France’s Grand Illusion

April 20, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: FranceEconomicsEducation

France’s Grand Illusion

Teaching schoolchildren about French greatness can’t save France...

Even if one narrows the frame and excludes London, Atocha and Merah’s killing of the three French soldiers, on the basis of their having been inspired by the terrorists’ belief that they were “avenging” British, Spanish and French military actions in the Muslim world, and then excludes Merah’s attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, Nemmouche’s on the Jewish Center in Brussels and Coulibaly’s on the kosher supermarket in Paris as having been motivated by rabid Jew-hatred, and only includes those attacks that seem to have been motivated by the wish to “avenge” perceived blasphemy against Islam, neither of the two important precursors to the Charlie Hebdo attacks had any relation to France. The hacking to death in Amsterdam in 2004 of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was the work of Mohammed Bouyeri, a young Dutch-Moroccan dual national who claimed to be avenging the slurs against Islam van Gogh had supposedly made in his film Submission. And a series of attempts to murder Kurt Westergaard, on the grounds that the Danish cartoonist had profaned the image of the Prophet by drawing him with a bomb in his turban, along with plots against Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that had published his cartoon, were undertaken by immigrants of North African or Somali origin residing in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

It is also noteworthy that the most significant terrorist attack in Europe since the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place not in France but in Denmark, when Omar El-Hussein, a Danish-born immigrant of Palestinian origin, opened fire (killing one person) on a meeting at a cultural center in Copenhagen entitled “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression,” at which the French ambassador was a speaker. The meeting had been meant to reflect on the implications of the Charlie Hebdo killings on the future of free speech. The following morning, El-Hussein turned his sights (literally) on Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, where he gunned down Dan Uzan, a congregant who had volunteered to act as a security guard during the bat mitzvah celebration that was being held there.

Still, for all its pan-European features, the French case somehow does seem worse. To paraphrase Trotsky on war, France may not be interested in ethnicity, but ethnicity is interested in France. What happens in, say, Denmark, no matter how significant in human terms, is marginal to the social and political future of Europe, whereas what happens in France is central to it. And if the future of France is truly as bleak as recent opinion polls suggest the French believe it to be, then this is likely to doom the postwar European project as well, even if Germany remains the rock of probity and stability its admirers (and its own political class) conceive it as being.

For understandable reasons, what that future will be like is couched for larger and larger numbers of French people in terms of the loyalty or disloyalty of French Muslims to the French state and to Republican, secular values. The steady rise of the National Front (FN) testifies to this. Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, who strikes many informed observers (including a fair number who loathe and fear her) as the most talented figure in contemporary French politics, the FN has become the leading party of what remains of the French industrial working class. In contrast, the question for many, if not most, immigrants and their French-born children and grandchildren is whether French society will ever stop discriminating against them and offer them a fair chance at a decent future.


LOST IN all this, however, is the fact that well before the incompatibility between the values of Muslim immigrants and the values of the Republic began to be adduced as the principal reason to be pessimistic about France’s future, the French were already increasingly apprehensive about their country’s prospects. According to a BVA-Gallup poll conducted in 2010 for the daily Le Parisien, the French were in fact more pessimistic than any other people on earth (the most optimistic were the Vietnamese). “France, world champions of pessimism” was the way the weekly Le Point put it. The author of the BVA-Gallup survey, Céline Bracq, drew from this the conclusion that the real “French exception” (the term typically refers to special state subsidies for culture that have been in place since the time when the great French writer André Malraux was Charles de Gaulle’s minister of culture) is pessimism.

Why such pessimism has become so deeply ingrained in France’s collective psyche is not always easy to understand. It is all very well to speak, as many informed commentators rightly do, of France’s institutional sclerosis, and of the self-reproducing, hermetic character of its elite, many of whom were formed in a small number of elite educational institutions, above all the École Nationale d’Administration (Nicolas Sarkozy was, interestingly enough, an exception to this; Hollande is not). But in many crucial areas, France in fact works better than either its European neighbors or the United States and Canada. While it has its flaws, French medical care is about as good a system as it is possible to construct. French factories continue to produce industrial goods, and the country is a world leader in high-speed rail, advanced military technology and nuclear power plants. Unlike most OECD countries, the French birthrate remains above replacement level, and not only, as in the United States, because of immigration, but also thanks to extremely successful natalist policies.

In reality, it is not so much that things are actually worse in France—and even with regard to the Muslim immigrant question, one can plausibly argue that despite Charlie Hebdo, it remains considerably better in France than in the United Kingdom—but rather that France’s acute obsession with its own identity has morphed from the dialectical (France as compared with other countries) to the autarchic (France turned inward on itself). Geoffrey Wheatcroft offered an apt encapsulation of this in an essay provocatively titled “Liberté, Fraternité, Morosité.” “Not long ago,” he wrote, “France had a hang-up about America. Now, France has a hang-up about France.”

Even a cursory look at the nonfiction titles featured in most French bookstores would seem to vindicate Wheatcroft’s analysis. What has changed over the past fifteen years is that today’s successful books have a much more bitter and violent character to them. At the turn of the century, most of the popular books in this genre were focused on France’s political dysfunction and its economic sclerosis; today the obsession is with political Islam and whether France can even survive. Consider Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français, a polemic that basically argues that France has been destroyed by the children of May 1968, the feminists and the Eurocrats, and is now being engulfed by Muslim immigrants who, thanks to the perfidy of the elite, will soon be in control. The book is so extreme that even Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from it.

The French author and columnist Marc Weitzmann differs from Zemmour in crucial ways and has done yeoman service by writing several newspaper columns in which he outlines the myriad ways in which Le Suicide Français is a malign falsification of French history, above all the history of what happened to both native-born and foreign Jews in France during the Second World War (among its other charms, Zemmour’s book contains a ringing defense of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime). Morally, he could not be further removed from Zemmour. And yet Weitzmann’s tone can be almost as apocalyptic about the fate of France as Zemmour’s. Le Suicide Français ends with the pronouncement that “France is dead.” Weitzmann emphatically considers Zemmour an emblem of the pathological nature of the contemporary debate, and yet he concluded “France’s Toxic Hate,” a five-part series he did for the American Jewish magazine Tablet on the return of French anti-Semitism, with a jeremiad that is only a shade less dark than Zemmour’s, though it focused specifically on the bleakness of the realities French Jewry will face in the future. “Caught between the stale remainders of pro-Arab power politics,” Weitzmann wrote, “leftist rhetoric, and the ghosts of World War II, French Jews [are] beginning their journey into civic loneliness. The neurotic, historical, and ideological dead ends in which the French have dealt with anti-Semitism ever since are an impossible mental context in which to think or simply to live, for the Jews, and for France.”

Is the situation really that bad? Weitzmann is certainly not the only serious French intellectual to think so. Indeed, he is joined in this view by Alain Finkielkraut, who, whether or not one agrees with his views, is indisputably one of France’s leading cultural figures. For at least a decade, Finkielkraut has argued that the French elite in general, and the bien-pensant left-leaning cultural elite in particular, have been too cowardly, too much in denial, too obtuse or too self-interested (or all four!) to think, let alone speak and write, honestly about the Islamic barbarism festering, or, worse, being allowed and even encouraged to flourish by a pusillanimous state bureaucracy. In previous generations, his argument goes, the schools successfully imparted Republican, secular values—including to the poor and immigrants. But today, Finkielkraut insists, out of fear of being branded racists for standing up for French culture and French values, the schools no longer have the will or, for that matter, the capability of doing so. Instead, political correctness rules, leading to what Finkielkraut has called “the great deculturation” of France.