Blog post

The Culture War in France

Anticapitalist class politics have receded from French political discourse and action over the last several decades, replaced in part by what some French figures have identified as an American-influenced identity politics. As Daniel Zamora argues in this essay, however, France has long embraced a home-grown, essentialising politics of identity.

Daniel Zamora26 April 2023

The Culture War in France

 This article was originally published in Lava in spring 2022. 


Since the 1980s, class politics and alternatives to capitalism have dwindled. Has ‘identity politics’ taken over in a post-ideological France? This is the thesis of Daniel Zamora, professor of sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and co-author of The Last Man Takes LSD (Verso, 2021). To understand this shift, he suggests looking at the recent history of identity in France, which did not begin with the irruption of ‘wokeism’ on the media scene.

The concept of identity is on everyone’s lips. Denunciation of it, as the New York Times recently pointed out, has become a familiar refrain, increasingly blamed for all the nation’s problems.[1] In France, politicians, media commentators and academics on both left and right all seem to agree that the French political debate has become Americanised. Though over the past forty years, the French have watched more American films than French ones and eaten ever more at McDonald’s, while travel to the US has become an essential initiation for its elites, it is not these cultural trends that worry French politicians and intellectuals.[2] What they call ‘Americanisation’ is a type of identity politics that, they argue, threatens French republicanism. Conservative thinkers such as Marcel Gauchet have denounced the ‘racialist and decolonial ideologies... transmitted by North American campuses’, while some progressives have also deplored the racially reductive viewpoint of such an approach.[3] Others, like Étienne Balibar, have instead celebrated the arrival of American debates in France, where they could pave the way for an anti-racist and decolonial French Republic.[4] However, all seem to agree that in recent years, in one way or another, France has been intellectually and politically transformed by American ideas. In October 2020, President Emmanuel Macron warned of the influence of social science theories that he believed had been imported from the US. Intersectionality, he later added, ‘fractures everything.’[5] But it would be a mistake to see this dissent as hostility to identity politics as such.

Indeed, despite Macron’s disdain for identity politics, his alternative can hardly be interpreted as anti-identity. Building on what we have in common, Macron argued, means finding an answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be French?’ The doubts that beset French citizens stem, he claimed, from mass immigration and the ‘cultural insecurity’ this creates with regard to their identity. Flirting with the far-right rhetoric that threatens the French people with a great replacement by immigrants, Macron, like Valérie Pécresse and Éric Zemmour, decided to run his election campaign on the issue of identity. From this point of view, the problem with American woke culture is not that it essentialises identities, but that it does not essentialise the right one.

In fact, the arguments about what it means ‘to be French’ betray not the rejection of identity politics but its triumph. To understand this state of affairs, we need to look at the recent history of identity in France, a history that does not begin with the colonisation of French universities by ‘woke’ ideas but rather with the decline, since the 1980s, of class politics and alternatives to capitalism.

With the collapse of Gaullism and communism, debates about the meaning of belonging to France, often under the banner of republicanism, gained in appeal among ruling elites of both left and right.[6] As Patrick Buisson, a far-right historian and former adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, has written: ‘In the great breakdown of ideals and the desert of collective hopes, identity revolt expresses first and foremost the attachment of the most modest to a certain way of life.’[7] In 21st century France, Buisson observes, identity prevails over class, and disputes over the economy give way to disagreements over the definition of this ‘way of life’ and how to preserve it.

In sum, France’s problem is not so much an elusive Americanisation, but, rather, the fact that the denunciation of identitarianism has itself become a form of identity politics. France has become a country where the clash of opinions (about what kind of politics we want) is increasingly supplanted by the assertion of identity (what we want depends on who we are). And, in a world of political differences rather than political disagreements, as Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, ‘it’s not what you believe, but who you are, who you were, and who you want to be’.[8] Within this framework, French republicanism has essentially become an empty notion, reduced to competing definitions of French identity. ‘We are engaged in a struggle for the survival of France as we know it’, the far-right polemicist and former presidential candidate Éric Zemmour recently proclaimed.[9] The social contract, as he wrote in his reactionary bestseller La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, is no longer centred on economic issues but on wars of history. That is, wars about who we are: who is and who cannot be French.

Over the past forty years, governments of both left and right have pushed a neoliberal agenda and encouraged cultural controversies as a substitute for any real debate on the economy. And it is this post-ideological turn, rather than the social sciences, that has increasingly turned French politics into a culture war. 

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Out of the ideological era

In 1988, the conservative historian of the French Revolution François Furet joined with fellow historians Jacques Julliard and Pierre Rosanvallon in celebrating the decline of the political culture inherited from the French Revolution.[10] With the socialist government’s turn towards economic orthodoxy in 1983, the revolutionary tradition in French politics had supposedly been defeated for good. The working class was integrated into modernised capitalism, the French Communist Party was in disarray, and not even the Gaullist right survived the death of its patriarch in November 1970. In their eyes, a new ‘republic of the centre’ was emerging from the ruins of the old one in the name of political and economic realism. ‘The pedagogy of economic constraints and the dissemination of the critique of totalitarianism,’ noted Rosanvallon, ‘combined to bring France out of its ideological age.’[11]

But what they called the normalisation of France meant, above all, the end of any alternative to capitalism. The long decline of revolutionary aspiration was not the effect of American books smuggled into French universities, but rather from start to finish a conscious political project carried out by the French elites.

The Socialist Party, in particular, which had been elected in 1981 on a radical programme that included the nationalisation of the banking system and major industrial companies, coupled with a massive public works programme, had quite openly assured Ronald Reagan that he had nothing to fear from its victory. Three days before the composition of the new government was made public, François Mitterrand sent a personal message to the American president, stating that France would respect ‘all its commitments, [which] in the field of security are clear and precise, within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance [and] according to the principles of an open economy’.[12] 

The next day, in a secret meeting at the Élysée Palace with US Vice-President George H.W. Bush, he added that he had been the first politician able to significantly reduce Communist influence in France and that, with four Communists in unimportant ministries, ‘they are associated with my economic policy and it is impossible for them to foment social unrest’.[13] It is therefore not surprising that, a decade later, when Bush senior and then Bill Clinton launched their wars against Iraq and Yugoslavia, they both found in Mitterrand a reliable ally. By the 1990s, it was clear that the Socialists had made the transatlantic alliance the backbone of French foreign policy. The Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry, was increasingly controlled by strongly pro-American circles, whose influence culminated in Nicolas Sarkozy’s definitive reinstatement of France in NATO’s military command in 2009.[14]  

In the economic sphere, the French ‘new economists’ had managed to popularise and translate neoliberal thinkers such as Milton Friedman in the 1970s, before Mitterrand himself adopted austerity in 1983. Nationalisations were replaced by privatisations, and labour market reforms and wage moderation were implemented to strengthen France’s industrial competitiveness in a globalised market. Inflation became the priority of a government that had promised full employment, and tax cuts were encouraged to stimulate private rather than public investment. When Mitterrand made his official visit to the United States in 1984, he described to the US Congress a French economy that preferred ‘risk’ to ‘comfort’, and planned a visit to Silicon Valley to learn about start-ups, venture capitalists and technological innovation.[15] The French government’s policy of ‘risk-free’ investment in the United States was a major factor in its success. Jacques Delors, then minister of finance and soon to be president of the European Commission, called for an American-style modernisation of France. ‘The French’, he added later, ‘will urgently have to convert to the spirit of the market’. In the name of economic realism, the left had to chase away ‘the anti-capitalist myth’ and work for the rehabilitation of ‘market, company and bosses’, because ‘a society also progresses thanks to its inequalities’.[16]

In the same year, a short op-ed signed by young members of the Socialist Party, including François Hollande, the future president, noted that France was experiencing the end of an era. ‘The dogmatic conception of the working class, the idea that the workplace could also be a space of freedom, the notion that individuals belong to social groups based on solidarity, the affirmation of an atemporal political programme’, the young Socialists argued, ‘all this must be abandoned.’[17] While the French market never converted to American-style neoliberalism, preserving its dirigiste character and, until recently, a fairly redistributive social model, any serious socialist agenda was nonetheless abandoned. Embarking on the European project as a substitute for Mitterrand’s original programme, the French Socialists became key players in the construction of a neoliberal European Union, first with the liberalisation of capital movements in 1988, and then with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which was overwhelmingly rejected by the working class. As Mitterrand himself confessed: ‘I am torn between two ambitions: that of building Europe and that of social justice.’[18] ‘Capitalism’, his party proclaimed in 1991, ‘limits our historical horizon’. The Socialist triumph of 1981 was therefore – to use Jean Baudrillard’s prophetic comment – only a political version of the film Alien, with neoliberalism as its watchword. ‘Neither a revolution nor a historical event,’ he added, ‘but a kind of long-delayed posthistorical birth’.[19] In this post-ideological France, freed from conflict over how to structure the economy, what was to be the organising principle of its politics? For many thinkers, it soon became clear that, if the spectre of revolution had receded, culture and identity would become the central issue in French politics. Jacques Julliard, who had celebrated the birth of this new republic of the centre, expected that culture, by ‘replacing failing ideologies’, would become the ‘key word of the new governing class’.[20] As Hollande himself had written in 1984, if the French had hoped for ideological and miraculous solutions, they would now understand that the left was no longer ‘an economic project’ but ‘a system of values’, not ‘a way of producing but a way of being’, which implied a commitment to equal opportunities and, for everyone, ‘the freedom to be different’.[21]

Culture thus brought to the fore conflicts that were no longer strictly ideological, that is, conflicts that opposed different definitions of who we were rather than different modes of organising the social order. Class itself was to become one more identity, rather than a structure around which capitalism was organised. Using the pseudonym of Jean-François Trans, François Hollande would even argue, in a 1983 book entitled La Gauche bouge, that ‘it is no longer a question of ensuring the political representation of the working class at the end of the 20th century’ but rather of celebrating the virtues of the ‘liberating market’. ‘No more dreams, no more illusions’ wrote the future president, ‘no more chimeras… accounts must necessarily be balanced, compulsory levies lowered, the police strengthened, national defence preserved, companies modernised, initiative liberated’.[22] It was no longer a question of transforming the economic structure, but of enabling everyone to contribute to it.

A central player in this change was the French ‘second left’, a minority but influential current of French socialism associated with Michel Rocard’s Parti Socialiste Unifié and the CFDT [Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail] trade union. It acquired its name after a speech Rocard made at the 1977 Socialist Party congress, in which he distinguished between two lefts: one ‘long dominant, Jacobin, centralised, statist, nationalist and protectionist’, and the other, the second left, ‘decentralised’ and ‘refusing arbitrary domination, that of the state as well as that of the bosses’. The aim of this left was to ‘liberate dependent majorities such as women, or minorities that are not welcome in society: young people, immigrants, the disabled’.[23] Although in a minority position, Rocard became prime minister after the turn to austerity, when his line had more or less won over his party.

Culture versus classes

Forced to reinvent themselves once they abandoned any serious project of social transformation, the French Socialists strategically chose the cultural battle as their new raison d’être. While approving a neoliberal economic programme, they extended their action to the cultural front and promoted a modernised anti-racist discourse, gradually abandoning the direct defence of the class struggle.

Only a year after the turn of the century, Socialist activists created SOS Racisme to promote a narrowly moral anti-racism, articulated around equality of opportunity and disconnected from any wider concern about redistribution. The organisation was created with the aim of co-opting the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, launched by young French Maghrebis after a spate of racist crimes in the early 1980s.[24] Launched in Marseille in October 1983 by seventeen individuals, the march crossed the whole country, passing through Strasbourg and Grenoble, to reach Paris in December of the same year, with more than one hundred thousand people. Not openly political, the movement was led by Toumi Djaïdja, a young Franco-Algerian activist who, after being seriously injured by a policeman, imagined a march for civil rights in reference to the 1963 March on Washington.

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However, unlike the American march it was inspired by, the Socialist NGO created in its image advocated an empty conception of anti-racism made up of public concerts, television shows and the support of celebrities and rich patrons. Used as a political tool by the Socialist government, SOS Racisme promoted a conception of anti-racism that was disconnected from the broader struggle against inequality. With racism reduced to a matter of stereotypes, anti-racism quickly became a politically innocuous enterprise, leading, to quote Gérard Noiriel, ‘to name, with the help of racial vocabulary, problems that [were] rooted in social problems’.[25] Issues of police brutality, housing, and employment after deindustrialisation, had hit immigrant workers hard, but they were sidelined by the government.

The most striking aspect of this depoliticisation was the cultural framework used to describe these young second-generation immigrants. By popularising the term ‘beur’ to refer to young Arabs, this modernised anti-racist discourse placed their culture at the centre of the political discussion, accelerating the rupture between the struggles of the working class and those of young people of immigrant origin.[26] This development was particularly important as it played a role in a wider disqualification of a series of strikes between 1982 and 1984. In several car plants owned by Citroën and Renault, these strikes were led by unionised immigrant workers and focused on their working conditions. But the lack of government support and the infamous description of the strikes as ‘Islamist agitation’ had profound effects on the French labour movement. As sociologist Abdelalli Hajjat has noted, while the young Arabs on the march became examples for promoting tolerance and made their symbolic entry into the public space, the unionised workers were portrayed as Muslim agitators.[27]

In a way, religion took precedence over class struggle in the workplace, while, in the banlieues, culture overshadowed social problems such as housing and employment. This strategy on the part of French Socialists made it difficult for young Arabs to see their conditions through the prism of class relations. This transformation, fuelled by the complete retreat of the Socialists on the economic front and the decline of working-class militancy, would accelerate the disconnection between the left and the working class over the next decade. The transmutation of the social into the cultural, as noted by the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle, was soon to become the major characteristic of this modernised left.[28] However, this mutation should be understood as a long-term attempt to recompose a new social bloc on which the Socialists could win.

Indeed, in a France hit by high unemployment and deindustrialisation, the economic realignment would have lasting effects on the political coalition that brought the Socialists to power. The new macroeconomic orientation, as Bruno Amable recently noted, ‘implied neglecting the most fundamental political expectations of the left-wing bloc, which meant that the social base of the so-called “left” government would one day have to be replaced by another, more favourable to the neoliberal orientation’.[29] The coalition that had allowed the Socialists to win in 1981 could not be maintained. They had to build their modernising project around a new social base composed of more educated voters, a part of the skilled middle class and those excluded from the economic game – as the environmentalist thinker André Gorz wrote in his polemical essay Farewell to the Working Class. Beyond socialism, the traditional worker was already disappearing anyway, while a new marginalised group, excluded from the labour market, was turning the political debate towards the problem of exclusion.

In the long run, such a development accelerated the slow transition from a party system representing distinct social classes to a multi-elite party system. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s, as Thomas Piketty has illustrated, the more educated voted mainly for the right, a major reversal occurred in the following decades. Working-class voters would increasingly abstain, while the left would rely more and more on the educated. In such a configuration, the French Socialists were quickly transformed into the party of the educated elite (the ‘Brahmin left’), allowing the right to become the party of the possessing class (the ‘merchant right’).[30] 

In the 2000s, the crisis of social democracy resulting from this realignment led many Socialist leaders to radically reassess their strategy. The Terra Nova think-tank offered a radical proposal for building a new electoral majority. For this reformist think-tank, new political cleavages emerged on the cultural front at the end of the 1970s, with a crisis of the historic coalition based on the working class. The decline of the proletariat, resulting from unemployment, precarity and the loss of ‘class pride’, Terra Nova noted, paved the way for the construction of a new coalition. In their eyes, the ‘new left’ had to have ‘the face of the France of tomorrow: younger, more feminine, more diverse, more educated, but also more urban and less Catholic’. Unlike the historic Socialist electorate, ‘this France of tomorrow is above all united by its cultural and progressive values: it wants change, it is tolerant, open, supportive, optimistic and assertive’.[31]

Redefined as an identity, class now appeared as an outdated and conservative social formation. And if, in the next election, François Hollande won in part thanks to his open criticism of financialised capitalism, his presidency conformed in many respects to this line. On the economic front, he largely extended corporate tax cuts, labour market deregulation and deindustrialisation, while on the cultural front he won important victories on gay marriage, the right to surrogate motherhood and the recognition of France’s colonial past. But such a historical marginalisation of class language in public discourse would only reinforce identity references as points of difference in the cultural field, pitting ever more diverse notions of French identity against each other. The growing interest in republicanism would itself be the object of competing definitions of citizenship. On the one hand, an open conception, and on the other, an anti-pluralist and assimilationist defence of French Catholic identity and history, increasingly directed against Muslims.

Identity versus socialism

In an almost symmetrical move, the right developed its own version of identity-based republican politics in the 1980s. Obsessed with the idea that the left had won the battle of ideas on the cultural front, far-right thinkers began to develop a new project, looking for ways to mobilise their electoral base. This was notably the case with discussion groups such as the Club de l’Horloge.

Founded in 1974 around a group of enarques (graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration), the club popularised the idea that socialism was responsible for the ‘loss of identity’.[32] Marxism, they said, had been ‘a war machine against national sentiment’. Jean-Yves Le Gallou, one of the club’s founders, did not hesitate to describe the first years of the Socialist government as ‘totalitarian’, openly calling for a turn towards identity and neoliberalism.[33] In the mid-1980s, however, they observed that ‘with the decline of socialist ideology, particularly in its Marxist form, we are witnessing a revival of the idea of national identity’;[34] in other words, for the right, class politics was a problem precisely because it undermined identity as a principle around which to think about politics.

With the demise of Gaullism, right-wing republicanism would soon become the ideal vehicle for a new assertion of a restrictive definition of citizenship. In the same year, the former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in a 1985 interview with the far-right newspaper Valeurs Actuelles, endorsed this discourse and claimed that immigration was becoming a threat to French identity. What France was experiencing, according to the right, was the destruction of its identity, drowned in the new pluralism and immigration policies promoted by a modernised left. The group, which emerged from the right wing of Jacques Chirac’s Rassemblement pour la République, would have a lasting effect after the definitive disappearance of the Gaullist legacy.

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While these ideas remained marginal in the political field for some time, the narrative was normalised by intellectuals, journalists, and editorialists, operating in a newly privatised media landscape as party democracy collapsed. Mass parties were quickly replaced by American-style televised primaries, with political entrepreneurs trying to win not citizens but market share. Like every other Western democracy, France is now characterised by plummeting voter turnout, corrupt political campaigns awash with money, and private media channels that increasingly resemble Fox News. While Mitterrand spent around €7 million on his 1981 campaign, Sarkozy is estimated to have spent over €40 million in 2012, half of which through illegal fundraising schemes.[35] France was becoming a country like any other in the West, with entrepreneurs ruling over a political vacuum of atomised citizens waiting to be moulded by a new populist sensibility.

Faced with this profound transformation, Sarkozy seized the opportunity to radically push the old Gaullist party further to the right, mixing a neoliberal agenda with themes of identity. ‘The need for identity’, he explained a few days before the election, was back to confront globalisation. The architect of this strategy was the president’s closest adviser, Patrick Buisson, formerly a supporter of French Algeria, a far-right propagandist close to Jean-Marie Le Pen, and director of the far-right newspaper Minute between 1981 and 1987. Convinced that ‘the traditional divide, structured by economic and social issues, is fading away’, Buisson expected the rise of a ‘new divide around the issue of identity’. For him, and for many others in the years that followed, this was ‘the political issue that outweighed all others’.

Under Buisson’s advice, Sarkozy focused his campaign and presidency on restoring French identity, lost in the storm of globalisation and immigration. Relying on the reassertion of authority and the denunciation of May 68, which he accused of having imposed intellectual and moral relativism, he promised his voters that France would become ‘a nation that claims its identity, that assumes its history’.[37] Echoing much of the classic far-right thinking of the 1980s, he argued that while capital could now easily travel across borders, ‘cultural borders’ had to be preserved at all costs.

To this end, Sarkozy created one of the most controversial ministries in contemporary French history, the ‘ministry of immigration, integration, national identity and solidaristic development’. The aim was to transform the social insecurity generated by neoliberal reforms and deindustrialisation into the fear of a loss of culture. By linking immigration to national identity, the French president openly oriented the debate on citizenship along racial and religious lines. Being French was not a matter of right, but rather depended on the ability to accept a restrictive definition of republican values.

In 2009, the government organised hundreds of debates on national identity across France, through municipalities and virtual platforms. French citizens from all over the country were invited to debate the question of what it meant to be French today. The aim, according to the government, was to reaffirm a ‘pride in being French’, but it ended up fuelling a strong resentment towards immigrants and a suspicion of Muslims that has never really diminished since.

Macron’s current iteration of such a strategy is identical: it is not an alternative to identity politics but a way to avoid the social question. In order to deal with the class conflicts generated by his own policies, including the two-year struggle of the Gilets Jaunes, the president has consciously decided to focus the political conversation on what it means to be French. Overtly drawing on Sarkozy’s 2009 debate, Macron chose to endorse his predecessor’s controversial narrative as hundreds of thousands participated in a nationwide movement against rising prices and neoliberal fiscal policies.

Following the rule of taxing the poor to give to the rich, Macron’s revolution has been the most unequal of any presidency in contemporary France. As Mitchell Dean notes, in France ‘every tear gas projectile and rubber bullet, and every injury caused by their use, to the eyes, hands, faces and bodies of the demonstrators’, attests not to an identity crisis but ‘to the failed imposition of neoliberal governmentality’.[38] For over a year, millions of people occupied roundabouts across France, debating democracy, inequality, work and taxes, with no one seriously discussing the preservation of a fantasised French way of life. If there was one thing the Gilets Jaunes sought to preserve, it was not their culture but their income. The historian Gérard Noiriel has pointed out that one of the great successes of the movement was precisely to have succeeded in momentarily marginalising identity-based quarrels, by bringing the social question back to the centre of the public sphere.[39]

In response, Macron launched a national debate that took place in municipalities, online platforms and meetings across France. Among the first topics of discussion chosen by the president was, unsurprisingly, the issue of immigration and identity. ‘I also want us’, the president argued vis-à-vis the Gilets Jaunes, ‘to bring the nation in agreement with itself on what its deep identity is, to address the issue of immigration’.[40] This attempt, however, aroused anger and, under pressure from the movement, the subject was withdrawn. The suggestion was particularly cynical because, of the forty-five points in the Gilets Jaunes’ programme, none concerned immigration or national identity. Yet, while one of the main demands of the Gilets Jaunes was the re-establishment of a wealth tax, Macron decided not to include it in the discussion.

However, his inability to change the terms of the debate in the aftermath of the movement did not last very long. It took only a year for the government to completely refocus the public debate on identity issues. At the same time that the government managed to marginalise the Gilets Jaunes and their demands, the identity push – in the guise of defending republicanism – took on a much more sinister tone, focusing public attention on the ability of Muslims to be full citizens. As Bruno Amable recently noted, Macron has combined elements of the neoliberal model with an authoritarian and identitarian model.[41] By openly linking the issue of French citizenship to Muslim immigration, like Sarkozy before him, Macron decided to shift the public debate to the far right. The problem, the government argued across the media, is that American liberal ideas have facilitated tolerance of Islamic extremism.

In February 2021, Le Figaro warned on its front page that ‘Muslim extremists and the radical left’ were making headway in the university, both ‘fed by militant concepts imported from the United States’.[42] Frédérique Vidal, the minister of higher education, spoke a few days later about how these Islamist and radical left-wing concepts were undermining French society. This rather surprising association became widely known after the murder of high-school teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist in a Paris banlieue in October 2020. In response, the education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer railed against the ‘very powerful Islamo-leftist currents’ within the university. The terrorist, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee working in construction after being expelled from high school, had, according to the minister, been encouraged by ‘other people, who were in a way the intellectual authors of this crime’. Far from being a lone terrorist, Blanquer added, he had been conditioned by ideas promoting such radicalism, by ‘an intellectual matrix stemming from American universities and intersectional theses’. This vision, of essentialised communities and identities, ‘converged with the interests of Islamists’.[43]

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Perhaps more important was the enquiry launched by Vidal. ‘Whether it is research on postcolonialism’ or race and intersectionality, she told the National Assembly, a wide in-depth state investigation was to be conducted into all currents of research linked to ‘Islamo-leftism’.[44] This concept, coined by French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff in 2002, refers to a ‘convergence between Muslim fundamentalists and extreme left-wing groups’.[45] Emboldened by American campus culture, Islamists and leftists are supposed to be waging a war against European civilisation under the triple motto of ‘decolonising, de-masculinising, de-Europeanising’.[46]

While it is hard to imagine young jihadists living in the Paris suburbs compulsively reading the books of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Robin DiAngelo, or trying to impose an intersectional feminism, the real purpose of the polemic was to prepare the ground for the next presidential election. This Trumpian tone was particularly intended to attract voters from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and avoid a conversation about the government’s poor economic policy and disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Cole Stangler notes, while France is experiencing one of the worst crises in its recent history, ‘the French news is not driven by discussions of truly universal issues such as wealth inequality, the health system or climate change. Instead, it focuses on navel-gazing debates about identity, fuelled by media personalities’[47].

Farewell to class politics?

The question of what it means to be French (or not) has become the subject of endless debates, books, and essays. French ministers devote entire interviews to debating whether there should be ethnic food in supermarkets or whether, as the far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour recently argued, foreign names for newborns should be banned in France. The meteoric rise of Zemmour’s candidacy, however, cast doubt on Macron’s strategy.

By shifting the debate to the right in the hope of defeating Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Macron may have opened up a far more dangerous avenue for Zemmour’s ideas. Repeatedly convicted of hate speech, Zemmour became a national celebrity when he sold more than three hundred thousand copies of his 2014 book Le Suicide français, in which he denounced the feminisation of society and the deconstruction of French history, and attempted to rehabilitate the Vichy regime. The man who could be considered a French Tucker Carlson[48] has gained a mass audience by his permanent presence on CNews, the ‘French Fox News’ owned by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré. Marginal only two years ago, his suggestion to expel five million Muslims from France to avoid the ‘great replacement’ of the French population is now discussed on mainstream television. The vital issue of identity and immigration ‘renders all others secondary, even the most important ones such as schools, industry, social protection, France’s place in the world,’[49] Zemmour noted. The omnipresence of his apocalyptic vision in the mainstream media briefly brought him close to second place in opinion polls in 2021. Zemmour has not hesitated to assert that it is time for the French to ‘choose sides in this war of civilisations that is taking place on our soil’.

If Macron has achieved anything during his chaotic presidency, it is certainly not, as Jürgen Habermas enthusiastically hoped, to transform the European ‘elite project’ into a citizens’ project, but rather to embolden and normalise the French far right.[50] By accepting interviews in their newspapers and using their vocabulary, themes and solutions, the president who had impressed Habermas with his ‘intimate knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy of history’ has ended up being the most right-wing president of the Fifth Republic.

A Huntington-style clash of civilisations now structures French political debates, in which calls for strong political action against Muslim ‘barbarians’ are normalised. Where Zemmour could be right is that, as he argued when preparing his presidential candidacy, the one who wins the presidential election is the one who imposes his question.[51]


From now on, if the French left wants to have a chance in the coming struggle, it must change the question. With the demise of Communism and Gaullist grandeur in the 1980s, debates about republicanism and alternatives to American-led globalisation have often been reduced to nostalgia for French traditions and way of life and competing definitions of French citizenship. While left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon argues for a French-style ‘creolisation’ to promote cultural diversity and exchange in society, Zemmour preaches his assimilationist model to protect a ghettoised notion of French identity. But, if Mélenchon, through his reading of the poet Édouard Glissant, has tried to shape a less essentialist and more progressive definition of citizenship, more focused on reciprocity than on roots, he has still taken the debate exactly where the right wants it to go. Focusing too much on another version of identity, even if more fluid, would only give the right the kind of left they want.

For socialists, the real resistance to identity politics today is to oppose Macron’s ‘stun-grenade neoliberalism’, not sterile debates about campus politics. Advocacy of a strong national identity – or its rejection in favour of pluralism – is clearly not the way forward. As Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, the French political class over the past forty years has replaced the political battle over ‘the differences between what people think (ideology) and the differences between what people have (class) with the differences between what people are (identity)’.[52] Within such a framework, conflicts about the distribution of wealth have been conveniently replaced by conflicts about our identity. Replaced, in other words, by another kind of class politics: the politics of the ruling classes. To change the narrative, the left needs its own class politics, outside the identity trap.

Translated by David Fernbach

[1] Cole Stangler, ‘France Is Becoming More Like America. It’s Terrible,’ New York Times, 2 June 2021.

[2] In particular, Jérôme Fourquet and Jean-Laurent Cassely, La France sous nos yeux (Paris: Seuil, 2021), 381-406.

[3] ‘Sur l’islamisme, ce qui nous menace c’est la persistance du déni’, Le Monde, 31 October 2020; Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, ‘Impasse des politiques identitaires’, Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2021.

[4] ‘Pour une République française antiraciste et décolonisée’, Mediapart, 3 July 2020.

[5] ‘Emmanuel Macron nous répond’, Elle 3941, 2 July 2020.

[6] On contemporary debates over French republicanism, see Émile Chabal, A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[7] Patrick Buisson, La Cause du peuple (Paris: Perrin, 2016), 318.

[8] Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 78.

[9] Éric Zemmour, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (Paris: Rubempré, 2021).

[10] François Furet, Jacques Julliard and Pierre Rosanvallon, La République du centre: la fin de l’exception française (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1988).

[11] Furet, Julliard and Rosanvallon, La République du centre, 138.

[12] Quoted in Philip Short, A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

[13] Quoted in Short, A Taste for Intrigue.

[14] This backtracked on Charles de Gaulle’s decision to leave NATO’s military command in 1966.

[15] Richard F. Kuisel, The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 25.

[16] Quoted in Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis (New York and London: Verso, 2021), 57, 54.

[17] Jean-Yves Le Drian, Jean-Pierre Mignard, Jean-Michel Gaillard and François Hollande, ‘Pour être modernes soyons démocrates!’, Le Monde, 17 December 1984; quoted in Amable and Palombarini, The Last Neoliberal, 52.

[18] Quoted in Jacques Attali, Verbatim I (Paris: Fayard, 1995), 399.

[19] Jean Baudrillard, La Gauche divine (Paris: Grasset, 1985), 71.

[20] Furet, Julliard and Rosanvallon, La République du centre, 117-18.

[21] Le Drian et al, ‘Pour être modernes soyons démocrates!’

[22] Jean-François Trans, La Gauche bouge (Paris: JC Lattès), 1985, 9.

[23] Michel Rocard, ‘Les deux cultures politiques’, speech delivered at the Nantes congress of the Socialist Party in April 1977’, in Michel Rocard, Parler vrai (Paris: Seuil, 1979), 80.

[24] See, in particular, Abdelalli Hajjat, La Marche pour égalité contre racisme (Paris: Amsterdam, 2013).

[25] Gérard Noiriel, Racisme: la responsabilité des élites (Paris: Éd. Textuel, 2007), 10.

[26] The word ‘beur’ is ‘Arab’ in verlan back-slang. – Trans.

[27] Hajjat, La Marche, 159-60.

[28] Jean-Loup Amselle, L’ethnicisation de la France (Paris: Lignes, 2011), 27.

[29] Bruno Amable, La résistible ascension du néolibéralisme: modernisation capitaliste et crise politique en France, 1980-2020 (Paris: La Découverte, 2021).

[30] Thomas Piketty, ‘Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)’, World Inequality Lab Working Papers, Series 2018/7 (March 2018), 3.

[31] Olivier Ferrand, Romain Prudent and Bruno Jeanbart, ‘Gauche: quelle majorité électorale pour 2012?’, Terra Nova 1, May 2011, 10.

[32] Club de l’Horloge, L’identité de la France (Paris: Albin Michel, 1985), 20.

[33] Quoted in Chabal, A Divided Republic, 249.

[34] Club de l’Horloge, The Identity of France, 314.

[35] Christophe-Cécil Garnier, ‘21, 33, 40, 50 millions… Quel est le vrai montant de la campagne de Nicolas Sarkozy?’ Slate France, 14 October 2015.

[36] Buisson, La Cause du peuple, 319.

[37] Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘Appel aux électeurs du centre pour le second tour’, 29 April 2007.

[38] Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution (New York and London: Verso, 2021), 187.

[39] Gérard Noiriel, Les gilets jaunes à la lumière de l’histoire (Paris: L’aube, 2019), 57-9.

[40] Emmanuel Macron, ‘Le discours d’Emmanuel Macron face aux gilets jaunes’, Le Monde, 10 December 2018.

[41] Amable, La résistible ascension du néolibéralisme.

[42] Caroline Beyer, ‘Comment l’islamo-gauchisme gangrène les universités’, Le Figaro, 11 February 2021, 1-3.

[43] Interview with Jean-Michel Blanquer, Le Journal du Dimanche, 25 October 2020.

[44] In an unprecedented move, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) refused to undertake such an investigation and openly attacked the minister for using a concept that ‘does not correspond to any scientific reality’, denouncing a ‘controversy emblematic of the instrumentalisation of science’.

[45] See, in particular, Corinne Torrekens, ‘Islamo-gauchisme’, La Revue Nouvelle, July 2020.

[46] Pierre-André Taguieff quoted in Norimitsu Onishi, ‘Will American Ideas Tear France Apart?’, New York Times, 11 February 2021.

[47] Stangler, ‘France Is Becoming More Like America’.

[48] The American columnist and television host Tucker Carlson advocates libertarian, climate-sceptic and conservative views.

[49] Zemmour, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot.

[50] Jürgen Habermas, ‘How Much Will the Germans Have to Pay?’, Der Spiegel, 26 October 2017.

[51] Zemmour, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot.

[52] Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier, 24.

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