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Emotions Run High in the Land of Descartes
Cafe in Paris, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, 1908

Emotions Run High in the Land of Descartes

The war of ideas is back on in France, ably surveyed in a new book by a thirty-year-old French journalist.

Patrick Chamorel

Trying to map today’s fast-changing and confusing world of ideas is a formidable challenge—especially for France, where intense intellectual debates and controversies have had a disproportionate influence on national politics and foreign policy. Yet thirty-year-old Eugénie Bastié—an essayist-journalist at the leading center-right daily Le Figaro, and a founder and editor of the conservative magazine Limites—has achieved this goal in her widely acclaimed recent book, The War of Ideas: An inquiry into the heart of the French intelligentsia.

The “war” metaphor arises because the twenty-nine authors, academics, experts, and journalists interviewed by Bastié believe that the public debates in which they are engaged amount to a war with stakes as high as national survival, peace, democracy, social justice, human dignity, and the utopia of political liberation. Moreover, Bastié argues that after a few decades of a relatively consensual intellectual scene, radical ideas and mutually incompatible ideologies are back at the center of public debates—most notably, if not only, in France.

In brisk and lively prose, Bastié examines the revival of the French intellectual battlefield since the beginning of the 21st century under the influence of new authors, institutions, ideas, and rules of engagement. In particular, in an increasingly globalized marketplace of ideas, American ideas have gained ground: France has gone from being an exporter of political ideas to an importer of them, especially American ones.

For example, “domination” and “deconstruction” theories first arose with philosophers Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. But these ideas were recycled in America and re-exported to France in the form of identity politics. They opened a central new front in France’s intellectual and political debate, in which traditional French universalist—i.e., “republican”—political culture has been challenged from the left by American-spawned identity politics. This split between the traditional republican Left and a rising radicalized Left, Bastié shows, has been at the heart of the recent French intellectual realignment. So has the resurgence of conservative ideas.

The current rise of ideology in the public debate is not, Bastié shows, merely a resurrection. For one thing, the intellectual scene is now fragmented. Second, in France, there has been a dramatic, traumatic qualitative decline in the debate about ideas. Both the broad public and the elites are less educated in literature, philosophy, and history. Reviews publish shorter articles. Fewer books are sold. The cycle of news and analysis is faster and more superficial. Increasingly, participants in the debate of ideas are specialized academics, experts, and analysts, on the one hand, and journalists, activists, and even celebrities on the other, not to mention anonymous crowds on social media. In the country of Descartes, Bastié notes, rational argument must increasingly compete with emotion.

A third feature of the French intellectual landscape is familiar to Americans: Confrontations between ideas is often replaced by attempts to silence and disqualify opponents. Nationalist Maurice Barrès and socialist Émile Zola, from opposite sides of the Dreyfus affair, nevertheless engaged with each other. So did Sartre and his philosophical nemesis, Raymond Aron. Yet in today’s pluralist landscape there is unprecedented intolerance. How, Bastié asks, can today’s relativism, purporting to treat all ideas and cultures as equally acceptable, coexist with growing intolerance? Indeed, the idea of freedom of expression has itself become an area of conflict. Laws against “incitement to hatred” have become, perversely, a tool with which the cultural Left and activist minority groups seek to regulate speech for their own advantage.

So, which new ideas dominate French public debate? Bastié says that both the Right and the Left believe they have lost the battle of ideas to the opposition; each side tends to see itself as a victimized minority. The Left feels besieged by neoliberalism, global capitalism, and all types of populists and reactionaries. Conservatives and classical liberals, for their part, believe that the new Left—neo-feminism, anti-racism, radical environmentalism, identity politics, cancel culture, and the more idiosyncratically French phenomenon of Islamo-leftism, an alliance between the far Left and political Islam—is the return of a radical, intolerant, hegemonic Left.

Bastié argues that neoliberalism is the main loser in this cycle. The disillusion with Marxism and communism in the 1970s and 1980s helped left-leaning “new philosophers” like Bernard-Henri Lévy promote anti-totalitarianism, human rights, and democracy; but that phase seems to have ended. The year 2020 saw the demise of the influential magazine Le Débat, which, when it was founded in 1980, sought to replace the confrontation between broad ideologies with empirical debates among experts.

Still, if the issues that dominate the current political cycle have moved public opinion in an anti-liberal direction, why did the French elect Emmanuel Macron, the quintessential economic and cultural neoliberal, as their new president in 2017?

Bastié argues that Macron was elected despite his promises, discreet and ambivalent, of more market liberalization, European integration, immigration, and cultural progressivism. The collapse of established party candidates and wide rejection of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, she says, gave Macron the opening he needed to win. His agenda was opposed by a vast majority of the electorate; the Yellow Vests revolt occurred just eighteen months into his presidency. Today, though neoliberalism remains influential among the elites, few neoliberal intellectuals occupy commanding heights in the mass media.

The crises and issues that have discredited neoliberalism have benefited a resurgent conservatism and populism on the right and led to radicalization on the left. Each side is engaged in a political and intellectual war against the other, mostly around the cultural issues of race, gender, immigration, Islam, education, crime, national identity, and history. The Right, embracing the Gramscian notion that ideas drive political change, has broken the Left’s monopoly on cultural issues. This is one of the major developments marking the French intellectual and political scene. The other such development, Bastié thinks, has been the divide within the Left between universalist republicans and multiculturalists.

Until recently, the shadow of the Vichy period prevented any resurgence of conservatism. The center-right in the Fifth Republic has been rather moderate and beset by its inferiority complex vis-à-vis the culturally dominant Left. But Bastié thinks a new political dynamic is now at work: Surprisingly, the legalization of gay marriage by Socialist President François Hollande in 2013 rekindled a Catholic activism that had appeared moribund. More, a growing disillusionment about European integration and globalization triggered a strong sovereigntist reaction, while rising economic inequality, mass immigration, rising crime, the influence of Islam, and resentment against elites fueled populism.

These partly overlapping conservative strains—cultural, sovereigntist, and populist—have sustained Le Pen’s far-right party (and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s populist far left). The conservative resurgence was illustrated by the surprise victory, in the center-right party’s 2017 presidential primaries, of the most conservative candidate, François Fillon, though his chance at the presidency was ruined by a scandal.

In 2002, sociologist Daniel Lindenberg, in his famous pamphlet Return to Order: An Inquiry Into the New Reactionaries, described a powerful shift toward reactionary ideas and announced the prospect of what he called a major political catastrophe. Since then, the hard Left has been denouncing the alleged ubiquity of far-right ideas on TV, radio, and social media and in the book sales by popular journalists and intellectuals like Eric Zemmour, now a presidential candidate, and Renaud Camus, the theorist of “the great replacement.”

According to Bastié, the rising issues of immigration, Islam, and crime, plus the popularity of conservative commentators, have allowed the Right to win the battle of public opinion; but the Left has never satisfactorily explained its recent decline. For the Left, ideas shape reality; when reality does not cooperate, the Left can’t adjust. It sees its only remaining option as a shift to the politics of identity, which alienates its former constituencies but appeals to educated youth and urban immigrants.

The cultural Left, though it has lost its former monopoly, still dominates the editorial posture of most private media and all public media, where few conservatives can express their views; there is no French version of Fox News. The hard Left dominates even more completely in academia—in social sciences, history, philosophy, and literature.

The influence of academics on public opinion is limited by their reluctance to participate in media culture but is critical in the war of ideas. Bastié could have added that beyond education, the hard Left enjoys a dominant influence in the judiciary, cultural industries, and public services. Grassroots activist groups have also multiplied and become more radicalized and violent. (In France, as opposed to America or Germany, radical organizations are fewer and weaker on the far right.)

What made Lindenberg’s 2002 pamphlet so influential was that he denounced the part of the Left that refused to embrace identity politics. He and the far Left accused those “reactionaries” of betraying their camp by supporting dangerous right-wing ideas and turning the multiculturalist far Left, rather than the center-right, into the new enemy. The alleged traitors included media-savvy academics and journalists who were among France’s leading intellectuals, like philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, novelist Michel Houellebecq, essayist Philippe de Villiers, and sociologist Mathieu Bock-Côté. Next to that moderate Republican Left, Bastié usefully identifies a strain of the anti-capitalist Left around philosopher Michel Onfray, geographer Christophe Guilluy, and others that is also condemning identity politics, the dilution of national sovereignty, and political Islam; she refers to them as the “populist Left.”

Lindenberg’s pamphlet helped force leading figures to choose their camps. Now, the central cleavage in today’s French public debate is less between Right and Left than between the republican and multiculturalist wings of a divided Left. The new Left has all but abandoned the historic bedrocks of the Left—the nation-state, universalism, rationalism, laïcité, the assimilation of immigrants, and social promotion through meritocracy. It relies more on the mobilization of immigrants and minorities. Concurrently, the Left and Right have traded some of their values: Identity has moved to the left; the emancipation of individuals from their original conditions, together with laïcité and the free exercise of reason, have shifted right. Some traditional leftist strategies—“no enemies on the left,” “our common enemy is the Right”—no longer operate: Both the Right and the republican Left now see the multiculturalist Left as their common adversary.

Bastié says that the identity-focused Left lacks its own popular intellectual leaders and relies on the “cultural Left” populating the media to spread its theories of race, neo-feminism, diversity, Islamophobia, and the specter of fascism. The most visible intellectuals of the hard or multiculturalist Left include economist Thomas Piketty, demographer Emmanuel Todd, and historian Patrick Boucheron; the most influential is probably journalist Edwy Plenel, who runs the far left and pro-political-Islam online investigative media group Mediapart.

Bastié views the new far Left’s alliance with political Islam as one of the most spectacular intellectual shifts. In the last decade or so, controversies about the place of Islam in French society and the challenge of radical (i.e., “political”) Islam have moved to the center of the public debate, along with the related issues of laïcité, immigration, and French identity.

The origin of the debate and, thus, of the fracture of the Left was the famous “veil issue” (l’affaire du voile) of 1989, when three teenage girls refused to take off their hijabs at a school in northern France. The Right rallied the liberal Left to the defense of the French tradition of laïcité, which, since the early 20th century, has sought to keep religion separate from politics and public education. But the far and cultural Lefts supported the rights of the schoolgirls to express their religious identity. Since then, political Islam has been the main actor and beneficiary of identity politics in France—and is likely to survive it. It sees universalism and laïcité as mere screens that discriminate against Muslims and foster Islamophobia.

But the cultural and political challenge posed by Islam goes beyond laïcité. The year Lindenberg released his pamphlet historian Georges Bensoussan edited a collective volume called The Lost Territories of the Republic, which documented the growing influence of political Islam throughout the culture and noted the pervasive antisemitism among many French and immigrant Muslims. Since then, dozens of authors, including on the left, have made similar diagnoses; yet they have met strong resistance from many on the hard as well as cultural Left who deny the facts or minimize their importance, even going so far as to sue authors like Bensoussan on grounds of “incitement to hatred.”

Of course, the main reason why the traditionally anti-religious far Left embraced political Islam involves its rejection of liberal democracy, not a religious epiphany. Bastié says that the three main intellectual pillars of this alliance are Third Worldism, a legacy of Marxism; the idea that immigrants have become the new proletariat; and the misleading claim that Muslims in the West are what the Jews were in the 1930s, Islamophobia having replaced antisemitism. The most famous and extreme propagandist of political Islam is the Swiss Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan. Its fiercest opponents are female intellectuals born in Africa to Muslim families.

Bastié also describes the rise of neo-feminism and radical anti-racism as powerful trends in France’s public debate. It is true that feminist, black, and gay movements in France have lacked the intensity and clout they have in the United States and northern Europe. However, the demographic growth of ethnic and racial minorities in France, as well as transatlantic militancy, have given new impetus to these causes and the theories that inform them. Bastié says the old French traditions of gallantry and libertinage are being reinterpreted as screens for the subjugation of women. For universalist feminists, the Muslim veil is a symbol of oppression; but for neo-feminists, it signals the emancipation of Muslim women. Neo-feminists have refused to condemn rapists who are immigrants: In the infamous mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, 2016, the neo-feminists argued that the rapists were merely acting according to their cultural norms.

French history and identity have also become battlegrounds in the war between republican and multiculturalist leftists. Since the French Revolution, the Left’s version of the national narrative has prevailed. It is now the multiculturalist Left’s turn to offer its own narrative of a French history dominated by the crimes of slavery, colonialism, and the forced assimilation of immigrants. The “nation” has become a reactionary concept and a reality to be dismantled. These conflicting views were highlighted in 2014, when President Nicolas Sarkozy, attempting to rehabilitate the notion of French identity, announced plans for a museum of French history. Historians on the multicultural Left torpedoed the project.

Although any analysis of the current movement of ideas is bound to be influenced by the author’s own political and philosophical leanings, Bastié’s comes across as sound and illuminating. She makes us aware that the universalist, secular, and assimilationist culture that has characterized France since the mid-19th century is on its way out. As for what might hold the country together in its place, she does not tell us, probably because she, like most of us, does not know.

Patrick Chamorel, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is senior resident scholar and lecturer at Stanford in Washington, Stanford University.

EuropePolitical Philosophy