Philippe Val, Hide that Identity Which I Can Not Bear to See

, October 16, 2017

Philippe Val, Cachez cette indentité que je ne saurais voir [Hide that identity which I can not bear to see], (Paris : Editions Bernard Grasset, 2017), 195 pp.

The title of this book may appear somewhat odd to those who are unfamiliar with French literature. It is a line from Molière’s well known play, Tartuffe, whose main character became a symbol of hypocrisy and false pretense.    While the quotation may not be apt, it entices the reader to delve into the book.

Philippe Val defies classification.  A high school dropout, Val earned his living as a cabaret singer, occasionally sharing the stage with his dog. In 1992, at the age of 40, he became the host of a talk show and helped resurrect Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly which had been not been published for ten years.   At first, he was one of the editors and later served as its editor-in-chief for twenty years.  Under his leadership, the magazine flourished in spite of, or perhaps, because of its controversial content. Nothing was sacred, especially religion. Some drawings were perceived as anti-Semitic, others, as against the Catholic Church.  In 2005, Val was instrumental in the publication of the Muhammed cartoons. Charlie Hebdo was sued for inciting hatred but the court acquitted the magazine. This did not stop Alain Gresh, deputy director of influential weekly Le Monde Diplomatique, from publishing a vitriolic attack against Charlie Hebdo which was promptly translated and published by Al Jazeera.1  Gresh wrote:  “Since 2000, under its new editor Philippe Val, Charlie Hebdo changed its direction, taking a stand against the Palestinians and supporting the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in 2006… This took place during the second Intifada.” It is noteworthy that the article appeared only two days after the Islamist terror attack against Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 – some six years after Val had resigned from the weekly.  Subsequently, Val became the head of France Inter, a major public radio station, from 2009 – 2014.  

In addition, Val has written several provocative essays, thus making quite a few enemies. He now lives in self-imposed exile in Italy. Probably, state-appointed bodyguards protect him from unspecified threats. He has decided to grapple with the problem of identity that is the core of the political debate in France. The question of national identity first was addressed by celebrated French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan. In a lecture delivered in 1882, Renan presented what became the classic definition of a nation – an entity formed by a “collective identity” based upon past accomplishments and the hopes of continuing to do so in the future.  At present, nearly a century and a half later, that collective identity no longer exists. Successive waves of immigration have altered the fabric of French society. Many recent immigrants do not want to integrate in the host country and, in fact, they reject its core values and its culture.

French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut describes this phenomenon at length in a provocative essay entitled, “The Unhappy Identity,”2 published in October 2013.  Finkielkraut writes of a new reality where French people who were born and grew up in France feel alienated from their country. “When the cyber-coffee is called Bled.com, the butcher, the fast-food or both are Halal, people who had led a sedentary existence experience the puzzling feeling of exile …. They wonder where they are living. They have not moved, but everything has changed around them… They feel that they are becoming foreigners on their own soil.” The book was reviled by the Left.  Finkielkraut, a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor from Poland, was accused of Islamophobia and racism. The influential daily Le Monde3 hinted at “close links” between the philosopher and the Front National, the French extreme right-wing party. Nevertheless, in 2014, Finkielkraut was elected to the prestigious Académie Française. 

At the time, France already had experienced a wave of hate crimes against Jewish institutions and against individual Jews. However, Muslim terrorists had not yet perpetrated indiscriminate attacks. This changed in January 2015 with the deadly raid at the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that took the lives of its entire editorial staff and the policeman assigned to protect them, the attack on the Jewish supermarket “Hyper Cacher” where four Jewish shoppers were killed, and the murder of a policewoman. Popular opinion at the time regarded the above as isolated incidents. The concerted attacks on several sites in Paris on November 13 of the same year, leaving 130 dead and hundreds of wounded, changed public opinion. It was clear that France had become the target of Islamic terror and that many of the perpetrators were French citizens who were born and had grown up in France. Hence, the question of identity. Oddly enough, few people were prepared to deal with this issue. It was easier to blame the West, specifically France, and pretend that terrorists were misguided youth who, according to the media, came from “les quartiers défavorisés,”  namely, suburbs or neighborhoods of cities  rife with poverty, drugs and violence and where the police generally did not go.  Briefly, there were deliberate efforts to avoid facing reality.

Philippe Val differs.  Unlike Finkielkraut, Val does not mention the waves of immigration and the consequent changes in French society. Instead, he argues that if the old identity no longer exists, the time has come to recognize that a new identity is replacing it.  Val also settles several accounts and intends to make his enemies “spew their poison” at him.  Thus, he goes on so many tangents that sometimes his line of thought is not easy to follow. That being said, this book contains valid and noteworthy observations. For example, Val mentions the Communist party but immediately adds:  “inasmuch is there is anyone left in a party which has finally decided to forget it invented the Gulag.” He mocks “the new moralists who are everywhere… with their passports stamped Palestinian correct, guaranteed Islamo-compatible.” He scoffs at the claim that Jews dominate the media, as follows:” If Jews dominated the media, do you believe we would be where we are? Let’s talk about it the day the media will relay a call to boycott Palestinian products.” The author is wary of the internet and of the “autonomous and supranational development of that power tool which is the embodiment of neo-totalitarianism since it affects all human activities.”  Likewise, he expresses his surprise that there are people who pretend to be afraid of measures against terrorism or of the state of emergency because of phone tapping and digital surveillance “at a time they are disclosing everything about themselves on social networks.”

Val states that he would not want to be a Jew, “because those who curse them are sentenced by judicial courts and those who praise them are sentenced by the courts of media-led opinion,” and later asks himself: what is it that we owe to the Jews to inspire such intense hatred?  This question forms the basis of the major theme of his book:   Western society does not have Judeo-Christian roots, but Judeo-Greek roots.  According to Val, Greek is the historical referent while Jewish culture is a living organism which survived centuries of persecutions and exile.  He notes that the passion for commentary so ingrained into Jewish lore has become part of European culture and is a source of the idea of individual rights and laws. He writes:  “The miraculous edification of a homeland for all citizens aspiring to a state based on laws cannot be imagined without Moses, Homer, without Abraham, without Plato, without Solomon’s temple and without the Acropolis. Yet Europe is losing its memory.”  Modern elites have appeared, devoid of culture or historical knowledge; they refuse to acknowledge the existence of radical Islam and Islamic terrorism because they are afraid. “A new antisemitism has found an echo in Europe in the media and in intellectual circles who, to conjure their fear and renew their audience have decreed that Muslims were the new wretched of the earth and Islamists the enlightened vanguard – and anti-Semitic – of that new proletariat.” Turning once again to the Jews, Philippe Val lists an impressive number of laws which changed French society and were due to “French Jews, not because they were Jewish but because they were French.”

But what is this new identity which should be obvious to all? According to Val, this identity should be based upon those who know their history and their past and are proud to belong to democratic nations or states and contribute to the best of their abilities to the rule of law.  True, it is a “bastard identity” made of a multitude of legacies and people, “but it is the only one deserving to be claimed, to be fertilized by our pride, to be defended when attacked, and to be loved with passion.”

One could argue that the author’s thesis is not always backed by logical and well-crafted arguments. On occasion, the reader may find it difficult to follow his discussion. Nevertheless, there is something raw and profoundly moving in his lonely defense of this new identity that no one else is willing to recognize.

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Notes

1 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/01/it-going-get-worse-french-muslims-2015187810909683.html

2 For a review of Finkielkraut’s essay, see:  http://jcpa.org/article/unhappy-identity-alain-finkielkraut/

3 http://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2013/10/23/alain-finkielkraut-une-deroute-francaise_3501717_3260.html

About Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.