Islamophobia row puts French campuses in crossfire as poll looms

Sciences Po Grenoble director calls for ‘calm and rationality’ after suspension of Klaus Kinzler leads to loss of regional funding

January 10, 2022
Students demonstrate against islamophobia outside the campus of the Institute of Political Studies (aka Sciences Po) in Saint-Martin-d’Heres, near Grenoble, on 9 March 2021
Source: Getty
‘Prejudice’: students accused Klaus Kinzler of fascism for his comments about Islam and ‘indoctrination’ on campus

A university leader has called for “calm and rationality” as French academics fear being caught in the crossfire of increasingly bitter culture wars in the run-up to the country’s presidential election.

Sabine Saurugger, director of Sciences Po Grenoble, hit the headlines last month after suspending Klaus Kinzler, an associate professor of German who had made repeated criticisms of the institution in national media.

Dr Kinzler had received death threats and been accused by students of fascism after claiming during preparations for an anti-racism event that Islamophobia was not comparable to other forms of discrimination.

Professor Saurugger told Times Higher Education that the “temporary” suspension of Dr Kinzler was based only on his description of Sciences Po Grenoble as a “political re-education camp” and of colleagues at the grand école as teachers who “indoctrinate their students”.

“His repeated statements have caused prejudice to the institution, its personnel and particularly its students. Expression is free, but as an employee, denigrating with such violence and unfairly the institution you work in causes strong prejudice,” said Professor Saurugger, whose institution, while modelled on Paris’ Sciences Po, is administratively a subsidiary of Université Grenoble Alpes.

However, in response to Dr Kinzler’s suspension the president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, announced on 20 December that he had suspended “all funding and all cooperation” with the university over its “unacceptable ideological and communitarian drift”. 

Professor Saurugger said that the regional funding was worth about €500,000 (£418,000) a year, covering activities such as lifelong learning and exchange programmes.

The funding freeze was cheered by right-wing candidates in the upcoming presidential poll, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, with the latter saying it was the right response to the “infiltration of our grandes écoles by Islamo-leftism”. 

And it came after a year of accusations, including from the French government, that the country’s universities had created an intellectual breeding ground for terrorism by viewing society critically through the lenses of ethnicity, religion and gender – rather than the republican ideal of equality.

Scholars focusing on areas such as racism, Islamophobia and French colonialism have come under intense attack since the beheading in October 2020 of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who showed his pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

“For an individual politician to cancel funding to a university based on the unfounded allegations of a disgruntled employee is a significant and worrying development. It is a political act and a violation of the principle of academic freedom,” said Simon Dawes, a media lecturer at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

“The way that this case has been appropriated by others for political ends is yet another example of universities being instrumentalised in a culture war that may well lead to the end of academic freedom.”

Professor Saurugger told THE that candidates in April’s election should contribute constructively to societal debates by “trusting research and researchers” and “discussing research results and teaching without politically instrumentalising it”. 

“I defend the idea that a university is a place where controversies exist, where they must be lived, where academic controversies improve research results,” she said. 

“Academic freedom is currently discussed in the light of a movement that advocates increased caution of, as well as awareness of, implicit discrimination. This refers of course to the whole debate about ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’, an issue that is tremendously controversial in France.

“We need calm and rationality. Problems exist, nothing is perfect; there are legitimate debates to have about the evolution of [the] university in this country, but based on facts and willingness to appease, not dividing.”

Former students of Dr Kinzler have published an open letter in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper calling for his reinstatement, criticising the student protesters and demanding Sciences Po Grenoble be reformed to better protect political balance among staff and students. 

“No matter how quickly some academic controversy may escalate, nothing is more crucial than keeping it civil, within the walls of the university,” said Christophe Gaudin, a signatory and assistant professor of political science at South Korea’s Kookmin University, who studied under Dr Kinzler in Grenoble from 1999 to 2003.

Last February Frédérique Vidal, the French science minister, announced plans to investigate “Islamo-leftism” on campuses and to create an inventory of research to make sure there was  “pluralism of ideas” at universities.

“What is likely to happen now? Should academics avoid teaching or researching certain subjects, such as Islamophobia, race or gender for fear of the political repercussions?” asked Dr Dawes. “Should university administrators manage the activities of their academic employees more closely to ensure that they don’t put colleagues’ jobs and students’ grants at risk? [It] doesn’t sound like academic freedom to me.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Two quotes from the above sound strange to me: "Problems exist, nothing is perfect; there are legitimate debates to have about the evolution of [the] university in this country, but based on facts and willingness to appease, not dividing.” - Why is a "willingness to appease" an appropriate attitude to bring to a debate about universities? Hearing someone out is appropriate, but meeting them halfway is you disagree, not so much. Is something lost in translation here? “No matter how quickly some academic controversy may escalate, nothing is more crucial than keeping it civil, within the walls of the university,” - In some ways, but if nothing is more important than civility, it leaves you open to intimidation by those prepared to escalate beyond the normal civilities and appearances of politeness.