Emmanuel Macron on Thursday warned against the dangers of US-style woke culture in France, saying that debate in the country was becoming increasingly “racialised”.
The French president said that creeping racial and identity politics risked “fracturing” the foundations of French society.
"I see that our society is becoming progressively racialised," Mr Macron told Elle magazine in an interview coinciding with a UN-sponsored summit on gender inequality in Paris.
In particular, he took aim at “intersectionality”, a notion popular in American academia that examines discrimination and poverty through social categories such as race and gender.
"The logic of intersectionality fractures everything,” said Mr Macron.
"I stand for universalism. I don’t agree with a fight that reduces everyone to their identity or their particularity," he went on.
"Social difficulties are not only explained by gender and the colour of your skin, but also by social inequalities."
The centrist 43-year-old, who is expected to run for re-election next spring, added that he could think of young white men in his hometown of Amiens or nearby Saint-Quentin in northern France "who also have immense difficulties, for different reasons, in finding a job”.
Compiling racial statistics is illegal in France, scarred by wartime ethnic profiling and officially colour-blind. To many scholars on race, however, the reluctance is part of a long history of denial over discrimination.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter, France has seen a string of movements over the past year denouncing the problem of racism, notably linked to cases of police brutality, and the legacy of the country’s colonial past in Africa and the Middle East.
Critics, however, have warned against importing "woke culture” from the "Anglo-Saxon" world, arguing that an obsession with race and the past traps minorities and women into seeing themselves as victms of oppression and discrimination.
Among them, Elisabeth Moreno, black junior minister for gender equality and diversity in Mr Macron’s government, recently slammed the threat of “cancel culture” and censorship in the name of political correctness.
The French government has spoken out several times of late against 'wokeism' and 'cancel culture'
“The ‘woke’ culture is something very dangerous, and we shouldn’t bring it to France,” she told Bloomberg, adding that such discourse “kick(s) out people from ongoing debates because they think otherwise.”
“Everyone should fight discrimination. You can’t ask someone not to speak about a topic because the person doesn’t feel legitimate. It makes no sense,” she said, adding that she refused to be seen as successful because of her gender or race, but for her accomplishments.
“French universalism means that, in the French Republic, we want to recognize people per se, not because they are women or LGBT+ or because they have a different ethnicity or whatever.”
This is not Mr Macron’s first warning over the issue. Last June, he blamed universities for encouraging the “ethnicisation of the social question’’ – amounting to “splitting the republic in two.’’
The debate heated up in February when two veteran social scientists, Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, published a book critical of racial studies, saying race had become a “bulldozer’’ crushing other subjects.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Macron’s higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, sparked uproar in academia by ordering an investigation into cancel culture on campuses, accusing Leftist lecturers of turning a blind eye to Islamism because of perceived persecution of French Muslims.
The French president’s stance has received praise from Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who wrote in the Telegraph in November: "There are well-meaning officials who worry that Islamism, a term with credible and established meaning, could be seen as implicating the entire religion of Islam and all its diverse and peaceful adherents.
"And there are woke activists who are quick to victim-blame the West and cry Islamophobia at all attempts to deal with the issue."
Claims of censorial pressure came after the British government said it was bringing in legislation to defend free speech on UK campuses amid concerns about the rise of “silencing and censoring” both academics and students.
Mr Macron is set to run for re-election next April in an election that polls currently suggest could see him face off against far-Right leader Marine Le Pen.