Every day, it seems, a new front is opened in the war against European multiculturalism. David Cameron and Angela Merkel have declared it dead. Nicolas Sarkozy suggested as much when he promoted a demagogic debate about “French identity.” The National Front (FN) is founded on a guilt-free rejection of multiculturalism’s premises. And Anders Behring Breivik has, to say the least, made his own feelings known.
A somewhat surprising contribution to this debate was recently made by the French philosopher Alan Finkielkraut. Speaking in late June, Finkielkraut vigorously condemned multiculturalism and, specifically, the idea of “métissage”—a term with a not entirely translatable range of meanings, including “miscegenation,” “cross-breeding,” and “cultural cross-fertilization.” On the face of it, a French philosopher condemning multiculturalism should be nothing to lose sleep over: after all, French thinkers have, since the Enlightenment, defended a conception of the nation founded on universalism—the idea that each citizen should access the polity in the same way. If everyone is born and remains equal in rights, the reasoning goes, why should special protections and privileges be granted to particular communities? But Finkielkraut’s tirade suggests that the language of universalism (and of republicanism, to which it is closely linked) is increasingly indistinguishable from conception of French identity that is considerably more intolerant, ethnic, and “particularistic.”
Finkielkraut delivered his remarks at a conference held in Warsaw (sponsored by Centre de civilisation française, the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation, and the French Chamber of Commerce) on the theme “Who’s Afraid of Multiculturalism?” To this question, Finkielkraut implicitly replied: “me!” He began by declaring that French identity is currently facing a life-threatening crisis. “France,” he observed, “is less and less able to lay claim to its identity.” The problem? “France, like the rest of Western Europe, is confronted with an immense problem, that of immigration. It is a quantitative problem—immigration is becoming more and more massive—and it is a ‘civilizational’ problem, as today’s immigrants (or at least some of them) are not expected, contrary to those of yesterday, to respect the norms, the rules, the values, the traditions, and the ideals of the society that receives them.”
But the nation’s identity is threatened by more than the presence of foreign immigrants on French soil. The real culprit, Finkielkraut argues, is the ideology that is invoked to address this predicament. France and “French elites” have “reacted to this situation in a strange way: by defending—pathetically—métissage.” In other words, “values, ways of being, and styles will in a sense be mixed, and through this mixing, a civilization will be born. Métissage will become the key to, the ultimate horizon of communal existence [vivre ensemble].”
Worse still, some contend that France is not only a mixed society at present, but that it has been one since its very beginnings. “It is explained to us,” Finkielkraut observes, “that France has always been a mixed [métissé] country. That métissage is inherent to France, to Europe, and to Western culture in general. That France consists not of a people, but that it has always consisted of a conglomeration of people.” Yet, he insists: “historically, this is meaningless.” Why, then, is this ideology promoted? It is a way for France “to devalue itself.” “At a moment when its identity is falling apart, perhaps because of the blows of new technology …, the elites contribute to this phenomenon, worsening and accelerating it, by dissolving all that is left of this identity into this strange, omnipresent, and mendacious concept of ‘métissage.’” As such, the multicultural ideal of a mixed population “makes France far less attractive than it once was.”
The interest in these remarks is that Finkielkraut is precisely not a right-wing, nationalist thinker. He was born in 1949 to a Jewish family that fled anti-Semitism in interwar Poland for the relative tolerance of Hexagon. During the Occupation, his father was deported to Auschwitz—and survived. Finkielkraut is, in short, one of those immigrants of “yesterday,” who, in his view, adopted French values and assimilated into French society. As a baby-boomer, he later partook in the free-spirited and politically radical culture of the sixties and seventies (he was briefly a Maoist), before establishing himself as a critic of his generation’s permissive ethos. He has always been a staunch defender of French culture and a relentless opponent of anti-Semitism (his critique of Holocaust deniers, L’Avenir d’une negation, is one of the best on the subject). Tellingly, his philosophical hero is Emmanuel Levinas, the Franco-Lithuanian philosopher who located the ontological basis for ethics in our recognition that other people really are other people—a moment that, for Levinas, occurs in our first encounter with a human face. These ideas inform Finkielkraut’s position that there is something morally, even existentially wrong with any experience or habit of thought that dissolves the miracle of otherness into tepid abstractions. Yet this philosophical defense of identity is one that, like Levinas himself, Finkielkraut has typically made in humane and inclusive terms.
The ultimate problem with Finkielkraut’s arguments is that they have become increasingly difficult to differentiate from those made, say, by the National Front. He is clearly not defending an ethnic or racial conception of France citizenship. His idea of France is grounded in the acquisition of a shared culture and traditions. His gripe against multiculturalism is that it is a cop-out—it doesn’t try hard enough to establish a common culture, to build what American sociologists somewhat more prosaically call “social capital.” Yet Finkielkraut is advancing this position at exactly the moment when the National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, are couching their views in very similar terms. They are trying to jettison their association with racism, presenting themselves as the true heirs to the republican traditions of integration, secularism, and the nation “one and indivisible.” For the FN, however, this rhetoric is clearly little more than a convenient fig leaf, covering up a far more pernicious and intolerant take on French identity (and for all its limitations, I’ll take republicanism over FN-style nationalism any day). An odd convergence is occurring between republican intellectuals like Finkielkraut and xenophobes like Le Pen: in the name of republicanism, the former is sounding increasingly intolerant, while the latter is concealing its intolerance beneath the relatively uncontroversial discourse of republicanism. If a republican conception of French identity is still be defended (a position that may be more and more untenable), it needs to be made perfectly clear how it is different—intellectually and practically—from so intolerant an agenda.