Blog post

Alain Finkielkraut, Renaud Camus and the weight of words

Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist terrorist who killed at least 50 Muslims in New Zealand, titled his manifesto, released shortly before the attack, The Great Replacement. The title recalls the work of French far-right author Renaud Camus, whose ideas have been eagerly taken up by Alain Finkielkraut, and in the manifesto, France looms large as the sight of Tarrant's turn to white supremacy. In this article, Frédéric Debomy castigates the influence of Alain Finkielkraut in France and the power of ideas on political action.

Frédéric Debomy20 March 2019

Alain Finkielkraut, Renaud Camus and the weight of words

The Australian far-right supporter who has murdered at least 50 Muslims in New Zealand seems to be a reader of Renaud Camus, theorist of the ‘Great Replacement’.

This is reminiscent of another episode. In 2011, the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, also a far-right terrorist, killed 77 people: eight by detonating a bomb near the Norwegian government headquarters and 69 by opening fire on a Labour Youth summer camp. Breivik castigated his targets for exposing his country to multiculturalism and Islam. In his manifesto he quoted Alain Finkielkraut, referring to the latter’s assertion that anti-racism would be in the twenty-first century ‘what communism was in the twentieth century: a source of violence’ (quote from Breivik). This did not deter Finkielkraut from devoting a radio broadcast on 17 November 2012 to a literary eulogy to Anders Breivik published by the writer Richard Millet. The question asked by the essayist and host at the beginning of this programme, ‘What is the difference between a literary eulogy and a literal eulogy?’, did not prevent him from focusing largely on the dangers of multiculturalism. Listeners, moreover, were not informed of the influence exercised by Finkielkraut’s writings on Anders Breivik’s worldview.

Renaud Camus is, by his own admission, one of Finkielkraut’s major inspirations. It is true that in his book La seule exactitude (2015), Finkielkraut distanced himself from the expression ‘great replacement’ so dear to Camus: ‘I do not adopt this, because it inevitably has the effect of transforming all people of Turkish or Arab origin into invaders.’ But Finkielkraut later maintained on Radio RCJ, on 29 October 2017, that ‘global replaceism [sic]’ was ‘rightly denounced by Renaud Camus’. So Camus’s ‘concept’ was after all not so disturbing.

I attempted to say this in Le Monde, which accepted an article but then failed to publish it. I now learn that the novelist and essayist Dominique Eddé, seeking to criticize Finkielkraut in the columns of that newspaper, had the same experience: acceptance by the paper followed by rejection without explanation.[2] It is hard in these conditions not to recall Aude Lancelin’s warning in her book Le Monde libre about the protection Finkielkraut enjoys in the publications of this media group.

What did I write that was so terrible? That this essayist was in the habit of first distilling poison and then claiming, if controversy arose, that he had been misunderstood. I gave an example that was then topical: on 20 November 2017, he had maintained on Figaro Vox (that newspaper’s debate platform) that one of the aims of the movement ‘Balance ton porc’[3] was to ‘evade the issue of Islam’.

According to Finkielkraut, the patriarchal order has been decisively defeated in France, except in working-class suburbs where young adults and teenagers from post-colonial immigration and of Muslim faith everywhere demonstrate an irascible virility. Regardless of the fact that a study conducted for the Ministry of Health established that most of such violence is perpetrated by ‘men enjoying a certain power through their professional function’, including a very high proportion of executives. For Finkielkraut, his own opinions have the value of truth, and it is in fact quite rare for him to criticize the prevailing ones.

Shortly after this he was caught in flagrante, ethnicizing public debate. In the course of the tribute to Johnny Hallyday, he told us on Radio RCJ, on 10 December 2017, that ‘people not of French stock [non-souchiens] were conspicuous by their absence’. An immediate outcry, and Finkielkraut went on to explain that he had in fact ironically taken up an expression by Houria Bouteldja of the Indigènes de la République party. Because of course, it was far from him to agree with such notions himself. But he had indeed written with the same tone of regret, in L’Identité malheureuse, of ‘those whom we no longer dare say are of French stock’?

This way of proceeding is not new to the essayist: it is enough to remember the controversy that arose from the interview he gave the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 18 November 2005. Unwilling or unable to read the working-class revolts that had just erupted in class terms, he denounced ‘Blacks’ and ‘Arabs’, identifying them with ‘Islam’ and causing a minor scandal. He then posed as a victim, saying that he did not recognize himself in the ‘jigsaw of quotes’ that had been taken from his interview by a journalist from Le Monde. However, we need only refer to the comments he had made two weeks earlier (6 November 2005) on a Radio RCJ programme for which he was responsible to see how Finkielkraut was quite brazen: he had said substantially the same thing as in the interview given to Haaretz.

This is how Finkielkraut has been working for a long time: assertion and denial. The point, however, is that whatever Finkielkraut writes, whatever he says, he shows little concern for the fact that an intellectual should have control over his words.

An event like the one that has just occurred in New Zealand, however, reminds us just how much ideology and violence are linked. Like Anders Breivik, the Australian terrorist justified his actions in a text that happens to be titled ‘The Great Replacement’. While Renaud Camus and Alain Finkielkraut do not bear direct responsibility for the attacks committed by those whose thoughts they have nourished, words do undeniably carry weight.

Originally published by Mediapart. Translated from French by David Fernbach.

[1] Frédéric Debomy is the author of Finkielkraut, la pensée défaite, Textuel, 2017.

[2] Dominique Eddé explained this in a note to her letter to Alain Finkielkraut posted on the Verso blog, 15 March 2019.

[3] = ‘Denounce your pig’, the French equivalent of ‘MeToo’.