L’identité malheureuse (The Unhappy Identity), by Alain Finkielkraut, Éditions Stock, October 2013. 229 pp. (in French)
Reviewed by Michelle Mazel
Philosopher, essayist, and professor of “History and Modernity” at the prestigious “École Polytechnique,” Alain Finkielkraut is a frequent guest on talk shows and a regular contributor to the French media.1 Son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, he is no stranger to controversy. In 2003 he famously debated Tarik Ramadan, a Swiss academic who is a grandson of Hassan el Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the debate, Ramadan accused Finkielkraut of Islamophobia and “communautarism,” (a euphemism for Jewish tribalism). Often reviled for his openly pro-Israeli views and his concern for the negative impact of immigration on French culture and identity, Finkielkraut is now at the center of a media storm following the recent publication of his latest book The Unhappy Identity. This volume considers the national identity of France, the country in which Finkielkraut was born and raised. A week prior the publication of The Unhappy Identity, the mainstream weekly, Le Point, devoted the cover and most of its issue to this philosopher.2 In the same issue Ghaleb Bencheikh, former president of the Great Mosque of Paris who today chairs the “World Conference of Religions for Peace” and hosts the television show “Islam” complained of “incessant Islam bashing.” Finkielkraut replied that some people consider Islamophobic the demand that Muslims respect the laws of the republic, and that he himself simply demands respect for “our values and our rules.” Nearly 8,000 copies were sold in the first week it went on sale.
In addition to having been interviewed widely by the media, Finkielkraut also has been insulted and subjected to violent rants because of what is perceived as his scathing attack on immigration, and more specifically on Muslim immigration. Yet this is not what the book is about. While it cannot be denied that the philosopher sees in that immigration the seeds of destruction for French culture, his view is not related to the religion of the immigrants; rather, it related to his belief that they refuse to be integrated into the fabric of French society and that they are destroying it from within. Popular French journalist Frederic Martel unfairly quipped that Unhappy Identity is in fact “…the unhappy book of a man who no longer likes himself.”3 That is not true. Finkielkraut is indeed unhappy, but that is because he mourns the disintegration of the country that he knows and loves, that is, the loss of its traditions and its values. In a nostalgic introduction, Finkielkraut writes of his youth in post-war France and the great expectations of May 1968, when students shared the heady belief that they could change the world. He mourns what he sees as contemporary loss of hope, and also that France is changing in a manner opposed to the will of its native population. Europe, he says, is becoming “A continent of immigration…Change is no longer what we are doing or what we are aspiring to, change is what is happening to us … and what is happening … is the integration crisis.”4
Integration—or rather the lack of it—and its impact on French tradition and culture forms the core of the book, whose six chapters are replete with quotations ranging from Hobbes to Tocqueville, Levy-Strauss, and Barres to Hanna Arendt. The new immigrants insist on observing their religion in public spaces even when doing so is illegal. In fact, says Finkielkraut, “For the first time in the history of immigration, those who are hosted refused to those who host them- whoever they may be – the right to represent the host country.”5
Finkielkraut considers that this development would not have taken place without some unlikely supporters who saw the intrusion of religion and religious practices in everyday life from an unexpected angle. In his view, it started with a clash of ideas between two groups of secular thinkers. On the one hand, traditional defenders of those republican values which in 1905 led to the separation of church and state in France fought in the name of the same principles against the reappearance of religion into society. On the other, so-called modern thinkers, while atheistic, stridently proclaimed that man was entitled to freedom, a freedom that included the right to express oneself through religious symbols such as wearing the Islamic veil. For Finkielkraut, “Their religion is no longer a religion, but Human Rights.”6 France ultimately banned the veil in public places and educational institutions, but the author believes that the fight is far from over. It is waged daily: in schools where girls refuse to take gymnastic or swimming classes with their male counterparts, in areas with a predominantly Muslim population where women dare not wear form-fitting jeans or even skirts, fearing insults or worse. Finkielkraut informs us that Frenchmen, who grew up in France,7 now feel alienated. “When the cyber-coffee is called Bled.com, the butcher, the fast-food or both are Halal,8 these 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.”9 The son of immigrants who found refuge in France, Finkielkraut, who was awarded French citizenship together with his Polish-born parents when he was a year old, recalls that, “Whatever the milieu [in which] we grew up, French language, literature, geography and history became ours at school and through the school.”10 This is no longer the case. Schools make a point of recognizing and singling out the different origins of the students, and celebrate their cultures at the expense of French culture. The government seems to feel that its hands are tied, and tries to hide the fact that it cannot change what is happening. The state “administers, day after day, the national disintegration; as best it can it follows the consequences of a demographic transformation which….no one had decided….the regime is a tired form; the process a rising force.”11 Finkielkraut concludes with a (very) thin thread of hope for the survival of French national identity.
Regretfully, the ongoing debate about this fascinating essay—one might call it a cri de Coeur—centers around accusations of racism and Islamophobia and resolutely avoids the main issue. Finkielkraut, who turns 65 next year and is about to retire from the École Polytechnique, was subjected to verbal abuse in that establishment. A student even threw a cream tart at him during one of the many farewell celebrations. Visibly shaken, the philosopher left the podium to wash his face but insisted on returning to finish his speech.
1. In the French language, the term, philosophe, has a slightly different meaning than the word, “philosopher,” in English. It refers to a learned person possessing moral and intellectual authority who is able to influence public opinion by the force of his or her ideas (editor’s note).
2. Le Point No. 2143, October 10 2013
4. Ibid., 21
5. Ibid., 115. “Pour la première fois dans l’histoire de l’immigration, l’accueilli refuse à l’accueillant, quel qu’il soit, la faculté d’incarner le pays d’accueil. » Translated by the reviewer.
6. Ibid., 34
7. In fact, Finkielkraut wrote “Français de souche,” that is, of French stock, or, in plain language, “real Frenchmen”, and this led to accusations of racism.
8. Food and drinks which are permissible to the observant Muslims
9. Ibid., 123
10. Ibid., 112
11. Ibid., 214