Saturday, December 06, 2003

France Falling – Alain Finkielkraut on Anti-Semitism

le Matin Brun

The second chapter of Alain Finkielkraut’s essay on anti-Semitism is at once, a literary showpiece, an ironic analysis and a biting critique framed by two events. The effect is to render the French ridiculous, and Finkielkraut pulls it off without a wasted word, without a line out of place.

The first event is Matin brun, a short story published in 2002 that met with great success in France. The tale related the exclusion and the eventual incarceration by the State of all those who, at one time in their past, owned a cat or dog whose color was other than brown. But the story isn’t quite that simple. It develops from a condemnation against non-brown cats and dogs, to the censuring of books where the words “cat” or “dog” are not preceded by the word “brown,” to the final arrest of those who once owned the offending non-tan animals. It’s a rather facile and simple-minded tale about the slow and creeping reach of the totalitarian state.

Now, having recounted this literary yarn, Finkielkraut turns to 21 April, 2002, the date of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s electoral success, and the beginning of a frenzy among the French, as pathetic as it was juvenile. In three short paragraphs, Finkielkraut describes the reaction of those very readers of Matin brun. Their response was simple: they saw in Le Pen the incarnation of the totalitarian state, the killer of non-brown cats and dogs. And in response, under the banner of vigilance, “hundreds of thousands of children, adolescents, adults of diverse origins and political stripes descended into the streets, in Paris and in the provinces, in a bizarre climate rife with anti-fascist fervor.”

Ironically, some in the crowd thanked Le Pen, as it was his threat to the French Republic that had given the social body a purpose: “Unanimity ruled, humanity shone. Society drew a rainbow. A festive seriousness illuminated their faces: their mass smile spoke of life reawakened, by the battle, from the banality of the everyday, and of their moral superiority over men of the past.” The mass had identified the enemy, had mobilized and would expunge it, purge it from the social body without a trace. The euphoria became satisfaction when Jacques Chirac handily and overwhelmingly defeated Le Pen. The forces of purity had won and the beast from the past was gone.

Finkielkraut, a man of liberal countenance and humane character recounts his own pleasure in the defeat of Le Pen. But he knew that something else, something far more threatening was beginning. He celebrated Chirac’s victory, though, as he says, he did not enter in the dancing, because, “today, it is the dancers who make life hard for the Jews.” The irony was simple: the lessons related in Matin brun are now used to reinforce hatred and exclusion.

Finkielkraut’s closing words aptly describe the situation: “The future of hate is in their camp (the vigilant) and not in that of the Vichy loyalists. In the camp of the smiling and not in that of those who grimace. Among the humane humans and not among the barbarians. In the camp of the integrated society and not in that of the ethnic nationalist. In the camp of respect and not in the camp of exclusion.”

As a foreigner observing the political events of the spring of 2002, the almost orgiastic hatred Le Pen suggested not political moderation and the rule of law, but the effort by the French elite to unify and indoctrinate the masses through the politics of the street. The attacks against Le Pen and his supporters were as foolish as they were fervent. It was as if a restless and atomized nation was looking for something around which to rally, something against which to vent its frustrations. It was the religion of the Other at its worst, and it overwhelmingly won France. Surely, this frustration, directed by a perverse political elite against legitimate concerns, is the drug that then brought so many out against Le Pen, and would do so again in opposition to the United States and Israel, to demonize Bush and Sharon. A nice little irony.

Tomorrow: Finkielkraut on the provincial cosmopolitans.

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