Right-wing ‘new reactionaries’ stir up trouble among French intellectualsThe nation famed for its public thinkers is pondering a moral crisis provoked by a media-savvy group of intellectuals with far-right views Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is at the centre of the row, but has denied being a racist and says he is the victim of a witch-hunt. Friday 9 October 2015From Emile Zola’s J’accuse to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Left Bank politics, France is credited with inventing the figure of the public intellectual: the writer as a spiritual guide for society.But the nation whose vast scope of thinkers has ranged from Enlightenment heroes to Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his white shirt unbuttoned to the navel, has been plunged into a moral crisis over the dominance of a controversial new type of talking head: the reactionary, right-wing TV intellectual.A group of media-savvy French intellectuals, deemed the “new reactionaries” for their political views and cultural conservatism, are at the centre of a furious row, accused of being a dangerous threat to France by stoking racism, intolerance and a fear of immigration.Dominating the covers of magazines and newspapers this month, winning large ratings on prime-time TV and topping bestseller lists, the diverse band of thinkers and pundits argue that they are the only ones brave enough to challenge political correctness and defend the ideas of national identity by highlighting the dangers of immigration and the fears of “ethnic French” people, who no longer feel at home with so many foreigners. Their detractors warn they are fuelling a dangerous atmosphere harking back to the extreme rightwing ideas of France in the 1930s.The profile of the new reactionaries, which has been building for over a decade but recently escalated, is seen to reflect the tense public debate in a country where the far right now holds about 30% of the vote and polls show that at least 70% of people think there are “too many foreigners” in France. The intellectuals have been accused of giving credence to the ideas of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National, although they have no connection to the party. Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-leaning French daily newspaper Libération, this week warned their domination of the airwaves now amounted to “a cathode-ray apocalypse”.Alain Finkielkraut, the controversial and high-profile philosopher, is at the centre of the row after defending Nadine Morano, a former government minister, who repeatedly insisted France was a “white race” country. This week, Morano was banned from running in the regional elections for Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing Les Républicains party.Finkielkraut’s 2013 bestselling book, The Unhappy Identity, warned of the dangers to French national identity from mass immigration and multiculturalism. The son of a Jewish Polish leather merchant who survived Auschwitz, Finkielkraut was elected last year to the prestigious Académie Française, the institute that defends the purity of the French language, but was nearly blackballed as some claimed he was too reactionary and divisive.As he published another book this week, Finkielkraut, who was once classed as being on the political left, reiterated the immigration problems and dismissed anyone calling him right wing, racist or who puts him on what he derided as a “blacklist of neo-fascists”. He told France Inter radio it was “dreadful and catastrophic” that as soon as a thinker dared to “look at reality” they were accused of being far right. He said a witch-hunt was being conducted by the anti-racism lobby.Michel Onfray, the leftwinger often hailed as France’s favourite contemporary philosopher, was accused of lurching to the right this month when he questioned the photo of the Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who was found drowned after his parents tried to reach Europe, and said “old school” French people might feel marginalised and betrayed by the arrival of migrants. Libération accused Onfray of abandoning the ideals of the left and playing “Le Pen’s game”. He hit back, accusing the newspaper of “hatred”.Behind all this looms the figure of Éric Zemmour, a TV intellectual and French newspaper columnist, who topped the non-fiction bestseller list with Le Suicide Français, in which he argued that millions of Muslims might be colonising and transforming France and should be repatriated. Zemmour was cleared last month of inciting racial hatred after saying on radio that “bands” of foreigners were “stealing, assaulting, stripping” the country. In 2011 he was found guilty of incitement to racial hatred after telling a TV chatshow that drug dealers were mostly “blacks and Arabs”.Zemmour is Jewish.
The political debate in France has seen increasing references to the “great replacement” theory by the controversial writer, Renaud Camus, who has argued that local French populations will be replaced by newcomers who reproduce faster. He was convicted of incitement to racial hatred last year.Camus is a veteran gay writer. (I don’t see any specific relationship to the more famous Camus.)
As a counterpoint, Nicolas Bancel, a historian at the University of Lausanne, has co-authored a new book, Le Grand Repli, which warns that France and the country’s political debate is turning in on itself with a rise in intolerance and more outspoken racism. He said the rise of what he termed “reactionary” thinkers, who focus on immigration and Islam rather than the old concerns of salaries, gender equality and integration, was in part due to a 24-hour media culture that courted controversy while sidelining more reasoned university academics.