The virtual Munich Security Conference kicked off Friday with a wary warming of ties between President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron. The New York Times’s write-up of the confab noted the overall positive tone while acknowledging Macron’s resistance to Biden’s transatlantic bonhomie: Macron “made an impassioned defense of his concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ from the United States, making the case that Europe can no longer be overly dependent on the United States as it focuses more of its attention on Asia, especially China.”
A French president with a prickly attitude toward NATO is nothing new. Macron, however, has gone further than his predecessors in treating other aspects of the United States as a threat to him and his.
In November, Macron called up the Times’s Ben Smith to vent about how the U.S. mainstream media was covering his administration: According to Smith, “The [French] president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our ‘bias,’ our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.”
Macron and his cabinet opened up another front of attack last fall: a battle against American social sciences. In an Oct. 2 speech, he warned against French universities ceding intellectual ground to “Anglo-Saxon traditions based on a different history, which is not ours,” including “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States.” Later that month, his education minister warned that “there’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities.”
Last week, this French government added some teeth to this rhetoric, according to the Times’s Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut: “Stepping up its attacks on social science theories that it says threaten France, the French government announced this week that it would launch an investigation into academic research that it says feeds ‘Islamo-leftist’ tendencies that ‘corrupt society.’”
As a U.S. university-based social scientist who writes regularly for a mainstream media outlet, I could be flattered that me and mine ostensibly pose such an existential threat to the Fifth Republic. Instead, I must confess to confusion. Having resided in the belly of the U.S. academic beast for decades, the notion that it poses a threat to the French marketplace of ideas strikes me as borderline absurd.
The most obvious tell is Macron’s deluded claim that the U.S. ideas he opposes, namely postcolonial thought, are an American invention. My first exposure to these ideas was as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, about which I remember two things: I received the worst grades in my life on the subject matter, and that subject matter consisted primarily of U.S. interpretations of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Spoiler alert: Those dudes were French.