Last week the British government proposed a free speech law to address what they described as the “chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”. Anyone who might reasonably consider themselves to have been denied a platform for their views would have a legal basis for seeking compensation, with guidance from a new government appointed ‘free speech champion’.
Amongst the variety of reactions, many argued that there were in fact very few universities or student unions where ‘no-platforming’ of controversial speakers had taken place. But if such incidents are rare, why would the British government propose such significant measures and launch them with the fanfare of a major policy announcement?
Last week, in an interview on CNews, French Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal declared, “I think that ‘Islamo-leftism’ is eating away at our society as a whole, and universities are not immune”. Vidal said she will commission an inquiry by the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) and other academic bodies focusing on research being undertaken into racism and French colonial policy. The term ‘Islamo-leftism’ has mainly been used by the far-right to discredit human rights advocacy, including on multiple occasions against one of the co-authors of this blog.
Anti-racism researchers and campaigners have been a particular target for the term ‘Islamo-leftism’, including by those who fear that greater public understanding of how France gained its wealth over recent centuries will undermine the core tenets of French identity that bind society together. However, it is a false and provocative term which will only sow more division.
The National Scientific Research Centre agreed to undertake the Minister’s investigation but made clear its disagreement with attempts to delegitimise post-colonial studies and other research areas. The Conference of University Presidents (CPU) reacted very quickly, referring to the Minister’s comments and the resulting media storm as a ‘Sterile controversy‘.
Polarisation: media and government
A French government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, also responded quickly to reassure critics that the government believed in the importance of the independence of academic research. However, by this time the controversy had been aired across the 24-hour media. Politicians were called on to respond, placing themselves on one side of the dividing line or the other as soon as they opened their mouths. Likewise, the wider public is presented with Facebook posts to Share and Like – drawing them further into a ‘culture war’ whose terms are defined by elites with a divide and rule strategy.
This comes at a difficult time for France. A mounting number high-profile violent acts have been committed by young men (most notably the murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher killed in October 2020 by a man who believed Paty had insulted God when showing cartoons in a lesson about free speech). In response, the French National Assembly adopted the ‘Respect of the Republican Principles’, also known as the law against separatism, which includes measures that limit freedom of association (as well as some welcome measures against online hate speech).
A series of incidents of police violence against Black and Brown people have also been captured on camera in France in recent months and shared on social media. One of the few cases to make it into the international press was that of music producer Michel Zecler who was recorded being beaten by four police officers, who are alleged to have then falsified statements before the CCTV footage emerged showing their accounts to be untrue. The racial dimension of such incidents has provided a platform for anti-racism campaigners to draw attention to the colonial origins of French policing.
To demonstrate support for the police the government produced a Global Security Bill that will, among other things restrict the right of the public to publish or broadcast images of police and gendarmes on duty. As we have seen in US in recent years, this tactic asks the public to make the false choice between blue lives and Black lives. The government are pressing ahead despite criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and many others. This is perhaps unsurprising as the measure sends an important signal to the electorate about whose side the government is on in the imagined culture war – just over a year ahead of the French presidential elections.
Back in Britain, and it seems by exaggerating the threat to free speech at universities the government was able to dominate the media agenda, deciding exactly where to draw the dividing lines between those that would agree with the government and those who would not. The result was to create and reinforce a perception amongst particular segments of the electorate that the government is on their side, protecting them from an imagined ‘radical’ minority that seeks to undermine long-held ‘common sense’ notions of security, gender, empire, economic morality, etc.
Recently proposed government appointments to politically and culturally influential positions, such as chair of the British communications regulator Ofcom, give an impression of a wider government strategy. We have also seen deliberately and visibly hostile policies towards asylum seekers. And in recent weeks instructions to government ministers to erect British flags in their homes so they can appear in front of them in lockdown TV interviews – as they proclaim that this government will not allow public institutions to “re-write history” when assessing their colonial connections.
In the last few days the British government have also announced the appointment of William Shawcross to review Prevent, its programme to identify and interrupt violent extremism. Shawcross has been criticised for comments he has made about Islam, and Amnesty International and other human rights groups have said that from his appointment, “It is apparent that the government intends to use this review to whitewash the strategy and give it a clean bill of health, without interrogating, in good faith, its impacts on human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Both this story, and the reaction to it, generate newspaper articles and radio discussions that will reinforce a perception amongst the public that the government believes in a tough counter-terrorism policy, compared to others who are naive on matters of security.
It is not easy to know how we can prevent European politics from being dragged further into a culture war. Comedian Stewart Lee is often asked to comment on news stories that have little basis in fact, but that seek to provoke social conflict. His advice is not to engage.
Lee describes the tactics of culture war proponents as trying to “provoke you into responding in some way, and if they can provoke you to respond in an angry way then you become a caricature, of the angry Black man, or the uppity Black women, or the miserable left-winger and that gets snipped out and circulated around … Avoid being wound up because that’s what they want. They fabricate the culture war, they make up the story, and then they want someone to say something unguarded about it because they have been wound up, and this is a strategy they have learned from Trump”.
A culture war will only hurt France and Britain. It’s not living peaceably, it’s not the beloved community. It is not what any of us want as people of faith or people with humanist or secular values. Let us not engage on these terms, but frame conversations that bind up the wounds of society.
Clémence Buchet–Couzy and Andrew Lane
Nothing does reason more right, than the coolness of those who offer it, for truth often suffers more by the heat of its defenders, than from the arguments of its opposers.
William Penn, 1644-1718