Three months ago France took to the streets in the name of freedom of expression and coexistence. The recent local elections saw a fresh breakthrough for the Front National. What is your analysis of the quick succession of these two apparently contradictory developments?
wouldn’t be so sure that there’s any contradiction. Obviously everyone
agrees in condemning the January attacks, and everyone was pleased by
the popular response that followed. But the unanimity we were meant to
show in defending ‘freedom of expression’ fed a kind of confusion. In
fact, freedom of expression is a principle regulating the relations
between individuals and the state, forbidding the state from preventing
dissenting views being expressed. But the 7 January attack on Charlie Hebdo besmirched
a quite different principle: namely, that you shouldn’t shoot someone
because you don’t like what they have to say. And this is the principle
that sets the terms of how individuals can live together and learn to
respect each other.
But we’ve overlooked this question, choosing
instead to pose the whole thing in terms of polarized views on freedom
of expression. In so doing we’ve added another chapter to the campaign
that for many years has used great universal values for the purposes of
delegitimising part of the population, counterposing ‘good Frenchmen’ –
the partisans of the Republic, laïcité [French state
secularism] and freedom of expression – to immigrants seen as inevitably
communalist, Islamist, intolerant, sexist and backward. We often invoke
universalism as a common principle for our lives, but universalism has
itself been appropriated and manipulated. Transformed into the
distinctive trait of a particular group, it serves as a charge against a
specific community – notably through the frenetic campaigns against the
veil. And 11 January [the ‘Republican marches’] could not overcome this
derailing of universalism. The demonstrations rallied without
distinction people who stood for common values and those who were
expressing their own xenophobic sentiments.
Are you saying that those who defend the republican-laïque model are contributing, despite themselves, to preparing the way for the Front National?
We are told that the Front National has been dédiabolisé [‘de-demonised’].
What does that mean? That the party has cast aside those of its members
who were too overtly racist? Yes. But above all that the difference
between the FN’s ideas and the ideas that are considered respectable and
part of the republican inheritance has itself evaporated. Across two
decades a number of supposed ‘Left’ intellectuals have been the source
of arguments that serve xenophobia and racism. The Front National no
longer has to say that immigrants want our jobs or that they are thugs.
It suffices to proclaim that they are not laïques, that they do not share our values, that they are communalist…
The great universalist values – laïcité,
common rules for everyone, equality among men and women – have become
the instrument of a distinction between ‘us’ (we who adhere to these
values) and ‘them’, who do not. The FN can keep its powder dry, as
xenophobic arguments are in any case being provided by the ‘republicans’
of the host honourable pretensions.
If I follow, you’re saying that the very meaning of laïcité has been perverted. So what does it mean, for you?
In the nineteenth century, laïcité was
the political tool that allowed republicans to free schools from the
grip exerted by the Catholic Church (in particular after the 1850
Falloux bill). The notion of laïcité thus referred to the
specific set of measures that were taken in order to break this
stranglehold. From the 1980s we chose to make it into some great
universal principle: but laïcité had been conceived as a means of regulating the state’s relations with the Catholic Church.
The great manipulation, here, was in the fact that laïcité was transformed into a rule that every individual had to obey. It was now up to them to be laïque, and not the state. And how can you tell if someone is breaking the principle of laïcité?
By what they’re wearing on their head… When I was a child, on the day
of solemn communions we’d go to school to meet our non-Catholic friends,
wearing our communicants’ armbands and handing out pictures. No-one
thought that this was a threat to laïcité. At that time, laïcité was a question of funding: public funding for state schools, private funding for private schools. This laïcité centred on the relations between state and private schools has, however, been buried, losing its place to another laïcité that
seeks to govern individual behaviour and which is used to stigmatise
part of the population on account of their physical appearance. Some
have taken this delirium as far as demanding a law that bans the veil
being worn in the presence of a child.
But where does this desire to stigmatise people come from?
has various causes, some of them linked to the Palestinian question and
the forms of mutual intolerance that it has fed in this country. But
there is also the ‘great resentment on the Left’, born of the great
hopes of the 1960s-70s and the destruction of these hopes by the
so-called ‘Socialist’ party when it came to power. All republican,
socialist, revolutionary and progressive ideals have been turned back
against themselves. They have become the opposite of what they were
meant to be – no longer weapons in the battle for equality, but arms for
discrimination, distrust and contempt directed against a supposedly
‘brutish’ or ‘backward’ people. Unable to fight the growth of
inequality, we legitimise inequalities by delegitimising the people who
suffer their effects.
We could think of the way in which Marxist
critique has been subverted, becoming a justification for denouncing the
democratic individual and the all-powerful consumer – that is, a
denunciation that attacks those who have the least means with which to
consume… The subversion of republican universalism, converted into a
reactionary outlook stigmatizing the poorest, speaks to the same logic.
Isn’t it legitimate enough, though, to fight the veil, which is far from obviously a mark of women’s liberation?
question is whether state schools’ mission is to liberate women. If
that were so, should it not also be liberating the workers and all the
other dominated groups in French society? We have all kinds of
subjection – from the social to the sexual or racial. The principle of a
reactive ideology is to target one particular form of submission,
better to keep the others in place. The same people who once accused
feminism of ‘sectionalism’ have now discovered their own ‘feminism’ in
order to justify the anti-veil laws. The status of women in the Muslim
world is problematic, certainly, but it’s the women concerned who first
have to decide what they consider oppressive. And, in general, the
people who suffer oppression have to fight against their own submission –
you can’t liberate people on their behalf.
turn back to the Front National. You have criticized the idea that ‘the
people’ is naturally racist. In your view, immigrants are less the
victims of a racism that comes ‘from below’ than a racism ‘from above’:
racial profiling, being cast out to peripheral suburbs, or the
difficulty people have finding work or housing if they have
foreign-sounding surnames. But when 25% of the voters support a party
that wants a freeze on mosque construction, doesn’t it show that despite
any other considerations xenophobic drives really are at work among the
Firstly, I would say that this surge
of xenophobia goes well beyond the ranks of far-Right voters. What is
the difference between a Front National mayor who changes the name of
the Rue du 19 Mars 1962 [Robert Ménard the FN aligned mayor of Béziers
renamed the town’s street that marked the Evian accord according
Algerian independence, replacing this with the name of « Hélie Denoix de
Saint-Marc», a member of the French Resistance who had been deported to
Buchenwald but who later became a supporter of the reactionary,
anti-independence Algérie française campaign and participated
in the generals’ putsch of April 1961, for which he was condemned to
prison], UMP [centre-right] MPs who demand that we teach the positive
aspects of colonialism, Nicolas Sarkozy opposing pork-free menus in
school canteens, or so-called ‘republican’ intellectuals who want to
exclude veiled teenagers from university? In any case, it is too
reductionist to say the FN vote is an expression of racist or xenophobic
ideas. More than a means of expressing popular sentiment, the Front
National is a structural effect of French political life such as it has
been organised according to the constitution of the Fifth Republic. In
allowing a small minority to govern in the name of the population, this
system has relentlessly opened up space for a political tendency that
says ‘We’re not part of their game’. The Front National has occupied
that space since the decomposition of the Communists and the far Left.
As for the masses’ ‘deep-seated feelings’ – well, what’s the measure of
that? I will only note that in France we have no equivalent of the
German xenophobic movement PEGIDA. And I don’t believe that this
situation bears any comparison to the 1930s, and there is nothing in
France today that looks anything like the huge far-Right militias of the
It seems you don’t think there’s any need to fight the Front National…
have to fight against the system that produces the Front National, and
thus also against the tactic of using denunciation of the FN as a means
of masking the rapid rightward drift of government élites and the
Are you not worried that it will come to power?
I consider the Front National to be the fruit of the imbalance in our
institutions’ own logic, I think it more likely that it will be
integrated into the system. There are already a lot of similarities
between the FN and the existing systemic forces.
If the FN came to power that would have very concrete consequences for the weakest in French society – immigrants – no?
yes. But I don’t see the FN organising huge expulsions, with hundreds
of thousands or millions of people being ‘sent back where they came
from’. The Front National is not a matter of poor whites against
immigrants; its electorate spans all sectors of society, even including
immigrants. So of course there might be symbolic measures, but I don’t
believe that a UMP-FN government would be all that different from a UMP
Before the first round of the elections
Manuel Valls criticised French intellectuals for ‘having fallen asleep’:
‘Where are the intellectuals, where is this country’s great conscience,
the men and woman who also have to be on the front line – where is the Left?’, he asked. Do you feel concerned by that?
the Socialists ask us ‘Where is the Left’? There’s a simple answer:
it’s where they’ve led it, into the abyss. The Parti Socialiste’s
historical role has been to kill the Left. Mission accomplished. Manuel
Valls asks what intellectuals are doing… Frankly, I can’t see what a man
like him can criticise them for. He attacks their silence but the fact
is that for decades a number of intellectuals have been taking an awful
lot. They have been made into stars, saints even. They have made a major
contribution to the hate-filled campaigns around the veil and laïcité.
They have been all too outspoken. I would add that an appeal to
intellectuals is an appeal to people who are such cretins that they’ll
agree to play the role of spokesmen for intelligence. You can only
accept such a role, of course, in defining yourself against a people
presented as being made up of the brutish and backward. Which ultimately
goes back to the counterposition of those ‘who know’ and those ‘who
don’t know’, which is precisely what we need to smash apart if we want
to fight against the disdainful society of which the Front National is
only one particular expression.
There are however
intellectuals, including yourself, who fight this rightward drift in
French thought. Don’t you believe in the force of an intellectual’s
You can’t place your hopes in a few individuals
unblocking the situation. That can only happen by way of mass,
democratic movements, and they’ll not draw their legitimacy from an
In your philosophical work
you show that ever since Plato political thought has tended to divide
the individuals ‘who know’ from those ‘who don’t know’. On the one hand
is the educated, reasonable, competent class called on to rule; on the
other hand, the ignorant popular classes who are the victims of their
own base impulses, and are fated to being ruled over. So is that your
way of analysing the present situation?
For a long time
rulers have justified their authority by dressing themselves up in the
supposed virtues of the enlightened class, like prudence, moderation,
wisdom… Today’s governments speak in terms of a science – economics –
and claim to be doing nothing but applying its allegedly objective,
inevitable laws (which just so happen to suit the interests of the
ruling classes). But we have seen the economic disasters and the
geopolitical chaos that the old ruling wisdom and the new economic
science have produced over the last forty years. This demonstration of
the incompetence of the supposedly competent has merely awakened the
contempt of the governed for those who so contemptuously govern them.
The positive demonstration of the democratic competence of the
supposedly incompetent is, however, quite another thing.