How France’s Intellectuals Became Reactionaries

Frédérique Matonti

France has always had right-wing thinkers — but they are more prominent now than any time since World War II. A decades-long counterrevolution against the Left has led to reactionary provocateurs reshaping French intellectual life.

French far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour delivers a speech during a meeting of his electoral campaign on January 28, 2022, in Chaumont-sur-Tharonne, France. (Chesnot / Getty Images)

Interview by
Cole Stangler

France’s rightward drift continues apace. While incumbent Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to secure reelection in April, polls credit the far right with almost 30 percent support — whether behind veteran candidate Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour, a TV personality repeatedly convicted for racist and anti-Muslim hate speech. The Left remains weak and divided, with polls showing its top candidates all far from qualifying for the second-round runoff.

This dreary climate is years in the making, driven by the decline of the labor movement, the failures of the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, PS) — in particular, François Hollande’s presidency — but also an increasingly pronounced right-wing bent among a swath of the mainstream media and prominent intellectuals. This was again signaled in January as education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer took part in a so-called “anti-woke” conference at the Sorbonne, even as his colleagues in Macron’s government rail against the supposed creeping “Islamo-leftism” on campus.

To delve deeper into this shift in French public discourse, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke to Frédérique Matonti, a political scientist, professor at the University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and author of Comment sommes-nous devenus réacs? (“How Did We Become Reactionaries?”). In her book, published in November 2021 by Fayard, she aims to explain how France shifted from “one cultural hegemony to another,” looking at the key thinkers and themes that have the accompanied the transformation of its intellectual landscape from the 1980s onward.

This interview has been edited and translated from French.

Cole Stangler

Why did you decide to write this book?

Frédérique Matonti

Two or three years ago, I found myself watching a lot of TV news. I was struck by what I saw — an extraordinarily reactionary, very simplistic line of thought — by this extremely radical vision of laïcité [state secularism], against the veil, against the burkini, and by this very cartoonish view of what schools are like.

For example, there’s this idea that the level of education is inexorably declining. There’s also a cartoonish view of feminism: the notion that #MeToo feminism is a kind of dangerous American feminism that wants a war between the sexes. On the economy, when you listen to these pseudoexperts and editorialists, there’s the idea that social services are a problem — that they cost too much money but also that they shouldn’t be obtained automatically, that recipients need to do more in exchange for them. There’s also this idea that that the welfare state is too expensive and that French people are living above their means.

There’s a whole series of opinions that have now imposed themselves in public discourse. What struck me, too, when I started working on the book is, the more I went on, the truer it seemed. A year later, things have radicalized further.

I work on the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and did my thesis on Communist intellectuals. I work on structuralism and all that. Naturally, what struck me is the difference between the intellectual and political hegemony of the 1960s and 1970s and today’s.

Cole Stangler

For you, the turning points start in the 1980s. You focus on four key themes: the failure of anti-racist movements during this period; the backlash to May 1968; the false opposition between the working class and minorities; finally, the obsession with the veil. So, looking at end of the 1970s, how did the Left lose this “hegemony,” as you put it?

Frédérique Matonti

Toward the end of the 1970s, you had a movement called the New Right (“la Nouvelle Droite”). They were thinking in Gramscian terms, telling themselves that the socialist-communist left was at the gates of power — as indeed happened in 1981— and that it was necessary to build counterhegemony. This line can be found in lesser-known publications, but also, for example, in Le Figaro Magazine. It helped spread this counterhegemony from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

You also had the Left coming to power in 1981. François Mitterrand became president and appointed Communist ministers to his cabinet. I don’t say this in the book, but it’s worth mentioning that at the beginning, there were fairly radical measures. There were nationalizations in certain sectors. There was the regularization of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. The media was freed from state oversight, allowing for a very different relationship with information than under the Right. There was also an innovative new cultural policy led by the culture minister — initially Jack Lang — that sought to give an important place to culture including jazz, hip hop, and street art. There seemed to be a significant opening at the beginning of the Mitterrand years, but it also provoked brutal, frontal opposition from the Right.

First, there were steps backward on economic policy. The demand-side policies struggled with the lack of borders. French people were consuming, but not buying French products, and so the policies didn’t provide as much stimulus as expected. This translated into election defeats, starting in 1983. Then, in 1986, the Left lost the parliamentary elections, creating a situation of cohabitation [in which Mitterrand had to govern with center-right prime minister Jacques Chirac].

Here, you start to see a lot of authors who are very critical of cultural issues. For instance, Alain Finkielkraut’s book The Defeat of the Mind, which I talk a lot about. It’s very critical of Lang’s policies, arguing that he was supporting a culture that’s not legitimate — that he was putting fashion on the same level as William Shakespeare, for instance. He also attacked the early 1980s anti-racist movements, led by what’s called the “second generation,” the children of immigrants from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and so on. Finkielkraut was very critical of this and especially its chosen form, often meaning concerts. He criticized what he calls “youthism” (jeunisme). For him, this, too, was a sign of rising “communitarianism.”

This is an important moment. These texts were taken up and radicalized by others. Without going into too much detail, I’ll mention an article published by Paul Yonnet in the early 1990s. Referring to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery [in Carpentras], he said that racism and antisemitism don’t come from people who are racist and antisemitic, but that it’s the fault of anti-racist movements. This is the idea that ultimately the real racists are the anti-racists — something you find a lot today.

Cole Stangler

You also hear this a lot in the United States.

Frédérique Matonti

A lot of these authors are looking very closely at the United States. They take up debates over political correctness and debates over sexuality and consent at American universities. To borrow a phrase from my friend Éric Fassin, they’re constructing a sort of “American scarecrow:” a place where you supposedly “can’t say anything anymore” — in particular when it comes to seducing someone. What’s very surprising in France is that there’s almost no counterargument. Even [the historically left-wing newspaper] Libération thinks you can’t sleep with anybody at universities. They have a very cartoonish vision of what can happen in the United States.

Two publications had a major role in importing these battles: Le Débat and Commentaire. Commentaire is the publication of Raymond Aron, so more right-wing, whereas Le Débat thinks of itself as being center-left. In broad brushstrokes, a whole swath of themes that are dominant today in the reactionary press were already being developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Cole Stangler

There’s this idea in France that “the Republic doesn’t see ethnic difference.” Any attempt to talk about it is seen as an un-French vision that must be coming from elsewhere. But what you show in your book is that this wasn’t always the case — this discourse really developed in the 1980s and 1990s.  And then, more specifically, you devote a whole chapter to this supposed opposition between the working class and minorities. There’s this notion that if you talk too much about difference — whether religious, ethnic, or sexual — it alienates working-class people. It’s something you hear a lot on the Right but also on the Left.

Frédérique Matonti

This discourse emerges after the defeat of [Socialist] Lionel Jospin, who failed to reach the second round of the 2002 presidential election [after serving as prime minister]. One of the explanations put forward for this, especially on the Left, is that it’s because he made reforms for minorities but not for the working class. The reforms for minorities included civil unions for same-sex couples and political parity [mandating parties to present an equal number of male and female candidates on their electoral lists]. After 1997, Jospin was prime minister, in cohabitation with [president] Chirac, at the head of what’s known as the “plural left” government [with support from the Socialists, Greens, and Communists].

It’s true there was solid economic growth, and he could have pursued more significant economic reforms. Part of what’s said of the time — that he didn’t go far enough with left-wing reforms — is undoubtedly true. But the problem, and I’ll simplify a bit, is this opposition that’s created, as if the working class is just automatically white, heterosexual men. Obviously, it also includes gays and lesbians, women, and people with immigrant backgrounds. So, this opposition makes no sense, and if the Left wants to rebuild itself while thinking that, it’s off on the wrong foot. It needs to do economic reforms but also reforms to combat discrimination.

I also tried to show that when the Left has done these reforms — civil unions, political parity, same-sex marriage — it has done so with deep divisions, and not easily. With Hollande, for example, there was a move forward on same-sex marriage but not on assisted reproductive technology or surrogacy.

Cole Stangler

Islam is also at the heart of these various skirmishes.

Frédérique Matonti

First of all, it’s worth stressing that the 1905 law separating church and state was originally designed so that Catholics would not reject the Republic. Catholics in the nineteenth century tended to view the Republic as an enemy or as anti-religious. The law was made not to repress Catholics but to encourage them to accept the Republic. It’s a very pragmatic law, a law of reconciliation that supposes that one must patiently wait for Catholics to integrate into the French nation. It’s worth recalling all this because when we talk about laïcité in France today, it can feel like we’re only talking about Muslims.

What’s changed, in part, is the geopolitics — events in Iran, Afghanistan, and Algeria, with the development of states under Islamic control changing French public opinion, as well as the recent terrorist attacks.

There’s also been certain polemics. The first one that got a lot of media attention concerned a middle school in the suburbs of Paris, in Creil [in 1989], where three young students refused to take off their headscarves before entering the classroom. It’s important because it divided the Left. There were some like Jospin, education minister at the time, who thought it important to be patient and to propose accommodations. That wasn’t the term used at the time, but the idea was to discuss things with families and the children so that they could continue going to class. A certain number of restrictions were proposed — for instance, saying it’s not admissible to boycott classes — but overall, this was a pretty tolerant vision, loyal to the spirit of 1905.

On the other hand, there’s a Left that’s intransigent and that believes that if the school system gives in on this point, then it’s an unprecedented step backward and that it opens the door to religious — ultimately Muslim — control of what can be said in classrooms. There are left-wing critics who make this argument, like Jean-Pierre Chevènement and Gisèle Halimi among others. And then, you have people like Finkielkraut and Élisabeth Badinter who sign a petition saying “No to the Munich of Republican schools.” In other words, if you let in the headscarf, it’s the same as [France and Britain appeasing Adolf Hitler in] 1938. It’s worth pointing out the word “Munich” continues to reappear in all these various polemics; it’s like “Republic” and “universal.”

The tone has become more and more radical on these questions of female dress — I say female because it’s always women who are being talked about. There are debates over the burkini too. There’s also the idea that planning specific hours for women to use pools is an attack on laïcité and the Republic. Clearly, I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with Islamist rule in Afghanistan, for example. But in France, there are debates over the burka and burkini that target women while avoiding talk about education or integration — which ultimately are the principles of 1905.

On the Left, there are groups that have fanned the flames, in particular Republican Spring (Printemps républicain). They’ve very important in the spread of a radical laïcité. [Presidential candidate Éric] Zemmour goes the furthest when he says, for instance, that people with foreign origins should have French first names. But there’s also the interior minister who says there shouldn’t be Kosher- or Halal-specific shelves in supermarkets. It’s incredible to interfere with people’s private lives like this! It’s the polar opposite, by the way, of what the law on laïcité is.

Cole Stangler

In the final chapter, when you try to explain why this shift has taken place, one of the interesting arguments you make is that it’s easier today to become a panelist on TV than a university professor in France [because of various reforms that have left the system underfunded]. You also focus on how the media landscape has changed and the decline of traditional political parties.

Frédérique Matonti

Yes, there’s a concentration of the press in the hands of a few companies that are driven primarily by seeking profits. And it’s not just that political parties are declining. For the Left, in any case, they have fewer and fewer links with intellectuals, unions, and civil society. That’s the more important point.

Cole Stangler

In the preface, you write that ultimately the goal “isn’t just to criticize [this shift], but to prepare a new cultural hegemony.” How should the Left do this?

Frédérique Matonti

When you’re a left-wing intellectual today, you’re on a bit on the defensive.

Cole Stangler

On the Left, people often say, “This or that person is a fascist,” which is fine — but is it enough to just say, “These ideas come from the far right,” to defeat them?

Frédérique Matonti

Since we’re confronted with Zemmour, one of the tasks of intellectuals is not to debate with Zemmour, because it serves no purpose. It’s not going to convince anybody who follows him, admires him, or wants to vote for him. On the other hand, what I think a certain number of historians are doing — dismantling his arguments, showing that they’re false, showing that they’re historical untruths that are from a tradition of defending Pétainisme [i.e., the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime of 1940–44] — is very useful because it can help convince people who might be swayed.

But there are reasons for hope. A part of the younger generation is deeply drawn to environmental questions and to feminism. If there’s going to be a reconstruction of the Left, it’ll be led by these younger generations who have a much more determined discourse than their elders.

It’s also important to say that when you do well-done opinion studies — not polls — you find that a large swath of French people believe in redistribution, more horizontality in power. In other words, most don’t believe in the reactionary discourse that we’re talking about. At the moment, they’re not finding anyone in the political marketplace who can represent their aspirations.

That’s the bigger problem today in France. There’s lots of intelligent people interested in politics, who choose not to vote or who decide not to register, because they can’t find a candidate who stands for them. Elections are driven by people who are the most registered and who vote the most — which is to say older people, who are in general also more right-wing.

Cole Stangler

The demand’s there, but there’s no supply?

Frédérique Matonti

A part of the demand is there. I’m borrowing from Vincent Tiberj who’s worked a lot on this. Part of the public opinion is very conservative and xenophobic. That certainly exists. But a demand for more equality, more horizontality, more redistribution, and a defense of the welfare state exists, too. The problem is it can’t find organized form yet.

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Frédérique Matonti is a political scientist, professor at the University of Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and author of Comment sommes-nous devenus réacs?

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist writing about labor and politics. A former staff writer at International Business Times and In These Times, he has also published work in VICE, the Nation, and the Village Voice.

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