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'lifted' from "The Wall Street Journal"
of Saturday/Sunday, February 8 - 9, 2020
Page C4 - pictures not included -
my comment - Berkeley "Free Speech", now nationwide, comes to France

Cancel Culture Comes to France

French universities are embracing an American trend by censoring speakers and suppressing controversial views.


Last April, Alain Finkielkraut—one of France’s leading public intellectuals and a member of the prestigious Academie Française—was invited by a student group to give a lecture on “modernity, heritage and progress” at the elite Paris university Sciences Po. Mr. Finkielkraut, who has forcefully defended Western traditions and criticized cultural relativism, drew the wrath of far-left activists who denounced him as “profoundly reactionary,” a “racist and misogynist” whose ideas “put our own existence in danger.”

In response, his lecture was first canceled and then surreptitiously rescheduled, to mislead the protesters who wanted to disrupt it. “When P.C. culture arose in the U.S., I thought it would always remain specifically American. Now I have to observe that France is also contaminated by it. Many students have adopted the posture of cancel culture, preventing people they don’t agree with from speaking,” Mr. Finkielkraut told me last month.

Over the past year, similar threats of disruption and violence have prompted universities across France to cancel at least seven talks on topics ranging from surrogate motherhood to Islamic extremism. Even former French President François Hollande, hardly an inflammatory speaker, wasn’t allowed to give a speech at the University of Lille, where protesters publicly shredded hundreds of copies of his books.

Shutting down critical voices in the context of academic debate might seem profoundly at odds with the French national spirit, which the philosopher Michel Onfray once described as the product of “Rabelaisian freedom, Voltairean critical sense and Cartesian reasoning.” But today, concepts like safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression, intersectionality, de-platforming and other American buzzwords are gaining ground on French campuses.

The French critic Pascal Bruckner has described the current atmosphere as a result of an “import- export transaction” between France and the U.S. “The identity politics and the P.C. culture that is central to the campus ideology in America came out of French theory,” he said, referring to the work of influential thinkers of the 1970s such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. “We’ve invented this, and now it’s coming back,” Mr. Bruckner said.

In France as in the U.S., the debate over freedom of speech scrambles the usual political divides. According to Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, “The peculiar aspect of this wave is that censorship was historically associated with right-wing authoritarianism, while for the first time in our generation it comes from the left.”

Such protests sometimes have surprising targets. Last March, the University of Bordeaux canceled a lecture by the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, a well-known feminist intellectual (and the wife of the former socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin). In the late 1990s, Ms. Agacinski was the main proponent of a constitutional amendment that called for gender parity in political parties, and she later supported the legalization of same-sex marriage.

But she has since taken a stand against surrogate pregnancy and criticized the extension of medically assisted procreation to same-sex couples, a reform strongly supported by the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Ms. Agacinski opposes these practices on the ground that they commodify women’s bodies. “Our body is our own, but it does not belong to us as a good, an alienable property which we can give or sell, like a bicycle or a house,” she wrote in her latest book.

This stance has drawn the anger of France’s LGBT community. When her presence in Bordeaux was announced, several progressive associations put out a joint statement against a philosopher whose ideas they described as “reactionary, transphobic and homophobic.” The groups promised to do “everything we can to make sure this conference doesn’t take place,” prompting organizers to cancel the event for security reasons. Ms. Agacinski spoke of “intellectual terror” and denounced a “climate of intimidation.”

Public figures across the French political spectrum have spoken out against what the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, described as a “sort of new McCarthyism.” After the cancellation of Ms. Agacinski’s lecture, more than 100 intellectuals signed a statement insisting that French institutions stand up for academic freedom. “Several recent events demonstrate that freedom of expression and communication is hampered in French universities,” they wrote in an open letter in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro.

But “the Americanization of French university life,” as the journalist Eugenie Bastie calls it, shows no sign of stopping. Even classic writers aren’t safe. Last spring, a Sorbonne University performance of the ancient Greek tragedy “The Suppliants” by Aeschylus had to be canceled, after a rumor circulated that some performers were going to wear blackface to portray mythological characters from Egypt. The Representative Council of France’s Black Associations asked the university to cancel the play, claiming it was “Afrophobic, colonialist and racist.”

It soon emerged that the actors weren’t planning to wear dark makeup but were instead using black and white masks, in the tradition of ancient Greek theater. The Sorbonne said that the whole brouhaha ensued from a “total misunderstanding,” but the performance had to be postponed for two months. In the end, all of the actors wore multicolored masks.

“In the U.S., people know exactly what we’re talking about, but in France almost nobody had heard of blackface before that incident,” said Anne-Emmanuelle Berger, a professor of French literature and gender studies at Paris-VIII university. Prof. Berger, who taught for more than two decades at American universities, observes that “American activists are framing the controversial issues of the debate in terms of potential harm to individuals and groups, while in France those issues are still understood within a political framework.”

Patrice Maniglier, a professor of philosophy at Paris Nanterre university, defends the tactics of protesters who aim to deprive speakers of a platform for their views.

“Freedom of speech is not distributed evenly. Some people are less protected than others,” he said, adding that society “shouldn’t prevent [student activists] from voicing their discontent, since that is also a form of free speech.” The issue, Prof. Maniglier argued, concerns acceptable forms of expressing disagreement: “Physical violence, whether enacted or threatened, is just unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean people need to be polite when objecting to ideas they consider harmful.”

In France, universities have been at the center of contentious social debates at least since the student uprising of May 1968, which set off a wave of protest throughout Europe. Back then, French students rallied around the revolutionary slogan “it’s forbidden to forbid.” For their successors today, that cri de coeur is outdated.

Mr. Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.

‘For the first time in our generation, censorship comes from the left.’