The 'anti-woke' crusade has come to Europe. Its effects could be chilling

Nigel Farage hosts a primetime show on GB News, a British TV channel launched in June 2021 with the promise of challenging the "woke" worldview.

London (CNN)If 2020 renewed calls for racial equality as Black Lives Matter protests exploded throughout Europe, 2021 brought in the backlash as parts of the political establishment waged a so-called "war against woke."

Stripped of its original meaning of a person being awake to progressive issues, "woke" has been appropriated from the Black vernacular and turned into a political lightning rod in the West's culture wars. It is now used pejoratively by lawmakers and pundits from both left and right, criticizing the perceived excesses of social and racial justice movements.
The politicization of the word, which has seen degrees of success in the United States, has bolstered political resistance to calls for more equality in Europe. The amorphous term has also been interpreted differently, depending on where it is deployed.
    In the United Kingdom, woke is used to "describe anything that could previously [be] described as 'politically correct,'" Evan Smith, a visiting fellow at Australia's Flinders University and author of "No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism and the Limits of Free Speech," told CNN. The term is "used to describe a broad range of ideas [and] movements concerned with social justice," including anti-racism, intersectional feminism, trans rights and critical histories of the British empire, he said.
      Cultural institutions and academics have been targeted by members of the ruling Conservative Party for supporting those movements. In September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson accused a charity set up in the name of Winston Churchill of trying to "airbrush" the "giant achievements" of the former wartime leader.
      The charity's mistake? Being accused in rightwing tabloids of being "woke," for changing its name from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to The Churchill Fellowship and acknowledging that Churchill's views on race would not be accepted today.
      "The Prime Minister has always been clear that whilst it's legitimate to examine Britain's history and we should aim to educate people about all aspects of our complex past, both good and bad, and not erase them," the spokesperson said at the time according to PA Media. "We need to focus on addressing the present, and not attempt to rewrite the past and get sucked into the never-ending debate about which well-known historical figures are sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view."
      These anti-woke government interventions have power. They "sharpen the public's sense of moral purpose and help to galvanise voters in a country they perceive to be under siege," wrote Nesrine Malik in the left-of-center newspaper, the Guardian, in October. "They include the defunding of academic institutions and museums, and even interfering in the appointment of senior personnel at the BBC."
      Many in the French establishment view "woke" as a heinous US import of theories on race, post-colonialism and gender, which they say pose a risk to French values and identity, Samuel Hayat, a politics research fellow at French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told CNN.
      A protester holds a banner on Champ de Mars, in Paris on June 6, 2020, as part of  Black Lives Matter protests in the city.
      The term gained traction among French politicians and its press in 2021, say French observers. In May, Elizabeth Moreno, French President Emmanuel Macron's party diversity minister, told Bloomberg that "woke culture is something very dangerous, and we shouldn't bring it to France." When asked in August whether "wokism [is] a just cause, in your opinion" by weekly political magazine Le Point, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is the socialist candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, said: "it is very important that journalists shed light on these emerging movements, but I will not be campaigning on them."
      When a major French dictionary included a gender-inclusive pronoun in its online edition in November, French lawmaker François Jolivet, from Macron's party, called the dictionary's authors on Twitter "militants of a cause that has nothing to do with France: #wokisme."
      "Woke is seen as a threat that comes from a society thought to be multicultural and violent and does not have the same values on secularism that France does," Hayat said.
      The word plays against the French egalitarian, anti-elitist mindset, said Hayat, placing all the theories someone might struggle to understand, such as intersectional feminism, "into a single phenomenon that came from outside France."
      As Franco-American relations plunged to new lows this fall over a security deal the US forged in secret with the UK and Australia, French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer opened a think tank to uphold French values against what he described as "wokeism."
      Speaking to France's Le Monde newspaper about his think tank, Blanquer said "wokeism" is an ideology that "fragments and divides, and has conquered certain political, media and academic circles." He added that the backlash to "wokeism" helped "bring Donald Trump to power; France and its youth must escape this."

      New bogeyman

      According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar from Toulouse Capitole University, woke's arrival in France's culture wars is part of a wider reaction among members of Macron's party, La République en Marche (LREM), against left-wing and progressive views, rearing its head after the brutal murder of teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020.
      Paty's death followed multiple Islamic terrorist attacks on French soil. But the French government's response to his beheading opened up a full-scale culture war over secularism, freedom of speech and Islamophobia as the country's interior minister closed a Muslim group that tracked anti-Muslim hate crime.
      That period also saw "Islamo-leftism" -- a controversial yet ill-defined far-right term accusing left-wing academics and activists of enabling Islamic extremism or terrorism -- enter the mainstream political discourse as Education Minister Blanquer blamed it for "wreaking havoc" in universities.
      He was backed by 100 academics who, in an open letter to Le Monde, blamed imported "indigenist [sic], racialist, and 'decolonial' ideologies," in French universities for "nourishing hatred of the 'Whites' and of France."
      France's President Emmanuel Macron is seen at a December 13, 2021, press conference, months before the country's presidential election.
      By the start of 2021, France's Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal announced the launch of an investigation into French academic research on CNews, a French channel that has been compared to Fox News. It would look "at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide," while singling out colonialism and race studies, according to Agence France-Presse.
      The French research organization Vidal tasked with launching the inquiry agreed to carry out the research. It however noted that Islamo-leftism was not a scientific term and condemned "attempts to delegitimize different fields of research, such as postcolonial studies, intersectional studies," Centre national de la recherche scientifique [CRNS] wrote in a press release.
      Conflating academics and researchers with Islamic extremism amounts to McCarthyism, said Alouane, referring to the anti-Communist crusade in the early 1950s by US Sen. Joe McCarthy.
      Weaponizing woke is another attempt at bringing academics, researchers and human rights activists to heel, say critics.
      "This is a witchhunt against people who question the status quo," Alouane added. "Instead of trying to make things better, to tackle issues related to discrimination, racial profiling, and the history of French colonization ... these academics [and] researchers are considered to be a threat to so-called Republican values."