The French Obsession with National Suicide, The New Yorker, Dec. 11, 2014
There are few things the French find more annoying than what they call “French bashing”—a term they use in English, despite their insistence on finding French equivalents for foreign words. When Jean Tirole was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, Prime Minister Manuel Valls sent out a tweet of congratulations to “another Frenchman to the heavens,” adding, “Quel pied-de-nez au french bashing!”—“What a thumb in the nose to French bashing!”
And yet no one does French bashing more enthusiastically than the French themselves. This fall, when Éric Zemmour, a political journalist and columnist for Le Figaro, published “Le Suicide Français,” a pitiless indictment of contemporary France—the book declares the country already dead and buried—it rocketed to the top of the best-seller list.
“Le Suicide Français” expresses the anxieties of many in France who are grappling with a series of real problems: high levels of unemployment, economic stagnation, debates over the country’s place in a globalized economy, and its struggles to integrate recent waves of immigrants. But Zemmour addresses them by offering a wildly over-the-top broadside condemnation of everything that has happened in the past fifty years, such as birth control, abortion, student protests, sexual liberation, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration from Africa, American consumer capitalism, left-wing intellectualism, the European Union—forces that, he writes, have conspired to sap the vitality and greatness of the nation of Louis XIV, Napoleon, and General Charles de Gaulle. In Zemmour’s view, both the traditional French left and right (really, everyone but the French far right) have, through a mixture of blindness and cowardice, allowed for the dismantling of a national edifice based on paternal authority. It is highly revealing that Zemmour uses the term “virilité,” or virility, some twenty-three times in his five-hundred page book, suggesting a certain fixation.
The popular success of “Le Suicide Français” is in keeping with a well-established tradition: it takes its place on a long shelf of books that have declared the decline or death of France. As early as 1783, as Sean M. Quinlan notes, in “The Great Nation in Decline,” the French began to churn out tracts like one which laments that “a flagging, weak and less vivacious generation has replaced, without succeeding, that brilliant [Frankish] race, those men of combat and hunting, whose bodies were more robust, cleaner and of greater height than those of today’s civilized peoples.” The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, in 1871, set off a spate of self-flagellation, with writers decrying a declining birth rate, an inferior education system, and moral bankruptcy. Although nostalgists like Zemmour consider the late nineteenth century a golden age, when France emerged as an imperial power and a center of cultural greatness, his counterparts in that period saw a cesspool of effeminacy and decline. One of the big books of 1892 was “Degeneration,” whose author, Max Nordau, was Hungarian but lived most of his life in Paris. He excoriates Émile Zola and writes that the Impressionists can only be understood in terms of “hysteria and degeneracy.”
Zemmour describes France as an ostensibly prosperous society that is “rotten from within”; wealth is a mask for inner decay. This is a well-used trope in decline literature. In the eighteen-nineties, as anti-Semitism gathered force during the Dreyfus affair, authors like Édouard Drumont, with his newspaperLa France Juive and his 1896 tract “The Jews Against France,” saw signs of horrifying rot beneath the glitter and wealth of the Belle Époque. “It gave us an appearance or an illusion of revival and prosperity through financial movement, and it profited from this by making France a prey upon which all the Jews of the world fell,” he wrote. After the bloodbath of the First World War, most French citizens justifiably felt as much a sense of defeat as of victory; the period between the wars was marked by polarization and recrimination. Louis-Ferdinand Céline wrote, in his 1932 novel, “Voyage to the End of Night,” “Everything will crumble … everything is crumbling.” And even the normally judicious Raymond Aron wrote, “I lived through the thirties in the despair of French decline.… In essence, France no longer existed. It existed only in the hatred of the French for one another.”
The rapid capitulation of France when the Germans invaded, in 1940, bred a new round of soul-searching, including the classic work “Strange Defeat” by the great historian Marc Bloch. Zemmour denounces a 1990 law that made Holocaust denial a punishable offense, as well as measures that give individuals the right to sue if they feel that their ethnicity, race, or religion has been insulted, seeing them as the triumph of modern political correctness. But Zemmour ignores the purge of pro-Fascist writers after the Second World War and the execution (confirmed personally by his beloved General ge Gaulle) of the writer Robert Brasillach for his anti-Semitic, pro-Vichy, and pro-Nazi writings during the war. In fact, the anti-Fascists of the postwar period used some of the same virilité—and anti-homosexual rhetoric—in insisting that the French collaborators with Germany had “slept with the enemy” and passively allowed the nation to be “penetrated.”
Zemmour’s book is cleverly done, mingling facts and perceptive insights with wild leaps of logic, biting sarcasm, and ominous apocalyptic rhetoric. His story begins with the Events of May, 1968, with France’s student protesters trying to topple the de Gaulle government. They failed, and de Gaulle won a massive election victory in June, but Zemmour argues that their movement actually succeeded by infusing France with a series of permissive, anti-national, individualistic, anti-authoritarian, pleasure-seeking values that ironically opened the door for what the protesters claimed to hate the most: American consumerism. The following April, de Gaulle resigned and retired to write his memoir; he died the next year.
By lining up his chapters in chronological order, Zemmour creates the illusion of causality: the 1968 protests preceded de Gaulle’s death, and therefore the students killed de Gaulle. In similar fashion, social changes such as decolonization and legalized abortion came before the current period of slow growth, and therefore killed France.
Perhaps the central theme of Zemmour’s argument is the death of the father, the end of a traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian society in which men were men, women were subordinate, gays were in the closet, and France was a world power. In one passage, Zemmour obsesses about a court decision (made by a close former associate of de Gaulle) allowing French citizens to form private associations without government authorization—what would seem to be a fairly normal democratic right, but which Zemmour sees as another stab in the patriarchal back:
One forgets that the family was not conceived in the long night of history as the privileged venue of love and private happiness, but the institution that permitted the founding of a people, a society, a nation.… The father had always been the obstacle to the happiness of families from the beginning of time. Awful responsibilities of men. All guilty. But it was not an angry feminist or a long-haired rebel who placed virility on trial, but the august grey-haired minister of a conservative majority.
There is an unsettling streak of misogyny running through the book, in which the securing of elementary rights for women is presented as an insidious emasculation. Zemmour bemoans the abrogation of old laws that made it illegal for women to open bank accounts without their husband’s permission. In another passage, he cites a popular film, “Elle Court, Elle Court la Banlieue,” from 1973: “When the young bus driver slips a concupiscent hand on a charming female backside, the young woman does not sue for sexual harassment,” he writes. “Trust reigns.” That someone would cite this scene as evidence of the harmony of gender relations before feminism is both hilarious and disturbing.
Zemmour notes that everyone in the movie seems happy and excited about moving to the suburbs. This is presented as proof that France’s policy of housing its immigrants in geographical isolation outside of its major cities has nothing to do with those communities’ failed integration into the national life:
The happy suburb was not an illusion, it radiates joie de vivre in every scene of the film … it is not the high-rise buildings, the cage-like staircases, the absence of roads that provoke violence, gangs and ghettoes; but the violence, the gangs, the drugs that have transformed paradise into hell. It is not the structures that have forged the environment; it’s the population—and the change in population—that has made the environment.
In fact, “Le Suicide Français” reads at times like a manifesto for the National Front, the right-wing party of Marine Le Pen, offering a series of scapegoats for France’s troubles. It appeals to the seventy per cent of French people who feel there are too many foreigners in France, and to the sixty-two per cent who say they no longer feel as “at home” in France as they once did.
Perhaps, like Zemmour, they see France as dead or dying. Before the Second World War, France, with its raft of African and Asian colonies, governed nearly ten per cent of the planet’s landmass. In 1950, Europe accounted for twenty per cent of the world population, and today it accounts for less than ten per cent. France’s G.D.P., while still the seventh largest in the world, makes up only about 3.5 per cent of the world economy. So, of course, France has lost power, vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Zemmour seems to think that massive global changes—the tripling of the world population, decolonization, the rise of China and India—are things that France’s politicians could have and should have resisted. But the sinister conspiracies and suicidal decisions that he identifies at every turn are simply the products of the world changing, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
France is no longer an empire, but it is a prosperous medium-sized country with an extremely high standard of living. It is no longer the world’s cultural center, but it has far more influence than most societies. France remains among the top twenty countries by virtually all measures of the World Bank’s Human Development Index. Life expectancy in France has increased from fifty to nearly eighty-two years in the past century, even as France’s global role has shrunk. Aging population, declining birth rates, slower growth, a more skeptical attitude toward authority, and greater gender equality—those are all typical of advanced, post-industrial societies, not unique to France. There are absurdities and excesses in our politically correct, multicultural, gender-conscious world, but great advantages, too. Would Zemmour really want to return to a world in which women couldn’t open bank accounts without their husband’s permission, and homosexuals could be arrested for sodomy? In an age of supposed decline, are the French better or worse off?