France shaken up by Zemmour and 'new reactionaries'
- 14 December 2014
- From the section Europe
There is a new intellectual force in France - giving shape and weight to ideas that challenge the disastrous post-1968 left-wing consensus.
That at least is the hope of the so-called neo-reactionnaires (new reactionaries) - a loose group of writers and thinkers who want to shake up debate on issues like immigration, Islam and national identity.
Of course others see the group rather differently.
For their enemies they are rabble-rousers, providing spurious philosophical cover for the extremism of the National Front (FN).
Most famous of the exponents is journalist Eric Zemmour, whose new book French Suicide reads like a desperate cavalry charge, sabre aloft, into the massed ranks of the progressives.
Seizing popular culture
Zemmour is scorned by most of the Paris establishment but his book is a runaway bestseller. To date it has sold 400,000 copies.
"The big divide today is between the elite and the people," he tells me at Le Figaro newspaper's headquarters, where he works.
"And that is why my book has done so well. Because I have become a kind of representative of the people. They have adopted me. They say that what I write is what they think."
Zemmour is a small, slight man, whose timid air quickly vanishes when he warms to his theme. He has the intellectual confidence and volubility of the school swot, and is probably inured to the swot's unpopularity.
Ironically, Zemmour's inspiration is not some right-winger but Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci wrote that for the left to win, it had first to take over popular culture.
And that, according to Zemmour, has indeed been the French left's greatest achievement.
"First of all there were the deconstructionist philosophers of the 1960s, who said that everything was social and therefore artificial.
"Then that philosophy was carried into the national bloodstream via the intermediary of derision. The greatest example is our comic Coluche.
"With his amazing talent, Coluche undermined the structures of French society - nation, family, police. When he ran for the presidency in 1981, he was supported by the well-known deconstructionist philosophers. That says it all.
"So after deconstruction, and then derision, we are now in the phase of destruction. It is what I call the three Ds," he says.
But isn't "destruction" putting it a bit strongly? After all, France is still standing tall among the nations. Just about.
"Not at all. The sovereignty of the nation has disappeared. The state no longer has the power to revive the economy, or to defend our borders. The state is powerless.
"There are parts of France which feel like a different continent today. There are neighbourhoods which are completely Muslim - in their appearance, in their shops, in their tradition.
"And at the same time we have the constant process of Americanisation. Our budget is controlled by Brussels. We have no currency. Our army has to follow Washington's orders.
"That is what I mean by destruction."
'Another people's history'
Other well-known figures in the movement include philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. Formerly identified with the political left, he was nearly blackballed this year from the prestigious Academie Francaise because of his writings on national identity.
More controversial is aesthete and prolific writer Renaud Camus, who lives in self-imposed isolation in a 14th-Century fortress in the wilds of Gascony.
Camus was ostracised from French literary society after he said he would vote for the far-right's Marine Le Pen at the last election. Lacking a publisher, he now produces his own books.
"It's absurd, because in most things there is nothing right wing about me. But I just happen to think that today's immigration is the most important thing to have happened to France - ever," he says.
"It is what I call 'le grand remplacement' - the great replacement. If there is a new population in France, then we will no longer have our own history. It will be another people's history, and another people's civilisation."
Camus strongly resists charges that he is racist.
"Of course I have been called a racist. I have given up fighting it. I do not see myself as one. I don't think I am unfair about other races. I do not seek to judge.
"But I do think that ethnic belonging is an important factor in the history of the world. It would be absurd to pretend otherwise.
"France has been very good at integrating individuals. But you cannot integrate whole peoples. If immigrants come from a different civilisation which they have no particular interest in abandoning, then they will be representative of that civilisation."
Outsiders and insiders
Back in Paris, a new magazine called Causeur has been created to disseminate the views of the "neo-reactionnaires".
Founders Gil Mihaely and Elizabeth Levy say that mainstream publications are too scared to discuss issues such as immigration and national identity.
"France has had a very troubled history. And all that troubled past is still alive in people's minds today," says Mihaely.
"It means that people instinctively feel they have to be very careful what they say - or it could end in violence.
"But by not talking about real issues like immigration, we drove people to voting for the extremes. It is far healthier to broaden the spectrum of debate, which is what we are doing."
While disowning any claim to belong to a new school of thought, Mihaely draws parallels with the recent history of French philosophy.
"In the late 1970s we had what became known as the 'nouveaux philosophes' (new philosophers). These were people like Bernard Henri-Levy, who broke away from the Sartre-inspired establishment because they could see the reality of totalitarianism in China and Russia.
"They saw a new reality, and realised they had to change their thinking. The same is happening now.
"Today there are thinkers who can see today's new reality: the Arab world, our immigration neighbourhoods, Islam. And they realise they have to change their ideas."
No allegiance claimed
The term "neo-reactionnaire" is an exonym. In other words it is a description applied to the group by outsiders. Insiders say they come from both camps - right and left.
"The big division today is over the nation state," says Mihaely. "Is the state's historic role finished, or is it still a major actor in the political, anthropological and cultural arenas?
"The question is not if you are left or right but if you believe in the nation.
"Our position is that the nation is still the only framework in which politics has any meaning. It is the only arena in which things can get done, where people can vote for change and change happens."
None of the neo-reactionnaires - not even Camus - claims allegiance to the FN. Many of them are Jewish.
Nonetheless they stand accused, by expressing such strong views on Islam, identity and the nation, of promoting the cause of the far right.
Zemmour says he is fed up with being asked about the FN.
"Can't they understand that the FN is not a cause, it is a consequence. It is a consequence of the disintegration of France.
"People vote for the FN to say to their elites, 'Stop doing what you are doing!' But they never do.
"It was Stalin who first realised how effective it was to turn the enemy into a fascist. That is what they are doing to us today."