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...

Guilt over colonialism and the triumph of cultural relativism are the constitutive elements of a new “treason of the intellectuals” that has consigned the French assimilationist ideal to oblivion and barbarism. The emblem of this barbarism is the revival of anti-Semitism in France. Anyone doubting this need only look at the initial media coverage of Amedy Coulibaly’s rampage in the HyperCacher supermarket. At first, it was reported that he had stumbled into the market by accident. In fact, Coulibaly, a virulent anti-Semite, seems to have known exactly where he was and exactly what he was doing. The stark fact is that killing Jews has been a priority for the terrorists in most of the recent jihadist attacks in Europe. The flag of convenience for this is Palestine. For example, Mohammed Merah said he had chosen to kill French soldiers because of what the French army was doing in Afghanistan but that he had attacked the Jewish school in Toulouse because “the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” A jihadist video recording released after Coulibaly’s death boasted that he had killed a policewoman and “five Jews.” And in Copenhagen, Omar El-Hussein seems to have moved seamlessly from avenging the Prophet against the cartoonists to opening fire on the Grand Synagogue.

For Finkielkraut and Weitzmann, the true culpability of the French elite lies in its refusal to confront the hard realities of the present age. Both men would agree with the great French conservative intellectual of the first part of the twentieth century, Charles Péguy, that “it will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” On this account, the existential challenge for France becomes how to get its courage back.


BUT IT’S doubtful that the resolutely culturalist explanation that Finkielkraut in particular has set out offers anything like the explanatory key that he assumes it does. Somewhat (but only somewhat) simplified, it goes as follows: France stands for certain values; it is a moral imperative to transmit these values, both for the sake of the country and for the sake of French Muslim children; thus, any failure to do so is a moral as well as a social and cultural catastrophe; but that failure is not just in the process of occurring, it has already occurred; as a result, in the deepest sense, the France that is noble, the France that is worth admiring, preserving and emulating, has died, in large measure by its own hand; and so the new Dark Ages loom.

Stripped of their tone of lachrymose self-congratulation, not to mention apocalyptic soothsaying (in how many generations have aging philosophers confronting their own actuarial realities insisted that we were living at the end of the world?), Finkielkraut’s arguments against political correctness are by no means completely misguided.[2] And his suggestion that schools should above all focus on the teaching of the French language is unquestionably right. The problem is that his culturalist explanation leads him to mistake a byproduct of the current crisis France confronts for the essence of that crisis. The solutions he offers—a return to Republicanism, an end to apologizing for Western culture, a willingness to confront and oppose radical Islam—are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. The fundamental problems of France are not mainly the product of cultural capitulation but rather the result of the transformations of the world economy that make any return to Finkielkraut’s beloved cultural and moral status quo ante a total impossibility. For while such romantic nationalism may have a distinguished pedigree (Finkielkraut is in many ways the rightful heir to Péguy in this regard), and even today remains a perfectly coherent position intellectually, it has no answers to any of the problems posed by economic globalization and mass migration.

For the culturalist, materialist arguments simply do not resonate. Fix French culture, Finkielkraut seems to be saying, and France will flourish; fail to fix it and France will fall. It is, to put it charitably, a very French conceit (one that Weitzmann emphatically does not share), but it simply will not do. Is there a crisis of confidence in Western culture among the European elite? Unquestionably. And is there a crisis of the Muslim “community” in France? Probably. But even if the answer is yes, it is a qualified yes. There is a crisis of jihadist recruitment in prisons, but there is no crisis of loyalty among the increasingly significant proportion of the ordinary soldiers and noncommissioned officers who make up the French army. And, as Rony Brauman asked in a column in Le Monde, why is Amedy Coulibaly seen by many as more of a “real” Muslim than Lassana Bathily, a worker at the HyperCacher market who at great personal risk saved both customers and workers at the store, most if not all of them Jews? The reason should be obvious: by now many French people believe that a violent Islam is far more authentic than an accommodationist one.

Even here, the reluctance of French intellectuals to think comparatively is extraordinary. For example, they never make an effort to situate the fact that young people are being attracted to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in a global context. And yet it seems perfectly obvious that had the Kouachi brothers grown up in Mexico or Guatemala and had the same delinquent profiles, they would have drifted instead toward the narcotrafficking gangs, whose record of heartless savagery (videotaping torture, including not just decapitation but the flaying alive of victims) is every bit the equal of the Islamic State’s. And if Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene had been white teenagers in suburban America with the same delinquent profiles, they might well have wound up among the ranks of those carrying out school shootings in the United States. To insist on this point is not the same thing as claiming the jihadists, the foot soldiers of the cartels and the shooters at Columbine have identical motivations. But it is to say that all three resemble each other far more than they differ: they are death cults, and losing sight of this—as so many in France who see in assassins like the Kouachi brothers the shape of a civil war that Éric Zemmour clearly believes has already begun and that the Muslims are going to win—is a mistake.

How would teaching immigrant kids about the greatness of Racine and Corneille have any effect on any of these questions? What Finkielkraut and others who share his view can’t seem to face is that their piety toward the French past was the product of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s—the trente glorieuses, or “thirty glorious years,” as they have come to be known in France—which is to say of an entirely different historical context, one in which the nation-state had not yet been hollowed out by the globalization of both the economy and the culture, and at a time of extraordinary economic expansion in which working-class people were able to lead relatively comfortable lives for the first time in French history.

At present, lower-middle-class and poor people in France have fewer and fewer opportunities and less and less reason for hope. And it should go without saying that at this historical juncture, young people of immigrant backgrounds have the least hope of all. This does not mean they are becoming terrorists en masse or want to install the caliphate in the Élysée and turn Notre-Dame into a mosque, or indeed to fulfill any of Zemmour’s or novelist Michel Houellebecq’s other paranoid, racist fantasies. But it does mean that many of them are unwilling to take the claims that France makes for itself at face value. A cultural and political elite less enamored of itself would spend less time bemoaning the cultural barbarism and social backwardness of the immigrant young, get off its plinth, and spend far more time trying to figure out how to make France less of a totem and more of a society in which the young feel they have a stake.

David Rieff is the author of ten books, including At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, 2005). His forthcoming book, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the 21st Century, will be published by Simon & Schuster in October.

[1] I am indebted to Ian Buruma for pointing out this connection in a piece he wrote in Le Monde after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

[2] However, the contrast between Finkielkraut’s severities toward the communitarian impulses of French Muslims and his indulgent views toward the communitarianism of their Jewish fellow citizens would seem to call the authenticity of his Republicanism into question. Marc Weitzmann’s view seems to be that since Jewish communal institutions are not “secessionist,” and, indeed, were created by the French state during the Napoleonic era, they cannot be communitarian in the negative sense in which that term is used in France today.

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