March 11, 2016
HE is the intellectual much of the French left loves to hate, the writer whose rumpled look has racked up multiple magazine covers, the bookish essayist turned omnipresent media star and boogeyman for proselytizers of painless multiculturalism. Alain Finkielkraut’s mere presence in a television studio raises temperatures and sends accusations of racism flying.
“For the good of France, shut up, Mr. Finkielkraut!” a young Muslim woman, a teacher from the suburbs, said recently on live television, throwing back to Mr. Finkielkraut his own words, after a televised harangue aimed at him several years earlier in a similar confrontation.
After several dozen books, an influential weekly radio show, frequent interview requests and his induction in January into one of French civilization’s holiest — albeit most conservative — shrines, the Académie Francaise, Mr. Finkielkraut has no intention of shutting up.
A former philosophy professor at France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique, he is arguably the most visible of France’s public intellectuals. “We have seen only you, we have heard only you, we have read only you,” the historian Pierre Nora said, as Mr. Finkielkraut listened under the academy’s ornate dome, during the traditional induction speech.
The national audience for Mr. Finkielkraut’s themes, returned to obsessively and buttressed by a seamless web of references, is now larger than ever in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2015.
Before and after the attacks, those themes have not varied: Much of Islam is radically incompatible with French culture and society; Muslim immigrants represent a threat; French schools are crumbling under a mistaken multicultural outreach; the inherited corpus of French culture is in danger; and anti-Semitism is on the rise again, this time by way of Islam.
Many of the 2015 attackers were French. “Hatred of France is present in France,” Mr. Finkielkraut said in a recent interview. “What the attacks proved is that we have a redoubtable and determined enemy.” He has caught a national mood, bridging unease over relations with the country’s Muslim minority with a nascent renewal of national pride after the November attacks. Its expression by Mr. Finkielkraut has been delivered, over many years, with all the fervor of the immigrants’ son who has succeeded. But in Mr. Finkielkraut’s pessimistic vision this fusion is dark-robed.
His last substantial book, “The Unhappy Identity,” was a best seller in France — a compact lament over declining standards in schools, the pernicious effects of multiculturalism, the oppression of women under Islam and France’s self-alienation from its own heritage.
The book’s protest over neighborhoods where “the French feel they have become strangers on their own turf” under the weight of Muslim immigration led critics to put him in the camp of the far-right National Front — a charge he rejects.
“France is on its way to disintegration,” Mr. Finkielkraut said in the interview in his Left Bank apartment, every book-lined inch underscoring his distrust of the Internet. The prosperous, pleasant and largely white-populated streets outside are far from the troubled multiracial suburbs that are his preoccupation.
“Until recently, France was successful in integrating its immigrants — that was even its pride,” he said. “Today, it is disintegrating in front of our eyes.” The French model of integration “doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “Where one could have hoped for a certain harmony, it is hatred that prevails.”
“Today, when some, like me, speak of the problem of Islam, we are denounced as the successors of Maurras and Barrès,” said Mr. Finkielkraut, naming two influential far-right thinkers of pre-World War II France. “There is a refusal to think about this era on its own terms.”
- FINKIELKRAUT’S political roots are on the left, though.
His father was a Jewish leather craftsman, an immigrant from Poland who survived deportation to Auschwitz after being rounded up by the French police in 1942. Born in Paris in 1949, Mr. Finkielkraut attended the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV school, demonstrated with other leftist students during the May 1968 uprising, went on to teach French literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and from 1989 taught philosophy at the École Polytechnique, from which he is now retired.
His wife, the lawyer Sylvie Topaloff, has been quoted as lamenting the friends they have lost over her husband’s political views. Yet his ideas carry just enough of an old tradition of left-leaning nationalism in France — exemplified by one of his favorite authors, Charles Péguy — for him to be acceptable to the law-and-order faction in the ruling Socialist Party.
He writes as he speaks — carefully, precisely, with minute attention to the complicated rules of French grammar, and in a style that is never far from arch irony. It is as though he were taking special trouble to avoid the constant obsession in his books and his weekly radio program, “Répliques”: the contemporary maltreatment of the French language.
It is tradition that inductees into the Académie Française eulogize the deceased academician whose chair they now occupy. Mr. Finkielkraut’s detractors were delighted that he was forced to pay tribute to a man — an obscure writer named Felicien Marceau, who did broadcasts for German-controlled Belgian radio during World War II, before fleeing — accused of collaborating with the Nazis. But Mr. Finkielkraut, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, managed to laud the man obliquely, avoiding the trap. “The past that obsessed him hid from him the awful newness of the event that he was living,” Mr. Finkielkraut said at the ceremony.
In Mr. Finkielkraut’s view, Marceau was blinded to the dangers of Hitler by the horrors of World War I; and the French left, obsessed because of fascism with the National Front, has been blind to the dangers of radical Islam. The green-and-black-uniformed academy members, most of whom labor in obscurity, were conscious that an unusual public figure was being added to their number: The historian Mr. Nora, in the induction speech, spoke of Mr. Finkielkraut’s “omnipresence” and noted that he was at the very top of a “blacklist” of those challenging the French left’s May 1968 orthodoxies.
“You are the one who breaks the public omerta, who says — and very well indeed — what the politicians can’t say, and what the journalists don’t want to,” Mr. Nora said.
BUT the historian also hinted at a weak spot in Mr. Finkielkraut’s armored suit of erudition, one that makes him the subject of constant attack in the left-leaning press. He occupies the “fragile and porous border,” Mr. Nora said, “between solid good sense and an argument that is slightly specious.”
He also made reference to a notorious 2005 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which Mr. Finkielkraut derided the French national soccer team for being “black-black-black” and not black-blanc-beur — black-white-Muslim — as the popular saying had it.
Mr. Finkielkraut, for all of his warnings about the difficulty — if not impossibility — of assimilating France’s approximately four million Muslims, is not advocating their expulsion. Yet he has no practical agenda for how to integrate them into French society.
He has little to say about the evident discrimination against Muslims in France today, or about the anti-Muslim violence since the attacks. The Muslim teacher who clashed with him on television, Wiam Berhouma, raised these points to no response — before telling Mr. Finkielkraut to shut up. For Mr. Finkielkraut, the problem is with Muslims, not with France. “We’ve got to fix very clear rules,” he said in the interview. “Secularism has got to prevail. And we can’t compromise on the status of women.”
He is adamant about that last point. “Everything plays out there,” he says. “People are telling us that problem comes from all sorts of oppression by the West. No. The problem comes from the oppression by Islam of women. We’ve got to help the Muslims resolve this question.”