Jacques Rancière: The Front National’s useful idiots

According to the philosopher Jacques Rancière, a number of so-called French ‘republican’ intellectuals have been opening the door to the Front National for some time now. In an interview with Éric Aeschimannm, Rancière shows how universalist values have been perverted to the benefit of xenophobic discourse.


Three months ago France took to the streets in the name of freedom of expression and coexistence. The recent local elections saw a fresh breakthrough for the Front National. What is your analysis of the quick succession of these two apparently contradictory developments?

I wouldn’t be so sure that there’s any contradiction. Obviously everyone agrees in condemning the January attacks, and everyone was pleased by the popular response that followed. But the unanimity we were meant to show in defending ‘freedom of expression’ fed a kind of confusion. In fact, freedom of expression is a principle regulating the relations between individuals and the state, forbidding the state from preventing dissenting views being expressed. But the 7 January attack on Charlie Hebdo besmirched a quite different principle: namely, that you shouldn’t shoot someone because you don’t like what they have to say. And this is the principle that sets the terms of how individuals can live together and learn to respect each other.

But we’ve overlooked this question, choosing instead to pose the whole thing in terms of polarized views on freedom of expression. In so doing we’ve added another chapter to the campaign that for many years has used great universal values for the purposes of delegitimising part of the population, counterposing ‘good Frenchmen’ – the partisans of the Republic, laïcité [French state secularism] and freedom of expression – to immigrants seen as inevitably communalist, Islamist, intolerant, sexist and backward. We often invoke universalism as a common principle for our lives, but universalism has itself been appropriated and manipulated. Transformed into the distinctive trait of a particular group, it serves as a charge against a specific community – notably through the frenetic campaigns against the veil. And 11 January [the ‘Republican marches’] could not overcome this derailing of universalism. The demonstrations rallied without distinction people who stood for common values and those who were expressing their own xenophobic sentiments.

Are you saying that those who defend the republican-laïque model are contributing, despite themselves, to preparing the way for the Front National?

We are told that the Front National has been dédiabolisé [‘de-demonised’]. What does that mean? That the party has cast aside those of its members who were too overtly racist?  Yes. But above all that the difference between the FN’s ideas and the ideas that are considered respectable and part of the republican inheritance has itself evaporated. Across two decades a number of supposed ‘Left’ intellectuals have been the source of arguments that serve xenophobia and racism. The Front National no longer has to say that immigrants want our jobs or that they are thugs. It suffices to proclaim that they are not laïques, that they do not share our values, that they are communalist…

The great universalist values – laïcité, common rules for everyone, equality among men and women – have become the instrument of a distinction between ‘us’ (we who adhere to these values) and ‘them’, who do not. The FN can keep its powder dry, as xenophobic arguments are in any case being provided by the ‘republicans’ of the host honourable pretensions.

If I follow, you’re saying that the very meaning of laïcité has been perverted. So what does it mean, for you?

In the nineteenth century, laïcité was the political tool that allowed republicans to free schools from the grip exerted by the Catholic Church (in particular after the 1850 Falloux bill). The notion of laïcité thus referred to the specific set of measures that were taken in order to break this stranglehold. From the 1980s we chose to make it into some great universal principle: but laïcité had been conceived as a means of regulating the state’s relations with the Catholic Church.

The great manipulation, here, was in the fact that laïcité was transformed into a rule that every individual had to obey. It was now up to them to be laïque, and not the state. And how can you tell if someone is breaking the principle of laïcité? By what they’re wearing on their head… When I was a child, on the day of solemn communions we’d go to school to meet our non-Catholic friends, wearing our communicants’ armbands and handing out pictures. No-one thought that this was a threat to laïcité. At that time, laïcité was a question of funding: public funding for state schools, private funding for private schools. This laïcité centred on the relations between state and private schools has, however, been buried, losing its place to another laïcité that seeks to govern individual behaviour and which is used to stigmatise part of the population on account of their physical appearance. Some have taken this delirium as far as demanding a law that bans the veil being worn in the presence of a child.

But where does this desire to stigmatise people come from?

It has various causes, some of them linked to the Palestinian question and the forms of mutual intolerance that it has fed in this country. But there is also the ‘great resentment on the Left’, born of the great hopes of the 1960s-70s and the destruction of these hopes by the so-called ‘Socialist’ party when it came to power. All republican, socialist, revolutionary and progressive ideals have been turned back against themselves. They have become the opposite of what they were meant to be – no longer weapons in the battle for equality, but arms for discrimination, distrust and contempt directed against a supposedly ‘brutish’ or ‘backward’ people. Unable to fight the growth of inequality, we legitimise inequalities by delegitimising the people who suffer their effects.

We could think of the way in which Marxist critique has been subverted, becoming a justification for denouncing the democratic individual and the all-powerful consumer – that is, a denunciation that attacks those who have the least means with which to consume… The subversion of republican universalism, converted into a reactionary outlook stigmatizing the poorest, speaks to the same logic.

Isn’t it legitimate enough, though, to fight the veil, which is far from obviously a mark of women’s liberation?

The question is whether state schools’ mission is to liberate women. If that were so, should it not also be liberating the workers and all the other dominated groups in French society? We have all kinds of subjection – from the social to the sexual or racial. The principle of a reactive ideology is to target one particular form of submission, better to keep the others in place. The same people who once accused feminism of ‘sectionalism’ have now discovered their own ‘feminism’ in order to justify the anti-veil laws. The status of women in the Muslim world is problematic, certainly, but it’s the women concerned who first have to decide what they consider oppressive. And, in general, the people who suffer oppression have to fight against their own submission – you can’t liberate people on their behalf.

Let’s turn back to the Front National. You have criticized the idea that ‘the people’ is naturally racist. In your view, immigrants are less the victims of a racism that comes ‘from below’ than a racism ‘from above’: racial profiling, being cast out to peripheral suburbs, or the difficulty people have finding work or housing if they have foreign-sounding surnames. But when 25% of the voters support a party that wants a freeze on mosque construction, doesn’t it show that despite any other considerations xenophobic drives really are at work among the French population?

Firstly, I would say that this surge of xenophobia goes well beyond the ranks of far-Right voters. What is the difference between a Front National mayor who changes the name of the Rue du 19 Mars 1962 [Robert Ménard the FN aligned mayor of Béziers renamed the town’s street that marked the Evian accord according Algerian independence, replacing this with the name of « Hélie Denoix de Saint-Marc», a member of the French Resistance who had been deported to Buchenwald but who later became a supporter of the reactionary, anti-independence Algérie française campaign and participated in the generals’ putsch of April 1961, for which he was condemned to prison], UMP [centre-right] MPs who demand that we teach the positive aspects of colonialism, Nicolas Sarkozy opposing pork-free menus in school canteens, or so-called ‘republican’ intellectuals who want to exclude veiled teenagers from university? In any case, it is too reductionist to say the FN vote is an expression of racist or xenophobic ideas. More than a means of expressing popular sentiment, the Front National is a structural effect of French political life such as it has been organised according to the constitution of the Fifth Republic. In allowing a small minority to govern in the name of the population, this system has relentlessly opened up space for a political tendency that says ‘We’re not part of their game’. The Front National has occupied that space since the decomposition of the Communists and the far Left. As for the masses’ ‘deep-seated feelings’ – well, what’s the measure of that? I will only note that in France we have no equivalent of the German xenophobic movement PEGIDA. And I don’t believe that this situation bears any comparison to the 1930s, and there is nothing in France today that looks anything like the huge far-Right militias of the interwar period.

It seems you don’t think there’s any need to fight the Front National…

We have to fight against the system that produces the Front National, and thus also against the tactic of using denunciation of the FN as a means of masking the rapid rightward drift of government élites and the intellectual class.

Are you not worried that it will come to power?

Since I consider the Front National to be the fruit of the imbalance in our institutions’ own logic, I think it more likely that it will be integrated into the system. There are already a lot of similarities between the FN and the existing systemic forces.

If the FN came to power that would have very concrete consequences for the weakest in French society – immigrants – no?

Probably yes. But I don’t see the FN organising huge expulsions, with hundreds of thousands or millions of people being ‘sent back where they came from’. The Front National is not a matter of poor whites against immigrants; its electorate spans all sectors of society, even including immigrants. So of course there might be symbolic measures, but I don’t believe that a UMP-FN government would be all that different from a UMP one.

Before the first round of the elections Manuel Valls criticised French intellectuals for ‘having fallen asleep’: ‘Where are the intellectuals, where is this country’s great conscience, the men and woman who also have to be on the front line – where is the Left?’, he asked. Do you feel concerned by that?

So the Socialists ask us ‘Where is the Left’? There’s a simple answer: it’s where they’ve led it, into the abyss. The Parti Socialiste’s historical role has been to kill the Left. Mission accomplished. Manuel Valls asks what intellectuals are doing… Frankly, I can’t see what a man like him can criticise them for. He attacks their silence but the fact is that for decades a number of intellectuals have been taking an awful lot. They have been made into stars, saints even. They have made a major contribution to the hate-filled campaigns around the veil and laïcité. They have been all too outspoken. I would add that an appeal to intellectuals is an appeal to people who are such cretins that they’ll agree to play the role of spokesmen for intelligence.  You can only accept such a role, of course, in defining yourself against a people presented as being made up of the brutish and backward. Which ultimately goes back to the counterposition of those ‘who know’ and those ‘who don’t know’, which is precisely what we need to smash apart if we want to fight against the disdainful society of which the Front National is only one particular expression.

There are however intellectuals, including yourself, who fight this rightward drift in French thought. Don’t you believe in the force of an intellectual’s words?

You can’t place your hopes in a few individuals unblocking the situation. That can only happen by way of mass, democratic movements, and they’ll not draw their legitimacy from an intellectual’s privileges.

In your philosophical work you show that ever since Plato political thought has tended to divide the individuals ‘who know’ from those ‘who don’t know’. On the one hand is the educated, reasonable, competent class called on to rule; on the other hand, the ignorant popular classes who are the victims of their own base impulses, and are fated to being ruled over. So is that your way of analysing the present situation?

For a long time rulers have justified their authority by dressing themselves up in the supposed virtues of the enlightened class, like prudence, moderation, wisdom… Today’s governments speak in terms of a science – economics – and claim to be doing nothing but applying its allegedly objective, inevitable laws (which just so happen to suit the interests of the ruling classes). But we have seen the economic disasters and the geopolitical chaos that the old ruling wisdom and the new economic science have produced over the last forty years. This demonstration of the incompetence of the supposedly competent has merely awakened the contempt of the governed for those who so contemptuously govern them. The positive demonstration of the democratic competence of the supposedly incompetent is, however, quite another thing. 

Translated by David Broder.

This piece was originally published in L'Obs.

Christine Delphy, the author of the upcoming Verso book Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror has also commented on laïcité here.

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