Art, Features, Literature

How French Intellectuals Lost Their Faith

As the Socialist government of François Hollande slumps into obscurity, the favourites in this year’s French presidential elections are a liberal, Emmanuel Macron, a conservative, François Fillon, and a national conservative, Marine Le Pen. Amid the usual corruption scandals is the smell of what the French call “le declinisme.

France is a country ill-at-ease with itself. Mr Hollande plumbed record depths in his approval ratings and while Ms Le Pen is predicted to lose the elections, it is astonishing that she has so much of a shot. Populism has spread across America and Europe, of course, but what distinguishes France is the extent to which its artists and intellectuals have expressed the same concerns as its electorate.

This is somewhat surprising. French intellectuals have long been at the forefront of revolutionary thought. Voltaire and Rousseau radicalised French liberal opinion in the years before the toppling of the Ancien Regime. In the 20th Century, Sartre, Althusser and Badiou promoted communism, while Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault dug into the foundations of Western culture. Their disciples led the famous 1968 protests, which escalated to the point that President Charles De Gaulle fled to a military base in Germany.

Now, it is not radicals who speak loudest in French culture. It is reactionaries. Novelists, philosophers and political commentators speak less of liberation than degeneracy, and less of revolution than decline.

Michel Houellebecq rose to fame with obscene, darkly comic novels that satirised sex after the sexual revolution. He was also put on trial in 2002 for calling Islam “the dumbest religion.” By the time he wrote Submission, which imagined the consequences of an Islamic future for France, he had become the nation’s most renowned man of letters. It did not hurt the novel’s chances for popular success that it was published on the day jihadists massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

Houellebecq is not even the darkest of French fiction’s “new reactionaries.” Renaud Camus, an eccentric gay novelist, diarist and commentator, exiled himself from the mainstream literati with his warnings of “le grand replacement” and was fined four thousand euros for incitement to racial hatred. Richard Millet, a respected editor and author, provoked a firestorm of controversy for writing that Anders Breivik was “what Norway deserved.” (Le Pen, at the very least, would not be so indiscreet.)

In non-fiction, too, there has been a rightwards turn. Alain Finkielkraut and Pascal Bruckner, once essayists of the Left, have increasingly rejected multiculturalism. Finkielkraut’s The Unhappy Identity criticised Islamic immigration while Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt attacked ethnic shame.

In popular culture, right wing voices have flourished. Eric Zemmour, an unlikely little television host, is famous for attacking neoliberalism, immigration, and feminism. He regularly makes headlines for his provocative opinions but has continued to attract large audiences.

Further to the right, French nationalist intellectuals like Guillaume Faye, Alain de Benoist, and Dominique Venner (who shot himself in Notre-Dame Cathedral in what he claimed was a protest against the decline of French culture) have spread their influence to the American Alt-Right: Faye addressed a conference of American Renaissance and De Benoist spoke at the National Policy Institute.

These trends have, of course, attracted criticism from the Left. Shlomo Sand and Sudhir Hazareesingh eulogise French intellectuals who once “took a position on the side of the powerless” and offered the “promise of a radiant future” and denounce modern authors who have become “more inward-looking” and “turned to their past.”

The problem with intellectuals who promise radiant futures is that their promises go unfulfilled. The idealism of Rousseau ended, inevitably, with the Reign of Terror. Pol Pot frequented Parisian salons in the 1950s, listening to their pompous Marxist ideologues, before heading home to massacre his countrymen. Latter-day reactionaries are responding to the failures of idealism: both its catastrophic failures in political terms and its consequent failure in the spiritual sense. The French Left descended into the interminable wordplay of post-modernism, which, though not without insights, alienates and enervates more people than it inspires.

Also significant has been France’s decline on the international stage. French influence waned throughout the Twentieth Century as anti-colonial uprisings triumphed in Vietnam and Algeria. In 2011, then president Nicolas Sarkozy, appropriating the human rights idealism of his friend, the open-shirted and coiffered philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, spearheaded the attack on Colonel Gaddafi in what was widely seen as an attempt to rally France behind him. The failures of the intervention compounded France’s international embarrassment.

At home, meanwhile, a swelling migrant population has become ever more difficult to integrate. Seven prisoners out of of ten, it is estimated, are Muslim. Riots have become an almost yearly occurrence. While French people have attempted to unite around their football team or feel good films like The Intouchables, the scale of their social dysfunction has continued to depress and divide. Real or rumoured police violence, such as when a young man was allegedly sodomised with a truncheon, has antagonised the ethnic minorities of the French suburbs while the rampant criminality in these banlieues — where, in the most notorious example, the so-called Gang of Barbarians kidnapped, tortured and killed a young Jewish man — has disgusted outsiders.

Most sensationally, France has endured a storm of terrorism. Sand writes with dismay that Houellebecq criticised the French government for being insufficiently proactive in opposing jihadism, but his tutting seems absurd in the aftermath of the shootings at Toulouse and Montauban, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the killings at the Bataclan, the truck attack in Nice and the murder of Father Jacques Hamel.

Unsavoury as it was when Jean Paul Sartre applauded Frantz Fanon’s advocacy for anticolonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s subjects at least had credible grievances. As police scramble to stop jihadists attacking the Eiffel Tower, romantic third worldism and even optimistic ideas of égalité are difficult to sustain. It is unsurprising that such carnage has darkened the thoughts of French intellectuals. Impotent abroad and embattled at home, France has lost what Hazareesingh calls its “Gallic self-confidence.”

Houellebecq in 2008

Houellebecq is perhaps the most interesting figure among the new reactionaries. It is, first of all, interesting that the French, known for their love of good wine, good food, and good women, flock to read a wiry little man who writes of sex as if it was a kind of surgical operation. His first novels inspired bewildered respect with the heights of their perversity and depths of their despair. They are all miserable sex and miserable sexlessness, with two genuine love affairs ending in suicide and murder. At his core, however, Houellebecq was a moralist, satirising the commodification of life.

Submission is no mere exercise in Islam bashing. It is far more a satire of Europeans than Muslims. European man, to Houellebecq, is so spiritually deflated that he accepts Islamic occupation as, if nothing else, a welcome opportunity to have more than one wife. Here is no rallying call to revolutionary ideals. Here is the cold, shrugging suggestion that the French, in essence, are not made of the right stuff.

Houellebecq is blunt about what he dislikes in politics. It is hard to believe anyone without his literary credentials could have used the pages of the New York Times to denounce the president as an “insignificant opportunist”, the prime minister as a “congenital moron” and the government as a group of people who had “pathetically, systematically, deplorably failed in their essential mission: to protect the population under their responsibility.” What he would prefer instead is an open question. Like most satirists, he knows what he disdains better than what he admires.

French reactionaries are a mixed lot. Finkielkraut and Bruckner are disgruntled liberals. Zemmour is a national conservative. Out on the fringes, Guillaume Faye has formed an ideology called archeofuturism, which, he claims, will unite folk traditions with techno-scientific progress. All of them, however, are radically anti-modern. Benoist and Millet rail against the “Disneyfication” of culture from a profoundly traditionalist position but Finkielkraut, a Jewish ex-Maoist, also attacks relativism, pathological altruism and the degeneration of cultural standards. In the home of the Enlightenment, the new reactionaries have looked back into the shadows.

Even if, as predicted, the National Front are beaten, the next president will find themselves in charge of a miserable, conflicted country. In a recent poll, 61% of French people said Muslim immigration should be stopped, which, especially given that up to 10% of French people are Muslims, is an astonishing statistic. As curators of the national imagination reflect their fears back at them, France is struggling to have more than a beautiful museum.

 

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.

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9 Comments

  1. Pingback: How French Intellectuals Lost Their Faith… | Wandering Near Sawtry

  2. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    Freedom and being heard can do much of the work needed to find a measure of happiness in the only life we have. Religion is the perfect tool for gumming up the brain. Find life in the here and now not some fantasy of living in the clouds with an imaginary sky daddy.

    It seems to me it is time for those who love life in this world to finally call out the lies of religion. France is going through a gangly period that has not settled on a way forward. Keep the laicite of your hard fought secularism and do so proudly. No more walking on eggshells on the topic of religious fundamentalism of any stripe. Encourage atheism, encourage freethinking, encourage apostasy. Being timid in the face of an existential crisis will not succeed.

    Please France, elect a centrist government and make it a proud Humanist one that respects reason, science, art and joie de vivre!! Vivre la France!! Vivre la France Occidental!!

    • Your inability to name Islam as the culprit of France’s decline is telling. France is dying not because of “religion” generally. Rather, it is being invaded by members of a particular religion that is wholly incompatible with the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” upon which the nation is based.

      • Darwin T of BC Humanists says

        Oh I know Islam is the cancer/ ghost in the machine. Sometimes it is best to be coy to peak a readers interest. There is the risk that some might see this as fence sitting. Having travelled extensively in Muslim majority countries I know what keeps them in check mentally.

        Thanks for your reply and please try reading up on Ibn Warraq and Bernard Lewis if you haven’t already.

    • Arianne Dorval says

      I agree that we need to defend laïcité at all costs. But you make the mistake of equating it with the West (“la France occidentale”). Laïcité is a universal project, as secularists of the Middle East will tell you. Multiculturalists, far-right parties and Islamists all equate secularism with the West… and until we undo this equation, we will never be able to get out of this mess.

  3. Parker says

    This makes me wonder a couple of things, both related:

    1. Why aren’t there more reactionary intellectuals in the US? It seems the only ones are auto-didacts and read by only a few people.

    2. If the Cathedral is the Cathedral, why has it been relatively ineffective in France?

  4. 1. Why aren’t there more reactionary intellectuals in the US? It seems the only ones are auto-didacts and read by only a few people.

    Partly the fact that America is a young nation, based on idealism, and partly the dominance of movement conservatism.

    2. If the Cathedral is the Cathedral, why has it been relatively ineffective in France?

    Well, progressivism is still the dominant ideology. These fellows are reacting against it.

  5. Arianne Dorval says

    This article, I am afraid, is a little bit “anglocentric.”

    The French (the left anyway) reject multiculturalism, relativism and identity politics not out of conservatism, but because these are reactionary ideologies that derive from the European *far-right* counter-Enlightenment.

    Multiculturalism, relativism and identity politics are reactionary in that they go against the very notions of common humanity and radical equality that were central to all progressive movements of the 19th and 20th centuries (i.e., socialism and communism). It is clear to most on the French left that multiculturalism has been used in the anglophone world to destroy the working-class movement of all races and to pave the way for neo-liberal policies (incidentally, many people in France consider Foucault, who is viewed as a radical in n the US academy, to be a reactionary thinker… ). And it is in the US and the UK – where the left has abandoned the class struggle and replaced it with multiculturalism/relativism/identity politics (and allied itself with far-right islamists ffs!) – that the far-right is growing the fastest. Isn’t this the elephant in the room?? Far-right populism is the return of the class struggle distorted and particularized by the politics of identity, and the anglophone left has a huge responsibility in its growth.

    France (where I have been living for 10 years) remains a far more progressive country than the US (where I did my PhD) or Canada (where I grew up). This is not to say that there is no racism or sexism here (there is plenty), but the French would never tolerate class inequalities in the way Americans or Canadians do (and I suspect the British, though I am less familiar with the UK). It is still the country of liberty and equality, and the reason why the French are so pessimistic about the world is because of the extraordinary *obscurantist* regression that (hegemonic) anglophone countries and Islamist movements have brought about in the last 40 years. Houellebecq, Finkielkraut, and Bruckner are not thinkers of the right: They are not rejecting modernity, but the post-modern regression that has come to be. And there would be no such rejection of Muslim immigration if it weren’t for the Islamist regression (which was encouraged for decades by the US government to counter the influence of communists in the Middle East) and the threat it poses to the principle of radical equality.

    The regressive left is an anglo-saxon phenomenon, not a French one. And I think we will be spared the election of Le Pen here precisely because the French have refused to follow the anglophone model.

    • Ms Dorval,

      …the French would never tolerate class inequalities in the way Americans or Canadians do…

      I am not sure this assertion would survive a trip to les banlieues.

      It is still the country of liberty and equality, and the reason why the French are so pessimistic about the world is because of the extraordinary *obscurantist* regression that (hegemonic) anglophone countries and Islamist movements have brought about in the last 40 years.

      It is at best misguided to blame Anglophonic countries for left wing obscurantism when the French produced Sartre, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Butler.

      Houellebecq, Finkielkraut, and Bruckner are not thinkers of the right: They are not rejecting modernity, but the post-modern regression that has come to be.

      Bruckner no, perhaps, but Houellebecq certainly and Finkielkraut effectively.

      And there would be no such rejection of Muslim immigration if it weren’t for the Islamist regression (which was encouraged for decades by the US government to counter the influence of communists in the Middle East) and the threat it poses to the principle of radical equality.

      I doubt that this is the case. Firstly as native peoples tend to reject mass immigration whoever the migrants are and secondly as Muslims would have conflicted with European culture even before the rise of Wahhabism.

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