French Philosopher Finkielkraut
‘There Is a Clash of Civilizations’
Interview Conducted by Mathieu von Rohr and Romain Leick
French society is under threat, argues philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in a controversial new book. The conservative spoke to SPIEGEL about what he sees as the failure of multiculturalism and the need for better integration of Muslim immigrants.
Alain Finkielkraut is one of France’s most controversial essayists. His new book, “L’Identité Malheureuse” (“The Unhappy Identity,” Éditions Stock ), has been the subject of heated debate. It comes at a time when France finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis. But rather than framing things from a social or political perspective, Finkielkraut explores what he sees as a hostile confrontation between indigenous French people and immigrants. He was interviewed in his Parisian apartment on the Left Bank.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Finkielkraut, are you unhappy with today’s France?
Finkielkraut: I am pained to see that the French mode of European civilization is threatened. France is in the process of transforming into a post-national and multicultural society. It seems to me that this enormous transformation does not bring anything good.
SPIEGEL: Why is that? Post-national and multicultural sounds rather promising.
Finkielkraut: It is presented to us as the model for the future. But multiculturalism does not mean that cultures blend. Mistrust prevails, communitarianism is rampant — parallel societies are forming that continuously distance themselves from each other.
SPIEGEL: Aren’t you giving in here to the right-wingers’ fears of demise?
Finkielkraut: The lower middle classes — the French that one no longer dares to call Français de souche (ethnic French) — are already moving out of the Parisian suburbs and farther into the countryside. They have experienced that in some neighborhoods they are the minority in their own country. They are not afraid of the others, but rather of becoming the others themselves.
SPIEGEL: But France has always been a country of immigrants.
Finkielkraut: We are constantly told that immigration is a constitutive element of the French identity. But that’s not true. Labor migration began in the 19th century. It was not until after the bloodletting of World War I that the borders were largely opened.
SPIEGEL: Immigration has had more of a formative influence on France than on Germany.
Finkielkraut: Immigration used to go hand-in-hand with integration into French culture. That was the rule of the game. Many of the new arrivals no longer want to play by that rule. If the immigrants are in the majority in their neighborhoods, how can we integrate them? There used to be mixed marriages, which is crucial to miscegenation. But their numbers are declining. Many Muslims in Europe are re-Islamizing themselves. A woman who wears the veil effectively announces that a relationship with a non-Muslim is out of the question for her.
SPIEGEL: Aren’t many immigrants excluded from mainstream society primarily for economic reasons?
Finkielkraut: The left wanted to resolve the problem of immigration as a social issue, and proclaimed that the riots in the suburbs were a kind of class struggle. We were told that these youths were protesting against unemployment, inequality and the impossibility of social advancement. In reality we saw an eruption of hostility toward French society. Social inequality does not explain the anti-Semitism, nor the misogyny in the suburbs, nor the insult “filthy French.” The left does not want to accept that there is a clash of civilizations.
SPIEGEL: The anger of these young people is also stirred up by high unemployment. They are turning their backs on society because they feel excluded.
Finkielkraut: If unemployment is so high, then immigration has to be more effectively controlled. Apparently there is not enough work for everyone. But just ask the teachers in these troubled neighborhoods — they have major difficulties teaching anything at all. Compared to the rappers and the dealers, the teachers earn so ridiculously little that they are viewed with contempt. Why should the students make an effort to follow in their footsteps? There are a large number of young people who don’t want to learn anything about French culture. This refusal makes it harder for them to find work.
SPIEGEL: These neighborhoods that you speak of, have you even seen them firsthand?
Finkielkraut: I watch the news; I read books and studies. I have never relied on my intuition.
SPIEGEL: In the US the coexistence of communities works better. The Americans don’t have this European adherence to a national uniform culture.
Finkielkraut: The US sees itself as a country of immigration, and what is impressive about this truly multicultural society is the strength of its patriotism. This was particularly evident after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In France, however, the opposite could be seen after the attacks on French soldiers and Jewish children in Toulouse and Montauban last year: Some schoolchildren saw Mohamed Merah, the assailant, as a hero. Something like that would be unthinkable in the US. American society is a homeland for everyone. I don’t think that many children of immigrants here see it that way.
SPIEGEL: America makes it easy for new arrivals to feel like Americans. Does France place the hurdles too high?
Finkielkraut: France prohibits students from wearing headscarves at school. This is also for the benefit of all Muslims who don’t want a religious cage for themselves, for their daughters and wives. France is a civilization, and the question is what it means to participate in it. Does this mean the natives have to make themselves extremely small so the others can easily spread themselves out? Or does it mean passing on the culture that one possesses?
SPIEGEL: But this has worked for a long time. The Italians, Spaniards, Poles and European Jews had no difficulties becoming French patriots. Why is this no longer working?
Finkielkraut: Why is there today such aggression toward the West in the Islamic world? Some say that France was a colonial power, which is why those who were colonized could not be happy. But why has Europe been subjected to this massive immigration from former colonies over the past half a century? France still has to pay for the sins of colonialism and settle its debt to those who vilify it today.
SPIEGEL: You yourself are the child of immigrants, the progeny of a persecuted family. Does your personal will to integrate explain your radical commitment to the values of the Republic?
Finkielkraut: I defend these values because I probably owe more to my schooling than do the Français de souche, the hereditary French. French traditions and history were not laid in my cradle. Anyone who does not bring along this heritage can acquire it in l’école républicaine, the French school system. It has expanded my horizons and allowed me to immerse myself in French civilization.
SPIEGEL: And made you into its apologist?
Finkielkraut: I can speak and write more openly than others precisely because I am not a hereditary Frenchman. The natives easily allow themselves to be unnerved by the prevailing discourse. I don’t have such complexes.
SPIEGEL: How do you define this French civilization that you speak of?
Finkielkraut: I recently reread a book by the admirable Russian writer Isaac Babel. The story takes place in Paris. The narrator is in a hotel and at night he hears the lovemaking sounds of the couples next door. Babel writes: This has nothing to do with what one hears in Russia — it’s much more fiery. Then his French friend responds: We French created women, literature and cuisine. No one can take that from us.
SPIEGEL: Those are idealized clichés that nations create for themselves.
Finkielkraut: But it is true, or at least it was in the past. France can’t allow itself to bask in its own glory. But it has evidence of its civilization, just like Germany — it has its sights, its squares, its cafés, its wealth of literature and its artists. We can be proud of these ancestors, and we have to prove that we are worthy of them. I regret that Germany — for reasons that are understandable — has broken with this pride in its past. But I believe that German politicians who speak of Leitkultur — the guiding national culture — are right. The Leitkultur does not create an insurmountable barrier to newcomers.
‘This Has Nothing to Do With Aggression.’
SPIEGEL: Is the modern French identity still shaped by the Revolution of 1789?
Finkielkraut: Back in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the revolution, I signed a petition against the Islamic headscarf. For me it had to do with the notion of secularism, which is running into criticism around the world these days. France believed at the time that this was a model for the world, and is today reminded of its distinctiveness. It is no longer a question of exporting our model. We have to remain modest, yet steadfast.
SPIEGEL: But doesn’t French secularism today also serve to justify the aggressive rejection of Islam?
Finkielkraut: How is that? We have prohibited the veil; we have not banned the individual. Previously schoolgirls were urged to place under their blouses or sweaters the crosses or medallions of the Virgin Mary that they wore on their necklaces. That is not asking too much, merely a bit of restraint on everyone’s part. This has nothing to do with aggression against Muslims.
SPIEGEL: Hasn’t Islam long since become a part of Europe, a part of France and Germany, as former German President Christian Wulff once put it?
Finkielkraut: Former French President Jacques Chirac made a similar statement. Islam may one day belong to Europe, but only after it has Europeanized itself. It is not an insult to the others to point out their otherness.
SPIEGEL: Well, the Muslims are here now. So don’t they also belong?
Finkielkraut: The question is: How are they here? Immigrants lose nothing when they recognize their difference from the established population. Today the Muslims in France like to shout in an act of self-assertion: We are just as French as you! It would have never occurred to my parents to say something like that. I would also never say that I am just as French as Charles de Gaulle was.
SPIEGEL: In France immigrants are covered by the jus soli , or “right of the soil,” meaning that every child born there has a right to French citizenship. Do you want to abolish this?
Finkielkraut: No. But all equality of rights aside, such a child has become a French national in a manner that differs from descent. The automatic right to French citizenship by being born on French territory makes many French people feel uncomfortable these days, because the act of wanting to be French gets lost in this process. Like most other Europeans, the French have the feeling that immigration has become an uncontrolled process — something that happens, not something that is willed into being. The countries are not directing this process; at most, they are escorting it.
SPIEGEL: Isn’t it extremely easy to attribute all problems to poverty immigration from the developing world?
Finkielkraut: A public political debate on the issue is the least that one could expect. Instead, this field is ceded to the extreme right.
SPIEGEL: How do you view the political rise of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front party?
Finkielkraut: This disturbs me, of course. But the National Front would not be continuously on the rise if it had not discarded the old issues of the extreme right. Nowadays the National Front focuses on secularism and the republic.
SPIEGEL: That sounds as if you could imagine voting for the party.
Finkielkraut: No, I would never do that because this party appeals to people’s base instincts and hatred. And these are easy to kindle among its supporters. We can’t leave these issues to the National Front. It would also be up to the left, the party of the people, to take seriously the suffering and anxiety of ordinary people.
SPIEGEL: What do you say to people who call you a reactionary?
Finkielkraut: It has become impossible to see history as constant progress. I reserve the possibility to compare yesterday and today and ask the question: What do we retain, what do we abandon?
SPIEGEL: Is that really any more than nostalgia for a lost world?
Finkielkraut: Like Albert Camus, I am of the opinion that our generation’s task is not to recreate the world, but to prevent its decline. We not only have to conserve nature, but also culture. There you have the reactionary.
SPIEGEL: When you see all these problems in France — the debts, unemployment, educational crisis, identity crisis — do you fear for the future?
Finkielkraut: I become sad and feel a growing sense of anxiety. Optimism would seem a bit ridiculous these days. I wish the politicians were able to speak the truth and look reality in the face. Then, I believe, France would be capable of a true awakening — of contemplating a policy of civilization.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Finkielkraut, thank you for this interview.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen