France considers banning ‘racist’ student union over safe spaces

A powerful government minister recently condemned it as an organisation whose activities are racist. Politicians accused it of promoting separatism before demanding its dissolution.

France’s 114-year-old university student union, Unef, has a long history of drawing the ire of the political establishment — most notably over the years when it lobbied for the independence of the country’s most important colony, Algeria, or took to the streets against employment contracts for youths.

But recent attacks zeroed in on something that resonates deeply in a France struggling to adapt to social change: the union’s practice of limiting some meetings to racial minorities to discuss discrimination.

eaders of France’s 114-year-old university student union, Unef, from left, Maryam Pougetoux, Quentin Bourgeon and Adrien Lienard at a demonstration in Paris, March 19, 2021. Credit:Dmitry Kostyukov, New York Times

On Thursday, the Senate endorsed banning the group and others that organise restricted meetings, attaching a “Unef amendment” to President Emmanuel Macron’s law against Islamism, a political ideology the government blames for inspiring recent terrorist attacks. The National Assembly, controlled by Macron’s party, still needs to ratify the bill, expected to be one of the defining pieces of legislation of his presidency.

At the same time, the campaign before coming regional elections was turned upside down when Audrey Pulvar, a Black deputy mayor of Paris and a high-profile candidate, drew widespread condemnation after defending the restricted meetings.

The student union’s leaders defend the use of “safe space” forums, saying they have led to powerful and frank conversation; critics say the exclusion amounts to racism against white people and is an American-inspired betrayal of France’s universalist tradition.

In 2006, Unef helped lead the nationwide protests aginst new youth labour laws, which obliged then-president Jacques Chirac to back down. Credit:AP

To its critics, Unef is the incarnation of the threat coming from American universities — importing ideas that are fundamentally challenging relations between women and men, questioning the role of race and racism in France and upsetting society’s hierarchies of power.

“We scare people because we represent the future,” said Melanie Luce, 24, Unef’s president and the daughter of a black woman from Guadeloupe and a Jewish man from southern France.

In an organisation dominated by white men until just a few years ago, Unef’s current leadership shows a diversity rarely seen in France. Luce is only its fifth female president and the first who is not white. Its four other top leaders include two white men, a woman whose parents converted to Islam and a Muslim man whose parents immigrated from Tunisia.

Like other student unions, Unef operates on government subsidies, about € 458,000 a year ($707,000) in its case. Among its tasks, it addresses student living conditions, recently organising food banks for students hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic.

But its increasingly outspoken social positions have drawn criticism from the political establishment, the conservative news media and even some past members.

Its new focus, critics say, has led to a decline in the union’s influence and membership — it was once the largest but is now the second-largest in France. Supporters say that, unlike many other struggling left-leaning organisations in France, the union has a clear new vision.

In 2019, in a protest against blackface, Unef leaders helped stop the staging of a play by Aeschylus at the Sorbonne to denounce the wearing of masks and dark makeup by white actors, leading to accusations of infringing on freedom of expression.

More recently, union officials in Grenoble posted on social media anonymous campus posters that included the names of two professors accused of Islamophobia; Luce later called it a mistake, but many politicians brandished it as evidence of Unef’s “Islamo-leftism” or sympathies with Islamism.

The attacks rose to a new level last month after Luce was challenged in a radio interview about Unef’s practice of holding meetings limited to racial minorities.

A decade ago, Unef’s leaders started women-only meetings where members for the first time talked about sexism and sexual harassment in the organisation. The discussions have since extended to racism and other forms of discrimination internally.

Luce explained to her radio host that no decisions were made at the restricted meetings, which were used instead to allow women and racial minorities to share common experiences of discrimination. But the interview led to a flood of sexist and racist death threats.

In a subsequent radio interview of his own, the national education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, agreed with the host’s characterisation of the restricted meetings as racist.

“People who claim to be progressive and who, in claiming to be progressive, distinguish people by the colour of their skin are leading us to things that resemble fascism,” Blanquer said.

Blanquer has led the government’s broader pushback against what he and conservative intellectuals describe as the threat from progressive American ideas on race, gender and postcolonialism.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, seen talking with a primary school student in September 2020, said the student union Unef was racist for barring white people from discrimination meetings. Credit:AFP

Blanquer declined interview requests, as did Frederique Vidal, the minister of higher education.

Aurore Berge, an MP from Macron’s party, said that Unef’s actions lead to identity politics that, instead of uniting people in a common cause, excludes all but “those who suffer from discrimination”.

“We’re driving out the others as if they don’t have the right of expression,” said Berge, who recently unsuccessfully submitted an amendment that would have barred Muslim minors from wearing the veil in public.

Unef’s current top leaders say that in focusing on discrimination, they are fighting for France’s ideals of liberty, equality and human rights.

“It’s a problem that, in our society, in the country of the Enlightenment, we restrict ourselves from speaking about certain subjects,” said Majdi Chaarana, Unef’s treasurer and the son of Tunisian immigrants.

The New York Times

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