The January 7, 2015 terrorist attacks provoked the largest demonstrations in France since the liberation of Paris. The impressive spectacle of many thousands calling themselves “Charlie” suggests that the French all accept the scatologists of Charlie Hebdo as national saints. On this view France, being resolutely republican, secularist, and libertine, is allergic to Islamism, which it has now steeled itself to resist.
In fact, the French are deeply divided in their conceptions of national identity, and recent events have put these divisions in high relief. Three recent, much-debated books correspond to three basic attitudes to national identity: deconstruction, reconstruction, and classicism. Sociologist Emmanuel Todd’s Who Is Charlie? has expressed the ultra-deconstructionist perspective on the Charlie Hebdo shootings; Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission gives a semi-ironic reconstructionist fantasy of regeneration through Islam; Éric Zemmour’s bestselling The French Suicide is both a chronicle of national decline and a hymn to a classical French past that he admires but has no hope of restoring. On the outcome of this three-way contest, which is not electoral but intellectual, may depend the future of France, and therefore, the future of Western Europe.
Deconstructionists are those, young or old (mostly old), who embrace the revolutionary ideology of May 1968. For the deconstructionist, the chief value is liberty, and liberty means the creation of self-determining monads. Therefore, almost every kind of limit, prescription, or definition is an instrument of domination. National identity involves prescription and definition, and so (unless it is identified with this radical position) it is an illegitimate authoritarian structure. Everything traditionally “national” is to be lampooned and discredited, and it should be public policy to destroy or transform traditional institutions, beginning with the family. The current face of the social engineering movement is Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. She first became visible as government spokesperson during the debates over same-sex marriage, when she was filmed preaching against homophobia to eighth-graders in a public school. (Meanwhile, the government warned Catholic schools with state contracts that merely to sponsor debates on gay marriage would be received as an attack on “freedom of conscience.”) Now, as minister of education, Belkacem is pushing to introduce “gender theory” into state schools. Supporting her and her ruling Socialist party is a network of deconstructionist think tanks (like the ominously named Terra Nova) that draft white papers about how to purge machismo, heterosexism, Eurocentrism, and nostalgia wherever such toxins may lurk.
France remains a necessary term, at least for now, and it is found on the deconstructionists’ lips. But it is ambiguous. It might refer either to a project of liberation begun in 1789 or to a nation born in 496 by an archbishop’s baptism of a king. For this reason, they prefer to offer their devotion to “the Republic.”
This is not to say that theirs is entirely a view from nowhere. It has a historical and national inflection in the old Jacobin antipathy for Catholicism. The Church, no matter how sclerotic and harmless, remains the privileged symbol of illegitimate constraint. Charlie Hebdo, one of the most reliable agents of deconstruction, dealt much more severely with the Church than with Islam.
Emmanuel Todd is a complex and interesting thinker who should not be caricatured, but Who Is Charlie?, his response to the “republican marches,” shows the deconstructive impulse at work in a particularly exaggerated form. His argument is that the ostensible mass celebrations of free speech—that core liberal, republican value—really exhibited “a pathological need of the middle and upper strata to hate something or someone.” His main proof is that marchers came disproportionately from parts of the country where Catholic clergy refused to accept the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy and so are “closer to the old Catholic bedrock of France than to the tradition of secularism.” Despite the waning of Catholic faith, those regions continue to demonstrate a residue of supposedly Catholic anti-egalitarianism, which predisposes them to fascisms of various flavors and degrees. When such ancient enemies of the Republic use republican language, he suspects an anti-republican purpose. It must be, in Todd’s words, “an imposture.” In reality, the marchers were celebrating the right and duty of the native French to insult the religion of poor immigrants.
Todd has been sharply criticized by his peers in sociology, by journalists, and even by Prime Minister Manuel Valls (whom Todd promptly compared with Vichy President Philippe Pétain). Nonetheless, in a wild and imprudent way he has displayed the mentality of a large part of the governing elite. Indeed, the official response to the shootings itself demonstrated that the Socialist government shares Todd’s ideological priorities. The government’s publicity apparatus transformed the central meaning of the marches into a war against Islamophobia. Nor does the conduct of these elites suggest that unfettered, Voltairean free speech is sacred to them. As confused commentators around the world noted, comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala was arrested shortly after the attacks on the charge of supporting terrorism for an ambiguous, quickly removed Facebook post that played on the name of one of the attackers. (“Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”) Free speech, like the free market, appears to be only one weapon in the arsenal of radical liberation, and its usefulness must be evaluated in each concrete situation.
A certain radical strand of Islam now poses a threat to the radical-liberal dream. In particular, it threatens Jews, whose success, visibility, and cultural self-affirmation serve as a great symbol of a post-traditional France. On the other hand, Muslim immigrants are welcome helps in the deconstructionist war against tradition. A hijab blunts the hegemonic force of a priest’s collar. Far from fearing Islamic radicalism, the 68ers trust that consumer society will quickly vaporize the piety, virility, and patriarchal values of Muslim communities, leaving a harmless residue of ethno-religious kitsch.
Reconstructionists accept that the deconstructionists have succeeded in severing the thread of French tradition, but see deconstruction as nihilism with no future. In their search for new values on which to rebuild France, some reconstructionists are intrigued by Islam, precisely because of the illiberal potential that frightens the deconstructionists. Michel Houellebecq is just such a reconstructionist.
Houellebecq is a famous writer with a talent for creating controversy. Long before its release, the plot of Submission—an Islamic regime is installed in France and the narrator becomes a Muslim—was well known and attracted heated arguments. Lively interest became something like holy terror when, on one and the same day, Submission was published, Charlie Hebdo mocked Houellebecq’s predictions on the front page, and the terrorists attacked the magazine. Since then, not even the most savage criticisms have managed to dissipate the prophetic aura of the book or the man.
In Submission, Houellebecq takes an allegorical tack, naming his narrator François (Frenchman) and duly making him a caricature of the deconstructionist dream. François lives virtually without loyalties, duties, or standards. The child of divorce, he is indifferent to his selfish and self-absorbed parents. His romantic life has followed a familiar contemporary model: a series of emotionally intense but probationary relationships lasting about a year, interlarded with casual sex—including, in François’s case, commercial sex. He is an atheist, and no values or institutions have taken the natural place of religion in his heart. He is without partisanship or patriotism. The very word humanism makes him “want to vomit.” A professor of French literature, he scorns academic life. He sees the university not as a sacred college devoted to wisdom, but a boring nest of careerists, frauds, lechers, and gossips. Holding nothing in reverence, he is the freest of men.
Liberation, it turns out, is spoliation. Comfortable, free, brilliant, and successful François is desperately sad, and in this he is not alone. He has entered middle age, but has never married and is increasingly isolated. Works of literature, like those of his beloved Huysmans, are for him oases of personality in a desert of bureaucracy, trade, and competition. In his quest for friendship, François at least has the advantages common to men, whose “erotic potential diminishes very slowly as they age,” giving them prolonged access to the ephemeral but intense contacts of liberated sex. The many unmarried women of his generation are doomed “bird[s] in an oil slick” awaiting the fast-approaching moment when the “now-prohibitive sagging of [their] flesh” condemns them to “a lasting solitude.” Marriage remains a technical possibility, but François’s visit to a married friend’s home persuades him that it offers no solution under current conditions. One cannot create stable zones of mutual support and harmony with overtaxed, neurotic women, inept and hesitating men, expensive and insubordinate children, all acting against the backdrop of easy divorce.
In François’s world, each is ultimately alone with, and heartily sick of, himself. By extension they all are sick of their collective ego, the Christian West that, in losing its religion, has lost its measure and its purpose. Thus Houellebecq illustrates the formula of Marxist philosopher Michel Clouscard: Under late capitalism everything is permitted and nothing is possible.
But François’s world of rich, white, lapsed Catholics is only one of the several worlds that uneasily share the territory of the French republic. However things may seem from his position before a microwaved dinner of rubbery beef tongue in a madeira reduction, France has no shortage of passion, danger, and possibility. Mass immigration has introduced new ethnic and religious loyalties (Arab and Muslim) and provoked nativist responses (white and at least culturally Catholic) that seek to curb immigration, restore traditional conceptions of national identity, and, at their most extreme, precipitate a supposedly inevitable civil war between natives and immigrants. Despite their rivalry, both groups encourage strong social conservatism. They support traditional gender roles within strong families and want religion to have public authority.
François, who belatedly wakes up to the new realities, sees the revival of social conservatism as not merely a sociological phenomenon, but as the beginning of a second intellectual victory for the right (the first was the victory of neoliberal economics). Now social conservatism, traditionally considered stupid and emotional, has grown “scientific.” For example, François’s new right-wing colleague, Godefroy Lempereur, introduces him to a nativist literature heavy on demographic studies purporting to show that “belief in a transcendent being conveys a genetic advantage: that couples who follow one of the three religions of the Book and maintain patriarchal values have more children than atheists or agnostics. You see less education among women, less hedonism and individualism. And to a large degree, this belief in transcendence can be passed on genetically.” In a country that prefers logical demonstrations even to street demonstrations, this rationalizing tendency exerts special political power.
By 2022, when the novel begins, France is on the verge of political transformation. In this presidential election year, a plurality of the French have broadly nativist, traditional, and nationalist views. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen, flag-bearer for these views, has become the nation’s most popular politician, kept from power only through the frenzied collaboration of the center-left, the center-right, and the mainstream media. With the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by the mild and eloquent Mohammed Ben Abbes, French Islam has become politically independent of the multicultural left while distancing itself from the violent Islamist radicals. The two centrist parties end up at the bottom in the first round of the presidential election, setting up an epochal run-off between Ben Abbes and Le Pen.
In a fictional comment on real-world leftist indulgence of Muslim identity politics, Houellebecq has the Socialists ally with Ben Abbes. With the country now evenly divided between the candidates, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, too, decides to back Ben Abbes, hoping to retain some political importance and promote the pro-EU, anti-nationalist policies on which they, the Socialists, and Ben Abbes all agree. The intervention is decisive. Ben Abbes becomes president of the French Republic by a comfortable margin.
Society is quickly transformed, but not beyond recognition and, François comes to think, much for the better. Islamism à la française is elegant and seductive. It has some truly revolutionary elements, such as polygamy, modesty laws, pro-family and anti-feminist laws, and privileges for Muslims. But it preserves democratic institutions and avoids everything violent, philistine, or intrusive. Islam enjoys a monopoly on public symbols, but private realities, from non-Muslim schools and houses of worship to the internet and escort services, remain nearly untouched. The submission contemplated by the novel’s title is therefore knowing and voluntary.
François himself is seduced in a scene that conveys the soft nature of Ben Abbes’s revolution. Because the new regime requires all professors at public universities to be Muslim, François resigns and begins collecting a generous pension. But François is an excellent scholar, and the university’s president, Robert Rediger, a former Catholic militant turned Muslim, wants to lure him back. He first arranges to get François a prestigious job as editor of Huysmans’s complete works and then invites François over for drinks in his handsome house overlooking a Gallo-Roman arena. Rediger softens him up by plying him with delicious liqueurs and appetizers. A bestselling Muslim apologist, Rediger is persuasive, cultured, and urbane. He draws conclusions from Darwinism and modern astronomy, freely invoking decidedly un-Islamic names like Voltaire and Dominique Aury, a pseudonym of the author of the pornographic Story of O. Rediger’s domestic situation also appeals to the middle-aged Frenchman. “Look at how he lived,” a half-drunk François marvels to himself, “a forty-year-old wife to do the cooking, a fifteen-year-old wife for whatever else . . . ”
In the end, François converts. He concludes that God’s existence is, after all, plausible enough, and that the Islamic civilization Ben Abbes is striving for is not a crushing obscurantism but a political and philosophical safeguard of personal happiness and biological reproduction. Islam cures nihilism.
Why not Catholicism? The question is posed squarely when, during his brief retirement, François tries and fails to mimic the conversion of his hero, Huysmans, to Catholicism. His problem appears to be an incapacity for a purely personal faith, such as Catholicism has become after the secularist dismantling of Christendom. Islam, by contrast, is an excellent political tool. Its theology is simple, it is traditional and legalistic in ethics, it embraces wealth, and it proclaims a God of pure power who requires obedience. And indeed, although Ben Abbes’s France is no longer Catholic, it aspires to be Roman. Having restored religion and family, Ben Abbes thinks France will be strong enough to dominate the EU and make of it a great neo-Roman empire including the Muslim countries of the Mediterranean.
Often called neo-reactionaries but better understood as classicists, a third group of French thinkers refuses both nihilism and Islamism. They champion Gaullism, which dominated French political thought from de Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 until Mitterand’s accession to the presidency in 1981 and retained great influence thereafter. According to this subtle blend of political doctrine and poetic vision, the function of the French state is to maintain in unity, independence, and prosperity a pre-existing nation with definite features. The nation is defined by a territory, of course, but even more so by a cultural inheritance: a language, literature, and mode of social life. This inheritance now includes a post-revolutionary creative tension between highly conservative forces, on the one hand, notably the family and Church, and, on the other hand, the individual freed to resist by liberal political and economic innovations, as well as by a national tradition of critique and mockery. The state, and the republican school in particular, must play its role in transmitting this inheritance to each new generation and to immigrants by assuring mastery of French language, literature, and history, and socializing students into the French way of life.
It is because de Gaulle’s presidency stands as a golden age in the classicist mind that the most visible classicist, Éric Zemmour, begins his narrative of decline, The French Suicide, with a long and sonorous description of the general’s funeral in 1970. For Zemmour, the great man’s death completed a spiritual parricide committed by the ungrateful adolescents of May 1968. The student riots, although politically sterile, broke the creative French tension between tradition and revolution in favor of revolution. The likes of Daniel Cohn-Bendit did not merely criticize and protest, but criminalized—tarred with fascism, even—the man who “allowed them to grow up free in a rich country.” As the 68er slogan “it is forbidden to forbid” indicates, even salvific, moderate, and discreet authority was now wicked and intolerable.
Zemmour recounts how the 68ers took charge of French media and French schools. Through their books, lectures, films, songs, cartoons, and comedy routines, they brought disrepute and ridicule upon all things traditional: religion, the nuclear family and gender conventions, artistic criteria, and patriotism. Although the language of May 1968 had a Maoist flavor and coincided with an enormous labor strike, the revolutionaries loathed the internal discipline and staunch nationalism of the Communist party and the social conservatism of the working class. They eventually found (or made) a political home for themselves in the Socialist party, which has set the agenda of French politics for the past generation. According to Zemmour, the results have been a violent capitalism masked by an overburdened, dysfunctional welfare state and solidaristic posturing; mass immigration and attendant multicultural ideology diluting the sense of national identity; internationalist politics aiming for the outright destruction of national sovereignty for the sake of a federal Europe; and an ever more ambitious social revolution true to another ’68 slogan, “human liberation is all or nothing.”
The irony, as Zemmour has stressed, is that this new civilization of humanity is often less humane than its predecessor. The supposed victims of the traditional hierarchies find that the replacement of status by contract magnifies natural imbalances of power. For example, François Hollande’s infidelity to his girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler continued an aboriginal tradition of French heads of state, beginning with the Catholic kings and continuing with rare breaks down to his immediate predecessor. But a much-abused woman like Mrs. Giscard d’Estaing could at least take refuge in her spousal rights, both legal and social, while the liberated Ms. Trierweiler was a concubine, easily discarded.
What of Islam in all this? Zemmour admits that Muslims are assimilable in principle, but insists that they have been given no encouragement to assimilate. On the contrary, in the name of the right to difference and refusal of colonial attitudes, the schools and the media have increasingly discouraged assimilation. This is particularly unfortunate since Islam is in part a Law—making it a political rival to the secular republic. It must adapt if it is to become a private confession. If the monster has escaped the control of multicultural 68ers and now presents a threat to their project, the classicist cannot help feeling some schadenfreude.
One might ask, why not entertain Houellebecq’s fantasy and consider Islam as an alternative to the ambient nihilism? Zemmour’s intellectual quasi-ally Alain Soral does just this, proposing a Catholic-Muslim-nationalist alliance against decadence. Zemmour rejects Soral’s approach on three counts. First, as Houellebecq apparently sees but does not say, an Islamic or substantially Islamicized France would be inferior to Gaullist, culturally Catholic France. Second, real, existing Islam is the main source of rising anti-Jewish feeling (as a Jew, Zemmour is personally concerned), and anti-Semitism is already a pillar of Soral’s embryonic nativist-Islamist alliance. Third, whatever new equilibrium might develop five generations from now, in the meantime there would be blood. There is a nativist hard core that will not allow Islam any significant cultural power without a very literal fight. As Zemmour sees it, France must dramatically cut immigration and restore the policy of assimilation or brace for civil war. France’s only future lies in embracing its past.
The Church has a complex position in this quarrel. While the hierarchy has remained discreetly out of the picture, lay opinion has divided into two currents. The first consists of Catholic humanitarians whose overriding concern is to promote a politics of compassion. They favor redistribution and therefore a strong national state; this is a point of contact with classicists like Zemmour. But their notions of Christian hospitality lead them to side with deconstructionists when it comes to mass immigration and to reject or de-emphasize the politics of assimilation, which they see as a kind of domestic imperialism. Furthermore, like their counterparts, the social-justice Catholics of the English-speaking world, they often dissent from the Church’s moral doctrines. They do not seek to reverse the moral side of the 68er revolution.
There is another group—younger, larger, and more visible but still not dominant within the French Church. It expresses a vocal, public orthodoxy. Around this religious core has grown a fuzzy but important political judgment: France is dead or dying, and only the Church can revive it. They do not speak as defenders of a threatened establishment, but they have the élan of an insurgency. At first blush this seems to make them Catholic reconstructionists, but their view is really a species of classicism. They envision a Gaullist synthesis, revised to emphasize Catholicism as the basis and guiding principle of French civilization, in reference to which even its most liberal, secular dimensions must be understood and justified. The philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks with a memorable expression of this Catholic classicism:
A youth does not only seek reasons to live but also . . . reasons for which to give his life. Now, are there still in Europe reasons to give one’s life? Liberty of expression? Very well! But what do we have to express of such great importance? What Good News do we have to proclaim to the world? . . .
One thing seems certain to me: The good in the Age of Enlightenment can no longer endure without the Light of the Ages. But do we recognize that this Light is that of the Word made flesh, of God made man, that is, of a divinity that does not crush the human, but assumes it in all its liberty and weakness?
This Catholic classicism embraces the intellectual and spiritual resources of Catholic tradition while keeping clear of Vichy nostalgia or the forced anachronism that everywhere limits the influence of “traditionalism.” It is this Catholic classicism that provided the main leaders for the massive, articulate resistance to Christiane Taubira’s gay marriage law, leaving commentators of a reconstructionist bent sputtering epithets, dumbfounded and afraid of the energies hidden in the country they thought they knew. It is this Catholic classicism that has led Éric Zemmour, despite his ethnic Judaism and personal atheism, to call for the re-Christianization of France. Increasingly, patriotic Frenchmen of all stripes see “les cathos” like Hadjadj as more than one faction among the many jostling for power. More and more, they are the last pillars of a tottering national identity.
If the Church bears the culture, the culture also bears the Church. As Nicolás Gómez Dávila observes, “the seemingly most frivolous game in French literature sketches the outline of a prayer or a blasphemy.” For those who take it up, French culture guarantees a confrontation with the Church and its message—like a sacramental. This effect is confirmed by the spiritual biographies of many of the leading French Catholics. Men like Hadjadj (a Jewish Arab from a far left atheist and anti-Catholic background) credit their own conversions to national authors like Bloy and Péguy, to the power of grand old churches, or, indeed, to the theological basis of French humanism and universalism. Such conversions are likely to grow more frequent as self-described “lovers of death” such as ISIS force the French to explain and defend a civilization firmly based, for all its inconsistencies, excesses, and aberrations, on the reverent love of human life demanded by the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Stefan McDaniel, a former assistant editor at First Things, writes from New York.