Islamo-gauchisme – what does it mean and why is it controversial in France?

If you follow French news reports you will have seen recently a lot of controversy about 'Islamo-gauchisme' - but what exactly does this term mean and is it really the French version of 'woke'?

Islamo-gauchisme - what does it mean and why is it controversial in France?
"Freedom of speech" - A protester in Paris after the killing of Samuel Paty, a history teacher beheaded by an Islamist extremist after having shown a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed. Photo: AFP

What does it mean?

Its literal translation is 'Islamo-leftism', with the left referring to the political left.

However it's a bit more complicated than that.

The term, in its essence, makes a connection between Islam and the political left. What link exactly that is, is however unclear, and the term does not make clear whether the target is the religion Islam itself or extremist Islamism or Islamists. Nor does it specify which part of the left is doing the linking.

It is frequently used in France to accuse people on the left of being blind to Islamist extremism and overly worried about racism and identity.

In that sense it shares some similarities with the English term 'woke' – it's generally used as an insult against those on the left by people on the political right, but it's more specific to Islam, whereas 'woke' can be used for a wide range of issues.  

A person can be denounced as Islamo-gauchiste (Islamo-leftist).


Where does it come from?

Islamo-leftism first appeared in 2002, in a book written by sociologist Pierre-André Taguieff called La Nouvelle Judéophobie (The New Judeophobia).

Taguieff coined the term to describe a link between some groups of the French extreme left and members of the country's Muslim community.

He was specifically referring to the pro-Palestinian protests that took place in Paris in the early 2000s, where “neo-leftists (Trotskyists, anarchists and professional anti-globalisation activists) rubbed shoulders with Islamists (Hezbollah or Hamas), supporters of the outright eliminating Israel,” as he wrote in his book.

According to Taguieff, the Islamo-leftists founded a pragmatic alliance to weaken common enemies.

More recently, Taguieff wrote in the French newspaper Libération that the term had since been “mise à toutes les sauces” (put at all sauces), meaning it was used 'fast and loose' by anyone seeking to discredit groups on the left.


“That . . . the expression achieved the success we know today, I am not responsible for,” he wrote.

Frédérique Vidal, the French minister for higher education, claims 'Islamo-leftism' has infested French univesities. Photo: AFP

Who uses it?

Long a favourite punchline of the far right, Islamo-leftism has been used by Marine Le Pen and several other Rassemblement National party members.

But it has broader appeal than the far right and several intellectuals have used it, including Gilles Kepel, a renowned specialist of the Arab world, and Elisabeth Badinter, a philosopher and feminist who has advocated for women migrant workers' rights. 
Manuel Valls, ex-prime minister and Socialist Party politician, has used it too.
Others include Eric Zemmour, a highly controversial writer with extreme-right, anti-immigrant views, but also far left journalist Caroline Fourest, a feminist and outspoken critic of Islam.  According to Fourest, the term “designates those who, in the name of identity politics and an Americanised vision of identity, fight universalist feminism and secularism.”
Lately the term has also found its way into the mouths of government ministers belonging to the ruling party La République En Marche (LREM).


The French minister for higher education, Frédérique Vidal, sparked a backlash from university heads after warning about the spread of Islamo-leftism in the country's academic institutions.

“I think that Islamo-leftism is eating away at our society as a whole, and universities are not immune and are part of our society,” Vidal told CNews television on Sunday.

Last October, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer also warned that “Islamo-leftism” was “wreaking havoc” in French academia.

That same month Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused the far-left party La France Insoumise, “which long has denounced the 'opium of the people', (of having) now become linked an Islamo-leftism that is destroying the Republic.”

Why does it matter?

Mostly it matters because the term has reached government level at a highly sensitive time in France, and because critics say the recent attack is an infringement on academic freedom.

The ministers' comments added fuel to the fire to an already divisive debate about what President Emmanuel Macron has termed “Islamist separatism,” in which Islamists are said to be flouting French laws in closed-off Muslim communities and fuelling terror attacks on French soil.

The lower house of parliament approved a draft law on Tuesday that will extend the state's powers to shut down religious groups judged to be extremist.

Macron has recently been accused by critics of pandering to the far-right ahead of presidential elections next year, which polls show are likely to be a re-run of his 2017 duel with Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration National Rally (RN).

OPINION: Want to start a quarrel in France? Mention Islam


OPINION: Why has France become so devoted to Prophet Mohammed cartoons and where will it end?

Movements against racism over the last year such as Black Lives Matter, which resonated in France after arriving from the US, have led to fears that the country is importing American racial and identity politics sometimes derided as “woke culture”.

Both Macron and Education Minister Blanquer have spoken out about the danger of focusing on race and discrimination, which they see as fostering divisions between communities and undermining France's founding ideal of a united society.

Higher Education Minister Vidal on Tuesday told Parliament that the investigation she had ordered would determine “what is academic research and what is activism and opinion.”

The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the research body Vidal charged with the study, condemned the government's “attempts to delegitimise different fields of research such as post-colonial studies”.


ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?

President of the Sorbonne University, Jean Chambaz, slammed Vidal's comments in an interview with the TV channel France Info on Thursday, saying: “what is eating up society? It's discrimination, it's ghettoisation, it's social inequality.”

“Racism, lies, violence” reads a placard at one of the many protests  against police violence and racism that took place in Paris, June 2020. Photo: AFP

A new generation of younger French activists have become increasingly vocal about the problem of racism in France and the legacy of the country's colonial past in Africa and the Middle East.

But speaking in a Paris suburb in October, Macron said France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with few jobs and poor housing.

Critics say the Islamo-leftism debate is feeding the same purpose as the many and equally divisive debates on the Muslim headscarf: shifting the focus over from policies to rhetoric and souring the discourse until only the loudest voices are heard.

READ ALSO ‘My body, my choice' – French Muslim women speak out about headscarves

Are there other terms like this?

Yes, communautarisme is often heard in these types of debate.

This a pejorative term used to discredit 'identity politics' such as anti-racist or feminist movements which are argued to be detrimental to democracy by emphasising feeling over facts. Communautarisme is wider than Islamo-gauchisme and can used for arguments that don't involve Islam or the traditional political left. It's broadly similar to sayings like 'political correctness gone mad'.

The English word 'woke' is also increasingly making its way into the French language, usually used in a negative context as a damaging idea imported from the UK and USA.




Member comments

  1. Thanks for this useful and measured resume
    But doesnt Islamo-leftism (the phenomenon if not the term) go back to Roger Garaudy a communist who converted to Islam way back in the 60s? By the way I’m said to have invented ‘Islamo-fascism’ an equally problematic term.

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ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.