Shlomo Sand: ‘There’s no more great thinkers in France’

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The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand made his name with his critical re-reading of the history of Israel, nationalism and Jewish identity. Trained in the French historical school, he is also a keen observer of intellectual life in Paris. His most recent book, devoted to the decline of a milieu which he once so admired, concludes with a sombre diagnosis. Translated by David Broder.

"When an intellectual makes eulogies to the police, the army, and the forces of the state, then he is out-of-step with the history of France since Voltaire. Houellebecq accuses the government of not being sufficiently militaristic. How can we imagine an intellectual, a writer, an artist taking a stance against the authorities saying they aren’t ‘muscular’ enough? It is astonishing to see how the intellectuals dominating the debate today are against immigrants, against foreigners, against the weakest [...] This neoconservatism is a sign of the times."


Le Temps: At the end of your book you talk about a column by Michel Houellebecq published in the wake of the 13 November 2015 massacres, where he accused the authorities of being too lax. You said that his column can be seen as the ‘tragicomic end to a long cycle of Parisian intellectuals’ moral engagement in public affairs. From one J’accuse to another – from Zola to Houellebecq – everything that had so ennobled the “French intellectual” seems to have evaporated forever’. Why is that?

Shlomo Sand: When I speak of their ‘nobility’ I mean that in the sense of asserting a morality, establishing a power relation with the authorities [le pouvoir], a tradition that begins in the century of the Enlightenment with Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot and more or less ends with Bourdieu and Foucault. The philosopher or intellectual took a position on the side of the powerless. This tradition has declined in France with the enfeeblement of the Parisian intelligentsia. It is difficult to compare Alain Finkielkraut to Bourdieu or Bernard-Henri Lévy to Foucault. In France something has gone awry.

In what sense does Houellebecq embody this intellectual decadence?

When an intellectual makes eulogies to the police, the army, and the forces of the state, then he is out-of-step with the history of France since Voltaire. Houellebecq accuses the government of not being sufficiently militaristic. How can we imagine an intellectual, a writer, an artist taking a stance against the authorities saying they aren’t ‘muscular’ enough? It is astonishing to see how the intellectuals dominating the debate today are against immigrants, against foreigners, against the weakest. This is something new. In the past there were the likes of Drumont, Barrès, Céline and Drieu La Rochelle, but they weren’t hegemonic.

How is the French case different from that in Germany, the USA, or Israel, where you live?

What distinguishes the French case is how radical the change is. This corresponds to a specificity of France’s, namely that intellectuals are concentrated in a restricted theatre: Paris. I prefer to speak of Parisian intellectuals rather than French intellectuals. Moreover, the intellectual has a particular place in French culture. This neoconservatism is a sign of the times. We once saw the same thing in New York, where a whole generation swung toward conservatism. This is also inscribed in the more general context of the end of the utopias of the twentieth century, the defeat of communism and of the national liberation movements in the Third World. The corruption of revolutionary ideas, and the terror they engendered, again closed the windows that had opened out onto a different future. But Paris is a peculiar case.

German and British intellectuals have become more conservative, but nowhere else is there a ‘Houellebecq’ phenomenon. His last novel, Submission – which I consider Islamophobic – has no equivalent elsewhere in Europe. Islamophobia is a general phenomenon but in France it is accompanied by a rejection of diversity and cultural pluralism. There are certainly signs of xenophobia in Great Britain, but at the same time London elected a mayor of a Muslim background, who doesn’t hide his beliefs. That would be unthinkable in Paris. France is no more racist but it has inherited an authoritarian, collectivist, Jacobin conception of the nation.

This is what explains the fascination in France for Maoism, the most authoritarian current of the 1970s radical Left and also the most pig-headed in its cult of personality and Third-Worldism. Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, André Glucksmann (who died last year) and plenty of other intellectuals occupying the media spotlight are former Maoists. They were not anarchists or Trotskyists. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Is the Islamophobia that you’re denouncing emblematic of the defeat of the Parisian intellectual?

In my book I emphasise that there wasn’t one Dreyfus affair, but two. For three years – up till Zola’s J’accuse in 1898 – the media spotlight was dominated by intellectuals who resembled the ones we have today. For three years, from Drumont to Barrès via all the other Judeophobe journalists there was almost no one speaking up for Dreyfus. Everyone was an anti-Dreyfusard, Jean Jaurès included. It was a moment when hatred against immigrants was rising in a context of economic uncertainty. There is a certain parallel with what is happening today, even if we can’t identify the one phenomenon with the other. Every time that there is an economic crisis we see a rise in xenophobia.

In the 1890s there was Judeophobia but also Italophobia in the south of France. Looking at the 1930s we can see Cathophobia – and a lot of miners with Polish origins were very sincere Catholics. But it was hatred of Jews that remained the strongest. Today we are dealing with what we call the ‘Muslim phenomenon’. But I think that most people we call Muslims aren’t Muslims. They are pseudo-Muslims, as they’ve lost their parents’ Arab or Berber culture, even if it’s simpler for them to declare themselves Muslims despite not believing or practicing the religion.

You can see the superficiality of the terrorists’ beliefs. There is a generation of young Muslims who have an empty identity, just like how the identity of certain Parisian intellectuals who call themselves Jewish is an empty identity. Today Islamophobia is part of the spirit of the times and that worries me. Islamophobia is not just an identity crisis, it is also a symptom of economic decay and social problems.

This fear is widespread in Europe, faced with the influx of refugees. Intellectuals are finally imbibing the spirit of the times…

From a political point of view, this is a general tendency: forces are crystallising around the far Right and the repudiation of refugees. Between 1880 and the Second World War 2.5 million Jewish immigrants arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe (that would be equivalent to ten million migrants today). They, too, were considered a threat, even though a lot of them then continued on their way toward the United States. We know how that ended in Germany. Today France is in the vanguard of xenophobia.

Other countries in Eastern Europe are far less tolerant…

That’s another story. If, as in France, Western European nationalism is sometimes totalitarian or insufficiently tolerant, for all that it is no less inclusive. Conversely, the Eastern European tradition is an exclusive, ethnocentric, ethno-religious or ethno-biological nationalism. It has the same basis as the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement. And that is much more troubling.

France still claims to be the bearer of a universalist discourse founded on universalist values. Is this becoming too difficult to hear?

When France had great thinkers it was possible for it to maintain a pretense of universalism. But it doesn’t have them any more. Something has come to an end. While in the past Houellebecq did write things that were interesting, his latest book is of no literary value. And now he is not the object of a single university seminar in the United States, or even in Israel. The real threat to French culture does not come from the waves of immigration, but rather from the media field, and its globalisation. Take the crime dramas that have invaded the TV schedules: these are pure imitations of American series. France is undergoing globalisation, and it is reacting awkwardly to it, with a totalitarian image of its traditional culture. But it is not producing any new symbiosis.

We could say that France is becoming normal

It is becoming normal, in the bad sense of the word. Clearly there are some very intelligent people in France’s universities. But over the last forty years we have seen a specialisation of knowledge, and simultaneous to that the capacity for synthesis has diminished. We might pose ourselves the question: is the university not, perhaps, returning to the role it had up to the eighteenth century, when it was only concerned with theology and the sciences? The Enlightenment did not come from the university but from the salons of Paris.

Would we be better off looking for great intellectuals in Germany (Habermas, Sloterdijk) or elsewhere in Europe?

As a historian I today feel more affinity with the British or the Americans than with the French, even though my own training was in the French school of historiography. I do admire France and I grew up in this intellectual culture. But since I don’t live there I also have the capacity for critique. In 1975, when I began my studies I hesitated between France and Germany. I chose France. I have written this book today because I’ve taken a step back – getting the perspective of someone who was once enamoured.

Shlomo Sand, La fin de l’intellectuel français? De Zola à Houellebecq, La Découverte, 2016