Back in February, the NY Times published a piece about the resistance to woke culture in France, including among many academics. In France, wokeness is considered by many to be a kind of American virus which is working its way into French institutions. Now the concern over wokeness has itself gone viral and become a major topic of debate in France’s daily newspapers.
Six months ago, if asked what they understood by “woke”, most French people would have assumed it had something to do with Chinese cooking. And yet today in Paris, the notion of “le wokisme” is suddenly all the rage…
France’s answer to protecting minorities is “universalism” – the notion that everyone is the same and should be treated the same.
But so-called “woke” thinkers have a different set of values. They say race, colour, gender do matter, because people have different lived experiences depending on those factors, and so public policies need to differentiate between different groups – which is anathema to the French.
An American philosophy professor teaching in Paris says he has really appreciated that the French don’t expect teachers to tiptoe over controversial topics. But he also sees evidence that wokeness is creeping in from America.
“Personally I find it liberating to teach here. I don’t have to mind my every word, like I did with American students. Here, there is still a presumption that universities are a place to learn, and the staff is not there to cushion the subject matter.”
But Prof Smith says signs of “wokeism” are nonetheless appearing on campus.
He cites seeing for the first time graffiti in English targeting “terfs” – or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. The use of English was significant, he says, because it “trickles in via elite bicultural, bilinguistic nodes” such as can be found at the university.
The Telegraph also published a story yesterday about the French rejection of wokeism. One recent battle involved the removal of some 18th century tapestries:
Compared to statues of Cecil Rhodes or Thomas Jefferson, the tapestries at the French Academy in Rome’s Villa Medici are not the most obvious targets for today’s culture wars. Bestowed to the academy in the 1700s, they are based on sketches from a colonial expedition to Brazil, giving a woven snapshot of the New World’s people, plants and animals.
Now, though, this set of works known mainly just to art students has acquired a new prominence. A petition signed by 150 leading French art figures has claimed the tapestries are being removed because they depict Europe’s imperial past.
“Nobody today approves of colonialism, but even if these tapestries were about slavery – which they are not – if you remove them, then nobody will see them, and who knows, history may make those mistakes again,” said Didier Rykner, founder of French magazine La Tribune de l’Art, which published the petition. “If we don’t fight this cancel culture, we will end up removing everything in museums – and after all, who among us really is pure? Some saint, maybe?”
Last year a statue of Voltaire in Paris was defaced by protesters and was removed, supposedly for cleaning. But months later the statue hasn’t been returned to its pedestal.
The removal of statue of Voltaire, leading French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher sparked outrage, with many accusing Paris mayor's office of bowing to cancel culture. City hall says removal is only temporary https://t.co/qy0eAcc7ma
— Alfons López Tena (@alfonslopeztena) August 17, 2020
The Telegraph also spoke to a young academic who is trying to show other young academics not to be afraid to resist the trend:
At just 23, [Pierre] Valentin is part of the millennial cohort, and finds himself frequently attacked on social media for his views. “People say I’m only doing this because I’m scared of losing my bourgeois white privilege – they don’t acknowledge such a thing as an honest opinion.
“I don’t actually think most people my age are woke, but they’re scared to speak out and I want to show them not to be afraid.”
In France, resistance to wokeism comes from across the political spectrum which makes it harder for woke activists do dismiss their critics as fascists and racists. Thanks to that resistance, France may turn out to be one of the last places in the western world to be overwhelmed by this ideology.