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The Battle for France

The new intellectualism of cultural anxiety

Think what you will about America’s contentious identity politics; compared with France, the United States remains Mayberry, TV’s symbol of small-town innocence. We may have Black Lives Matter, massive resistance to a president seeking to enforce the country’s existing immigration laws, and urban riots. But in France the riots are bigger and last far longer. It has hundreds of thousands of people possessing French citizenship but evincing no discernible national loyalty. And there are few geographic barriers between itself and the sources of inundating immigration. No one can forecast with confidence the American future—whether it be a more or less successful assimilation of large streams of new immigrants or a transformed country where ethnic division is a norm underpinning every political transaction. But whatever the fate of Western civilization—whether it be a renaissance, or, as Pat Buchanan has predicted, its death—that fate will be revealed in Paris before New York or Chicago.

And that’s why France is the epicenter of today’s fearsome battle between Western elites bent on protecting and expanding the well-entrenched policy of mass immigration and those who see this spreading influx as an ultimate threat to the West’s cultural heritage, not to mention its internal tranquility. In France it is a two-front war. One is the political front, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream. The other is the intellectual front, where a new breed of writers, thinkers, and historians has emerged to question the national direction and to decry those who have set the country upon its current course. 

Americans have always had a special affinity for France. It was critical to the American founding by way of Lafayette’s mission. In the 20th century many artistic and upper-class Americans embraced Paris as the site of and model for their own cultural strivings. France’s 1940 fall to Nazi Germany dealt the first real blow to American isolationism. After the 1945 victory in Europe, U.S. links to Paris, London, and Europe generally rendered postwar Atlanticism more than just a strategy: it was a civilizational commitment that helped define who we were as Americans. 

Paris remains beautiful, though crime has been rising for a generation and the city has the trappings of wartime, with heavily armed soldiers visibly guarding sensitive targets—museums, schools, newspapers—against Islamist terror. The approaching elections, where the National Front will surely exceed its past vote totals, mark a tremulous new era.      

Indeed, serious people have for some years been contemplating whether France is nearing the precipice of civil war. That’s probably unlikely, at least in the near future, but few would be shocked if the political and communal conflicts exploded into violence not seen in decades. And that has spawned a radically changed intellectual climate. The French intelligentsia and its cultural establishment still lean, in the main, toward the left, as they have since the end of World War II, or indeed since the divisive Dreyfus affair of the Third Republic. But today, France’s most read and most discussed popular writers—novelists and political essayists—are conservatives of one stripe or another. They are not concerned, even slightly, with the issues that animate American “mainstream” think-tank conservatism—lowering taxes, cutting federal programs, or maintaining some kind of global military hegemony. Their focus is France’s national culture and its survival. When they raise, as they do, the subjects embraced by American paleoconservatives and the so-called alt-right, that doesn’t mean the French debate has been taken over by extremists. The authors driving the French conversation are in almost every instance prominent figures whose views would have put them in the Gaullist middle or somewhat left of center at any time in the 1960s or ’70s. But France has changed, and what National Review in the 1990s called “the national question” has been brought to the very heart of the country’s national debate.

At the moment, France’s most important political intellectual on the right is probably Éric Zemmour, a former editorial writer for Le Figaro. A natural polemicist, he is a descendant of working-class Algerian Jews who fled to France in the 1950s. Though he demonstrates serious intellectual breadth, Zemmour’s particular passion is polemical battle. He was fined under French anti-racism laws in 2011 for publicly referring to racial discrepancies in crime rates. No one questioned the accuracy of his statistics, but discussing them in a way that was seen as contravening French anti-defamation law was an absolute no-no. Three years later, he reached a pinnacle of influence with the publication of his 500-page Le Suicide français, a modern national history that sold 400,000 copies within two months and became the top-selling book in France. Weeks later, when attacks by French-born Islamists on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket outside Paris stunned the nation (while being greeted with shocking indifference in the predominantly Muslim Paris suburbs), Zemmour’s book was there to explain how France had arrived at that dismal intersection.

The literary technique of Le Suicide français seems made for the internet and social media. The book marches, in short vignettes, from the death of de Gaulle in 1970 through the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency in 2012. Zemmour takes an illustrative event—sometimes no more than a demonstration, a film, or a pop song—and shows how it reflects national decline or actually pushed that decline onward.

One central theme is that the young bourgeois nihilists of the May 1968 street revolution prevailed. Not in politics or at least not immediately: de Gaulle’s party remained in power for more than a decade after. But the cultural victory was decisive. De Gaulle as a father figure was overthrown, and so was the traditional idea of the father. As the traditional family weakened, birth rates sank. In short order, France embraced legalized abortion and no-fault divorce; the father, when he didn’t disappear altogether, began to behave like a second mother. Traces of the shift show up in pop music. The singer Michel Delpech gave his blessing to his wife leaving for another man in one popular song:

You can even make a half-brother for Stéphanie
That would be marvelous for her. 

Or as the comic Guy Bedos put it, “We separated by mutual agreement, especially hers.”

Such shifts coincided, in symbiotic ways that few understood at the time, with the advent of mass immigration. Zemmour writes, “At the same moment the traditional French family receded, as if to compensate symbolically and demographically, the most traditional type of Maghrebine family, the most archaic, the most patriarchal, is invited to take up its role. To come to its rescue. To fill up the places it has left vacant. To replace it.”

Like the immigration narrative of every advanced Western country, the story is complex. France had welcomed and assimilated immigrants from eastern and southern Europe for a century. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, encouraged by an industrial elite seeking cheaper manual labor, recruited to France each year hundreds of thousands of workers from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. Rural Maghrebine workers were preferred; they were seen as less Frenchified than workers from Algerian towns, more docile. After worker recruitment was stopped during the recession of 1974, family reunification as a humanitarian policy was instigated, and hundreds of thousands of North African women and children joined their husbands in France. Zemmour concludes that this represented a kind of posthumous victory over de Gaulle by the partisans of Algérie Française, the blending of France and Algeria which de Gaulle had rejected—for reasons of sociology and demography as much as for peace. As he told Alain Peyrefitte in 1959, “Those who dream of integration are birdbrains, even the most brilliant of them. Try to mix oil and vinegar. Shake up the bottle. After a while, they separate again. The Arabs are Arabs, the French are French.” In the same interview, de Gaulle said the Algérie Française would result in massive immigration to France, and his town Colombey-les-Deux-Églises would be turned into Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées.

When the 1974 recession struck, French politicians discovered it was far easier to start an immigration flow than to end one. Social-service providers were overwhelmed by the needs of the new families. When Prime Minister Raymond Barre sought to suspend family reunification, he was blocked by a French high court. When Barre finally arranged for cash payments for immigrants who voluntarily repatriated, Spanish and Portuguese workers pocketed the checks and left, while the North Africans remained. Despite the tangible difficulties of assimilating Maghrebine immigrants, France bien pensant and celebrity culture had by then swung behind the newcomers. French singer Pierre Perret produced a 1977 ballad, “Lily,” about an immigrant girl from Somalia facing the trials of racism in Paris. In Dupont Lajoie, one of Isabelle Huppert’s early films, a character seeming to stand in for lower-middle-class white France (the film’s English title was “The Common Man”) rapes and accidentally murders a young woman and then tries to frame some saintly Algerian workers for the crime. For Zemmour, the film’s message to the public was, “We are all Dupont Lajoie.”

By the 1980s, the temporary workers, their families, and their children were granted permanent residence, but the notion that most of them would somehow blend into the larger French community was discreetly abandoned. Zemmour traces the left’s adoption of an accusatory anti-racism to a need to compensate for its inability to pursue any kind of socialist or pro-working-class economic program in a period of neoliberal capitalist ascendance.

On one cultural front, the crimes of Vichy collaboration after France’s 1940 defeat became a kind of national obsession. Zemmour singles out the work of American historian Robert Paxton for transmitting a far more damning narrative of Vichy’s conduct than most French had accepted before. (I note, as a former student and an admirer of Paxton, that Zemmour distinguishes Paxton’s work from that of his less nuanced French epigones.) The record of Vichy’s conduct is shameful, though perhaps also arguably defensible in one ambiguous respect. Most French Jews survived the war, in sharp contrast to the fate of Jews in other Nazi-occupied countries. But Vichy also collaborated with German campaigns to deport non-French Jewish refugees and carried out its own anti-Semitic policies without German prompting.

De Gaulle promoted a national narrative based on the idea that Vichy did not represent “real France,” and most of his people embraced this narrative in the early postwar decades. But by the 1980s it became fashionable for educated young Frenchmen to believe that racism and anti-Semitism were stewed into France’s very essence. Remembrance of the Shoah, through trials, films, books, and journals, permeated the political culture. Zemmour argues that young Jews were especially affected, to the point of rejecting the assimilationist model that their parents previously had embraced. This produced wider political consequences, particularly on the left, where celebration of whoever or whatever was not French became a default position. When the François Mitterrand government in the late 1980s rounded up some illegal immigrants from Mali and put them on a flight back home, the left likened the policy to the trains exporting Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Among activists and celebrities organizing themselves in support of illegal immigrants, the undocumented were transmuted into France’s ultimate symbol of victimhood, an “ideal Jew,” in Zemmour’s phrase. With sardonic irony, he concludes: “For all the French who could not, or would not, or dared not, or wished not to save Jews in 1942, History benevolently provided them with a second opportunity.”

By the 1990s, it was becoming inescapably evident that the new immigration was not going to be normalized in the sense that the children of the new groups would be slowly absorbed into France. Official France acknowledged this in various ways. In 1993 it scrapped a French law, seldom enforced, requiring the first names of French newborns to come from an official registry. Soon “Pierre” and “Nicole” were replaced increasingly by random names such as “Ryan” or “Enzo,” then far more frequently by “Mohammed.” Rap music exploded onto the French pop scene and was much celebrated in the French media. “Nique Ta Mere” (“Fuck Your Mother’’) was a popular group; a song called “Nique La France” was a big hit in the early 2000s.

The first large riot in the immigrant suburbs erupted in 2005. By that time the French state had partially dissolved itself into Europe, stripping itself of many powers it might have used to turn into Frenchmen the sons and daughters from the migrant flows. Fighting the last war, Europe’s technocrats had sought to submerge forever the nationalist passions which had once nearly destroyed Europe. The result was representative bodies without power (the old nation-states) and power without representation (the technocrats of Brussels). The embrace of this movement by the French political elite, who managed to persuade the populace that getting rid of France’s currency would solve all its economic problems, makes amusing reading.    

In his conclusion, written on the eve of the first 2015 terror attacks, Zemmour pronounces France to be dying, even dead. But one doubts he fully believes that. He is still writing, still doing TV, still arguing for the survival of a certain Greco-Judaeo-Christian-French nation, as if the French Suicide remained far from an accomplished fact.

As Zemmour’s work surged to the top of France’s best-seller list, the novelist Michel Houellebecq was already there. The most renowned French novelist since Camus, this winner of the Prix Goncourt is a cultural reactionary with vaguely socialist economic leanings. One of his close friends, the left-wing economist Bernard Maris, considered Houellebecq one of France’s shrewdest critics of modern capitalism.

Still, the writer is no progressive. His 1998 breakout novel, The Elementary Particles, presented a withering picture of post-1968 family life, where hedonistic parents pursued self-actualization and largely abandoned the raising of their own children. This had been Houellebecq’s personal experience after his mother essentially left him and his brother with grandparents so she could explore exotic pursuits. Mark Lilla writes that he heard of the book from French friends who had had it pressed on them by their children; he had been surprised that this tale of adult sexual libertinism and the emotional carnage it wrought struck such a deep chord with French adolescents.

Submission, published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, is governed by a similar narrative voice. Its protagonist, François, is a modestly successful Parisian academic, an expert on the 19th-century novelist Huysmans. He is seemingly incapable of love or emotional commitment or finding much pleasure in life. He finds himself in the midst of a political crisis, set seven years into the future, as France totters on the edge of civil war.

The rough plot of Submission has been often described: a skillful moderate Muslim politician named Ben Abbes is elected president with the support of the establishment left and business-oriented right-wing parties, which have combined against the National Front’s candidate. For some French, there are unanticipated compensations to a soft Islamic regime—the prospect of polygamy for more successful men, for example. Also, implied but never stated, French women could get a respite from the sexualized and professional treadmill of Western postmodernity—in other words, from the duties and expectations of modern feminism. François eventually converts to Islam to protect his job at the Sorbonne. Perhaps the prospect of several young wives will be a kind of compensation for this lonely man.

But much of the novel involves scene setting before the victory of Ben Abbes. As the electoral showdown begins to take form, François encounters a young right-wing professor (named Lempereur) at an academic cocktail party. Out of practice in how to talk to right-wingers, he asks “You’re what? … Catholic? Fascist? Both?” Then the sound of distant gunfire shakes up the gathering. Leaving, the two professors walk past the Place de Clichy—seeing some fires, burnt cars, riot police in Kevlar. Nothing is reported on the news. François learns that Lempereur was in his youth involved in far right “identitarian” groups. The younger man explains that the far right is trying to stir the pot, produce provocations; the more there is open violence, the greater the National Front’s chances. He goes on to explain that the far right has been galvanized by a new group called “Indigenous Europeans,” which rails as much against “Muslim occupation” as against American companies and the new capitalists from India and China who are “buying up our heritage.” European nativists feel that “sooner or later we’ll see a civil war between the Muslims and everyone else. They conclude that … war had better come as soon as possible.” Though the demographic rationale for sooner rather than later needs no elaboration, Lempereur adds that the question is somewhat complicated by the French military, the strongest in Europe, capable of suppressing any right-wing insurrection. The political wing of the Indigenous Europeans, he explains, wants to delay a civil war until it can gain political control of the military through systematic mass enlistment.

This fictional conversation is not far remote from speculations taking place today among some Frenchmen. Parisian friends have told me that Lempereur is modeled on a real person. His Islamist counterparts want the same thing. Gilles Kepel, France’s foremost analyst of contemporary Islam, has explained that the recent wave of terror attacks launched in France, Belgium, and Germany have a doctrinal basis in the writings of the “third-generation jihad” theorist Abu Musab al-Suri. Terrorism is intended not only to kill, but also to provoke anti-Islamic sentiment and policies in order to turn the Muslim populations of Europe into a manpower reservoir for the jihadists. Both sides are alert to the demographic questions; everyone knows that the white France of Christian (and Jewish) background is, in relative terms, shrinking.

How quickly it is shrinking remains a critical question. The French government publishes few figures on ethnic background, ostensibly because such classifications are considered to be, variously, throwbacks to the invidious religious classifications of Vichy, or simply racist, or foreign to the spirit of a non-racial French Republic. Statistics about France’s demography thus tend to be murky, with the liberal establishment often suspected of lowballing Muslim or immigrant numbers. Nonetheless everyone knows there are parts of France that feel less and less French, and that these are growing.

Last year Michel Gurfinkiel weighed conflicting estimates (between three and six million) of the number of French Muslims in the mid-1990s and contrasted them with present estimates. He concluded that the current figure is roughly six million, or 9 percent of the population, and that it is growing at a much faster rate than the French population as a whole. As early as 2010, fully 20 percent of French under 24 were described as Muslim. A more recent poll in the liberal French weekly L’Obs reported that more than a quarter of French youth described themselves as Muslim.

Because the government does not publish statistics about race, some curious researchers have looked at the number of newborn babies screened for markers for sickle-cell anemia, a test given if both parents are of African, North African, or Sicilian origin. The figure has risen from 25 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2015. In the Greater Paris region it has risen from 54 percent to 73 percent. One understands why Houellebecq’s right-wing professor says he wants the inevitable civil war to come “as soon as possible.”

Neither Houellebecq (and certainly not his far-right characters) nor Zemmour is quite at the intellectual center of French life, but Alain Finkielkraut may be. The 67-year-old Parisian writer, recently admitted into the prestigious Académie Française, has been a fixture in French literary and political debate for nearly four decades. Author of some two dozen books, a frequent participant on the intellectual sparring sessions of French TV, and for many years a professor at the École Polytechnique, he has a voice that France has listened to for many years on moral and political questions. The child of Polish Jews who escaped the Holocaust and married in France after the war, Finkielkraut was a ’68 generation protester and a decade later one of the so-called nouveaux philosophes who broke with Marxism in the era of The Gulag Archipelago and the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Sometimes described as a liberal in the English press, Finkielkraut projects many attitudes of early neoconservatism, when the movement was more engaged in pushing back against the falsehoods and hysterias of the New Left than it was in encouraging military interventions in the Mideast. When he cites American authors, which is not frequently, he chooses from those loosely in that orbit: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick.

But what is striking about Finkielkraut’s views today is his recognition, which he has made a central theme of his writing, that France is unhappily going through a crisis of identity, the consequence of Muslim and other Third World immigration, and that much of the French establishment refuses to accept that there is anything of value to fight for in the traditional French identity.

He approaches these questions in his unerringly gentle style—literary, discursive, almost encircling. A discussion of the headscarf issue, a major dispute in France, commences with a detour through the memoirs of an envoy sent by the Pasha of Egypt to Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. He was astonished by how well women were treated, codified in the customs of chivalry that marked interactions between the sexes. Finkielkraut then winds his way to observing that the general flows of hatred and aggressiveness that seem to permeate the immigrant suburbs are perhaps not due entirely (as per the official narrative) to the lack of jobs or to social exclusion. Rather, he suggests, it might owe something to the exclusion of women from immigrant-dominated public spaces and the emotional wasteland that results. Finkielkraut wonders whether the violence is “a consequence of the denial of sensitivity, the rejection of courtesy towards women which these neighborhoods impose … [the effect] which collective misogyny has on every individual.”  No matter how much the liberal intelligentsia has tried to frame the 2005 suburban riots as “May ’68 for the popular classes,” they could not quite avoid the contrasting images of ultraviolent young men who put forth no verbal demands or slogans and the highly rhetorical and sexually mixed spring of 1968.

The deep-rooted cultural divide between the immigrants and the French, Finkielkraut argues, is hardly immutable. But it demands a prodigious French effort, initiated in the schools, to wear it down. The problem is that there is no will in France, nor anywhere in Europe, to make that effort. In L’identité malheureuse, Finkielkraut probes Europe’s politically correct elite attitudes, especially the new passion for “diversity.” For some it clearly means that the essential identity of Europe is to be diverse, or cosmopolitan, which means it should have no identity—in other words, an identity based on a kind of denial of identity. To be true to this desired self, Europe must deny its own origins. The consequences emerge frequently—for instance in the brouhaha over a proposed Museum of History of France. Multiculturalists wanted the new structure be named the Museum of History in France, so that no extraneous appeals to strengthen national identity were transmitted. As Finkielkraut concludes, this is the first time in the history of immigration that those who are being welcomed reject the idea that those welcoming them have the right to represent the welcoming country. This has produced widespread concerns about France’s direction: “France has changed, life has changed, even change has changed … where it was once undertaken, now it is fated, where it was once what we did or what we desired, it has become instead what happens to us.”

Finkielkraut is accused frequently of having turned into a reactionary. At the time of his election to the Académie Française, a socialist deputy charged, “If Finkielkraut was not Jewish, he’d be a spokesman for the National Front.” When he sought last year to visit Nuit Debout, a months-long leftist protest and teach-in at the Place République, protesters forcibly escorted him and his wife out. He counters with wry observations about the left: “At the moment when Marine Le Pen kills her father, the antifascists spare no measure to revive him.” This is a reference to the political establishment’s refusal to acknowledge the deep changes the party founder’s daughter has wrought in the National Front, not least by expelling her father from the party. He notes also the left’s belief that “‘the people’ are admirable when they act as a class, but despicable when they act as part of a nation.” Finkielkraut is not part of the populist right, nor does he consider civil war inevitable. He advocates reforms designed to save France, particularly in the schools. These include putting French history, language, and culture at the center of the curriculum in the immigrant suburbs. But there isn’t much chance any of this actually will be implemented.

The three men discussed above are the tip of a cultural and political iceberg. We could easily include Finkielkraut’s friend Pierre Manent, author of Situation de la France, which lays out a blueprint for coming to terms with an Islam that was invited, without preconditions, into France. He suggests flexibility on headscarves; accommodation for separate hours for girls and boys in gym; firmness in rejection of the face-covering hijab; and absolute support for freedom of speech. At the same time, he bemoans the reality that France’s adherence to the EU deprives the state of the strength and flexibility needed to facilitate a deeper assimilation. Others in this new school of French cultural identity include the historian Jacques Julliard, the famous onetime revolutionary theoretician Régis Debray, and prominent writer Pascal Bruckner—all major intellectuals, all now labeled reactionaries. Last year Eugénie Bastié observed in Le Figaro that Nov. 13, 2015, the date of the Bataclan massacre, marked a decisive breaking point for French intellectuals, generating a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who thought it essential to see the world as it truly was; and, on the other hand, those who doubled down on the cause of anti-racism because they thought it was just and because, above all, they must not “play the game” of the National Front. Some described this as a battle between “the Good and the True.” This split will certainly endure after this May’s presidential election, whatever the outcome. But it can’t be denied that the influence of those bent on “seeing things as they truly are,” represented in some form by Zemmour, Finkielkraut, and Houellebecq, among others, had grown tremendously over the past five years. 

It is worth noting also that it surely isn’t an accident that two of the three men discussed here are Jewish, and that a Jewish character (Francois’s girlfriend Myriam) plays a pivotal role in Submission when she decamps, with her parents, for Israel. To be sure, neither Zemmour nor Finkielkraut spends much time writing about French Jewish “communal” issues. But Zemmour was correct in arguing that the 1980s intensification of French guilt over Vichy and the Shoah played a significant part in pushing much of France’s cultural and political establishment toward a view that they had a moral obligation to reject traditional France. Some saw replacing it with new immigrants as a kind of providential opportunity. But there has emerged also a growing sense that this new France, redeemed, as it were, of all the provincial, nationalist, and petty racist sentiments that suffused both Vichy and Gaullism, now threatens French Jews in very concrete and undeniable ways. The Jewish population of France is roughly half a million, less than 1 percent, but its weight is larger in the French intellectual and cultural worlds. And many French Jews, for very understandable reasons, have developed sensitive social antennae for perceiving the advent of societal danger.

In France today this growing societal danger is undeniable. Roughly half of the country’s government-acknowledged hate crimes are carried out against Jews. Islamist terrorists have struck many general French targets, including Catholic ones. But about half of their attacks have been against specifically Jewish targets: schools, museums, kosher supermarkets. Perhaps more ominous is the rise in violent crime, now part of the general background. Public schools in the Paris suburbs, once filled with Jewish children, are now nearly empty of them. According to one recent estimate, 40 percent of Jewish students go to Jewish schools, while another 35 percent attend Catholic academies; their parents don’t believe French public schools are safe for their children. In recent years, France has been losing annually some 2 to 3 percent of its Jewish population to emigration to Israel. Reports proliferate of Jews leaving medium-size cities for the relatively greater safety of Paris, but in Paris one sees synagogues and Jewish schools under military guard.

While this is just one aspect of the growing concern within French society about the seemingly intractable assimilation issues facing the country, it is a significant one. Beyond it is a host of more general popular fears and cultural anxieties focused on the France of old and what will be lost when it is gone. It is not surprising, therefore, that we are seeing in French intellectual circles a fresh appreciation for the habits, culture, virtues, and even flaws of the historical French republics. No one should be fooled into thinking that this intellectual ferment in France, centered on the protection of the country’s traditional culture, is a phenomenon peculiar to this particular European nation. Just as we see echoes of Le Pen’s National Front in the politics of other Western countries, including the United States, we are likely to see a growing intellectual focus on such political controversies. A powerful new debate has opened up in the nations of the West, and writers, thinkers, essayists, and polemicists of various stripes and viewpoints will be pulled into it. But France is the country to watch because it is the vanguard.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.