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.”
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.”