Onfray’s book on atheism lies half-read on my print-pile; maybe one day, I’ll actually lay hands on it again.
Unusual ideological bedfellows in France are uniting against globalization and the euro.
10/16/15, 5:30 AM CET
Updated 10/16/15, 7:14 PM CET
PARIS — When the newspaper Libération last month accused self-professed “left of the left” philosopher and best-selling author Michel Onfray of “doing the [far-right party] Front National’s bidding,” French intellectuals circled the wagons.
Riding to the rescue from the left and right to defend Onfray, they did what intellectuals do in these cases: organize a public debate. The headline of the event, to be hosted at the Maison de la Mutualité on October 20 by political weekly magazine Marianne in support of its sometime contributor Onfray, sets a new standard for navel-gazing: “Can we still debate in France?”
Spoiler alert: The fury stirred up by the controversy offers a good clue to the answer.
Onfray is only the latest French thinker whom government-friendly media and Socialist party officials accuse of pushing ideas similar to those of the far-right — on immigration, the role of Islam in society and the need to restore France’s battered sense of self.
They include the moralist philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, a former left-wing radical and now member of the French Academy who has written several books on the waning of France’s traditional republican culture and the country’s “unhappy identity” (the title of one of his books); Régis Debray, a 1960s companion of Che Guevara who later became an adviser to former Socialist president François Mitterrand; Eric Zemmour, a far-right journalist and TV debater whose book “Le suicide français” (‘The French suicide’) on “the 40 years that destroyed France” became an unlikely best-seller last year; and even Michel Houellebecq, the recluse novelist whose latest book, “Submission,” describes a future France as an Islamic theocracy.
The new ‘new reactionaries’
The controversy has simmered for a long time. In 2002 the left-leaning magazine Nouvel Observateur was already putting Finkielkraut on its cover to wonder whether he was part of the “new reactionaries.”
But it is now pervasive and part of the permanent French debate. And it hasn’t been restricted to the realm of high-brow discourse.
After French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently criticized Onfray for one of his tirades, he was called “a moron” in return by the philosopher. And earlier this year, Valls was deemed “a bore” by Houellebecq after venturing that he didn’t agree with the writer’s somber vision.
Libération’s outburst was prompted by the latest in a long string of provocative statements Onfray has made in recent months, attacking the Socialist government’s policies and principles.
In an interview with Le Figaro on September 8, the writer criticized what he called “the emotional response” to the picture of a dead refugee child that made headlines around the world and prompted French President François Hollande to soften on the issue of quotas for accepting asylum-seeker quotas.
Onfray, who declined a request for comment for this article, went on to accuse France’s successive governments of “being contemptuous of the people” — what he calls, using the English term, “the ‘old school’ people”: French blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the poor, the pensioners.As for National Front leader Marine Le Pen, he said: “I don’t resent her as much as I resent those who made her possible.”
The dispute comes a few weeks after Jacques Sapir, an economist from the far left who has long campaigned against the euro, suggested the creation of an “anti-euro national liberation front” that might extend up to and including Le Pen’s party.
Sapir added, in a Libération interview, that it was undeniable that the far-right National Front had “changed in the last years.” He is also one of France’s staunchest defenders of Vladimir Putin’s policies, and the author of a blog hailing what he sees as the Russian president’s many “successes” both economically and on the international stage.
Trojan horse of globalization
Onfray has called Sapir’s idea of an anti-euro alliance “interesting.” Some of the philosopher’s critics see a bitter irony in the fact that in 2002, he created a “People’s University” in Normandy, where he resides, to counter the rising influence of the National Front’s ideas. That’s the year when the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of current leader Marine, made it to the second round of the French presidential election against then-president Jacques Chirac after having defeated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.
The real split in French politics, as Onfray now sees it, is between the ruling, pro-European elites of both the conservative and socialist parties and the French people, who, he often says, have been betrayed “since 1983” — when then-president Mitterrand, a Socialist, converted to pro-market policies.
Ideological overlap between the National Front and France’s far left is not entirely new. The nationalist party has long sought and received support from French workers disillusioned by the mainstream left parties. Some former communist strongholds are now areas where the FN gets its largest support.
‘This government from the left can’t seem to find an intellectual on its side.’
Marine Le Pen herself stands a serious chance of winning the Nord-Pas de Calais district in the upcoming regional elections in December. The industry-dominated area was long ruled by the socialist or communist left. The anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. and populist platform of the National Front strikes a chord with voters who resent the changes brought by globalization.
“Europe is seen by those intellectuals as just the Trojan horse of globalization,” said Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération who led the anti-Onfray charge. “What unites those intellectuals is opposition in general to modern times — to the governing left, to market-friendly Europe, to immigrants seen as the armies of Islam. They never venture to tell us what should be done.”
‘The people vs. the euro’
Leftists like Onfray now find themselves agreeing with the other end of the political spectrum on a couple of key themes.
The first is the fate of France’s poor and working class – the “proletariat” Onfray says has been abandoned by the right and the left alike. In that vision, the governing left’s policies favor the globalized elite and the well-to-do, while catering to the needs of minorities (“the margins,” says Onfray) — such as immigrants, homosexuals and women.
The second theme is the visceral hostility towards Europe and the euro, seen as constraining economic and social policy and a fatal blow to the infamous “exception française,” a large and costly welfare state that’s supposed to shield the French from the turmoils of the global economy.
The drama is being played daily in the court of public opinion. Think of it as “the people vs. the euro.”
“The latest eruption doesn’t come in a vacuum,” said Pascal Bruckner, an essayist and fiction writer, and one of the few French intellectuals who still presents himself as “pro-Europe, and rather Atlanticist.”
“There has long been a tradition of intellectuals defining themselves against the government, and if Valls thinks he can be a book critic, then the reaction is understandable,” Bruckner said. “What’s striking today is that it looks like this government from the left can’t seem to find an intellectual on its side”
Meanwhile, France continues to struggle with the economic crisis. Even as unemployment in the eurozone as a whole has declined steadily since early 2013, it keeps rising in France and may soon go above the monetary union’s average.
France’s intellectuals grapple with globalization, as does the rest of the society.
“This increases the disillusion of traditional left voters,” said Joffrin, “because the government so far can’t show results for its pro-euro, fiscally strict policies.”
The zeitgeist is summed up by the term “sinistrose,” the deep-rooted pessimism that has long passed as a trait of the French psyche but is taking a turn for the worse in times of economic and political uncertainty.
The anti-European feeling even permeates the governing left. When Marine Le Pen last week addressed Hollande in the European Parliament by calling him [Merkel’s] “vice-chancellor for the France region,” she was only slightly more aggressive than Hollande’s former economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who was fired from the government last year after saying that France’s austerity policies were “dictated by Germany’s right.”
“Europe here serves as proxy for globalization,” said a government adviser, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of “adding fuel to the fire.” “I call it the defeatist wing of French intellectual life: There’s no chance we’ll be able to make it, so let’s retract and retreat.”
And, yes, debate.
The new talk-show culture
The “Saving Philosopher Onfray” operation has no shortage of theatricality. It involves best-selling authors, whose pictures more often than not grace the covers of glossy news magazines, complaining about a “media conspiracy” to silence them.
Onfray’s best-selling books provide frequent cover stories for the news weeklies, and Finkielkraut seems like he has a permanent seat on French TV talk shows. Even government-supportive media, such as Libération or L’Obs, are eager takers for interviews with the supposedly silenced reactionaries.
Authors with more established “intellectuel” credentials, such as Finkielkraut, are pushing back against what they consider an anti-racist or “anti-fascist” thought police. The philosopher recently defended the right of Nadine Morano, a French MP from Nicolas Sarkozy’s party Les Républicains, to say France was a “white race” country.
Le Pen’s party, he writes in his most recent book, “La Seule Exactitude,” must be criticized for itself — because it is a “party of demagogues, ignoring both the complexity of political action and economic laws, promoting the cult of the strong man to the point of making Vladimir Putin not only an ally but a role model.”
Bruckner said it remains to be seen whether the controversy will be “just a prairie fire, chased next week by another piece of news” or a sign that “the divorce will become permanent between the ruling left and the intellectuals.”
In the meantime there is whispering that the big Mutualité meeting might be canceled after all — especially since neither Onfray nor Finkielkraut has agreed to appear as a witness for his own defense.