Woke, a Fashionable Dance

Ideas have always circulated between the United States and France, but slowly. Thirty-five years passed between Tocqueville’s account of American democracy and the establishment of a durable French republic. Today, the exchanges are instantaneous, as seen with the arrival of wokeness in France.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

How fast do ideas and behaviors circulate between the United States and France? This question, which would make a nice dissertation topic, should have its own algorithm (if I may indulge in a fashionable technical term). As a basis for calculating the speed of circulation, here are a few data points and historical reminders. The Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1788, was largely inspired by the writings of Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published a generation before they were adopted by the Founding Fathers. At the time, it took between one and two months to cross the ocean. Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, which popularized American institutions in France, between 1835 and 1840, and it was in 1848 that the French rallied around a republic inspired by the United States, with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as the first president elected by universal suffrage.

The abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865 was not celebrated in France until 1876, with the construction of a Statue of Liberty breaking its chains. We can see that the pace of exchanges was accelerating, but only modestly. In the 1920s, after the French Third Republic was shaken by World War I, President Alexandre Millerand suggested bolstering institutions by reforming the Constitution based on the American document. By this point, ideas were circulating at the speed of a steam ship rather than at that of the Hermione on which Lafayette sailed (39 days at sea in 1780).

After World War II, airplanes replaced ocean liners. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the source of the feminist movement in both France and America, was published in Paris in 1949. An English translation appeared in the United States four years later. After the Paris-New York flights of the Constellation, a 20-hour journey with a stopover in Ireland, the Boeing 707 reduced the trip to eight hours in 1958. This was a major first: a direct flight! It was around this time that French intellectuals, particularly Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, popularized the idea of “deconstruction” on American campuses, using their critical analysis to condemn the abusive power of White males, directly resulting in the political correctness of the 1980s.

With the Internet – metaphorically speaking, of course – the circulation of influences became instantaneous. #MeToo, popularized in the United States six years ago, took hold in France with no transitional delay. The same is true of wokeness, an extreme version of political correctness, which has moved from words to actions. Is wokeness now just as French as #MeToo has become? We can judge by an anecdote that strikes me as significant.

The story takes place at the prestigious Sciences Po, or the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Since its establishment in 1872, Sciences Po has selectively formed French elites in administration, politics, and business. Emmanuel Macron is an alumnus, as were Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, and François Hollande before him. The school has recently become an exemplary laboratory of wokeness. Last December, a dance professor was forced to resign, it is said, because she refused to adopt sexually neutral language. Teaching ballroom dancing, she persisted in saying “men to one side, women to the other.” But one is supposed to say, according to students who felt they were victims of discrimination, “leaders” and “followers.”

The Sciences Po administration decided in favor of the plaintiffs against the teacher, on the basis of the school’s moral charter, which forbids all discrimination. The professor had no choice but to leave her position. But why on earth is ballroom dancing being taught at Sciences Po? I myself taught economics there until 2010, and there were no dance classes. The explanation is anything but woke. The students of Sciences Po organize “rallies,” or elegant soirées inherited from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of the early 20th century. Knowing how to dance is an indispensable requirement for being included in these events, which are also circles of power. Dancing is a way of gaining access to social hierarchies.

Is wokeness, whether in France or in the United States, something ridiculous and heinous, or is it a necessary revolution against tacit privileges? It is both. The anti-woke critics play up its excesses and point the finger at censorship. The most excessive among them see in wokeness the destruction of Western civilization. They have a point, but do they see that wokeness also reveals very real forms of discrimination that hide behind cultural alibis? As for the woke, they are obviously convinced of their rights, including the right to execute innocent victims, which is the mark of all revolutions. This is why, in both France and the United States, I find it necessary to be both woke and anti-woke. Farewell to the Hermione, we now live in an age of simultaneity.

Editorial published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.