Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The French crisis

Behind the headlines, France has been undergoing for decades a societal and intellectual struggle, one that speaks to present events, writes Tewfik Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

French academics noted since the second half of the 1980s that the French “schooling system” was no longer working. The poorest could no longer climb the social ladder and they were no longer “integrated” into society and the nation. This was especially true for the poorest Muslim boys (the system did a much better job with girls, though this was another cause of masculine grievance in many cases: “they corrupt/take our girls”). The causes of this crisis were various and complex and not all were the “system’s” fault. It was well known, for instance, that mothers sometimes played a negative role: as pointed out by Lahouari Addi, they were afraid of seeing their sons becoming “Westerners” and they disseminated a negative discourse on the Western permissive and non-religious society. As everywhere girls were better at school than boys, some young boys felt humiliated both at school and at home, where they were scolded by their parents. Some of developed a strong hate for both their families, school, and French society, while local authorities — anxious to counter a rise in criminality — allowed fundamentalist associations to take root in the suburbs. The meeting between these young disaffected boys and religion would help many to bring decency to their lives, albeit at the cost of a cultural divorce with non-Muslim French. But it also paved the way for the radicalisation of others.

At the same time (1985-1995) a cultural revolution was going on in France with the rise of a generation — the baby boomers — that rebelled against De Gaulle in 1968. Most of them were either extreme leftists or strongly influenced by the ideas developed by leftist criticism of Marxism, by Michel Foucault, by the postmoderns, or by the “multiculturalism school”.

This is a fascinating story that has been told by many, most recently by Mathieu Bock Côté in an important book. At some point between 1965 and 1980, most leftist intellectuals realised that Marxism may not have the required answers, that the Soviet Union was an abject and costly failure, and that other socialist regimes did not fare better. There was, at least for now, no escape from capitalism. It could be wild or temperate, relying on private ownership or on state control, but nobody could envision another credible model. The first years of Mitterrand’s presidency and his economic failure confirmed this diagnosis. And Solzhenitsyn documented the human disaster, the way dozens of millions of lives were destroyed.

So the left changed its ways. Instead of a general revolution, its militants opted for the fight for different and diversified causes, no matter how marginal, within the system. The left adopted and developed a human rights discourse, perpetually extending its scope and importance as a crucial criterion to assess various regimes and societies. Marx ceased to be the guru; Foucault, Bourdieu and to a lesser extent Derrida replaced him. Last, but not least, the left revisited the political and cultural history of France and of other Western countries.

Some of the “findings” enabled the left to win the cultural battle for ideas, as many people from many sides of the political spectrum adopted them as the basis for a new world view. The nation building process was the mother of all ills, as it was grounded on violent suppression of local, regional, ethnic and religious identities, which were less artificial than nationalism and less violent. Nations and nationalisms were much less tolerant than empires. People sovereignty was a slogan that hid the oppression of various minorities by intolerant majority rule. Equal individual rights for everybody was no compensation for the disdain of some specific groups. It was even worse on the international scene: nationalists scorn, hate and despise other peoples; they think their people are better than others. Nationalism led to two world wars, to the destruction of Europe, and to genocide. Western people aggressed and colonised the rest of the world. European crimes are not only too important to be ignored, they are also the logical and ultimate consequences of the assumptions that supported the nation building process.

Moreover, as an era of global challenges unfolds, like ecology and climatic change, transnational terrorism and crime, human beings can no longer afford the luxury of wasting time in nationalistic and jingoistic quarrels. Nation squabbling is more than a dangerous hindrance.

Of course, agreeing on the diagnosis (I do not) does not necessarily mean agreeing to the therapy. The latter rested on many foundations, most of them controversial. The European Union is a promethean project conceived to prevent new wars caused by nationalism and the conflicting interests of nations. It rests on the following gamble: that everybody will forget their national culture, their own history and adhere to common universal values, that have no specific origin, that are a mixture of human rights discourse and democratic governance. If the leftists could do what they want, Turkey would be a EU member: this is necessary to prove common values are universal.

However, the cornerstone of the therapy is elsewhere. In each country, the social contract should undergo a radical revision. The damage caused by “national identity” — that is, the suppression of other identities — should be repaired. Other cultures and sub-cultures should be represented. Individual rights should not be the hypocritical way of denying the existence of minorities that have their own culture.


The writer is a professor of  international relations of  the College de France and visiting professor at Cairo University.

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