Will France Go Woke?


by Justin E. H. Smith

In the 19th

On arriving in Paris in 2013, I went to open a bank account. The personal banker assigned to me, who would remain with me for a few years after that, was a Senegalese immigrant, a proud professional, and most of all a proud Frenchwoman. When I showed her my immigration papers and my confirmation of employment by the University of Paris, she said something like, “Oh, sure, you’re one of the good immigrants.” I thought she had meant to speak damningly of the hypocrisy of her adoptive country, and I started to say, “You mean because I’m…”. But before I got to that color-coding adjective I wrongly presumed she had in mind, she completed her thought: “You’re one of the good immigrants, like me. You’ve got diplomas, you’ve got a job.” Then she pointed to the family of Roma people encamped on a styrofoam mattress on the sidewalk right outside: “Not like them,” she said, “they don’t want to work. It’s easier to just sit there and make people feel sorry for you.”

The family of Roma were speaking Romanian, and thus were presumably EU citizens and had arrived here from Southeastern Europe without any border controls (though likely with some police harassment along the way). In 2015 I spent some time with a group of Romanian families —both Roma and non-Roma, all impoverished Pentecostals living under the tyranny of their charismatic pastor— who had built a shantytown in La Courneuve just north of Paris, and were refusing to vacate it in violation of the communist-run municipality’s orders. Their unwillingness to budge, at first simply for lack of better options, quickly took on the quality of a political movement, and soon enough they had joined forces with a group of West African sans-papiers who were in similar legal and economic limbo. The two groups shared cooking utensils, and even some meals in the large communal tent at the middle of the yard in front of the La Courneuve city hall, on that municipality’s Boulevard Lénine. One old Roma woman told me she had learned to appreciate manioc.

The Africans had the language, and a sense of unquestioned if still not legal belonging within the capital of the former empire; the Romanians had European identity papers that at least in principle guaranteed them the right to be in France.

All of these people were desperate; the men were going out in the daytime to strip copper wire from wherever they could find it; the women and children had both the authorities and the men to fear; they all feared tuberculosis. If you had come to La Courneuve and insisted that the most urgent problem was one of “race”, you would justly have been reprimanded for failing, as it were, to read the bidonville.

If you do not believe me when I say that in such a setting one quickly reverts to a default “color-blindness”, not because one buys into the white-liberal denialism assailed, in exchange for significant sums of money, by Robin DiAngelo, but rather because here race is simply not anywhere near the most salient vector of social identity, then I don’t know what to tell you. If you truly don’t believe that other markers of social identity, such as language and manner and dress, and immigration status and poverty, can be more salient than “race” in marking out who a person is and what you can expect from them, all I can say is you really need to get out more. When travel restrictions loosen up, then travel, stay somewhere a while, where historical forces have shaped society along other fault lines than those most familiar in the United States.

In less desperate milieux in France, too, I have over the years found myself literally color-blind — again, not in the sense in which Boomer Facebook commenters will cluelessly and vainly attempt to ingratiate themselves with, say, Iljeoma Oluo, by declaring, as if for the first time anyone ever had such a thought, “Black, white, yellow, brown, purple, there’s only one race: the human race!”, but in the sense that I literally come away from an interaction or series of interactions and only subsequently learn some detail that instills in me any consciousness of, say, the African ancestry of my partner in social intercourse. The principal reason for this is that very often, in such intercourse, what I am getting from the other person is a massive blast of Frenchness, or more precisely of French bourgeois manners, and I am struggling so hard to interpret all of the nuances of the shared social code this implies, that I really, literally, do not have any psychic “space” left to slot the other person into any pseudoscientific taxonomy.

Here again, Americans would do well to get out a bit more often, and learn how other people carve things up. France, for example, is a society that places supreme value on a social hierarchy built around things like manners; there are numerous well-attested reports of French colonial administrators inviting local dignitaries to dine, and observing carefully as their African or Asian tablemate deliberates over which fork to use when. In France, to a great extent, for complicated historical reasons, table manners trump “race” as a criterion by which others are othered. My Senegalese banker, for example, had mastered these codes, and gave me a blast of Frenchness that intimidated me, instilled in me the sense of a need to “up my game” and to pretend harder, pretend better, that I belong to this society: that is, to be more like she was.

After eight years, I have concluded that I will never master these codes, and I am indeed aware that I am only able to slink by in my failure because I am a white American university professor. This social identity involves a mixture of privilege and constant exposure to condescension; Europeans are often so impressed —whether sincerely or feignedly— that an American can learn anything at all of continental languages and customs, that they will excuse significant shortcomings in us that no African mid-level bank manager, nor indeed any Romanian student at a French university, could ever get away with. So I have a privilege, born from the condescension of those around me (which is born, in turn, from the anti-intellectualism and proud yokelism on which my own nation was built), and I ride on it, because I was too old by the time I arrived here to really make the effort at full acculturation. I suppose I am lucky to have this privilege, but I would also ask you to believe me when I say that it is not easy not fitting in. I speak the language, but I speak it my way. Increasingly, I am morphing into a variation on the figure of the hapless Professor Pnin: native neither of the country nor the age in which he finds himself, incorrigibly foreign.

Our neighborhood, the very heart of the November, 2015, terror attacks (which left me with an unresolved case of what Americans would call “PTSD”, about which perhaps I will write on another occasion), is populated mainly by people who “fit” in France in ways that I do not, as a result of this country’s long colonial legacy. Our immediate vicinity near the headquarters of the Parti Communiste Français in the 19th arrondissement, is home to a higher concentration of Tunisian Jews than may be found in all of Tunisia. Every Jewish holiday reverberates with Sephardic chants and stomps as loud as when Algeria or Senegal wins the Africa Cup semifinals. There is little distinction around here between the kosher and the halal, and I’ve been told that in a pinch the one sort of butcher will do as well as the other for Jews and Muslims alike. During the first attacks of 2015, in January, when jihadists were holding people hostage in a kosher supermarket on the other side of town, at my gym in the 19th we watched the unfolding events together: the Jews, the Muslims, and me, more or less all of them Tunisian and Algerian, belonging to a world whose surface I only scratch, a world that is mostly closed to me (even if I can stand side by side with its male representatives in limited social settings like the gym), and that is very, very French.

Down at the Place de Stalingrad some activists for Kabylie’s independence have assembled; they are waving flags with Berber letters that look like runes. Up in the Buttes Chaumont families take ritual walks together, harmonized with the ritual holy-day feasts and fasts that structure their entire lives. At the outdoor market on the Rue de Belleville we meet an eccentric old man. He seems borderline-homeless, carrying plastic bags filled with old DVDs (Eddie Murphy in Dr. Dolittle, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop) that he is hoping to sell in order to buy a roasted chicken with potatoes. He tells us he is a “Breton”, a persecuted ethnic and religious minority whose members were once thrown into the Seine by the leaders of the Catholic church with great weights chained to their necks. He tells us that the Bretons were driven out of Iberia in 1492, and that some of them, among them his own ancestors, ended up in North Africa. The Muslim who mans the chicken-and-potatoes stand has heard this yarn before, and interrupts to explain, as if it isn’t already clear: “When he says ‘Breton’ he means ‘Jewish’”. The old man grunts back something in Arabic, and then adds the ingenious double-entendre: “Occupe-toi de tes patates!” (something like “Mind your own beeswax!” but literally “Mind your potatoes!”).

The man was not entirely well, and the reason for his use of this code (this joke?) was not quite clear. But it brings to the surface an important lesson of history. The Bretons were in fact persecuted in the past; the Celtic nations were pushed up to the very fringes of this continent, and exterminated from its center. In the construction of a homogeneous ethnic identity for the French nation-state in the Enlightenment, numerous communities were overrun, flattened, denied their languages and customs, forgotten. Here, too, we are on occupied land, even if the history of the occupation is measured at the scale of millennia rather than centuries.

I do not of course mean to say that a Breton or a Basque (to move from the Celts to a group whose isolated language attests to their Indigeneity) has the same plight as an African immigrant, and certainly not an African sans-papiers, in France today, but only that you can’t understand the historical process by which a Maghrébin or a Malgache becomes French, or aspires to become French, or experiences the limits of this aspiration, if you do not also consider the centuries-long movement by which ethnic minorities indigenous to the territory of what is now France also became French.

This is particularly the case for at least some of the people in what we may call —inspired by Russia’s term for the Baltics and Central Asia and such places— France’s “near-abroad”. Jacques Derrida for example comes from a Jewish Algerian family whose ancestors had been given French citizenship in the nineteenth century without ever having visited France. To cite a phrase used by the Derrida scholar Grant Farred, might we dare to think of this consummate Parisian intellectual as “an African philosopher” also? Is Farred merely issuing a provocation? In the parallel career of the Tunisian Jewish essayist Albert Memmi, there is no question that when he writes on racism and the mentality of “the colonized”, he is writing from a first-person standpoint of subjection to the phenomena he describes, and the scope of his interest in these phenomena runs broadly in a diagonal motion across the continent of Africa, from Morocco to Madagascar.

The term “Françafrique” is generally restricted to the handful of states —Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic— where France exercises de-facto colonial power, including the presumption of a right to unilateral military intervention whenever it chooses (what other EU country would dare to do this?). But more loosely speaking all of Francophone Africa is conceptualized as a near-abroad. I am not reporting this as a bit of imperialist triumphalism, but as a description of a sociolinguistic reality, and of “lived experience” here in the 19th arrondissement of Paris: there is a very real sense in which this city is one of the capitals of Africa, a peculiar one, as it is located on a peninsula off of that continent’s mainland, but nonetheless as integrated into its history, its air-routes, its money-order networks, its reality, as Tunis, Dakar, or Antananarivo. The legendary “sapeurs” of Brazzaville have their own shops near the Gare de l’Est, and wear their pink suits with the same pride on both sides of the Equator. And as in Muammar Qaddafi’s lost third-way-ist vision of African unity, neither does there seem to be in France any presumption of a naturalized political-geographical boundary of any great significance running along the parallel of the Sahel. Muammar Qaddafi and Patrice Lumumba, and indeed Jacky Derrida (his real name, inspired by Jacky Coogan, Charlie Chaplin’s co-star in 1921’s The Kid), are all varieties of African.

And so for that matter was the Arabic-speaking Jewish “Breton” on the Rue de Belleville. And in such a place, with such a historical legacy behind it, I really don’t know who’s a “POC” and who isn’t. The term just does nothing to capture anything meaningful about social reality in these parts. All I know is that all of these people belong to this place more than I do or ever will.

What I mean by “woke”

Just as you can go to Pizza Hut in Italy, American-style identitarianism has been slowly but surely entering into French culture and politics in the past few years: having figured out how to mass-produce a cheap and unhealthy version of the “traditional” dishes of French theory, the Americans are now ready to export their junk for consumption by a generation, raised on the Internet like everyone else, with no living memory of the native product from which this new sensibility has spun off as a fully denatured mutation.

I don’t mean to say —as ignorant anti-woke online loudmouths like James Lindsay often do— that wokeism is just so much “postmodernism”, and that there is a direct line from safe spaces and pronoun stickers back to Derrida and Foucault — in fact, for reasons I will explain soon enough, I think that at least the latter of these two would see the new American cultural revolution as a horrifying confirmation of his thesis that modernity is a long process of discovering ever more effective and more abstract ways of imprisoning us. I believe that the vanguard of this new revolution is in fact constituted by what you might call “new realists”: people who insist, quite against the spirit of postmodernism, that the points of dogma to which they adhere are concretely, undialectically, metanarratively, supra-ideologically true. And yet, as we aging and endangered dialecticians can still recall, sometimes ideas yield up their own opposites.

I know I have some American academic friends who still insist in public that this new sensibility is not a real thing. I don’t use trendy Internet language outside of scare-quotes very often, but in this case I will say that their denial is, truly, a form of gaslighting. They would wish to convince me that I am at best a gullible alarmist, and at worst a depraved reactionary, for noticing that capital has congealed around a new account of social reality within the past few years, and that first the cultural, and then the political establishment institutions have followed suit. A vision of how the world works has, in effect, radiated out from Tumblr to the CIA in under a decade. And now it may radiate out further, into fresh export markets.

Freddie deBoer recently relayed the missive of a white woman in Minnesota who went to a therapist to help her work through trauma of the sexual abuse to which she was subjected as a teenager. Her therapist began each session with a ritual acknowledgment that it was taking place on occupied land, and every time the woman brought up her trauma, she was reminded how important it is as a white person to continue centering the trauma experienced by Black and Indigenous women as well. This, to say the least, is not the sort of thing that would happen in the office of a Parisian psychoanalyst, yet. While by the time I read this anecdote it was already third-hand, I can confirm that I have been involved in Zoom meetings with Americans that were barely any less intimate, and barely more connected with issues of racial justice, where similar displays of righteousness were made. This particular anecdote is striking in part because the two white women were alone, in a confidential setting. As Foucault reminds us, the triumph of liberal modernity is that it has figured out not just how to coerce us into saying the right things, but into thinking the right things too, as if under constant surveillance.

Nor can we assume, as I tried to do for a while, that this new habit is only affecting a small portion of the population, those who are suffering from Internet-poisoning. On this reading my “contrarianism” would simply be a side-effect of my excessive attention to online trends (I admit to suffering from this dreaded poisoning myself — I got it real bad in the course of doing “research” for my next book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is), and I really just need to go and take a walk. But it is undeniable that we are seeing people with no particular attunement to these trends whose lives are increasingly being shaped and constrained by forces they only dimly perceive, forces that compel new ways of speaking that they fear they will not master, making them, effectively, pariahs in any cultural milieu that we associate with “success”. I might be Internet-poisoned, but the real problem is that by now the whole world is Internet-poisoned, and one no longer needs to be extremely online in order to feel the effects.

Anyhow as far as I’m concerned your ritual acknowledgements of the settler-colonial occupation of North America don’t mean a damned thing if you’re not prepared to leave (which, I note in passing, is exactly what I did in 2013). It is hard not to interpret these unctuous ceremonies as an attempt to slip past any real responsibility. Admittedly, there has been some real material redistribution going on over the past year, but it seems to me that this is more likely in spite of the rituals than because of them. When Nancy Pelosi kneels wearing kente cloth, she is doing whatever she can, in a historical moment where everything is up in the air, to keep things as they are.

Unlike Lindsay and others, I take this cultural revolution to be mostly epiphenomenal — a consequence of new media technology and of the global economic crisis that has been so profoundly deepened by the pandemic. When students protesting anti-democratic repression in Warsaw hold up signs that say “Black Lives Matter”, even if they no doubt sincerely believe what they are saying, it is impossible not to notice the ways in which “BLM diplomacy” echoes the “Coca-Cola diplomacy” of an earlier era, but now accelerated by the instantaneous spread of images. The Poles-in-the-know want to be part of what remains the only game in town: the Discourse, which for now continues to radiate out from the center of a declining empire in turmoil, just as it did in the brighter days of American ascendancy.

You might think it an improvement to move from dumb brands to noble political ideals, were it not for the fact that this diplomacy somehow has the power to transform whatever it is exporting into a brand. Within the few months following last summer’s convulsions in the United States, Lululemon Athletica, with revenues of over four billion dollars in 2019, had figured out how to make anti-capitalism a central element of their marketing strategy. And in Europe, too, some entrepeneurial spirits are now figuring out how to hitch their own identities and their own organizations to this brand, and to benefit from the cultural capital, and perhaps also the actual capital, it might bring with it.

An enterprising Italian with dreams of middle-class comfort might be regarded with some compassion when he decides to go and open a Pizza Hut franchise, betraying mamma and the recipes she would have wished to hand down with love across the generations. We’re all just doing what it makes sense to do in our particular place and time. What it will make sense to do in France within the next few years remains an open question.

Éveillez-vous !

For the moment one of the most formidable bulwarks against wokeism in France remains the centrist political establishment, which generally conceives American-style identitarian atomization as a threat to classical French Republicanism. This latter political ideal refuses, in the name of equality (as contrasted with American-style “equity”), to recognize “kinds” of citizen — there can in principle be no finer-grained analysis of what variety of French person, or aspiring French person, any citizen or resident of France is. This refusal-to-see generates some obvious injustices. For example it is difficult to determine how to allocate public funding to schools and social programs in a way that is responsive to the specific needs of particular ethnic and linguistic communities when there is no official acknowledgment even of the existence of these communities. On the other hand, in the United States this sub-citizen taxonomy has by now looped into existence a fully reified racial order, in which our “race” attaches to us as rigidly as the “nationality” once listed in a Soviet domestic passport (e.g., Uzbek, Ukrainian, Jewish), in which you can consult the website of the Texas Bureau of Prisons and browse the inmates, for example, by “race”.

For a right-wing French thinker such as Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, to come to this country implies agreement with the Republican ideal, which in turn entails an individual aspiration on the part of the immigrant to become French, to interiorize the sort of civic virtues and learning transmitted in the French citizenship exam. In its most perfect culmination, this aspiration transforms the immigrant not only into a French citizen, but into a French philosopher, much like Finkielkraut himself.

Finkielkraut bemoans the fact that Syrian teenagers in the banlieues do not for their part share in the same aspiration that pushed him forward when he was their age, and even if they have French passports, they may be so busy charging up their fantasy lives with dark-web jihadist content that these passports represent nothing more to them than a travel document enabling them to go and prove themselves in war. There is surely a failure here, but to place the responsibility for it on the teenagers seems callous. Immigration-as-aspiration can only work as long as there are no more compelling poles of attention to suck you in. But every institution today, including the ones invested in maintaining the imaginary community of a nation-state, now has to compete for attention alongside alternative poles, among them Daesh radicalism, hikikomori withdrawal, incel ressentiment, and, indeed, woke zealotry. That these social types had little or no existence before people started identifying with them, or talking about them, or gaslighting others for talking about them or struggling to name them, does not weaken the point; it is the point.

The wokeism debate would only grow palpably heated in France in early 2021. On February 21 the education minister Frédérique Vidal proposed an internal investigation within the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique) in the aim of identifying, among researchers, the “militants” for the cause of what was now being called “islamo-gauchisme”. As usual, the government missed some legitimate targets of worry, and targeted some illegitimate ones, notably academics with solid research programs focused on aspects of the history, culture, and politics of the Arab and Muslim worlds. At the same time, it is true (so I’m told) that graffiti had appeared on the campus of the Université Paris X Nanterre calling for the establishment of “un caliphat queer”. How the different constituencies in the ruling alliance of such a caliphate would work together smoothly is a difficult conceptual matter, but in any case it was just graffiti, and one may have rationally supposed it was just students being students. Even the decision of the largest French student association, UNEF, to hold “réunions non-mixtes”, meetings separated according to “race” and gender, could be written off as an excess of youth with no lasting consequences for the whole society.

Yet something was changing, something new was in the air, and as in the United States many on the right, and even in the center, found it convenient to blame some of the least influential agents of social change imaginable: professors and researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Macron for his part has been attempting to manage a delicate rhetoric of both-sidesism, insisting on the inalienable freedom of research —“a fundamental guarantee of our Republic”—, while also, on the broader stage, refusing to budge from his position against any encroachments of communitarianism that might also threaten the Republic. Notably, he has refused, in the wake of Samuel Paty’s beheading in October, 2020, to consider any change that might reframe primary-school education around France’s legacy of imperialism and racism.

Vidal’s proposed enquête generated a media buzz. The April 15 issue of the conservative magazine Le Point had a cover story asking “How Far Will the Racialists Go?”, describing the “new totalitarianism” of the left, and reporting on “la résistance” now emerging in the United States under the banner of the “anti-woke”. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the Paris-based representative of American anti-wokeness and spear-header of the famous “Harper’s letter”, was now keeping up a busy circuit of interviews in French media (Thomas and I are social friends, with only partially overlapping views on these matters).

On April 21, the situation in France got some treatment in English by Jonathan Miller, writing for the British Spectator. In “France Wakes Up to Woke” of April 21, Miller claims that the seed of French wokeness was planted at my own university, Paris 7 Diderot (renamed Université de Paris two years ago), in the Fall of 2018, at a conference on racism. I know some of the people involved in that conference, I recall when they put it on, and I really did not think much of it at the time. I had already been seeing, for at least five years before that, signs of American-style critical race theory and other Anglophone tendencies at the intersection of scholarship and activism. Notably, the Musée de l’Homme, notorious for its implication in the history of racist colonial anthropology, began planning an important exhibition, launched in 2017 but underway well before that, entitled “Nous et les autres : Des préjugés au racisme”, which attempted in a fairly heavy-handedly “non-Republican” way to “open the dialogue” about racial injustice in France. In 2015 I attended the vernissage of a new translation of key texts of Anglophone critical race theory, and saw for the first time some of the forced French equivalencies for language forged to describe the particular history of American racial injustice.

Some of the people who have functioned as the “importers”, as the cultural intermediaries who brought these tendencies in, are my friends, and I do not mean to criticize them personally when I say that the work of intermediation here was carried out by bilingual and often bicultural elites, in a position to recognize the cachet of this new and still mostly unknown idiom, and to anticipate the social benefits of early adoption. Contrary to what Miller says, the 2018 conference was attended mostly by wake-riders, and Vidal’s 2021 announcement was reacting to a long-delayed bit of this wake’s spray. The wake itself was not generated in universities, but in that strange new industrial complex of academia and social media that has no bar for entry, and no gatekeepers other than capital. As with the Internet a generation ago, France has been characteristically slow to wake up to the leveling power of social media, to these media’s power to bulldoze right over the presumption of unassailable institutional authority that normie fools in high places continue to hold.

Universities, in short, are not the primary points of entry for wokeness. It’s coming in by the same routes as Islamic radicalization, flat-eartherism, inceldom, etc. Universities are competing for attention alongside English-language social-justice-themed videos on YouTube, just as Republicanism is competing alongside jihadist recruitment videos on the dark web.

My own view is that if you are going to reject the universalism of Republicanism, you should at least put something else on offer that is plainly more attractive. Certain traditions of French scholarship, notably the “genealogical” work of and inspired by Foucault, give us some very good reasons to be wary of identitarian alternatives. Henriette Asséo, a scholar of Roma history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, has compellingly argued that the indigenous French “gens de voyage” or “Travelers” were effectively administered into existence in the early twentieth century as a result of the state’s newfound requirement that every French citizen carry ID papers with a valid address. Because Travelers have no fixed address, this fact had to be marked specially in the “address” section of their documents. Within a generation or two, this act of box-checking becomes a social fact, with real consequences for the people in the boxes. Notably, to this day in France the gens de voyage are subject to overt discrimination: at highway rest-stops, for example, there is a segregated parking area for members of this group, away from the area designated for members of France’s sedentist majority.

Looking back at the long modern history of variously allowing, encouraging, pressuring, or compelling people to carry or display identifying documents telling other people what sort of person they are, two things strike me: that there is always an argument from benevolence for doing so, and that it always looks like a very bad idea in hindsight. You start carrying a name for your “kind” on your ID (or on your lapel-sticker, or simply in the way you are compelled to talk about yourself in social settings), and this inserts the kind named on the ID (or on the sticker, or in conversation) into reality, and often generates new opportunities for real persecution. You might think there’s a clear line between the salutary function of pronoun stickers, nationalities in domestic passports, and the identity papers of the gens de voyage, but scholars of the latter can show you that all of these threaten to take on the same social function.

I would have a lot more to say, in a Foucauldian key, about nomadic peoples and the rise of the administrative state, but for now all I want to note is that there are more reasons than simply knee-jerk Republicanism, of either the French or the American variety, for being wary of identitarianism.

Some possible paths

I really don’t know what is going to happen in France, but I can at least list some plausible developments in the next few years. I used to think wokeism was largely a Protestant phenomenon, but now it seems to me that its earlier adoption in, e.g., Germany and Scandinavia (following only shortly behind the UK and Australia) has to do mostly with the higher rates of bilingual English fluency in those countries. And in any case one way of understanding French Republicanism is as a sort of super-Protestantism, the kind that skips the stage of an established church on the way to full secularism. In this sense, whether or not wokeism is Protestant, France may be fertile ground for its future growth.

As I see it, there are three possible future paths.

One is that Republicanism prevails. This seems to me the least likely possibility.

The second is that the radiation continues to spread from the United States, but that it transforms in character as it spreads, and eventually becomes largely detached from the US-specific elements and preoccupations that gave birth to it. Eventually wokeism could morph into a broader set of commitments that will define the discursive element of the emerging ideological stand-off between what used to be the liberal west and what Marx would have called the Asiatic despotries: thus on the one side the Allyship, with gay marriage, a choice among personal pronouns, a legal framework for imposing top-down equity at the expense of individual equality; and on the other side Russia and China, with open persecution of sexual “perverts” and concentration camps for troublesome minorities. On both sides of this divide, there will be universal surveillance, either by private tech companies or by the state, or by a combination of the two.

A third possibility is that France will be hit by an ideology continuous with American wokeism, but a much harder strain of it. This makes some intuitive sense when we recall the relatively greater intensity with which French soixante-huitards embraced substantive political commitments, when compared to American hippies of the same era who were largely occupied with the task of tuning in and dropping out. French students of the 1960s already showed their willingness to seriously commit to Maoism at a moment when their American coevals were mostly just discovering their own individual freedom. Now that the Americans have also shown themselves capable of committing to a Maoist-like species of cultural revolution, how much more intensely might we expect their French counterparts, again as always with some delay, to get wrapped up in this new frenzy?

The intuition here ultimately settles for too easy a historical rhyme, and yet it has become clear, this year if not before, that the new cultural sensibility, born in America, is one that will take on new qualities and new intensities as it expands globally. France may turn out to be one of the key sites of its expansion.


About the Author

Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.

Publication Rights

This essay was first published in Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.


The photos in this essay were all taken by Smith, between 2015 and 2019, mostly in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, but also at La Courneuve and at Opéra.

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