Patrick Marnham

France’s new reactionaries

‘Les nouveaux réactionnaires’ are causing furious discussion in a country that pays unique respect to public thinkers

France’s new reactionaries
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When President de Gaulle was asked to authorise the criminal prosecution of Jean-Paul Sartre for civil disobedience during the Algerian war, he declined. ‘One does not lock up Voltaire,’ he added, unhistorically. In France, ‘public intellectuals’ have a quasi-constitutional status, so it’s not surprising that a furious bunfight has broken out over a handful of philosophers known as ‘les nouveaux réactionnaires’.

The new reactionaries do not see themselves as a group, but they defend a common point of view about the causes of France’s diminishing status and influence. They look back on a golden age that started with the French revolution and continued for nearly 200 years as France — driven by the republican principles of freedom, equality, brotherhood and the rights of man, plus anti-clericalism — pursued its worldwide ‘civilising mission’. Today the pressures of globalisation threaten France’s identity and a nation that once imposed its vision on the world is having to swallow ideas the very opposite of those it has always preached. The importance of ‘the French model’ is drilled into the nation’s schoolchildren daily. But in the view of these philosophers, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political correctness (‘la bien-pensance’) has poisoned teacher-training courses, which have become ‘gulags of knowledge’. The new reactionaries are convinced that one of the cornerstones of French culture, ‘freedom of expression’, is dying. They reject ‘post-colonial guilt’ and are appalled by ‘cultural relativism’. To get down to the nitty-gritty, they take the view that France’s sovereignty is under threat from Arab immigration. Europe’s migration crisis has highlighted their fears, and the lip service that President Hollande pays to Angela Merkel’s refugee-quota system — widely unpopular in France — has further aided the reactionaries’ arguments.

A leading figure is the right-wing political journalist Éric Zemmour, who is Jewish and descended from pieds noirs (French citizens formerly living in the colony of Algeria). His book Le Suicide français, published last year, traces the decline of France since the death in 1970 of Charles de Gaulle and has enjoyed a huge success. Zemmour, who has in the past been prosecuted for racism, recently became a peak-time television star, taking the place of elected politicians whom he describes as ‘destructive and out of touch’. This month, a novel written by one of his supporters depicts Zemmour as a future president of France. The conceit began to look less extravagant when a national opinion poll showed that 12 per cent of the electorate welcomed the possibility.

That Zemmour should hold reactionary opinions is not surprising. He was once an adviser to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and is now associated with the Front National. But he has been joined by Alain Finkielkraut, an established feature of the nation’s political conversation for many years. Finkielkraut was until recently a professor at the École Polytechnique and is now a member of the Académie Française. In his recent book L’Identité malheureuse (‘Unhappy Identity’), he too attacked multiculturalism and he points out that his father, a Jewish refugee from Poland who became a French citizen, would never have told ethnic Frenchmen that he was ‘as French as they were’ — a refrain commonly heard from more recent immigrants. Finkielkraut defends the same point of view — despite the fact that his father was deported to Auschwitz by the wartime Pétain administration — and he is outraged by the refusal of many Muslim citizens to integrate and accept France’s traditional values.

Five years ago, under President Sarkozy, the government banned the wearing of the niqab (full-face veil) in public. Since then, 908 women have been cautioned by police, but none has been prosecuted, and some Muslim women have apparently taken to wearing the veil out of defiance rather than religious conviction. For the new reactionaries, the public display of the niqab is a red rag to a bull, further evidence of France’s cultural death and the decline in authority of its political leadership. Finkielkraut argues that since the politicians are no longer fit to govern, their role in defining and conducting debate must once again be assumed by intellectuals.

Another member of the band is the leftist Michel Onfray, a freelance philosopher. He is the son of Normandy peasant farmers who describes himself as an atheist and an anarchist and he would seem to have little in common with members of the Académie Française. But Onfray has recently entered the lists in defence of Finkielkraut in the name of ‘freedom of expression’ which he considers almost nonexistent in France. As a result of this intervention — which won him national media coverage — Onfray was savagely attacked by former comrades for ‘supporting the ideas of the National Front’. One even suggested he should be sent to a mental asylum — rather proving Onfray’s point.

Further fuel was added to the reactionaries’ fire by the distinguished maverick novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose latest title Soumission (‘Submission’) depicts a future France ruled by a Muslim president. Houellebecq belongs to no camp and has long regarded all French politicians as ‘cretins’, but his novel came out last January on the morning of the attack at the office of Charlie Hebdo. The sales campaign had to be abandoned, and Houellebecq, labelled ‘Islamophobic’, went into hiding under police protection. Soumission was nonetheless a bestseller.

For the new movement, political issues defined by the term ‘souverainisme’ — national sovereignty, migration, border controls, security, the constitution and cultural identity — are no longer extreme-right territory, they are also of legitimate concern to the left. For the traditional left, the opponents of the new reactionaries, the very term ‘national sovereignty’ is an insult. They look on ‘souverainisme’ in Europe as the mirror image of jihadism in the Muslim world. They denounce ‘populism’ and ‘xenophobia’ and any argument that might seem to support the Front National. But the violence of their counter-attack has led to accusations of ‘neo-Stalinism’ and ‘smear tactics’. A defence of the reactionaries is being led by the veteran political journalist Jean-François Kahn, founder of the down-market weekly news review Marianne. Kahn pointed out the illogicality in arguing that because the Front National highlights problems caused by mass immigration, anyone who accepts the existence of these problems is a supporter of the Front National. If the left continues to abandon causes adopted by the FN, he adds, all it will do is to give the extreme right an ever larger space in which to operate.

Writing in the left-wing daily Libération, Kahn went further and suggested that the left’s disastrous tactics were the main reason for the FN’s progress — a rise in support from 10 per cent in 2007 to 27 per cent today. Kahn is 77, and his reward for this insolence was ‘death by trolls’; a fake obituary posted on the internet just after his article appeared.

Meanwhile the ultimate cause of all this turmoil, Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National, is enjoying the spectacle. She continues to polish her party’s image, gradually transforming it from a despised extremist group into ‘a party like any other’. She is openly courting the Jewish vote, proclaiming her support for Israel and emphasising that she no longer has anything in common with her anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie, founder of the party. While the rancid old monster calls Auschwitz ‘a detail’ of the second world war, Marine describes it as the ‘worst crime committed in the history of mankind’.

In next December’s regional elections Marine Le Pen expects the National Front to win control of the region of Picardy, which includes Calais, and of Provence, which includes Marseilles. In the run-up, the National Front’s favourite issues — crime, unemployment and immigration — are dominating the debate, and the more Le Pen’s opponents struggle to marginalise her, the more legitimate her party becomes.