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French Education Minister's 'Islamo-Leftism' Probe Meets Academic Backlash

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You've probably heard some of the recent debate over how U.S. history should be taught - the strong reactions to the 1619 Project, for example, and then the former president's push for so-called patriotic education. Well, a similar fight is also playing out in France. The French academic world is in an uproar after President Emmanuel Macron's minister for higher education ordered a report into what she called Islamo-leftism in the nation's universities. That is a politically charged term often used by the right to describe those on the left who they say defend Muslims to the point of being blind to the threat of terrorism.

We go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley now to tell us more. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Oh, Michel, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So what's this all about?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this week, the minister for higher education, Frederique Vidal, said that universities and the world of research is being gangrened by Islamo-gauchisme (ph), as it's called in French. Here she is speaking about it on a television talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDERIQUE VIDAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Vidal called for an investigation to determine what is truly academic research and what is militant activism and opinion in universities. And in response, 600 heads of universities signed an open letter saying they're shocked. And they denounced what they called a sterile controversy over the issue of Islamo-leftism. And they say it's an attempt to delegitimize certain fields of research like post-colonial studies.

And, Michel, they also said that the problem right now in universities and with students is the pandemic. It's hitting them so hard, and that's where people need to be, you know, trying to do something, not this useless debate.

MARTIN: What does this term Islamo-leftism mean?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's funny. Everyone's talking about it, but no one can really define it or say if it even exists. It's a term - it was coined several years ago, used by the right, to define those on the left who are too politically correct and who go - who they say go too far to defend Muslims and Islam to the point of being blind to the threats of extremist Islam.

MARTIN: And is there a reason this is coming up now?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. The lower house of parliament just passed a law in France to crack down on what President Emmanuel Macron has called separatist Islam. The government has defined that as, you know, hardcore Islamists who are flouting French laws like gender equality and secularism to live within their own religious communities. And Macron has said that separatism leads to radicalism. And so this law gives the state enhanced powers to shut down religious groups or organizations that are judged to be extremist or who espouse hatred of French values.

You know, Michel, you have to understand, it's a very sensitive time in France, where just a couple months ago, a middle school teacher was actually beheaded by an Islamist extremist because he had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his class on free speech. And, you know, France had several deadly terrorist attacks from homegrown Islamist extremists in 2015. And there's really an emotional debate over how to stop these attacks.

MARTIN: And is there a political backdrop to all of this?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. The backdrop is the presidential election in 2022. You know, President Macron was elected on a centrist, even a left-of-center platform. He's clearly veering to the right with his eye on this election because his most viable opponent right now is far-right leader Marine Le Pen again. And he's trying to cut her legs out from under her before the campaign even begins. And that's why he's doing this.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLO AND PAN SONG, "ZOOM ZOOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.