In 1983, in the face of rising anti-immigrant violence and Islamophobia— as well as the first electoral breakthrough of the National Front—Christian Delorme, a French priest from Lyon, decided to rally a movement against racism. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights marches, he organized the “March for Equality and against Racism.” It was the first anti-racist protest of its kind in France. Starting with only a few dozen people in Marseille, Delorme crossed the country on foot with people gathering to support him along the way. By the time they arrived in Paris fifty days later, nearly one hundred thousand people marched in solidarity. President François Mitterrand personally received them and promised minimal reforms, few of which he delivered on. In the years that followed, the French right ignored the problem. The French left paid lip service to the spirit of the movement, but did nothing substantial to nourish and encourage change on the ground, and by some accounts misused and misdirected anti-racism activists for corrupt ends.
Meanwhile the situation in the streets worsened. In 2005, after yet another lethal interaction between police and youths, the ghettoes exploded and several weeks of rioting forced the last major declaration of a state of emergency. Nicolas Sarkozy, at the time a young and ambitious Minister of the Interior, called the rioters “scum,” praised the police and vowed to “hose out” the banlieue. Two years later, Sarkozy mobilized the fear and anger stoked by those riots to appeal to voters on the extreme right to back him as a law-and-order candidate for the 2007 elections. It was a successful strategy, which allowed him to consolidate a right-wing coalition and win the presidency. Once in office, however, he returned to the passive and indifferent attitude of neglect that characterized his predecessors. Thus several decades of profound social crisis, with no shortage of hand-wringing in the media, has resulted in little more than cynical electioneering. The civil rights movement that France desperately needs has yet to be born.
III. THE OPIUM OF THE INTELLECTUALS
One of the best-selling books last year in France was a bitter treatise by the journalist and cultural critic Éric Zemmour called Le Suicide français (The French Suicide). Zemmour has made a name for himself in recent years by attacking and, in his view, exposing what he sees as the dangerous influence of post-1968 France, the generational cohort colloquially referred to as the soixante-huitards, who came of age in the heady days of revolutionary May, overthrew Charles de Gaulle and have dominated the politics and culture of the Fifth Republic.
Zemmour opens predictably enough with a lamentation for de Gaulle, the last great patriarch of France in a line stretching back to Napoleon Bonaparte. This tragically sincere eulogy concludes on a timely note: “Soon, the most turbulent and most iconoclastic children [of ’68] would come to spit on his grave: ‘Tragic ball in Colombey, 1 dead’ sarcastically sneered the cover of Charlie Hebdo.” Zemmour is referring to a famous Charlie Hebdo cover that mocked de Gaulle’s death in 1970. It’s one of the great Charlie covers, a slaughtering of France’s most sacred cow. It represents all of the magazine’s founding traits: an anarchist’s radical disdain for authority, for tradition, for any and all hints of militarism, a willfully pubescent sense of humor that loves to stick a finger, or more likely a cock, in the eye of the headmaster.
In Zemmour’s account, the crisis of values and identity facing France originated with the accursed soixante-huitards, who introduced a relativism that spawned two major threats: the feminization of society (and its associated “gay ideology”), and the Islamic culture of France’s North African immigrants. These are mutually reinforcing; a weak, “feminized” people is less likely to be able to stand up to the aggressive Muslim population swelling in its midst. This creeping process, he believes, originated in French Deconstructionism, was incubated and radicalized in American universities (where it spawned gender studies) and is now being foisted upon an unwitting French society by a conspiracy of multiculturalist transatlantic liberals who, refusing to see the dangerous errors of their ways, are willingly destroying traditional France—committing the titular suicide.
To say that Zemmour is a crude thinker would be an understatement. He is also a highly polished speaker, perfectly groomed for French television, where he fits in alongside Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy as mainstays who have made a name for themselves by attacking “multiculturalism.” Like their American analogues, these writers insistently paint themselves as marginalized and speaking courageously in the face of the liberal leftist indoctrination of the country. This despite Zemmour’s best-selling status, not to mention that of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, Finkielkraut’s election to the Académie Française, the massive and at times violent demonstrations against gay marriage in 2013 and the persistent inroads of the extreme-right in elections.
There is in fact a terrible need for intellectuals to challenge the dominant assumptions and calcified binaries that are poisoning the possibilities of change—of opening France to the future. But in doubling down uncritically on a republican universalism that axiomatically asserts neutrality while protecting a great deal of condescending and paternalistic racism, Zemmour and Finkielkraut encourage the French state to pursue a policy that suits their preconceptions but is empirically failing. The result is wish-fulfillment politics, some notion that a return to the baguette-and-beret postcard of France—one that has never existed outside of posters for Pétain’s Vichy and Le Pen’s National Front—will somehow become possible.
This moldering climate, abetted by an aloof, nepotistic and irresponsible political class on both sides of the political spectrum, has been crippling France for decades. Irrespective of outcomes in Syria, or new terrorist attacks, France will require a civil rights movement, a sustained social movement to involve and empower deeply marginalized communities so that they are equal stakeholders in the nation’s future. As it is, the stubborn evasion of reality in the pages of Zemmour, and the governing class’s complacent reassertions of a Frenchness that has little connection to any social reality, is the suicidal tendency that worries me most.
IV. FLUCTUAT NEC MERGITUR
The cartoonist Cabu, one of the founding members of Charlie Hebdo, began publishing his drawings in his high-school paper in the small Alsatian town of Châlons-sur-Marne. He came to Paris in 1954 to work at commercial drawing for a small studio. He fell in love with American jazz, which would remain a lifelong passion, and became an avid chronicler of the scene for local reviews and journals. His career was interrupted in 1958 when he was drafted into the army and sent to Algeria, where France was struggling to put down the anti-colonial independence movement. He was enlisted in the 9th Zouaves, a branch of a military unit famous for its role in the original conquest of Algeria in 1830. That conquest: Who remembers now how it came about? Who now recalls that France owed the Dey of Algiers money, refused to pay her debt, and then invented the flimsiest pretext (a slap in the face of the French consul) to invade, overthrow and colonize their creditor? The war against the FLN in Algeria disgusted Cabu, as it rightly did so much of his generation. He left the army in 1960 a confirmed anarchist.
Cabu’s most famous and lasting caricature is a figure known as the “beauf.” This is short for beau-frère, brother-in-law. Cabu thought this was a particularly French type, annoying the way only your brother-in-law can be annoying; a provincial jerk who assumes he knows everything because he’s heard a little about everything; who has all the right opinions at the right time, because all his opinions are the latest conventional wisdom. It’s a pointed self-examination of the French temperament, and that’s what makes it funny. The word has since passed into the language. The beauf, Cabu liked to say, is a part of us all: it’s the person we love to hate, but the one we hate because we know him so well.
The response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was an impressive outpouring of solidarity and grief for personalities who had been familiar faces in French life for at least thirty years. But the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag and the dogmatic demand to adhere to it, reminiscent of the Bushism “You’re either with us or against us,” also exemplified much of what is wrong with the discourse on identity and race in France. Wasn’t it clear that the demand for identification risked alienating precisely the swaths of the population that need to be brought into the fold? Besides, nothing could be more absurd than sententious displays of solidarity with one of the most virulent anti-establishment rags ever printed. Let’s not get it twisted: over the years Charlie Hebdo has most definitely printed racist cartoons; almost no issue of Charlie isn’t profoundly sexist or misogynistic. They also printed material that was codedly anti-Semitic, and their anti-clerical offensiveness is legendary. The cartoons of the Prophet were in particularly bad taste, but for the Charlie crew pretty much run-of-the-mill. Not all humor is equal; when it is deployed without intelligence it opens itself to questions of judgment and intent that one should have to answer for. But not in blood. Bad humor is a crime against comedy. No humor is a crime against humanity. One thing that always gives away the fascists: that degree-zero sense of humor they carry around like a nightstick.
In the dead gray of January I went for a walk in the neighborhood where the November attacks took place. I started in the little streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I walked up the rue de la Forge Royale and turned onto the rue de Charonne. Even from the distance of a block or two you could make out the shoal of flowers and cards in front of La Belle Equipe. It means the “Beautiful Team.” The night of November 13th, Hodda Saadi brought together her group of friends for drinks on the terrace. She was celebrating her 35th birthday. Her friends were her coworkers—bartenders, waiters and waitresses from the nearby Café des Anges. Hodda’s sister Halima, who had recently moved to Dakar with her husband to start a life there, was also on hand to celebrate. Then the black car rolled up and the Kalashnikovs started firing. The whole group of ten friends were murdered together. Khaled Saadi, their younger brother who was working inside, emerged to discover both of his sisters dead on the sidewalk. The owner of La Belle Equipe, Grégory Reibenberg, survived. He lost his wife Djamila. Their daughter will grow up with her Jewish father; she was robbed of her Muslim mother.
I made my way up to Place Voltaire, where the Mairie stands. Weddings in the 11th Arrondissement were canceled for months because of the need for funerals. From the square I pursued the boulevard up to the Bataclan just past the intersection with Richard Lenoir. Shuttered and still surrounded with police barricades strewn with flowers, I was surprised to find myself thinking about how small the venue looked. I suppose when I was younger it loomed larger in my mind because of its status as a mecca of cool. Now it looked vulnerable, banal, crestfallen. We are always told that life must go on as before, that the terrorists can’t be allowed to make the party stop. But how do you do that? How do you put the site of a mass murder on mute so you can have a nice night out?
I remembered how nearly one year earlier I had walked in the procession, the so-called “Republican Marches” after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Place de la République was a sea of people seething with tension and mixed emotions. I was surprised by how many parents brought their children, carrying them on their shoulders. The scale is hard to convey. One and a half million people turned out in Paris alone, and closer to four million across France. I had a “Charlie” sticker on my winter jacket, and I carried a rose for socialism and fraternité and a blue Bic pen as a symbol of freedom of expression and solidarity with writers. A French news reporter interviewed me in English. “Why are you here today?” he asked. I told him that I believed the importance of the crowd was in the young people. I said we were determined to make a different future. I said it was important for people to come together unafraid, and to know that we are free.