The Clientelism of The Antiracist Left

Jean-Pierre Chevènement has been appointed president of the now revived Foundation for Islam, charged with the formidable task of constructing an Islam that is not just in France, but also of France. Here, Laurent Bouvet in Le Figaro defends Chevènement against the charge that he is innocent of all connection with the French muslim community, and therefore unqualified for the job.

Attacks on Chevènement:
The odious clientelism of the antiracist Left

FIGAROVOX/INTERVIEW : Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s comments on France-Inter have triggered a furious response. For Laurent Bouvet, these sterile reactions illustrate the place accorded to discussions of identity by certain sections of the media and some political parties.

Laurent Bouvet is Professor of Political Science at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. He published Cultural Insecurity (Fayard) in 2015.

See also, Islamo-Gauchisme Decrypted in The Europeans.

FIGAROVOX : This Monday morning, Jean-Pierre Chevènement replied to listeners on France-Inter. He assured them that at Saint-Denis, “80% of primary school children had not mastered French”, before adding: “There are at Saint-Denis, for example, 135 nationalities, but there is only one of them that has more or less disappeared”, the implication being: the French. What do you think about these remarks?

Laurent BOUVET : What Jean-Pierre Chevènement says is, alas, in agreement with a reality that goes beyond Saint-Denis. Official reports, research projects, the innumerable accounts of teachers and parents of students, have been alarming us for a long time. So it’s neither a surprise nor a discovery. Elsewhere, in towns like Saint-Denis, many parents who have the means to do so, no longer send their children to public schools because of the feeble quality of the institutions, the “incivilities”, to put it delicately, and therefore the reduced opportunities for their children. It’s a serious collective failure, for the Republic, for national education, for French society in general. There are districts in these same towns where public authorities and the citizens themselves have for a long time not bothered  to provide equal access for all children to the schools of the Republic. More broadly, we can measure there the perverse effects of public policy prosecuted for thirty years at local and national level, in terms of the urban concentration of populations of foreign origin that come to France. Such segregation, spatial, territorial, is not fortuitous. The Republic has resiled from its demand for equality for a whole section of the population, whether it be in terms of rights, or indeed of duties. The two being inseparable.

Stéphane Troussel, the socialist president of the Departmental Council of Seine-Saint-Denis, has accused the former Minister of the Interior of a “racist outburst”, while the Deputy (Parti socialiste) for Saint-Denis has got up a petition against the nomination of Chevènement as head of the Foundation for Islam. What do you think about these accusations of racism?

It’s lamentable and odious. First of all, to put it very simply: what these officials accomplish in their political lives comes nowhere near what Jean-Pierre Chevènement has achieved, whether for the Left or with the various public responsibilities that he has undertaken, and you can almost hear what they’re saying right now… This contemporary lack of all historical depth and this scorn for public service, are terrible. But in the end, who are these people? What have they achieved of note? What have they brought to the country or even to their Département?

But we can see perfectly well the electoral calculations and the clientelism from which this sort of criticism arises, the same as were at work elsewhere during the regional elections last year in this Département, from within Claude Bartolone’s¹ and Clémentine Autain’s ticket.

In the end, more broadly, it would be a good thing if people with whom one disagrees were not treated at every turn as “racist”. This habit of disqualifying people by characterizing them as “racists”, drains the word of all meaning, and therefore leads to our no longer seeing or condemning real racism and its deleterious effects. Moreover, I note in passing that their moral indignation is one-sided. We don’t hear these virtuous officials protesting when authentic racists, for example at Saint-Denis, organize “non racially mixed” meetings.

In mid-August, in an interview given to Le Parisien, Jean-Pierre Chevènement attracted anger from anonymous sources for having advised muslims to be “discreet” when laying out the stall of their faith in public spaces. Was that expression well chosen?

The formula was doubtless maladroit, but what Jean-Pierre Chevènement said should be understood from the perspective of classical secularism [laïcité], as taken up and put into practice by the Republic, acknowledging particularly the famous expression of the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre during the French Revolution: “We should deny Jews everything qua nation; we should grant them everything qua individuals; it is essential that they be citizens”. The “discretion” asked for here, when expressing difference, religious faith, that is to say, expressing a specific piece of the identity of particular individuals, is both the indispensable condition and the price of inclusion in the community of citizens.

❝ We should deny Jews everything qua nation; we should grant them everything qua individuals; it is essential that they be citizens.❞ — Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre

That extends far beyond, it seems to me, the simple counsel of prudence addressed to muslims who would like to demonstrate their adherence to this religion in public: — for reasons linked to the post-attack situation and to the risk of tension that such a public show could excite. Let’s acknowledge also that — apart from a few limited cases — there have been no attacks against muslims in public. Of course, there are always discriminatory remarks, even acts […], but fortunately these remain rare. And the tragic events that we’ve lived through in Paris and Nice have not caused these words and deeds to become more frequent.

Those who want to “make a fuss” over what’s called “islamophobia”, are the very same who would like to witness more and more of this sort of verbal and active aggression, in order to show how right they were, and how just is their battle, and from there to ratchet up once again their ideological hold on muslims. They are the knowing accomplices of political leaders and elected officials who, on the Right and the extreme Right, also gamble on an increase in tension between “communities”. We’ve seen it this summer in Corsica, in different incidents involving the so-called “burkini”.

Some are on the attack, notably in the social media: is this just a form of intimidation, pure and simple? Are certain social currents, some preoccupied with identity, some even islamist, trying to close down all debate on Islam? The politicians who amplify the theme — are they complicit?

Everything is poised today for trying to intimidate and disqualify an adversary. Social media lend a visibility and an intensity to these classical methods. Actually, the idea amongst some people, islamists or their allies in one section of the Left — I’m thinking here, amongst other things, of the CCIF, the Indigènes de la République, of certain academics and researchers, notably in sociology; of Médiapart; of a section of the Front de gauche or of the EELV [Greens], and even of some socialists! — is to impose a sort of doxa, a “truth” against which no-one can ever speak without at one and the same time being in error, at fault, and an abomination: [that is,] by passing off those who question it, who deny it, who criticize it, who do not accept this way of thinking (very lacking in laïcité for once!), as racists, “islamophobes” clearly, and in accordance with a well-known political practice, as bastards.

❝ Everything is poised today for trying to intimidate and disqualify an adversary.❞

You see it now every day; we’re bathing in a wash of mendacity. The very racism that is routinely denounced by these defenders of radical Islam, and more broadly, of group-essentialism, is right at the heart of their own ideology. This is actually a test for exclusion: of all those who fall short of orthodox Islamic practice; of all those who defend laïcité; of all those who do not submit to their injunctions… In this way, all criticism of islamism becomes for them a criticism of Islam and muslims; all questioning of their manipulations and lies become conspiracies; all straightforward affirmation of laīcité becomes “islamophobic”.

To my mind, the problem today in France is not so much the existence of what is after all a minority and caricatural obsession with identity, even if active on social media, but rather the leverage at its disposal in the media, in the academic world, or amongst a number of public officials. The readiness to oblige in this sort of talk staggers me. Especially when it’s combined with condemnation of any discourse that smacks of laīcité. We’ve seen, even at the highest levels of state institutions charged with defending secularism — I’m thinking here of  l’Observatoire de la laīcité — that there can be a certain blindness, even a certain complicity with these entrepreneurial purveyors of identity who openly preach islamist ideology. Political leaders and elected officials who often out of dissembled electoral interest blow the horn for this ideological offensive, bear a heavy responsibility for current tensions. A responsibility that can in every way be set alongside that of the fire-brands of the Right and extreme Right.

This summer, certain politicians were outraged that the reins of a foundation tied to Islam had been entrusted to a professed supporter of secularism. “To nominate to the head of this organization someone who is not a muslim, either culturally or in sensibility, and has no religious beliefs — for me, that raises a question”, commented François Bayrou², in particular.  Should the foundation have been entrusted to a “muslim”?

This polemic is ridiculous. We’re talking here about a public body, not a religious or sectarian institution. This foundation will be charged with implementing state policy, not a policy for the “muslim community”. And then, the reason why one would have to belong to a “religious culture” (sic) in order to speak pertinently about the link between state and religion, or understand what is at stake and the exigencies for France, of how our fellow citizens of muslim confession can better live their faith while fully participating in the life of the Republic and as members of the “commons”, — totally escapes me. As though one needed to meet this or that criterion of identity in order to understand the subject and speak on it. On that basis, only women would be capable of understanding and speaking about abortion, only those of this or that skin colour would be capable of understanding and speaking about racism, etc. You can see where such arguments lead. It’s what’s called “essentialism”: everyone returns to what he is, biologically, culturally, socially… without ever being able to escape his origins, or loosen his shackles. Everyone is thus reduced to being less than a free agent in remaking his personal identity from the different elements that constitute it.

❝ The problem today is not so much the existence of a minority obsession with identity, but rather the leverage at its disposal in the media.❞

All this is deeply inimical to any sense of mobility, of social mixing, of emancipation, of critique, of going beyond oneself… It all goes against the Enlightenment and what millions of men and women have fought for over more than two hundred years throughout the world, in all societies, and no matter what their differences and origins. It’s contrary to the idea of a humanity that is common to all, to the universality of humanity. That people like François Bayrou — for base political reasons no doubt, or perhaps as an expression of their religious faith — are incapable of seeing that, is depressing.

Are these repeated polemics against Chevènement in the end just a kind of “inverse racism”, or at least a drift towards the taking of sectarian positions in French public debate?

They testify first of all to a kind of detachment of the country, or at least a part of it, from all historicity, all memory. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, whether you agree politically with him or not, is one of the last witnesses to a former political era, and to the history of the French Left in particular. He is a statesman who has demonstrated —through his ideas and actions, his choices and his service — his great political and intellectual gifts. One could at least give him that.

They also testify to what you say, certainly. They help with the sophistical inversion of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s remarks, of which I spoke earlier. The slide towards positions based on “identity” is indeed clear in a whole section of public life. You even notice that those who support narratives based on identity, emphasizing difference, separatist, essentialist… accuse their critics, notably the laïcards, of being themselves “identity-warriors”. As though universalism, laïcité, the idea of emancipation through critical thinking… had become “identity-specific” practices. Particularly because they were — catch the irony — French!

This whole campaign against the so-called French sense of identity, which is supported in some articles in the anglophone press, is quite surprising. Especially since you see so many self-appointed anti-liberals and anti-capitalists taking up the theme without ever wondering about the nature of these media, their interests and goals… When it was a matter of the economy, the same folks recovered their critical faculties. In short…. all this is silly enough, cynically and stupidly ideological, in the most pejorative sense of the word. Alas, we know from the tragedies of the 20th century just where it all leads. §

¹Claude Bartolone: President [Parti socialiste] of the French National Assembly. He is accustomed to reaching for the term racist as the political weapon of first resort.

²François Bayrou: President of the centrist political party, Democratic Movement [MoDem].