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PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to appoint historian Pap Ndiaye as education minister has reignited a bitter cultural clash over France’s relationship with U.S.-style wokeism.
The nomination of Ndiaye, a specialist in U.S. history and minority issues, has raised concerns he will try to impose a foreign vision on Macron’s plans for sweeping education reforms in France — a country that has long cherished its “universalist” tradition, which in principle is blind to people’s color and origin.
France’s political class has traditionally been wary of wokeism — woke being a term that originally meant remaining alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, but is now used as a catch-all insult by the political right for left-wing and progressive causes.
Macron’s appointment of Ndiaye in a government reshuffle also marks a complete U-turn following the sacking of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer — a secularist who had been leading the fight against wokeism and went as far as creating a think tank to fight woke ideas.
Since his nomination, Ndiaye has come under attack from France’s far right, with the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen accusing him of planning “the deconstruction of our country, its values and its future.”
“I don’t care a fig about the color of his skin,” the former presidential contender said. “But if this is the ideology we are going to impose on our children, it is a catastrophe.”
Defenders of the Paris-born historian of French and Senegalese descent say accusations against him are overblown and an expression of latent racism in France.
In a move that showed he was aware of the concerns provoked by his appointment, Ndiaye last week made his first visit as minister to a high school where a history teacher was killed in an Islamist attack and which has become a symbol of France’s commitment to secularism.
Ndiaye is in favor of positive discrimination, of allowing safe spaces for people of color, and has said France suffers from “structural racism” but refuses to use the terms “white privilege” or “state racism.”
He has also distanced himself from woke activists in the past.
“I share most of their causes, but I don’t approve of the moralizing or sectarian discourse of some of them,” he said in an interview last year.
“I feel more cool than woke,” he added.
The appointment is a crowning moment for an academic who isn’t an unfamiliar figure in policy circles. A professor at the prestigious Sciences Po political college in Paris, where he specializes in African-American history, Ndiaye has advised government bodies on diversity. In February 2021, Macron named Ndiaye as the head of France’s immigration museum, with the aim of calming tensions around a highly inflammatory subject: colonial history.
While Ndiaye earned his reputation as a high-flyer in France, graduating from the highly selective Ecole Normale Supérieure, it’s his academic pedigree in the U.S. that has proved controversial. After studying at the University of Virginia in the U.S. for several years, Ndiaye became outspoken on minority issues and treaded a fine line on potentially explosive issues linked to identity in France.
Much of the debate around Ndiaye’s nomination has focused on whether he will defend France’s brand of universalism, in which citizenship and sense of belonging to the French nation are meant to transcend race, gender and religion. In the French Republican mindset, tools such as affirmative action or ethnic statistics, while justified in the U.S. to deal with the legacy of slavery and segregation, reduce citizens to the color of their skin in France.
Sociologist and vocal critic of wokeism Mathieu Bock-Côté said Ndiaye’s nomination “legitimizes” the imposition of U.S. woke concepts in France, instead of organizing the resistance to “colonization of French universities by the American left.”
“Both the U.S. and France lay claims to universalism. But the French have an aspiration to define citizens beyond ethnicity and not assign them to their communities,” he said.
“I cannot become black, and a black person cannot become white, but we can both be French [and share the same] culture, language and history,” he said, adding that the French mindset offered more “potential for emancipation.”
But many maintain France’s vision, while admirable in theory, falls short in practice and is unable to address persistent discrimination in French society. Macron himself has drawn fire from the left for taking a “too repressive” approach to defending French values to placate the far right, instead of improving the lives of France’s minorities. While France does not produce ethnicity statistics, OECD figures show it is at the bottom of the index in terms of social mobility.
“We have turned multiculturalism into such a bogeyman that there’s a real misunderstanding about how the U.S. works,” said Denis Lacorne, a Sciences Po lecturer and U.S. specialist as well as a former colleague of Ndiaye.
“It’s completely possible to be patriotic, subscribe to American civic duties, and remain very attached to one’s religious and cultural communities,” he said, as opposed to France’s “all or nothing” approach.
According to Lacorne, Ndiaye is “a moderate” and “a product of French meritocracy” who shouldn’t be reduced to his public comments on U.S. wokeism.
“To believe he is beholden to the U.S. that is seeking to penetrate France with the object of destroying French civilization is grotesque,” he added.
What is less clear to many in France is Macron’s rationale for hiring Ndiaye. In the past, the French president had been very critical of ideas imported from U.S. campuses. In 2020, Macron slammed “Anglo-Saxon traditions based on a different history” during a speech on radicalization and the risk of communities breaking apart.
“When I see certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States, with their problems, which exist and I respect, but which are just added to ours,” he said.
His previous education minister, Blanquer, had made the defense of France’s universalist model a cornerstone of his tenure, and inaugurated a think tank to combat woke concepts in French universities. His keynote appearance at an anti-woke conference at the Sorbonne during a peak of the COVID-19 epidemic in 2021 was seen as a step too far.
“Is this a politically motivated move? Or has Macron had a change of heart on the question of French identity, it’s not clear,” said Bock-Côté.
Macron has handed most of the top jobs to figures from the right, nominating conservatives at the interior ministry, the economy ministry, the defense ministry and the foreign affairs ministry. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections in June, Macron is under pressure to show his left-wing credentials as he faces a challenge from far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has sided with woke activists in recent years.
Ndiaye’s nomination has also been welcomed by teachers’ trade unions, who will have to be persuaded to work on Macron’s controversial education reforms, which include granting schools greater freedom on pay and hiring practices. Blanquer’s term was marred by an abrupt and at times confusing management of the COVID-19 pandemic and he was accused of a top-down management style.
The question remains as to whether Macron is embracing new ideas on French identity, or if the appointment is a political move aimed at placating a key voting block that typically sides with the left.