Lesson of the Day: ‘Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So’

Lesson of the Day: ‘Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So’

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In the wake of protests against racism and racial violence in the United States this past summer, Black French people are bringing the subject of race into the public discourse. However, in recent months, politicians and academics say that conversations about privilege, colonialism and racism are a threat to French identity and the French republic — and they blame “out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses.”

In this lesson, you will read two articles that explore the roots of this tension and learn how it is playing out in present-day France. In a Going Further activity, you will make connections between the disputes in France and your own community or country.

In your journal, describe how you see your country’s national identity. What are the core values and shared history that hold it together as a unified nation? Do you think other people would agree with what you wrote? Why, or why not?

We have created a PDF with excerpts from two articles. The questions below are based on these excerpts, but we encourage you to read both articles in their entirety.

First, answer these questions from “A Racial Awakening in France, Where Race Is a Taboo Topic”:

1. How did Maboula Soumahoro’s sense of her own racial identity evolve as she was growing up in France?

2. The article describes France as celebrating a “a colorblind ideal that all people share the same universal rights.” What does that mean, in your own words? And, how does Ms. Soumahoro’s experience conflict with these ideals?

3. What role does the United States play for those who are challenging this universalist model? What about for those who seek to defend this universalist tradition?

Then, answer these questions for the article, “Will American Ideas Tear France Apart? Some of Its Leaders Think So”:

1. What are the fears that many French intellectuals, journalists and politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, have about America’s influence on France? What is your reaction to those fears and concerns?

2. The article tells the story of activists protesting a play in which white actors were supposed to wear blackface. In response to this, Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist and founder of an organization against “decolonialism and identity politics,” labeled the protests as “traumatic” and an example of “cancel culture.” What is your reaction to the situation and Ms. Heinich’s response?

3. How do François Cusset, an expert on American civilization, and Anne Garréta, a French writer and professor, interpret “the lashing out at perceived American influence”? Do they think American ideas are “tearing France apart”? Or do they see something else going on?

After reading the articles, what do you think about the tensions surrounding national identity and race in France? What’s your reaction to the premise that ideas from American universities are a threat to French identity and the French republic? Why?

Consider your own country or community: Do the tensions in France described in the article remind you of any division or conflict where you live? If yes, how so?

Next, respond to each of the following statements with “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree” or “strongly disagree”:

  • Talking about race and racism is important to me.

  • Talking about sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism or transphobia is important to me.

  • I feel supported by the adults — and fellow students — in my life to explore issues related to identity and discrimination.

  • I believe that criticism of my country’s history, cultural heritage and society has gone too far and is divisive.

Look at your answers and choose one to explore further in writing or class discussion. How did your beliefs and feelings about this topic form? Do you think your friends, family members, teachers and administrators feel the same way? Why or why not?

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