“Cooling down the flammable issues” was the claim Pap Ndiaye took up as director of the Paris Museum of Immigration at the beginning of last year. Now he can hang this sentence over his desk as a motto for his new job as French Minister of Education.

The historian Ndiaye, 56, as a specialist in American social history, may have mastered the technique of the cool gaze, as an intellectual he may have a reputation for always acting as an argumentative mediator and be humanly valued for his exceptionally level-headed character: no other member of the new French government was as hostile as him.

Cries of horror immediately came from the right-wing political camp. Ndiaye is seen as representing a French variant of American woke culture, who imported the race, gender and postcolonial theories of American humanities to France with his book La condition noire (What It Means to Be Black).

He does not accuse France of state racism like other Woke activists, but simply states that there is racism in the system and the institutions of the state. “I feel more cool than woke,” Ndiaye said in an interview last year.

Marine Le Pen, the losing candidate of the Rassemblement National (RN) in the presidential election, has described Macron’s government team as a “nightmare” and Ndiaye’s appointment in particular as a “provocation”.

In a characteristically crooked metaphor, she characterizes Ndiaye as the “last stone in the deconstruction of our country”. What is probably meant is the so-called deconstruction of history, which has been feared ever since Emmanuel Macron described colonization as a crime against humanity during the 2016 election campaign. Elsewhere it is called coming to terms with the past. But in France, a dispute is now raging between universalists and those who want to cater to new victim identities.

This debate often blurs the line with the question of how to defend secularism. Ndiaye’s predecessor, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was a particularly radical proponent of universalism and led a real campaign against what is considered left-wing Islamism in France. That explains why conservative intellectuals are also critical of Ndiaye’s appointment.

The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, for example, is surprised that a supporter of positive discrimination should now be responsible for France’s school system and accuses Ndiaye of not wanting to end the crisis in knowledge transfer or to strengthen equal opportunities.

These are remarkable allegations against a man who, together with his sister, the well-known writer Marie Ndiaye, was raised by a single mother in a Paris suburb and who, after studying at the elite public school “Ecole Normale Supérieure”, went on to have a brilliant career as a scientist .

When handing over office in the Ministry of Education, Ndiaye described himself not only as a “symbol of diversity”, but “perhaps also as a product of French meritocracy”, the principle according to which only performance counts, regardless of social background, let alone skin color.

How do you explain the fuming reactions to the appointment of a man who may lack political experience but is a world-renowned scientist and is remembered by his students at the elite Sciences Po University as a gifted teacher? Obviously, this is not rudimentary racism. Ndiaye’s rejection is not that of a different color of skin, but that of a different way of thinking.

His is not exhausted in black and white categories, but seeks the truth in the shades of gray. To suggest division is intellectually dishonest. But it is symptomatic of a society that, like France, has lost its center.