Alain Finkielkraut, 56, is a brilliant French philosopher and influential conservative public intellectual who has been a constant presence on the French intellectual scene since the publication of La Défaite de la pensée in 1987.  --  He is familiar to French television viewers as a scourge of the vulgarity of contemporary culture and of "communitarianism," and, as this interview shows, as a defender of the values of the French Republic.  --  The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he is graduate of the élite École normale supérieure, he now teaches general culture at equally élite École polytechnique.  --  Marked by the thought of Hannah Arendt and fearful -- indeed, "terrified," as he says in this interview -- of irrational forces latent in society, Finkielkraut presents the paradoxical spectacle of an intellectual who, in the name of reason, prefers "the feeling of the unjustifiable" to "the search for causes."  --  Finkielkraut, like Leo Strauss, is a philosopher who doubts the power of reason and seeks to cultivate social bulwarks against unreason.  --  In the riots of the banlieues that have swept France during the past three weeks, Finkielkraut sees, inevitably, yet another manifestation of these forces of unreason.  --  Finkielkraut's views will certainly influence how the French right responds to the present social crisis....

[Translated from Le Figaro (Paris)]

Debates & Opinions

Interviewed by Alexis Lacroix

** Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (1) sizes up the riots in the banlieues. **

Le Figaro (Paris)
November 15, 2005

LE FIGARO. -- What political and intellectual lessons do you draw from the riots?

Alain FINKIELKRAUT. -- I am terrified by this violence. Terrified, but not astonished. There were warning signs: the Marseillaise booed at a France-Algeria soccer game, assaults on high school students at a demonstration against the Fillon reforms. [NOTE: François Fillon was minister of education from March 2004 to May 2005; in the spring of 2005 his reform proposals led to widespread demonstrations in which many high schools were occupied by students, as a result of which his reforms concerning the annual national baccalaureate exam that marks the endpoint of secondary education in France were abandoned. -- Fillon is now a political supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy. --M.K.J.] There were also books sounding the alarm like the one by Emmanuel Brenner, Les Territoires perdus de la République [Mille et une nuits, 2004; 'The Lost Territories of the Republic'], or the June 2004 report by the ministry of national education on the signs and demonstrations of religious affiliation in some school establishments in difficult neighborhoods. There we learned, notably, that the teaching of history was accused by some pupils and those who are influencing them of giving a deformed, partisan, Judeo-Christian view of the world. Examples abound, from the refusal to study the building of the cathedrals or to listen to talk of the existence of pre-Islamic religions, to the inevitable turbulence provoked by discussion of the Algerian war or the Middle East.

Some have gone so far as to speak of a "civil war." What do you think of that?

There is no war today between native-born French and others, nor even between the France of the cities and that of the banlieues. The first targets of those who were violent were their neighbors. And those neighbors are the ones who are demanding that the public order of the Republic be restored. Sympathy for the vandals is much more widespread among Green sympathizers [les bobos écolos] who bike in Paris than among the poor 9-3 drivers.

Where there other warning signs of the riots?

Here's a charming rap couplet: "La France est une garce, n'oublie pas de la baiser jusqu'à l'épuiser comme une salope, il faut la traiter, mec ! Moi, je pisse sur Napoléon et le général de Gaulle." ['France is a slut, don't forget to fuck her till she drops like a bitch, you gotta deal with her, guy! Me, I piss on Napoleon and General de Gaulle.']

But do the excesses of the musical subculture really have a causal link with the acts of violence?

If those who set fire to public services, throw pétanque balls from building towers on police, or assault firefighters had the same skin color as the Rostock rioters in the reunified Germany of the 1990s, moral indignation would prevail everywhere.

Come on, moral indignation is prevailing in some places!

No, what is prevailing is understanding, dissolution of the feeling of the unjustifiable in favor of the search for causes. In the Rostock hypothesis, politicians, intellectuals, journalists, officials of associations, social science researchers -- they'd all be shouting with a single voice: "Fascism is not acceptable!" But as these ball- and Molotov cocktail-throwers are French of African or North African descent, explanation stifles indignation or turns it against the government and the nation's lack of hospitality.

Instead of being outraged by the scandal of schools being burned, people pontificate about the despair of the arsonists. Istead of listening to what they're saying -- "Fuck your mother!", "Fuck the police!", "Fuck the State!" -- we listen to them, that is, we convert their appeals to hatred as appeals for help and their vandalization of school buildings as demands for education. To this interpretation, which is all just for show, we urgently need to oppose a literal reading of events.

That breaks with the culture of excuses?

The violent ones are not demanding more schools, more day-care centers, more gymnasiums, more buses: they're burning them. And so they have it in for institutions, and all forms of mediation, all detours, all postponements that stand between them and the objects of their desire. Children of an age of remote control, they want everything immediately. And that everything, it's cash, brand names, and women. The final paradox: the enemies of our world are also its ultimate caricature. And what we need to reestablish is another system of values, another relation to time. But that capacity is not within the power of politicians.

Has political communication abdicated in the face of the "videosphere" ? [NOTE: This term is current in French intellectual circles and was introduced as part of the lexicon of media studies (la médiologie), a field that developed in the 1980s and whose key text in French is Régis Debray's Cours de médiologie générale, which described itself as the continuation of a line of thought already developed by pioneers like Victor Hugo ("Ceci tuera cela"), Walter Benjamin, Paul Valéry, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, André Leroi-Gourhan, Gilbert Simondon, etc. --M.K.J.]

The abysmal vulgarity of talk shows, the brutality of videogames, the daily dumbing down and hilarious viciousness of the "Guignols de l'info" [A French TV news feature that represents public figures as puppets. --Trans. note.] -- all that is beyond the reach of politicians. And if they took a stand against it, editorialists would at once denounce it is as a totalitarian infringement on freedom of expression. The minister of the interior [Nicolas Sarkozy] perhaps -- but is he alone? -- has a tendancy to make his acts too spectacular. And the term racaille ['Scum' -- for more on this term, use of which by Interior Minister Sarkozy on Oct. 25 played a role in setting off the riots, see here. --Trans. note.] should not be part of the vocabulary of a political official. But words fail before people who, feeling calumniated or humiliated by this epithet, react by burning schools.

But they are suffering from record unemployment rates!

In these times, when humanism's passion is no longer the school but the arsonists, no one seems to remember that we go to school not to be hired but to be taught. The first objective of instruction is instruction. Which, besides, is always good for something. Just as the Republic has to take back its "lost territories," so does the French language have to reconquer banlieue speech, that simplistic, vicious pidgin pathetically hostile to beauty and nuance. That's not a sufficient condition for obtaining a job, but it's a necessary condition.

But they're not inventing the existence of discrimination!

In this affair, we obviously have to avoid stigmatizing a population. Born Polish in France, I myself am a second-generation immigrant, and I feel a resolute solidarity for all black and Arab pupils who, because they prefer diplomas to dealers, are victims of persecution and extortion and are insulted as "clowns." They have to be helped; discrimination in hiring has to be constantly fought against; we have to work tirelessly for equality of opportunity, we have to look for excellence in the housing projects, destroy these big complexes, end the banlieues as enclaves. For all that, it would be naive to imagine that these measures will put an end to vandalism.

How can you be sure?

The present violence is not a reaction to the injustice of the Republic, but rather a gigantic pogrom against the Republic.

So this violence, according to you, is not a reply to the abandonment of the "lost territories"?

< If these territories were left to abandonment, there would be no buses, no day-care centers, no schools, no gymnasiums to burn. And what is really unbearable it to see the authors of these exploits given the glorious title of "natives ['indigènes'] of the Republic." Instead of that, we should have decreed the illegitimacy of hatred and shamed the fans who go to stadiums to fight and who make monkey cries every time a black player has the ball, even though those people are also social cases. Feeling ashamed is the beginning of morality. Victimization and heroization are an invitation to become a repeat offender.

Does the expiation of the crimes of colonialism lead to the burning of the banlieues?

No, of course not. But wanting to calm hatred by saying that France is in fact worthy of hatred and inscribing this self-disgust in what we teach is necessarily leading us to things that are even worse. These revolting revolts are pushing to a crisis the contemporary tendancy to make human beings primarily holders of rights rather than duties. And if schools themselves encourage them, everything is lost.

Is the French model of integration in crisis?

A lot of people are talking about the failure of the Republic's model of integration. That's absurd. The school of the Republic died a long time ago. It's the post-Republic model of super-sympathetic educative community immersed in social activism that's sinking. But alas, it's an indestructible model, since it feeds on its own fiascos. It reacts to every failure with intensification. And here we go again: through scorn for truth, tomorrow the French school will thus drown the diversity of the black slave trade in the ocean of anti-Western political correctness. We'll teach colonizaiton not as a terrible, ambiguous historical phenomenon, but as a crime against humanity. Thus we'll respond to the challenge of integration by hastening national disintegration.

(1) Last published work: Nous autres, Modernes (Ellipses, 2005).
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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