“Vivre ensemble.” And Now What?

1. Violence that kills? Since the end of the cold war, they want us to interiorize the idea that we are no longer in class conflict, but are in a war of civilizations. Now, in this “war against terrorism”, the original metaphor evolves simply into “war”, everywhere and forever, where the conflict between nations gives place to civil, religious, and ethnic war. Fear becomes a way of life, martial law the norm, and to retreat into oneself becomes a temptation. The result is an endless mix of violence and counter-violence.

2. War of civilizations on the one hand, inflation of “identity” on the other. In a world where polarity is the rule and sharing is deemed incongruous, the individual has no future unless he wraps himself in a protective identity, in a “community” within which he feels “at home”, where “the others” won’t come muddy-up their garden. In a society where competition is mated with distrust, there is no choice for communities but to slam their doors shut and affront one another. All finished, the solidarities of yesterday. From now on the immigrant and colored people of the near-urban areas are set against the “native” and white ex-urbanite populations, as the geographer Guilluy suggests. Closeting into such separated communities is an open wound to society.

3. But if this closeting is a dead-end, the non-recognition of specificities is a slippery slope. When the constitutive inequality of class societies functions in such a way as to discriminate massively against “minorities”, a poorly understood universalism too often appears as a denial of dignity. A republican France is not a France of uniformity, but of equality, an equality not of similar but of different citizens. One cannot, as in the old days, ask individuals to forget who they are when they enter the public space. Any unaccepted, and thus discriminated, specificity opens into a difference that isolates, that opposes, and that thus closes the path to commonality.

4. The war between communities, in the end, thrives on the retraction of the public sphere. When the private and merchant norm dominates all, when the public expense budget becomes something that must be reduced, competition rages between those who wish to benefit from these resources. If the “welfare state” is without means, there is no choice but to take from some in order to give to others. Less for the newly-arrived, more for the “natives”. When public services shrink, solidarity and fraternity weaken. Then selective and discriminatory coherence will be the choice of the Front National.

In the face of the violence of our world, the solution is not in the defense of identity, but in the conquest of equality, coupled with liberty and maintained through solidarity. “We don’t feel at home any more”, we often hear. I don’t say that this sentence leads straight to the Front National. But it opens the road. If we don’t want to take that road, let’s oppose it with another sentence, “Let us together construct this home of ours, let’s make a home for all, in equality and dignity”.
The cornerstone of tolerance lies neither in a uniformity that eradicates distinctions nor in differences that divide and splinter. Let’s make commonality our horizon.

Finkielkraut, Zemmour, Houellebecq … The Politics of Tension

Identity rather than equality, indigenous against alien, obsession concerning decline, a cult of resentment, fantasies of an internal war to fight: what counterrevolution is at work today? And how to oppose it?

The year 2014 has marked not only the centenary of the Great War. For some, it has been the announcement of the coming war. Last December, the writer Jean Rolin publishes a novel, Les Évenements (The Events, POL) where he evokes a France ravaged by a civil war, “as in Bosnia”, where “tricolor” (extreme right) militias oppose Islamist groups, some more or less “moderate”, some “radical”. With the irony of editorial logic, January 2015 sees the publication by Flammarion of Michel Houellebecq’s most recent work, Soumission (Submission). Is he unwittingly following in Rolin’s footsteps? The provocative novelist does not hesitate to project himself into the world of 2022: the leader of a Moslem party, Mohammed Ben Abbes, graduate of the École Polytechnique and, as might be expected, of the École normale de l’administration, beats Marine Le Pen in the presidential election.

Rolin’s novel describes, without taking sides, a civil war on religious grounds as only one possibility suggested by the spirit of the times. Houellebecq chooses his camp. He does not merely register the spirit of the times. He makes it palatable. Or rather, he fleshes out an idea. For some time now, in the sphere of ideas, a deadly trilogy has been promoted to the foreground: decline, identity, and civil war. From this point of view, 2014 will be remembered as a garden party.

Alain Finkielkraut, that future member of the Academy, sets the tone in October 2013, publishing chez Stock his book l’Identité malheureuse (The Disconsolate Identity). He cites Maurice Barrès: “The individual reaches down to find himself in the family, in his race, in the nation”, and evokes with complaisance the sulphurous Renaud Camus. He doesn’t hold to the same terminology? OK. But for the philosopher, as for the exteme-right essayist, France becomes an Auberge espagnole (Spanish Hostel) [1]. The veil worn by women in Moslem countries is not a problem in itself: they are in their own country, and we know they are not in ours. But when the veil is worn in France “we don’t feel at home any more, and the same wisdom refuses to let the wearing of the niqab or burqa (…) transform our own customs into a free option.” Chez nous, chez eux, “Them” and “Us”.

Foreigners and Natives

Several months later, in January 2014, the spokesman for neo-liberalism, Nicolas Baverez, published chez Perrin his tenth-anniversary denunciation of decline in France: in 2004 he already published his La France qui tombe (The France that is Falling). His Lettres béninoises (Letters from Benin, Albin Michel), on the model of the Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, by Montesquieu) describes a France on the edge of bankruptcy in 2040. Too much state, too many rules: we know the refrain. Let’s add: too many social expenses, too much welfare state. But watch: at the same moment there springs up the analysis formulated in 2001 by three American researchers in the United States: Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote. “Racial fragmentation is the best predictive factor of social expenses. If redistribution of wealth is less intense in the USA than in France, it is the “majority” population that makes the choice of refusing redistribution that benefits “minorities”. It is not the “crisis”, the decline of industries, the unequal balance between capital and labor, nor the spread of extreme poverty wherein lies the problem, but “racial fragmentation”. Translate this into French and you get “The roots of this evil are in immigration”. “We can’t take in all the misery of the world”, declared in 1989 a leftist prime minister who had flirted with the Trots. “The National Front raises the relevant issues”, another leftist leader had declared before him. But the time for questioning is unfortunately over: their answers have become mainstream thought.

The proof? In September 2014, the geographer Christophe Guilluy publishes France péripherique (ex-urban France) [2], where he explains that the logic of global capitalism polarizes assets, knowledge and power, and adds that the polarity manifests itself at all levels without exception, in the metropolis as in its periphery. In these two cases Guilly would have been right, except that his argument is too rough: he says there are only “two” parts of France, metropolitan and ex-urban. But since the suburbs are part of metropolitan France, he argues that the government’s big mistake was to pamper the poor ethnic neighborhoods — territories with heavy immigrant population. To whose detriment? “Evidently” to the detriment of the “native” French population in the ex-urban zones. He denounces the principle of putting “foreigners” before “natives”.
Last December, Eric Zemmour had only to hammer home the point by publishing Le Suicide français (The French Suicide, Albin Michel publ.) As Renaud Camus has been saying since 2010, immigration has imposed a “great turn-over”, to which “we must put a stop, by all appropriate measures”. Zemmour lays it on thickly. There is now “a people within the people”, he warns, namely those “millions of Moslems”. The problem, the polemicist adds, is that the dominant French elite are “those nice bobos [3]”, whom Alain Finkielkraut also savagely denounces. They are the ones who have imposed their triptych “Derision, Deconstruction, Destruction”. So it is this group that has eroded the French identity and has precipitated the decline of the old nation, which has renounced its sovereignty in all domains without exception: economic, social, cultural, and even in the family.
Zemmour, as excellent mediator
It remained only to fasten the snap by using literature. Houellebecq had his ink-pot ready. Laicity is dead, he laments. Is it thus the victory of “religion”? Or rather not the victory of religion, but that of “one” religion, Islam. To the journalist Sylvain Bourmeau who interviews Zemmour for the literary magazine Paris Review, the novelist explains that his “satire” merely condenses “an evolution that is incomprehensible to me”. ‘”When you talk about terrible things, they end up happening”, complains the superb Michel Simon in Drôle de drame (“A Funny Event”) in 1937. Houellebecq goes to the limits of his great anxiety. In 2022, “We are no longer in our own home.” The great fantasm becomes real. The “minorities” of yesterday have become the majority, because the “majority” of yesterday, the people, the true people, the aboriginals, never saw it coming.

Baverez, Finkielkraut, Guilluy, Zemmour, Renaud Camus … They all reference one another willingly, separately or jointly, prudently or with enthusiasm. They congratulate one another, and make additions to one another’s work. Finkielkraut was one of the first to take up the criticism of “the spirit of ’68”; he forges a link between radical neo-conservatism, the counter-revolutionary intellectuals of the 18th century (Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre), and the nationalism of the 19th century (Maurice Barrès). Guilluy cites Finkielkraut, and is cited by Zemmour. He gives a “left-wing” version of the opposition between “foreigners” and “natives”, and does not hide his admiration for Marine Le Pen. Zemmour is a top notch mediator; he makes a synthesis of Baverez, Finkielkraut, and de Guilluy, and puts them on the road toward Renaud Camus’ “great turn-over”. A journalist for the Canard Enchaîné wrote that “Zemmour is the Finkielkraut of the poor”. As if perhaps the said Finkielkraut were not himself the Zemmour of the rich… .

And all this beautiful intellectual world leads straight to the Front National [4]. The latter takes it all in quite calmly, delighted that immigration is provided this place at front stage. It nourishes the idea that the left and the right have no frontiers, and that, after all, their party is the most coherent group for taking action to protect what is a “common good”, to defend the “little” people, the fear of not feeling oneself at home in one’s own neighborhood, to respect the working people, to express hatred of “cosmopolitism” and of the bourgeois elements who are its “vector”, to protect national sovereignty … . The Front can cite everyone, and even mark its own special differences from time to time, All this to such a degree that the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen ends up appearing “moderate”, when compared with the outrageous utterances of an Eric Zemmour or a Renaud Camus … .

War, as social paradigm

We can no longer hide the fact that there is, among all these authors, a deleterious connecting thread, and, more dangerous still, an intellectual logic in the face of which no complaisance is possible. The foundation of this conservative revolution is double. On the one hand, one observes that public redistribution of wealth has lost its vigor. We put the blame on globalization, but we interiorize its norms. If we take for a fact the assumption that available riches have declined, there seems no option but to target the beneficiaries: better to help the “nearby” than the “far away”, the “family” rather than the “visitors”, the “French” rather than the “foreigners”, the “natives” rather than the “others”.

From another point of view, we have completely interiorised the idea, the Cold War being over and the labour movement being on the decline, that the traditional class conflict has given way to a conflict of values. It is no longer equality that is central, but identity. It is no longer inequality of resources, of class, political clout or influence that is the motor of history, but the “conflict of civilisations”, to which Samuel Huntington offered us the key in 1996. Quite a fellow, that guy. In 1975 he was the author, with Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki, of the famous report to the Trilateral Commission entitled “The Crisis of Democracy”, centered on the idea that the limits of democratic government should push us toward “governance”. After 1996, his book “The Clash of Civilizations” was translated into 39 languages. Finally, in 2004, he publishes in New York a volume entitled “Who Are WE? The Challenges of National Identity in America”. Governance, shock of civilizations, and identity: the bases of the modern counter-revolution are concentrated in these three themes.

All three themes carry the germ of the idea of the decline of the West, the feeling of being faced with the loss of “the world as we have known it”, and an attraction/repulsion for violence and war. War, omnipresent and diffuse, that becomes the paradigm of the social climate. Civil war, foreign wars: the frontiers between these two become imperceptible. War is made less and less between states, more and more within states, thus completing the slow evolution toward the situation where war is waged by the police, where national defense mixes with internal order, a war against the poor, a war against Islam. But if war dominates, then law gives place to force, and law is suspended when necessary, that is, almost always. If the enemy is everywhere, if terrorism by a handful of infiltrators is the principal danger, martial law becomes a permanent condition, and Guantanamo is a metaphor for implacable justice. To avoid war, there is no other option but to eliminate one of the opposing “camps”. Turning off the tap of immigration, or even initiating the “Great return voyage” as sequel to the “Great turn-over”, aren’t these the most realistic methods? “Re-migration or war”, proclaims Soral, the armed dove of modern times.

Impose Another Logic

There is no time left for quibbling. Edwy Plenel, recently, brilliantly pin-pointed the duo Zemmour-Solal by denouncing their “murderous ideology”. He had every reason to do so. To their revolting chain of pronouncements, it suffices to oppose another logic, as clear as that which one refuses.

1. The world is going badly, not because of a war of civilisations, but because globalization has universally imposed the polarizing norms of competition and governance. The people are doing poorly, not because the “True people”, the “natives” have been abandoned, but because Capital has won its arm-wrestling with Labor, because speculative finance has seized control, because redistribution of wealth has dried up, because public regulation has been removed, because the Law has surrendered to contract [5]. It is not France that is in decline, but that public spirit is at half mast, that solidarity is vacillating and Democracy is out of breath.

2. If this indistinct war becomes our horizon, it is because frustration and despair have become the common lot of the majority of people. This is not the expression of a sombre face of humanity (Man is a wolf to his fellow man) but a construction resulting from the loss of social fabric. And this loss itself is only the perverse fruit of a neo-liberal deregulation that has become the cornerstone, not of all globality [6], of all shared human existence, but of the financial globalisation that organises our era.

3. The “people” in the sociological sense is dispersed by the force of public and private politics followed obstinately over a period of more than 30 years. It is absurd to add to this division by opposing the poorer with the less poor, the stable with the precarious, the “suburbs” with the “periphery”, the immigrant with the native. The dignity of all and the recognition of each are indissociable. To be a political actor, the people must join together, not disperse even more. This cannot be done without a shared project that assures common dignity and liberty, emancipation and rights, guaranteed by public authority.

4. The ferment of resentment and fear is the strong polarity that tears territories apart at all levels, be they local or global. There is nothing fatal about this, it is systemic. And there is no system that cannot be overcome, from the moment a common will is forged whose aim is to overcome it.

5. If this is true, it is not identity that should be taken as the dominant paradigm, but equality coupled with liberty. If there is a problem, it is not that identities are being lost, but that inequalities are deepening. Our ambition, in these circumstances, should not be to retrieve our identity, but at last to assure equality.

6. The struggle for equality continues (it is the sole foundation for a dynamic Left). It does not reproduce itself in identical modes. The equality of today is not that of yesterday, not that of the “republican ideology” (that of the Third Republic), or what it has been for the “collectivists”. The response to inequality is not uniformity; the antithesis of neo-liberalism is not an all-powerful State. Equality and sharing should be pivots for any democratic vision of the future of humanity.

Read also: Éric Fassin: Les “briseurs de tabous” sont les intellectuels organiques du néolibéralisme, (Taboo-breakers are the Organic Intellectuals of the New Liberalism) in the review Regards

[1] The meaning of this phrase, popularized as a movie title, is a place– here a country – open to all sorts of guests and where guests bring anything – or cook anything? – that suits their tastes. Originally, the phrase referred to the supposedly poor offer of food available in Spanish posadas.

[2] Read “La gauche dans le piège de Guilluy”

[3] The term bobo, contraction of “bourgeois-bohemian”, is an expression denoting people who are relatively “well-off”, and with left-wing values. Starting with this general definitiion, other attributes can be implied: urban, ecologist, idealist, hypocrite, etc. The term, taken up in France, first appeared in the year 2000 in the book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by the U.S. writer David Brooks, who saw this intellectual class as a positive hybrid of the sixties’ counter-culture with bohemian values.

[4] The party of the extreme right in French politics.

[5] The idea, developed elsewhere by Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the presidential campaign of 2012, that only the Law (voted by parliament) assures the same rights for all, regardless of local balances of force, such as between labor and capital, whereas locally only “contracts” can be negotiated, which lack the universal force of law. If workers can no longer count on the law to define generally applicable norms, they are left exposed to the force of their adversaries, such as their employers. The idea is thus to make good protective laws applicable to everyone, everywhere.

[6] This term “globality” is a recent neologism, introduced by the poet Édouard Glissant, in Martinique, which does not refer to the world of globalisation, but to the global dimension of aspirations and ambitions that may be formulated by the people to join together to escape their misery.