Letter from Paris: Gauche Critics
The leftist (Jewish) media in France excoriated their preeminent philosopher for challenging the politically correct views of the intelligentsia. What was the big deal?
When the riots in France’s Arab and African neighborhoods came to an end last November, French Jews breathed a collective sigh of relief. The violent demonstrations, which lasted three weeks and saw the torching of 300 buildings and 9,000 cars, had passed with no apparent anti-Jewish overtones.
No one expected that the vandalism would lead to a verbal assault on one leading French Jew—and that much of the abuse would come from other Jews.
Alain Finkielkraut, 57, arguably France’s best-known living philosopher, is accustomed to challenging political correctness and crossing France’s intellectual establishment, many of whose ideas flow from the leftist movements that came of age during the student demonstrations of 1968. In a country that treats its philosophers much the way America treats Hollywood celebrities, even casual observations from “Finkie,” as he is widely known, tend to enter the national discourse.
One of the tenets of france’s intellectual elite is that the downtrodden can do no wrong. In an interview originally published in the Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz on November 18, Finkielkraut begged to differ. “To see the riots as a response to French racism is to be blind to a broader hatred—the hatred for the West, which is deemed guilty of all crimes,” he asserted. “When an Arab torches a school, it’s rebellion. When a white guy does it, it’s fascism. I’m colorblind. Evil is evil.”
Finkielkraut, known for his articles and lectures, his books of social commentary, his radio show and as a professor of philosophy at Paris’s Ecole Polytechnique, came from the same leftist mold as many of his critics. But he has often taken issue with the orthodoxies of the intelligentsia. His unpopular defense of Israel during the intifada was a prelude to breaking the left’s taboo against criticizing France’s large Arab and African immigrant population.
The Ha’aretz article caught the eye of the French daily Le Monde, a paper that has moved ever further leftward in recent years. Le Monde, which champions the cause of France’s six million Muslims (who have, indeed, suffered from discrimination) rarely notes ethnicity in reporting on crimes—for example, preferring the neutral “youths” to such descriptives as “Arab,” “Muslim” or “black.” This, even though Muslims account for 60 percent of the population of France’s prisons.
Le Monde’s November 24 account of the Ha’aretz interview was written by Sylvain Cypel, a French Jewish journalist reviled by many of his coreligionists for articles they regard as hostile to Israel and Jewish causes. His article, which quoted Finkielkraut’s criticism of the the rioters but ignored his statements praising the French model for integration of minorities, precipitated a frenzy in the French press. Finkielkraut’s supporters characterized the attacks on him as a “lynching,” a description that became so common that by February it found its way into the column of a more sympathetic writer at Le Monde.
After the first report in le monde, newspapers daily carried statements by intellectuals and leftist groups accusing Finkielkraut of, to cite one example, “racist violence.” Among those who criticized him in the powerful leftist weekly Le Nouvel Observateur were Daniel Lindberg, a Jewish political commentator who charged the philosopher with painting Arab Muslim youth as “barbarians incapable of entering our society”; and Claude Askolovitch, who asserted that leaders of France’s right-wing National Front Party, often accused of racism, “are now reading Finkielkraut and bragging about it.”
The Communist-backed Movement against Racism and for Peace and other leftist and pro-Arab groups threatened to sue Finkielkraut for violating France’s tough laws against racial incitement, arguing that his pinning the blame on Arab and black rioters was not only unacceptable but also illegal. But the threat never materialized, presumably because television footage, watched by the entire nation, showed clearly that the rioters were overwhelmingly of Arab and African origin.
He did find some support in the media. In early December, the moderately leftist newsmagazine Le Point wrote, “Many intellectuals are no longer capable of distinguishing between criticism of a belief and criminalizing any opinion that differs from the norm.”
The assault on Finkielkraut was followed by what can best be described as an outpouring of popular support—no doubt to the chagrin of the left. Said Finkielkraut, “I have gone through both a nightmare and a fairy tale.”
The mood began to change when France-Culture radio conducted a live debate in mid-December about Finkielkraut, following demands from some listeners that the philosopher’s popular program, Répliques, be dropped by the station. When the debate ended, the station was inundated by the biggest reaction it ever received to a single broadcast—a flood of telephone calls, e-mails and letters, 80 percent of them backing Finkielkraut.
He also got a boost from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading contender to be the conservative candidate in France’s May 2007 presidential elections. (Sarkozy is of part-Jewish origin and is regarded as a friend of the Jewish community.) “If there is so much criticism of Alain Finkielkraut, it might be because he says things that are true,” Sarkozy said in an interview broadcast simultaneously on the LCI television channel and RTL radio. “The philosophers who frequent literary salons…suddenly find France no longer bears a resemblance to them.”
Finkielkraut also received strong support from the organized French Jewish community, which has long appreciated his defense of Israel.
“Even when I did not agree with Israeli policy, I absolutely rejected the ‘Nazification’ of Israel,” said Finkielkraut, whose father is an Auschwitz survivor. “When there was a wave of anti-Semitic attacks [by Arabs] in France, I denounced those responsible. I became a target for progressives because I refused their simplifications and said, ‘Yes, non-Western anti-Semitism exists’ and ‘Yes, racism is not a monopoly of the West.’”
The influence of intellectuals in France—something Americans and even some Europeans have difficulty understanding—goes back to the French Revolution, the underlying philosophy of which came from such thinkers as Voltaire and Rousseau. The tradition continued in the 19th century with Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, both of whom wielded tremendous influence over public opinion and paid for their opposition to the ruling establishment with years of exile.
In the 1950’s, when Jean-Paul Sartre backed Algerian nationalists in their war for independence from France, cabinet ministers pressed then-President Charles de Gaulle to have Sartre arrested. “You can’t imprison Voltaire,” was de Gaulle’s reply.
The 1968 student revolt led to the advent of the “New Philosophers,” a school of thought that emerged from the ultra-left but many of whose practitioners broke from Marxism and totalitarianism. Some of the best known were Jews, and any list of the top three intellectuals in France today is likely to be an all-Jewish affair.
In addition to Finkielkraut there are the flamboyant Bernard-Henri Lévy and the more somber André Glucksmann. Together with humanitarian activists like Bernard Kouchner—head of Doctors Without Borders and another former leftist—they led campaigns that helped prompt intervention in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Sitting in his book-filled living room on the Left Bank of Paris recently, Finkielkraut connected the dots between today’s ideas and those of his illustrious predecessors.
The “intolerable idea that the wretched of the earth are incapable of doing wrong…was introduced by Rousseau, who said man was good by nature and, if he acted badly, it was the fault of society and its institutions,” he explained. “The school of thought that revolution must be beautiful was that of Robespierre and, later, of the Stalinists. It has survived in France to this day.”
He noted with a sigh that Jews were prominent among those leading the attacks against him.
“This reminded me of how some Jews once sought acceptance into high society by repudiating other Jews they found too loud or too religious,” he observed. “They wish to be fully accepted into the intelligentsia by denouncing Israel, by saying, ‘We have nothing in common with those people.’ These people have a passion for universalism and anything that resembles Jewish particularity is odious and intolerable to them.”
But if Finkielkraut has a theory to explain attacks from Jewish intellectuals, what really infuriates him is silence. He says he received a private message of support from André Glucksmann, but has heard not a word—privately or publicly—from Bernard-Henri Lévy. For years, Finkielkraut and Lévy lectured together, promoting the work of their common idol, the late French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas.
“Lévy abandoned me,” he said. “His silence was deafening. Even if he disagreed with my stance, he could have at least denounced my lynching by the media.”
“Whatever other merits BHL”— Lévy is widely referred to by his initials—“has, he loves the limelight and carefully shuns clashing with the press,” commented a writer friendly to both men on condition of anonymity. “That’s why he’s remained silent.” Others argue that Lévy may not want to say anything that would divert attention from his new book, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Random House), recently published in the United States. (Lévy did not respond to calls from Hadassah Magazine asking him to comment on the controversy surrounding Finkielkraut.)
The Finkielkraut case remains a live subject in the French press. Indeed, because it deals with people and issues directly affecting France, it wasn’t even bumped from center stage by the more recent flare-ups of Muslim-Western friction such as the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the electoral victory of Hamas.
Finkielkraut, predictably, was not afraid to weigh in on the cartoons. He said President Jacques Chirac’s attempt to pander to Muslim public opinion was “outright cowardice” and that “the problem will not just go away if you are nice to the nasty.”
Meanwhile, he hasn’t forgotten what sparked his roller-coaster ride to attack and acclaim. “The end of the riots did not mean an end to violence,” he said, “but the return to a more daily, routine sort of violence where cars continue to be burned, albeit in lesser numbers, where good pupils continue to be harassed by their classmates and the lives of teachers are turned into a nightmare.”
France’s leading philosopher is still speaking out, but any sigh of relief may be premature.