A few weeks ago, one of my dear friends, who is a middle-school history teacher in the Paris banlieues, was accused of flouting the values of the French Republic. She had suggested, to an English teacher, that because many of her students were of Indian descent, it would be valuable to spend class time studying the history of decolonization in India. The French history curriculum allows teachers to choose between a unit on the end of the French empire in Algeria or a unit on the end of the British Empire in India. My friend was suggesting that a teacher could choose—from pre-approved content—a lesson that might resonate more with a majority of the students in her classroom. Outraged, the English teacher exclaimed, “Where did you get such an idea? Since when do we base our curriculum on our students’ origins or race? This goes against the values of l’École Républicaine!”
This incident exemplifies two troubling aspects of the 2021 iteration of the French Culture Wars. First, this English teacher’s overt anxiety surrounding the history of decolonization. Second, the fact that adjusting the curriculum to the students would somehow be foreign to the values of the French school system—an unrepublican effort to accommodate students’ potential interests. I will address both of these issues in this piece.
In November 2020, shortly after the murder of school teacher Samuel Paty, a hundred French scholars signed an open letter to Le Monde in which they condemned the “indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies (transferred from north-American campuses), which fed a hatred of “whites” and of France.” A handful of these signatories were so worried about this “decolonial ideology” that they created the Observatoire du Décolonialisme [Observatory of Decolonialism] in December 2020, with the expressed intent of surveilling the evolution of these imported ideas and of protecting French minds from these “decolonial tyrannies.” Since then Le Monde, Le Point, France Culture, Mediapart, and other French media sources have been incessantly publishing op-eds, articles, and podcasts about this “trench war” around the questions of race, gender, and postcolonialism. The titles themselves are evocative. The more conservative magazine Le Point writes “Colonialism” that other virus striking France,” or “Decolonials, Racialists, Identitarists: a Survey of the New Fanatics.” On the other hand, the more left-leaning online publication Mediapart publishes “For a Decolonial and Antiracist Feminism,” or “Race” and “Racism”: the New Masks for the Far Right.”
What is particularly baffling about the anxiety surrounding “decolonial studies” is that several historians and political-scientists—scholars who themselves have done much to advance our understanding of postcolonialism—are now publishing op-eds condemning scholars, whom they perceive, as “decolonial tyrants [and] ordinary fascists.” One such scholar is Pierre Vermeren. A prolific historian of Islam and the Maghreb, Vermeren bemoaned the lack of research on the postcolonial Maghreb in a 2012 essay entitled The Poverty of Historiography on the Postcolonial Maghreb. Yet, in a February 2021 article featured in Le Point and entitled “Colonial un jour, colonial toujours” [Colonial one day, colonial forever], Vermeren penned a different message. To Vermeren, it seems, scholars are wasting their time writing about “decolonial subjects of the past” instead of writing about contemporary issues such as “the tragedies of the Uighurs, the rapid genocide of the Christians in the Orient (four million in ten years), or the conversion of the billions of dollars in petrodollars […] in capital for the rapid Salafisation of the world.” Scholars like Vermeren operate under the mistaken assumption that there isn’t enough room in the social sciences for work on the Uighurs and work on the “decolonial subjects of the past.” In a February 2021 edition of the France Culture podcast “Le temps du débat,” scholar Nathalie Heinich made a similar observation, claiming that she did not oppose working on “the lesbian population of the Breton beaches” per se, but that these somewhat trivial topics were taking away from the serious research she and her colleagues at the Observatoire du Décolonialisme were concerned with. Unbeknownst to scholars who seek to research all aspects of the world’s societies, Vermeren and Heinich are operating in an assumed economy of scarcity. Instead of demanding more money for all research in the social sciences, they have ranked the value of research by what, they believe, to be not only the most important and politically salient but also by what happens to be the most agreeable to the ideology of republican universalism.
Reading through the articles published by the Observatoire du Décolonialisme, one gets the feeling that these French scholars are sick of thinking about colonialism as if they were all collectively sighing: “it’s been 60 or so years, can’t we move on now,” or, as Vermeren put it, “Colonial one day, colonial forever?” These French scholars want to lay the blame at the feet of the “African despots, the feudal Saudis” rather than on systemic and institutional realities. But these scholars are falling into the very trap laid out by many post-colonial African despots who, in the aftermath of decolonization skillfully appropriated the revolutions led against the colonial powers. Monopolizing postcolonial cultural production, the rulers of countries such as Tunisia or Senegal propagated the idea of freedom as collective liberation from foreign rule. In treating that concept as a truism, many scholars of the postcolonial period have limited their study of decolonization to the political and territorial transfer between the former colonies and the new states, restricting the role of intellectuals and artists to that of anti-colonial agitators. Decolonization in that sense only took place in the context of the relationship between colonizer and colonized. It was not a process that could be inwardly focused and geared towards mental or psychological decolonization.
This scholarship has thus rendered invisible a generation of intellectuals and artists who understood decolonization as a longue-durée process. Militant-artists such as Moroccan Abdellatif Laâbi, Algerian Jean Sénac, Mauritanian Med Hondo, or Guadeloupean Sarah Maldoror understood that anti-colonial struggles were not just about claiming territory for the new nation-states, but also about the liberation of the human mind and soul. Indeed, in the postcolonial Middle East and Africa, several intellectuals and artists repeatedly challenged their states’ authoritarianism, careful not to confuse the construction of the postcolonial identity with a brand of nationalism that condoned exclusion and repression. These intellectuals knew that decolonization was not finished, that continued vigilance was necessary to ward off the sticky hands of neocolonialism, and to truly achieve cultural, intellectual, and psychological independence. In a departure from the preceding generation who fought for territorial independence, these young poets, militants, writers, and filmmakers conceived of an anti-colonial struggle that was not simply about reclaiming land for the new nation-state, but more importantly, about reclaiming their minds from the culture of colonialism. French scholars of 20th-century history must continue to write about decolonization for, as of now, we have only written a very small part of the story. We must look at decolonization as a longue durée process, rather than the product of just a few years, and uncover the multitude of figures that stood in the shadows of the postcolonial states. We must not shy away from teaching the complicated history of decolonization so that future generations of French citizens do not suffer from such anxiety at the simple mention of the concept.
Another striking aspect of this agitation around “decolonial studies” is the idea that it is somehow imported from American university campuses. “In the United-States, where the cultural, decolonial, and racial studies have dominated campuses for decades,” writes Vermeren, “society is fractured and eroding under fantasies of civil war.” Vermeren goes on, warning that France may not be far behind if decolonial studies continue to proliferate. With these words, Vermeren joins French President Emmanuel Macron, and French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, in blaming proponents of American multiculturalism and progressive American professors as the exporters of a “woke” gospel and cancel culture that now threatens France.
Associating “decolonial studies” with American campuses is probably the most misleading idea that the members of the Observatoire du Décolonialisme are peddling. The opponents of “decolonial studies” are unwilling to recognize that many decolonial intellectuals came from within France, such as Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, to name just a few. Many of the young men and women who fought for cultural liberation in the immediate aftermath of the territorial transfer of power would be loath to be compared to the “woke” students of American campuses. In March 1966, in Rabat, a group of Moroccan poets and artists, avid readers of Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, discontent with the possibilities that the Moroccan artistic institutions had to offer, started to print a journal, entitled Souffles, a zine filled with audacious poetry, decolonial manifestos, and radical thought pieces. Inspired by Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, the members of Souffles attempted to decolonize their writing, as well as their day-to-day lives. Over its seven years of publication from 1966 to 1973, Souffles took off from a small Moroccan literary journal to a paper caucus through which writers from across the African continent and the Diaspora wove together an anti-neocolonial movement. At the core of Souffles’ mission was the belief that decolonization was not finished, and that continued vigilance was necessary to combat neocolonialism. “The immense majority of formerly colonized peoples have not yet regained a sense of self, of their existential sovereignty, of their right to speak,” wrote Souffles co-founder, Abdellatif Laâbi, in 1967, “And most of their intellectuals (who are the peoples’ spokesmen), who think of themselves as free, are actually unknowingly fighting with very subtle forms of alienation." The members of Souffles were very eager not to be confused with the White poets, beatniks, hippies, or “hairy marijuana dealers” of Paris and Woodstock. They made clear that they were not mere “marchers of war and peace their intention was not to beat the “tam-tams of victory," to loll in the comforts of folklore and exoticism, but rather to “dynamite the rotten halls of the old humanisms."
The members of the Observatoire du Décolonialisme are constantly raising the specter of division—claiming that if France continues in its current direction, it will end up like the US, a country divided along lines of party, race, and zip code, sinking under the weight of its unreckoned-with past. What I’ve found striking in the past few years during my research on post-colonial intellectuals and their hopes for the future of the postcolonial world, is their profound sense of a common humanity. People like Moroccan Abdellatif Laâbi, Algerian Jean Sénac, Guadeloupean Sarah Maldoror, or Angolan Mario de Andrade transcended linguistic, national, or racial divisions, they evaded any appeals to restrictive categories. Like many of us today they crossed broad swaths of the earth, spoke Arabic, Portuguese, English, French, Wolof, Kimbundu, and more—mixing and splicing these languages in their poetry, film, and political work. In many ways, they were the embodiment of the type of Creole community Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant called for in their 1989 Éloge de la Créolite, In Praise of Creoleness. Like these three French scholars, I think it is time to acknowledge that creolity is the bond that holds French culture together; the aggregate of cultural elements from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Levant that the yoke of history has brought together on the same land: the French republic.
[Lisez la version française de cet article ici.]
 «Une centaine d’universitaires alertent : « Sur l’islamisme, ce qui nous menace, c’est la persistance du déni,» Le Monde, October 31st 2020, https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/10/31/une-centaine-d-universitaires-alertent-sur-l-islamisme-ce-qui-nous-menace-c-est-la-persistance-du-deni_6057989_3232.html.
 See for instance : Samuel Laurent, « A l’université, une guerre de tranchées autour des questions de race, de genre ou d’écriture inclusive, » Le Monde, March 15th 2021, https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2021/03/15/a-l-universite-une-guerre-de-tranchees-autour-des-questions-de-race-de-genre-ou-d-ecriture-inclusive_6073126_3224.html; Emmanuel Laurentin, « Guerre culturelle, bataille sociétale : comment qualifier ce qui nous arrive, » Le Temps du Débat, France Culture, March 9th 2021, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-temps-du-debat/guerre-culturelle-bataille-societale-comment-qualifier-ce-qui-nous-arrive; Emmanuel Laurentin, « Le militantisme à l’université pose-t-il problème ? » Le Temps du Débat, France Culture, February 22nd 2021, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-temps-du-debat/le-temps-du-debat-emission-du-lundi-22-fevrier-2021; Emmanuel Laurentin, « Diversité à l’Opéra : le modèle français fait-il de la résistance, » Le Temps du Débat, France Culture, January 6th 2021, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-temps-du-debat/le-temps-du-debat-emission-du-mercredi-06-janvier-2021.
 Xavier-Laurent Salvador, « « Colonialisme », cet autre virus qui frappe la France… » Le Point, January 26th 2021, https://www.lepoint.fr/debats/le-colonialisme-cet-autre-virus-qui-frappe-la-france-26-01-2021-2411231_2.php; Clément Pétreault, “Décoloniaux, racialistes, identitaristes : enquête sur les nouveaux fanatiques, » Le Point, January 13th 2021, https://www.lepoint.fr/politique/decoloniaux-racialistes-identitaristes-enquete-sur-les-nouveaux-fanatiques-13-01-2021-2409521_20.php.
 Lucie Delaporte, « « Race », « Racisme » : les nouveaux masques de l’extrême droite, » Mediapart, January 12th 2021, https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/120121/race-racisme-les-nouveaux-masques-de-l-extreme-droite; Guillaume Jacquemart, « Pour un féminisme décolonial et antiraciste, » Mediapart, December 18th 2020, https://blogs.mediapart.fr/guillaumejacquemart/blog/181220/pour-un-feminisme-decolonial-et-antiraciste.
 François Rastier, « Les tyrans décoloniaux, des fascistes ordinaires, » Le Point, February 1st 2021, https://www.lepoint.fr/debats/lesuAdqtyrans-decoloniaux-des-fascistes-ordinaires-01-02-2021-2412151_2.php.
 Pierre Vermeren, « Colonial un jours, colonial toujours, » Le Point, February 23rd 2021, https://www.lepoint.fr/debats/colonial-un-jour-colonial-toujours-23-02-2021-2415129_2.php#xtmc=decolonialisme&xtnp=1&xtcr=2.
 Emmanuel Laurentin, « Le militantisme à l’université pose-t-il problème ? » Le Temps du Débat, France Culture, February 22nd 2021, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-temps-du-debat/le-temps-du-debat-emission-du-lundi-22-fevrier-2021
 Rastier, “Les tyrans” op.cit.
 For more see: Yoav Di Capua, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, and Decolonization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), pp. 14-16.
 For more see Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, (New York: Grove Press, 2008) and Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
 Vermeren, “Colonial un jours” op. cit.
 Abdellatif Laâbi, “Réalités et dilemmes de la culture nationale (II),” Souffles, Number 6, (Second Trimester 1967), p. 33.
 Mario de Andrade, “Culture et Lutte Armée,” Souffles, Number 9, (First Trimester 1968), p. 54.
 Abdellatif Laâbi, « Prologue, » Souffles, Number 1, (First Trimester 1966), p. 6.
 Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Rafaël Confiant, L’Éloge de la Créolité, In Praise of Creoleness, (Paris : Gallimard, 1993).