by none other than the infamous racist Stephen Miller and other hate-mongers promoted by Trump to high office. So racist French social scientists need not worry about their trade imbalance of not sending enough of their worst racists our way. We are utterly delighted to see their brilliant economist Thomas Piketty on our campuses, and they are welcome to take Miller, Horowitz, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.  

Custodians of the status quo

In the New York Times piece, we read: “The new director of the Paris Opera, who said... he wants to diversify its staff and ban blackface, has been attacked by the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, but also in Le Monde because, though German, he had worked in Toronto and had ‘soaked up American culture for 10 years.’” What a noble person to ban ghastly, racist blackface - and how fortunate and brilliant that he spent a decade in beautiful Canada!  

The French custodians of the status quo keep defending their notion of “French identity”. That “identity” evidently has a blind spot for its sustained and systematic racism in places such as Algeria, and the rest of Africa and Asia. It is a bright moment in history that the custodians of that blind spot are forced to look in the mirror and see the horrors they have perpetrated around the globe. They do not like what they see. We can’t blame them; it is ugly.  

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What the French call “American” in this article is the product of a global rise of critical thinking that in the US was mostly led by a generation of German Jews (Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno), African Americans (WEB Du Bois and James Baldwin), and new immigrants and exiles (Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Walter Mignolo, Ngugi wa Thiongo and countless others). Central to this body of critical thinking have been bold and brilliant French critical theorists (Foucault, Badiou, Deleuze, and Balibar in particular).  

What the French defenders of the history of French racism disregard is this global configuration of critical thinking emerging from the US, including African, Indian, Japanese, Argentine, Trinidadian, Italian and French thinkers - and the list goes on. When it comes to our bold and pathbreaking sisters Angela Davis or bell hooks, their moral and intellectual pedigrees are global, rooted in the prolonged history of Harlem Renaissance of which these custodians of French imperial racism appear clueless.  

This is not “Americans” against “French”. This is the rise and return of the repressed; the uprising of people who have nothing to lose but their chains, in or out of France or the US.  

Land of immigrants

The French identity was imploding when we around the world began reading Jean Genet’s “Quatre heures a Chatila” on the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. In his magnificent French prose, Genet was a witness for the world. We discern, we distinguish, we separate the real from the fake. It was Alexis de Tocqueville himself who taught us how to distinguish between his brilliant insights into the nature of American democracy and his nasty racism against Algerians and other Africans. 

They took the fire of your eloquence and made it speak African and Caribbean for the rest of the world to hear

We also know how to look in the shadow of Tocqueville and find his travel companion, Gustave de Beaumont, who never received the recognition of his celebrated fellow traveller, but who wrote on the condition of slavery in the US and the politics of dispossession in Ireland.

So if French social scientists really want to know where Americans get their ideals of social justice, they might want to begin with their own de Beaumont’s 19th century book, Marie, ou L'esclavage aux Etats-Unis. It may prompt them to reconsider what their “identity” really is.    

The US is a crucible, where all global ideas - including American and French ones - generate a crescendo of critical thinking and social movements. We are a land of immigrants. We are a colourful coalition of the wretched of the earth, having learned our French from Frantz Fanon, from Aime Cesaire, from Leopold Sedar Senghor, from Maryse Conde, and from countless others. They took the fire of your eloquence and made it speak African and Caribbean for the rest of the world to hear. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. His latest books include Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (Zed, 2020). His forthcoming book, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past, is scheduled to be released by Haymarket Books later this year.