France: academic freedom under threat

France: academic freedom under threat

A campaign to safeguard intellectual freedom has been formed in France to support a researcher who faces disciplinary action in connection with his work on Islamophobia.

Vincent Geisser, a researcher who has worked to dispel anti-Muslim prejudices and authoritarianism, is to appear on 29 June before the disciplinary commission of the government’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), charged with public statements damaging to the institution. Geisser, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of the Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM), part of the CNRS, is an experienced and reputable scholar with a strong history of research and study on north Africa. He led a research project on migration of students and intellectuals in the Mediterranean basin, the results of which were published in 2000 by CNRS. In April 2005, he launched a CNRS-funded study into the contribution of Maghrebi researchers and academics to the diffusion of French scientific research.

Meanwhile, as Geisser explained in a statement, he had come under attack from the extreme Right for his book The new Islamophobia, published in 2003, and came under surveillance by the CNRS’ defence and security officer (FD), of whose existence he was at the time unaware. In September 2004, the FD emailed the director of IREMAM indicating that there were problems with the research. He also announced that the IREMAM was to be reclassified as ‘sensitive’, and that the director was obliged to provide him every month with a list of all trainees from outside the EU. It has become routine for CNRS lab directors to send a monthly list of ‘foreigners’ working within their walls. So in Geisser’s words, the sociological research had become ‘sensitive’ in a ‘sensitive’ establishment, about a ‘sensitive’ population in a ‘sensitive’ part of the world.

‘It’s true’, he says, ‘that at the beginning we didn’t make the link between the strictly scientific object of our inquiry and the “security climate” which has overtaken certain institutions. It’s reading the email correspondence later which has revealed the “climate of suspicion” surrounding our lab generally, and certain researchers in particular, specially those who, like me, had the “misfortune” to work on questions of Islam, Islamism and authoritarianism in the Arab world.’

From that time, pressure was exerted on local, regional and national authorities of CNRS to limit Geisser’s scientific activities. The FD interviewed him in Aix-en-Provence (where IREMAM is sited) in February 2006, in the presence of the director of the research unit and the regional delegate of CNRS Provence. This was ostensibly to finalise the conformity of the project with security requirements, but after two hours he started to ask questions about Geisser’s other writings, conferences and press statements, and Geisser was amazed to realise that the FD had a complete dossier on his public activities. He was asked to justify public positions he had taken, and a simple professional encounter turned into a political interrogation where all his scientific, philosophical and political activities were under scrutiny.

Despite the work done to ensure compliance with security requirements, the CNRS never forwarded the project to the relevant department, although neither Geisser nor his unit director was ever informed that it had been shelved. Then, in March 2007 an order came from the CNRS Secretary-General to destroy everything connected with the inquiry. Geisser’s conclusion is that the FD’s sole purpose was to ‘bury’ the project, under the pretext that its author was a suspected ‘Islamophile’ – a belief confirmed, in his view, by a colleague, who said he had been approached by the ministry of defence about the project in the context of ‘the risk’ of ‘the establishment of a Arab-Muslim lobby’ inside the CNRS. At that point, he says, he confided in his research colleagues and others, who advised him to go public. However, Geisser did not want to damage the reputation of CNRS. Then, in July 2008, he was warned that the FD was seeking sanctions against him for the opinions expressed in his writings. He says that the ‘moral harassment’ was beginning to affect his health, but again he made no complaint, not wanting to damage the interests of his lab or of CNRS.

On 4 July 2009, Geisser wrote privately by email to the Committee for the support of a young researcher, Sabrina, whose research allocation had not been renewed because of the FD’s intervention. He accepts that in his private message of support to someone he saw as a fellow victim, he compared FD’s actions with those against the Jews, expressing his dismay that the logic of security was prevailing over the logic of science. For this private email, he faces disciplinary action for publicly bringing the CNRS and its security and defence officer into disrepute.

A campaign has been set up to support Geisser and other researchers who fall foul of France’s security state. The director of IREMAM, Ghislaine Alleaume, is a founder member of the campaign, called the Collective for safeguarding the intellectual freedom of researchers and teachers in the public sector. The Collective sent an open letter in support of Geisser to the minister for higher education and research, Valerie Pecresse, in which it points out the importance of ‘the element of critical thought indispensable for preserving democracy’. The letter continues:

‘Our societies, too often dictated to by the media and the internet, need this free thought … In our society most intellectuals work in the public sector, but this doesn’t make them subject to the institutions or to political power … What shameful compromises must we accept to avoid the humiliation of a disciplinary tribunal? Is France, birthplace of the rights of man and freedom of expression, in danger of losing its soul? How can we continue to work, to embrace our vocation, under the constant threat of sanction? What are we? Simply mouthpieces for our bosses and institutions, or autonomous men and women freely exercising our profession, honestly, responsibly, at the service of free thought and knowledge, with no restriction other than the common good? To impose duties of restraint on intellectuals makes them disappear as intellectuals … What has happened to our colleague is extremely serious and affects all citizens. His unworthy treatment brings shame to our profession and to France.’

The Collective’s petition in support of Geisser has attracted widespread support from academics and intellectuals, both in France and elsewhere and grassroots community organisations. It can be signed at:

  • Update – 8 July 2009: On 29 June 2009, after 14 hours of debate, of which most was taken up in a dispute over the rules and composition of the disciplinary committee, the committee decided not to recommend any sanction against Geisser. The director-general of CNRS has the final say, and the unions and members of the campaign for intellectual freedom set up to support Geisser, are seeking to ensure that he does not go behind the express recommendation of the committee. Campaign members have expressed the need for a more permanent monitoring group, which is likely to be set up after the summer break.

Related links

Petition and other documents (in French) in support of Vincent Geisser

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