Pierre Briancon, Politico, October 16, 2015
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.
In an interview with Le Figaro on September 8, the writer [Onfray] 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 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.
“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.”
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.