Far-right ideas regain respectability in France

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” NOTNationalism is the the safeguard of all these treasures which are threatened without a foreign army crossing the border, without the physical invasion of the territory. It is the defense of the nation against the foreigner from within. So wrote Charles Maurras, a reactionary and anti-Semitic French author, in “My Political Ideas” in 1937. After the disgrace and trauma of Vichy France, who officially labeled Jews as foreigners on the inside, such a reflection was during most of the postwar period. period banned on the fringes of French intellectual life. For decades it was nerds of the political left which dominated the salons and the columns of the newspapers of Paris.

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Today, however, France is experiencing a bewildering revival of ultranationalist thinking, and with it the rehabilitation of once-ostracized reactionary writers. Robert Laffont, a respected Parisian publisher, reprinted Maurras’ complete works in 2018. This year, a French right-wing publisher reissued “Le Grand Racements”, first released in 2011; its author, Renaud Camus, is a far-right writer who is currently appealing a conviction for inciting racial hatred. As claimed by certain nativists of America, Mr. Camus maintains that France is going through a demographic “conquest”, implying in this case the incessant replacement of the “French” by those of its former colonies.

Various micro-movements and individuals of the extreme right and ultra-Catholics have long claimed to be the heirs of the end of century thought. But these peripheral voices were worthy without serious consideration or polite debate. Now points of sale such as Current values, a right-wing magazine, and CNews, a French 24-hour news channel similar to Fox News, hardly discuss anything else. Mr. Camus went from recluse to television studio guest. Eric Zemmour, an expert and polemicist, doubles as a radical populist hoping to run for the presidential election next April. His latest bestseller, “France has not had its last word”, is a lament over “the death of France as we know it”. Dressed in an intellectual veneer, the book identifies at every moment a threat to “the French people, its customs, its history, its state, its civility, its civilization”.

Two sinister underlying obsessions link this contemporary discourse to reactionary and earlier nationalist French essayists. The first is the belief in an immutable “eternal France”. Maurras, who was a leading figure in Action Française, a political movement founded in 1899 to defend the “real France”, called this the real country (the real country): a land of steeples, ancestral land and family tradition. It was necessary to distinguish, according to him, from the legal country (the country of law), or the artificial structures of the anticlerical republican administration.

Old and new enemies

Identity in this sense is not a multiple and fluid construction, but rather is fixed and rooted in the earth. “The earth disciplines us and we are the extension of the ancestors”, declared in 1899 Maurice Barrès, another influential nationalist writer close to Maurras. rural life, church, family and working the land. Indeed, Mr. Zemmour entitles a chapter of his last book “The earth and the dead”, after a speech of the same name by Barrès. In it, Mr. Zemmour states that the three members of a French family who were murdered in a terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and who were buried in Israel, did not belong to the France.

The second obsession is the paranoia of the decline and the failure of the elites to protect the French identity. For Maurras, the main threat was this internal enemy: Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and foreigners. For Barres, the enemy was mainly external: Germany and its military power. For MM. Camus et Zemmour is above all Islam. Echoing the “great replacement theory”, Mr. Zemmour asserts that, in today’s France, “an Islamic civilization replaces a people for a Greco-Roman Christian civilization”. “Veiled women,” Mr. Camus recently told a TV investigator, “are the flags of conquest, of colonization”.

Today’s reactionaries tap into a deep undercurrent of fear and paranoia in France, but also anti-Semitism. A shameless anti-Semite, Maurras defended the French army’s accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish captain wrongly convicted by the French army for high treason in 1894. It was a time, among the French Catholic and military elite , intense anxiety about spies and traitors, and conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers. In “Jewish France”, a virulent anti-Semitic tract published in 1886, Edouard Drumont warned against the threat of a “Jewish conquest” of France, led by a people “hateful and greedy for gold” determined to provoke the “Painful agony of a generous nation”.

Himself of Jewish and Algerian origin, Mr. Zemmour occupies an ambiguous place in this tradition. By suggesting today that Dreyfus was perhaps not innocent, or by defending Vichy for having “protected” French Jews – because he first expelled foreigners – M. Zemmour is not making a balance sheet serious history but a studied provocation. In addition to distorting history, it is a way of “signaling its link to a pillar of French society, which is the army, and to a particular set of right-wing values”, suggests Jean Garrigues, historian at the University of Orleans. .

That such opinions are legitimately disseminated is new and disturbing. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right party that his daughter, Marine Le Pen, renamed and now leads, has dismayed the salons of Paris and has been treated accordingly. M. Zemmour, who is literate and flatters the esteem of the French for cultivated, is treated with respect. The aspiring presidential candidates are invited by the moderators of the debate, barely blushed, to offer their point of view on the “theory of the great replacement”.

In addition, France lacks the intellectual voices of yesteryear to counterbalance. “At the time of Maurras, Émile Zola and the Republicans retaliated. But the intellectual left and the radical left in France have been swept aside, ”explains Sudhir Hazareesingh, a political scientist at the University of Oxford and author of“ How the French Think ”. Today, no French thinker has the imposing stature of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault or others in turtlenecks and trench coats from the left bank whose influence has spread. prolonged well beyond their lifetimes.

No political leader of the left has a dominant influence either. In this void, toxic theories are resuscitated and used to frame the discussion, without strong or persuasive rebuke. As elsewhere, reason and rationality seem, like contempt, to be fragile tools against the powerful narrative force of reactionary populists. The decline of the public intellectual of the French left removes one more line of defense.

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “The least accused”

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