The topic of our discussion was the only one that interested the French elite in January 2021: not the raging pandemic but “the Franco-American divide,” the Huntington-esque clash of two apparently great civilizations and their respective social models—one “universalist,” one “communitarian”—on the question of race and identity politics. To Finkielkraut, Bruckner, and the establishment they still represent, American writers like me seek to impose a “woke” agenda on an otherwise harmonious, egalitarian society. Americans who argue for social justice are guilty of “cultural imperialism,” of ideological projection—even of bad faith.
This has become a refrain not merely in France but across Europe. To be sure, the terms of this social-media-fueled debate are unmistakably American; “woke” and “cancel culture” could emerge from no other context. But in the United States, these terms have a particular valence that mostly has to do with the push for racial equality and against systemic racism. In Europe, what is labeled “woke” is often whatever social movement a particular country’s establishment fears the most. This turns out to be an ideal way of discrediting those movements: To call them “woke” is to call them American, and to call them American is to say they don’t apply to Europe.
In France, “wokeism” came to the fore in response to a recent slew of terror attacks, most notably the gruesome beheading in October 2020 of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty. After years of similar Islamist attacks—notably the massacre at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the ISIS-inspired assaults on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket and the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015—the reaction in France reached a tipping point. Emmanuel Macron’s government had already launched a campaign against what it calls “Islamist separatism,” but Paty’s killing saw a conversation about understandable trauma degenerate into public hysteria. The government launched a full-scale culture war, fomenting its own American-style psychodrama while purporting to do the opposite. Soon its ministers began railing against “islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-leftism) in universities, Muslim mothers in hijabs chaperoning school field trips, and halal meats in supermarkets.
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But most of all, they began railing against the ideas that, in their view, somehow augmented and abetted these divisions: American-inspired anti-racism and “wokeness.” Macron said it himself in a speech that was widely praised by the French establishment for its alleged nuance: “We have left the intellectual debate to others, to those outside of the Republic, by ideologizing it, sometimes yielding to other academic traditions…. I see certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States.” In October, the French government inaugurated a think tank, the Laboratoire de la République, designed to combat these “woke” theories, which, according to the think tank’s founder, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Macron’s education minister, “led to the rise of Donald Trump.”
As the apparent emissaries of this pernicious “Anglo-Saxon” identitarian agenda, US journalists covering this moment in France have come under the spotlight, especially when we ask, for instance, what islamo-gauchisme actually means—if indeed it means anything at all. Macron himself has lashed out at foreign journalists, even sending a letter to the editor of the Financial Times rebutting what he saw as an error-ridden op-ed that took a stance he could not bear. “I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims,” he wrote. Hence my own invitation to appear on France Culture, a kind of voir dire before the entire nation.
Finkielkraut began the segment with a tirade against The New York Times and then began discussing US “campus culture,” mentioning Yale’s Tim Barringer and an art history syllabus that no longer includes as many “dead white males.” Eventually I asked how, three days after January 6, we could discuss the United States without mentioning the violent insurrection that had just taken place at the seat of American democracy. Finkielkraut became agitated. “And for you also, [what about] the fact that in the American Congress, Emanuel Cleaver, representative of Missouri, presiding over a new inauguration ceremony, finished by saying the words ‘amen and a-women’?” he asked. “Ça vous dérangez pas?” I said it didn’t bother me in the least, and he got even more agitated. “I don’t understand what you say, James McAuley, because cancel culture exists! It exists!”
The man knew what he was talking about: Three days after our conversation, Finkielkraut was dropped from a regular gig at France’s LCI television for defending his old pal Olivier Duhamel of Sciences Po, who was embroiled in a pedophilia scandal that had taken France by storm. Duhamel was accused by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchener, of raping her twin brother when the two were in their early teens. Finkielkraut speculated that there may have been consent between the two parties, and, in any case, a 14-year-old was “not the same thing” as a child.
I tell this story because it is a useful encapsulation of France’s—and Europe’s—war on woke, a conflict that has assumed various forms in different national contexts but that still grips the continent. On one level, there is a certain comedy to it: The self-professed classical liberal turns out to be an apologist for child molestation. In fact, the anti-woke comedy is now quite literally being written and directed by actual comedians who, on this one issue, seem incapable of anything but earnestness. John Cleese, 81, the face of Monty Python and a public supporter of Brexit, has announced that he will be directing a forthcoming documentary series on Britain’s Channel 4 titled Cancel Me, which will feature extensive interviews with people who have been “canceled”—although no one connected with the show has specified what exactly the word means.
Indeed, the terms of this debate are an insult to collective intelligence. But if we must use them, we need to understand an important distinction between what is called “cancel culture” and what is called “woke.” The former has been around much longer and refers to tactics that are used across the political spectrum, but historically by those on the right. “Cancel culture” is not the result of an increased awareness of racial disparities or a greater commitment to social justice broadly conceived—both of which are more urgent than ever—but rather a terrible and inevitable consequence of life with the Internet. Hardly anyone can support “cancel culture” in good faith, and yet it is never sufficiently condemned, because people call out such tactics only when their political opponents use them, never when their allies do. “Woke,” on the other hand, does not necessarily imply public shaming; it merely signifies a shift in perspective and perhaps a change in behavior. Carelessly equating the two is a convenient way to brand social justice activism as inherently illiberal—and to silence long-overdue conversations about race and inequality that far too many otherwise reasonable people find personally threatening.
But Europe is not America, and in Europe there have been far fewer incidents that could be construed as “cancellations”—again, I feel stupid even using the word—than in the United States. “Wokeism” is really a phenomenon of the Anglosphere, and with the exception of the United Kingdom, the social justice movement has gained far less traction in Europe than it has in US cultural institutions—newspapers, universities, museums, and foundations. In terms of race and identity, many European cultural institutions would have been seen as woefully behind the times by their US counterparts even before the so-called “great awokening.” Yet Europe has gone fully anti-woke, even without much wokeness to fight.
So much of Europe’s anti-woke movement has focused on opposing and attempting to refute allegations of “institutional” or “structural” racism. Yet despite the 20th-century continental origins of structuralism (especially in France) as a mode of social analysis—not to mention the Francophone writers who have shaped the way American thinkers conceive of race—many European elites dismiss these critiques as unwelcome intrusions into the public discourse that project the preoccupations of a nation built on slavery (and thus understandably obsessed with race) onto societies that are vastly different. Europe, they insist, has a different history, one in which race—especially in the form of the simple binary opposition of Black and white—plays a less central role. There is, of course, some truth to this rejoinder: Different countries do indeed have different histories and different debates. But when Europeans accuse their American critics of projection, they do so not to point out the very real divergences in the US and European discussions and even conceptions of race and racism. Rather, the charge is typically meant to stifle the discussion altogether—even when that discussion is being led by European citizens describing their own lived experiences.
France, where I reside, proudly sees itself as a “universalist” republic of equal citizens that officially recognizes no differences among them. Indeed, since 1978, it has been illegal to collect statistics on race, ethnicity, or religion—a policy that is largely a response to what happened during the Second World War, when authorities singled out Jewish citizens to be deported to Nazi concentration camps. The French view is that such categories should play no role in public life, that the only community that counts is the national community. To be anti-woke, then, is to be seen as a discerning thinker, one who can rise above crude, reductive identity categories.
The reality of daily life in France is anything but universalist. The French state does indeed make racial distinctions among citizens, particularly in the realm of policing. The prevalence of police identity checks in France, which stem from a 1993 law intended to curb illegal immigration, is a perennial source of controversy. They disproportionately target Black and Arab men, which is one reason the killing of George Floyd resonated so strongly here. Last summer I spoke to Jacques Toubon, a former conservative politician who was then serving as the French government’s civil liberties ombudsman (he is now retired). Toubon was honest in his assessment: “Our thesis, our values, our rules—constitutional, etc.—they are universalist,” he said. “They do not recognize difference. But there is a tension between this and the reality.”
One of the most jarring examples of this tension came in November 2020, when Sarah El Haïry, Macron’s youth minister, traveled to Poitiers to discuss the question of religion in society at a local high school. By and large, the students—many of whom were people of color—asked very thoughtful questions. One of them, Emilie, 16, said that she didn’t see the recognition of religious or ethnic differences as divisive. “Just because you are a Christian or a Muslim does not represent a threat to society,” she said. “For me, diversity is an opportunity.” These and similar remarks did not sit well with El Haïry, who nonetheless kept her cool until another student asked about police brutality. At that point, El Haïry got up from her chair and interrupted the student. “You have to love the police, because they are there to protect us on a daily basis,” she said. “They cannot be racist because they are republican!”
For El Haïry, to question such assumptions would be to question something foundational and profound about the way France understands itself. The problem is that more and more French citizens are doing just that, especially young people like the students in Poitiers, and the government seems utterly incapable of responding.
Although there is no official data to this effect—again, because of universalist ideology—France is estimated to be the most ethnically diverse society in Western Europe. It is home to large North African, West African, Southeast Asian, and Caribbean populations, and it has the largest Muslim and Jewish communities on the continent. By any objective measure, that makes France a multicultural society—but this reality apparently cannot be admitted or understood.
Macron, who has done far more than any previous French president to recognize the lived experiences and historical traumas of various minority groups, seems to be aware of this blind spot, but he stops short of acknowledging it. Earlier this year, I attended a roundtable discussion with Macron and a small group of other Anglophone correspondents. One thing he said during that interview has stuck with me: “Universalism is not, in my eyes, a doctrine of assimilation—not at all. It is not the negation of differences…. I believe in plurality in universalism, but that is to say, whatever our differences, our citizenship makes us build a universal together.” This is simply the definition of a multicultural society, an outline of the Anglo-Saxon social model otherwise so despised in France.
Europe’s reaction to the brutal killing of George Floyd in may 2020 was fascinating to observe. The initial shock at the terrifyingly mundane horrors of US life quickly gave way to protest movements that decried police brutality and the unaddressed legacy of Europe’s colonial past. This was when the question of structural racism entered the conversation. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to the massive protests throughout the country by establishing the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, an independent group charged with investigating the reality of discrimination and coming up with proposals for rectifying racial disparities in public institutions. The commission’s report, published in April 2021, heralded Britain as “a model for other White-majority countries” on racial issues and devoted three pages to the problems with the language of “structural racism.”
One big problem with this language, the report implied, is that “structural racism” is a feeling, and feelings are not facts. “References to ‘systemic’, ‘institutional’ or ‘structural racism’ may relate to specific processes which can be identified, but they can also relate to the feeling described by many ethnic minorities of ‘not belonging,’” the report said. “There is certainly a class of actions, behaviours and incidents at the organisational level which cause ethnic minorities to lack a sense of belonging. This is often informally expressed as feeling ‘othered.’” But even that modest concession was immediately qualified. “However, as with hate incidents, this can have a highly subjective dimension for those tasked with investigating the claim.” Finally, the report concluded, the terms in question were inherently extreme. “Terms like ‘structural racism’ have roots in a critique of capitalism, which states that racism is inextricably linked to capitalism. So by that definition, until that system is abolished racism will flourish.”
The effect of these language games is simply to limit the terms available to describe a phenomenon that indeed exists. Because structural racism is not some progressive shibboleth: It kills people, which need not be controversial or even political to admit. For one recent example in the UK, look no further than Covid-19 deaths. The nation’s Office for National Statistics concluded that Black citizens were more than four times as likely to die of Covid as white citizens, while British citizens of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage were more than three times as likely to die. These disparities were present even among health workers directly employed by the state: Of the National Health Service clinical staff who succumbed to the virus, a staggering 60 percent were “BAME”—Black, Asian, or minority ethnic, a term that the government’s report deemed “no longer helpful” and “demeaning.” Beyond Covid-19, reports show that Black British women are more than four times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as their white counterparts; British women of an Asian ethnic background die at twice the rate of white women.
In the countries of Europe as in the United States, the battle over “woke” ideas is also a battle over each nation’s history—how it is written, how it is taught, how it is understood.
Perhaps nowhere is this more acutely felt than in Britain, where the inescapable legacy of empire has become the center of an increasingly acrimonious public debate. Of particular note has been the furor over how to think about Winston Churchill, who remains something of a national avatar. In September, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust renamed itself the Churchill Fellowship, removed certain pictures of the former prime minister from its website, and seemed to distance itself from its namesake. “Many of his views on race are widely seen as unacceptable today, a view that we share,” the Churchill Fellowship declared. This followed the November 2020 decision by Britain’s beloved National Trust, which operates an extensive network of stately homes throughout the country, to demarcate about 100 properties with explicit ties to slavery and colonialism.
These moves elicited the ire of many conservatives, including the prime minister. “We need to focus on addressing the present and not attempt to rewrite the past and get sucked into the never-ending debate about which well-known historical figures are sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view,” Johnson’s spokesman said in response to the Churchill brouhaha. But for Hilary McGrady, the head of the National Trust, “the genie is out of the bottle in terms of people wanting to understand where wealth came from,” she told London’s Evening Standard. McGrady justified the trust’s decision by saying that as public sensibilities change, so too must institutions. “One thing that possibly has changed is there may be things people find offensive, and we have to be sensitive about that.”
A fierce countermovement to these institutional changes has already emerged. In the words of David Abulafia, 71, an acclaimed historian of the Mediterranean at Cambridge University and one of the principal architects of this countermovement, “We can never surrender to the woke witch hunt against our island story.”
This was the actual title of an op-ed by Abulafia that the Daily Mail published in early September, which attacked “today’s woke zealots” who “exploit history as an instrument of propaganda—and as a means of bullying the rest of us.” The piece also announced the History Reclaimed initiative, of which Abulafia is a cofounder: a new online platform run by a board of frustrated British historians who seek to “provide context, explanation and balance in a debate in which condemnation is too often preferred to understanding.” As a historian myself, I should say that I greatly admire Abulafia’s work, particularly its wide-ranging synthesis and its literary quality, neither of which is easy to achieve and both of which have been models for me in my own work. Which is why I was surprised to find a piece by him in the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid not exactly known for academic rigor. When I spoke with Abulafia about it, he seemed a little embarrassed. “It’s basically an interview that they turn into text and then send back to you,” he told me. “Some of the sentences have been generated by the Daily Mail.”
As in the United States, the UK’s Black Lives Matter protests led to the toppling of statues, including the one in downtown Bristol of Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant whose wealth derived in part from his active involvement in the slave trade. Abulafia told me he prefers a “retain and explain” approach, which means keeping such statues in place but adding context to them when necessary. I asked him about the public presentation of statues and whether by their very prominence they command an implicit honor and respect. He seemed unconvinced. “You look at statues and you’re not particularly aware of what they show,” he said.
“What do you do about Simon de Montfort?” Abulafia continued. “He is commemorated at Parliament, and he did manage to rein in the power of monarchy. But he was also responsible for some horrific pogroms against the Jews. Everyone has a different perspective on these people. It seems to me that what we have to say is that human beings are complex; we often have contradictory ideas, mishmash that goes in any number of different directions. Churchill defeated the Nazis, but lower down the page one might mention that he held views on race that are not our own. Maintaining that sense of proportion is important.”
All of these are reasonable points, but what I still don’t understand is why history as it was understood by a previous generation must be the history understood by future generations. Statues are not history; they are interpretations of history created at a certain moment in time. Historians rebuke previous interpretations of the past on the page all the time; we rewrite accounts of well-known events according to our own contemporary perspectives and biases. What is so sacred about a statue?
I asked Abulafia why all of this felt so personal to him, because it doesn’t feel that way to me. He replied, “I think there’s an element of this: There is a feeling that younger scholars might be disadvantaged if they don’t support particular views of the past. I can think of examples of younger scholars who’ve been very careful on this issue, who are not really taking sides on that issue.” But I am exactly such a younger scholar, and no one has ever forced me to uphold a certain opinion, either at Harvard or at Oxford. For Abulafia, however, this is a terrifying moment. “One of the things that really worries me about this whole business is the lack of opportunities for debate.”
Whatever one thinks of “woke” purity tests, it cannot be argued in good faith that the loudest European voices on the anti-woke side of the argument are really interested in “debate.” In France especially, the anti-woke moment has become particularly toxic because its culture warriors—on both the right and the left—have succeeded in associating “le wokeisme” with defenses of Islamist terrorism. Without question, France has faced the brunt of terrorist violence in Europe in recent years: Since 2015, more than 260 people have been killed in a series of attacks, shaking the confidence of all of us who live here. The worst year was 2015, flanked as it was by the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan concert hall attacks. But something changed after Paty’s brutal murder in 2020. After a long, miserable year of Covid lockdowns, the French elite—politicians and press alike—began looking for something to blame. And so “wokeness” was denounced as an apology for terrorist violence; in the view of the French establishment, to emphasize identity politics was to sow the social fractures that led to Paty’s beheading. “Wokeness” became complicit in the crime, while freedom of expression was reserved for supporters of the French establishment.
The irony is fairly clear: Those who purported to detest American psychodramas about race and social justice had to rely on—and, in fact, to import—the tools of an American culture war to battle what they felt threatened by in their own country. In the case of Paty’s murder and its aftermath, there was another glaring irony, this time about the values so allegedly dear to the anti-woke contingent. The middle school teacher, who was targeted by a Chechen asylum seeker because he had shown cartoons of the prophet Muhammad as part of a civics lesson about free speech, was immediately lionized as an avatar for the freedom of expression, which the French government quite rightly championed as a value it would always protect. “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” Macron told Al Jazeera shortly after Paty’s killing. This would have been reassuring had it not been completely disingenuous: Shortly thereafter, Macron presided over a crackdown on “islamo-gauchisme” in French universities, a term his ministers used with an entirely straight face. If there is a single paradox that describes French cultural life in 2021, it is this: “Islamophobia” is a word one is supposed to avoid, but “Islamo-leftism” is a phenomenon one is expected to condemn.
Hundreds of academics—including at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France’s most prestigious research body—attacked the government’s crusade against an undefined set of ideas that were somehow complicit in the Islamist terror attacks that had rocked the country. Newspapers like Le Monde came out against the targeting of “islamo-gauchisme,” and there were weeks of tedious newspaper polemics about whether the term harks back to the “Judeo-Bolshevism” of the 1930s (of course it does) or whether it describes a real phenomenon. In any case, the Macron government backtracked in the face of prolonged ridicule. But the trauma of the terror attacks and the emotional hysteria they unleashed will linger: France has also reconfigured its commitment to laïcité, the secularism that the French treat as an unknowable philosophical ideal but that is actually just the freedom to believe or not to believe as each citizen sees fit. Laïcité has become a weapon in the culture war, instrumentalized in the fight against an enemy that the French government assures its critics is radical Islamism but increasingly looks like ordinary Islam.
The issue of the veil is infamously one of the most polarizing and violent in French public debate. The dominant French view is a function of universalist ideology, which holds that the veil is a symbol of religious oppression; it cannot be worn by choice. A law passed in 2004 prohibits the veil from being worn in high schools, and a separate 2010 law bans the face-covering niqab from being worn anywhere in public, on the grounds that “in free and democratic societies…o exchange between people, no social life is possible, in public space, without reciprocity of look and visibility: people meet and establish relationships with their faces uncovered.” (Needless to say, this republican value was more than slightly complicated by the imposition of a mask mandate during the 2020 pandemic.)
In any case, when Muslim women wear the veil in public, which is their legal right and in no way a violation of laïcité, they come under attack. In 2019, for instance, then–Health Minister Agnès Buzyn—who is now being investigated for mismanaging the early days of the pandemic—decried the marketing of a runner’s hijab by the French sportswear brand Decathlon, because of the “communitarian” threat it apparently posed to universalism. “I would have preferred a French brand not to promote the veil,” Buzyn said. Likewise, Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, conceded that although it was technically legal for mothers to wear head scarves, he wanted to avoid allowing them to chaperone school trips “as much as possible.”
Nicolas Cadène, the former head of France’s national Observatory of Secularism—a laïcité watchdog, in other words—was constantly criticized by members of the French government for being too “soft” on Muslim communal organizations, with whose leaders he regularly met. Earlier this year, the observatory that Cadène ran was overhauled and replaced with a new commission that took a harder line. He remarked to me, “You have political elites and intellectuals who belong to a closed society—it’s very homogeneous—and who are not well-informed about the reality of society. These are people who in their daily lives are not in contact with those who come from diverse backgrounds. There is a lack of diversity in that elite. France is not the white man—there is a false vision [among] our elites about what France is—but they are afraid of this diversity. They see it as a threat to their reality.”
As in the United States, there is a certain pathos in the European war on woke, especially in the battalion of crusaders who belong to Cleese and Finkielkraut’s generation. For them, “wokeism” —a term that has no clear meaning and that each would probably define differently—is a personal affront. They see the debate as being somehow about them. The British politician Enoch Powell famously said that all political lives end in failure. A corollary might be that all cultural careers end in irrelevance, a reality that so many of these characters refuse to accept, but that eventually comes for us all—if we are lucky. For many on both sides of the Atlantic, being aggressively anti-woke is a last-ditch attempt at mattering, which is the genuinely pathetic part. But it is difficult to feel pity for those in that camp, because their reflex is, inescapably, an outgrowth of entitlement: To resent new voices taking over is to believe that you always deserve a microphone. The truth is that no one does.