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Academic Freedom Under Attack in France - Joan Scott, Academe Blog, 5 janvier 2020

samedi 9 janvier 2021, par Laurence

For many years, in what now seems the distant past, France was known as the nation that welcomed refugees from authoritarian countries ; revolutionary activists, artists, exiled politicians, dissident students, could find sustenance and support in the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is also the country whose philosophers gave us many of the tools of critical thinking, including perhaps the very word critique. In recent years—at least since the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989—that image has been replaced by a more disturbing one : a nation unable to decently cope (and increasingly at war) with people of color from its former colonies (black, Arab, Muslim) as well as Roma ; a nation whose leaders are condemning critical studies of racial discrimination and charges of “Islamophobia” in the name of “the values of the Republic.”

The years since the bicentennial have seen a dramatic increase in discrimination against a number of groups, but Arab/Muslims, many of them citizens (according to the settlement that ended the Algerian War) have been singled out. The charge against them has been that they practice their religion publicly, in violation of laïcité, the French version of secularism, the separation of church and state. Enshrined in a 1905 law, laïcité calls for state neutrality in matters of religion and protects individual rights of private religious conscience. Although the state is extremely supportive of Catholic religious practices (state funds support churches as a matter of preserving the national heritage, and religious schools, the majority of them Catholic, in the name of freedom of educational choice ; the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted that Catholicism is an integral aspect of laïcité), Islam has been deemed a threat to the “values” upon which national unity is based.

National unity is a peculiar concept in France, at least from an American perspective. The nation “one and indivisible” is imagined as culturally homogeneous. Anything that suggests division is scrupulously avoided. Thus there is no exact calculation of the numbers of Muslims in the French population because no official statistics are kept on racial, ethnic, or religious difference. To make those very real differences visible is thought to introduce unacceptable divisions in the representation of the unity of the national body.

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