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The Asterix complex

An interview with French essayist and author Pascal Bruckner.

What is going on in France? If it's not one group demonstrating, it's another. The European costitution gets the thumbs down, while the country's political forces seem to have lost their steam as much on the Right as on the Left. We publish an interview with French philosopher and author Pascal Bruckner, conducted by Marko Martin at the end of last year for the magazine Kommune. Born in 1948, Bruckner studied philosophy under Roland Barthes and is one of the best-known "nouveaux philosophes." In the 1980s he attained international fame for "The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt", in which he points a critical finger at the European Left for romanticising the Third World. His book "The Temptation of Innocence" was awarded the coveted Prix Medicis in 1995.

Marko Martin: Last fall, all of France was in an uproar about what was going on in the suburbs. Of course it was clear that the pressing discussion about the actual situation would soon be overshadowed by outrage over the interpretations...

Pascal Bruckner: You mean the "Finkielkraut Affair" (more here).

Pascal Bruckner. Photo © Irmeli Jung / Grasset

I mean the outrage over the politically incorrect and in part questionable opinions of a philosopher, which have been elevated to the level of an "affair". Put bluntly, from the perspective of a non-Frenchman: it probably says something about a society when intellectual tiffs – debates in Le Monde, a Dossier on the "New Reactionaries" in the Nouvel Observateur etc. – take precedence over the primary, real issue, which requires a cool sociological analysis of its causes. Assuming you agree, shouldn't we talk first about the suburbs before we address Alain Finkielkraut?

A fine idea! It was entirely predictable that there would be revolts in the suburbs at some point – thanks, incidentally, to reports and documentaries by people outside the Paris intellectual circles. This representation of reality, however, remained as unimportant to our society as the reality itself. In short, we wrote off the suburbs long ago and simply concentrated on keeping their inhabitants quiet. For more than a quarter of a century, people have been cooped up in cement agglomerations that were originally meant to be social and did represent a sanitary improvement on existing housing.

In the course of time, however, these places degenerated into epicentres of hopelessness, although we should be careful not to depicts them as pure misery. The guest workers we invited remained neither guests nor workers. The victims of the economic crisis of the 1970s soon lost their jobs and had to be, and still are, subsidised by the state, reminiscent of the sullenly outstretched hand of an averted face. In my view what happened last fall was a cry for negative integration.

Which means?

Which means that archly French patterns of behaviour have been adopted which permeate all classes and groups. If the so-called "indigenous" French puff up with Gallic fury every time a problem comes up and start smashing everything while spouting high moral tones, if this is the model for everyone – from fishermen fearing for their subsidies to truck drivers to supposedly underpaid civil servants – why shouldn't immigrants and kids adopt it as well? Let's go back a few months and recall the case of the Corsican ferry that was hijacked by annoyed unionists, while at the same time shots were being fired at the prefecture of Ajaccio! France has a long history of violent, bloody action between the various social classes.

But it seems to have been relatively inconsequential when you consider the hierarchic character of French society that still exists today, pretty much unique in Europe.

Well the one thing determines the other. Inadequate methods are doomed to failure, even if their goals are legitimate. In the wise words of Raymond Aaron: it's easier to instigate a revolution in France than to implement a reform. But maybe we should be speaking of revolts rather than revolutions, because they are as short-lived and aggressive as the rest of the society is unchanging. That's the vicious circle we've been caught in – not since last fall, incidentally, but since 1789. It all goes incomparably deeper, and can only be understood in terms of the how mentalities have developed over history.

Ironically, our confused president is right when he speaks paternally of the "sons and daughters of our republic" who we should finally accept. But this doesn't necessarily bode good, coming from Jacques Chirac. What's interesting is that the most conspicuous rioters were the children of black immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, and not the so-called Beurs, whose parents come from the Maghreb countries. They've already adapted a bit, while the Africans stand at the bottom of the ladder and suffer the most from exclusion – and therefore quick to discover how setting cars on fire and bellowing about draws the attention of la France profonde. Added to that is the "ghetto phenomenon". You destroy everything around you that recalls the state: the schools, office buildings, swimming pools, libraries.

In other words, the branch they're sitting on and that, if used efficiently, could even improve their chances against the city they hate...

True, but that branch has no place in the inner logic of such processes. The scorched earth method destroys one's own territory first, a suicidal process that was already observed in the early 1990s in the unrest in Los Angeles. Added to that is the competition that quickly develops between groups or bands, to see who can set the most cars on fire, in which suburb. It's less as case of a rebellion with clear political goals than revolts of the "lumpenproletariat" as Karl Marx once described it.

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's interior minister, spoke of "racaille", rabble.

Yes, but there is a difference between drawing sociological or historical analogies and having a politician pour verbal oil on the flames at the height of the crisis. But the fact remains that Marx's analysis of the damage that the semi-criminal lumpenproletariat did to the justified cause of the working class is still valid today, even though the issue is no longer exploitation, but exclusion. Those who were killed in the uprising – after the accidental deaths of the two youths – were not members of the "system" but simple people from the neighbourhood, a pensioner and woman from Algeria who burned in the bus that was set on fire. The police, for its part, didn't kill anyone and behaved in a cautious, de-escalating way, not at all what you'd have seen in the USA.

But the most surprising thing is that in the so-called "good neighbourhoods" – with the exception of the Place de la Republique in the inner city – not a single car was set on fire. It was as if even the insurgents had internalised the hierarchy of French society. The violence had a shyness about it, it rallied behind the barricades, but never went over. No comparison with May 1968, when those being addressed in the protests were very well selected. Today's car burners see France as a kind of showcase they can't enter - either because they're under-qualified as school drop-outs or because of the discrimination they've been subject to as African or Arab immigrants.

The sociologist Michel Wieviorka puts forward the thesis that one of the causes of the uprisings is the demise of the Communist Party. For decades it was the main force in the "banlieues rouges." Despite all its obvious propagandistic intentions, it did introduce efficient integration and education policies which have now gone by the wayside.

There's some truth to that. It's unsettling that the party has in part been replaced by the imams in the mosques, who in some districts were successful in promoting peace between the police and youth. You don't have to be a clairvoyant to see some of the "refined" agitators soon being socialised as zealous, presumably fundamentalist believers. And then...

But to return to Wieviorka's thesis. What we're dealing with are three institutions that have lost their integrative power. In addition to the Communist Party, there's the increasingly marginalised Catholic Church and the army, which as a volunteer force is a long way from the ethnic-social melting pot it used to be. So it would be fatal to think that with the end of old doctrines – the appalling loyalty to Stalin here, reactionary social notions of the clergy there – an era of pacifism would break out. On the contrary, we are now facing a conglomerate of interconnected problems that make the clear-cut battle lines of the past look idyllic in comparison, which of course they never were.

What seems to have remained, however, is an altogether staggering form of statism, the promises or menacing postures of an apparently all-powerful apparatus, that only go to make its actual powerlessness all the more clear.

This continuity does indeed remain constant. The state as a paternalistic protagonist, hated and condemned by its supposedly incapacitated citizens, who at the same time expect the world from it. But just what is our current situation? We have ten percent unemployment and, unlike in Germany, haven't even begun to address the problem – apart from the much publicised but equally short-lived government programme that was supposed to create anywhere from 50 to 80,000 jobs at the flick of a bureaucratic switch, mostly in the already bulky public service...

...whose strike-happy employees President Chirac, in all his wisdom, dared not to address in a recent television address, when he recalled the need for more professional possibilities for integrating immigrants and their children.

Further evidence of our hypocrisy, and for a policy of permanent appeasement. France today has a budget deficit of ten billion euros, we're quickly approaching – and this is no exaggeration – the situation in Argentina. If drastic action isn't taken in the next two years, the state will go bankrupt.

But what can be done in concrete terms? Before the situation in ailing Great Britain improved with the Thatcher reforms, it got a lot worse, especially with respect to the downcast social sector. Could French society prove robust enough to survive an equally lean stretch?

Hardly. And added to that is the fact that Maggy Thatcher began her reforms at the beginning of the 1980s, when France was electing the pompous, sinister socialist Mitterrand, who started by nationalising the most important economic and industrial sectors and then, when the disaster became obvious, back-pedalled just as dirigistically. Later, Alain Juppe's reform plans were swept from the table, Jospin couldn't or didn't want to do anything decisive, Raffarin fell victim to the farmers and was accused of arousing the "people's fury", and there's nothing to expect anything from Villepin, as almost a caricature of French elite attitudes. This isn't about left or right, it's about particular mentalities, and these seem to be immortal, resistant to reality.

And with respect to the still explosive situation in the suburbs?

At the moment, all you can do is stop the gaps and try to prevent the worst from happening, because a broad change of consciousness – away from the fatal belief in the state, towards a self-conscious, responsible civil society – is not going to happen overnight, not at all in the manner so loved in France, of ministerial decrees. So much has already been attempted in that way: subsidies for social work, suburb associations and the like have been approved, reduced, cut, re-introduced, raised – as if what's at stake weren't people but the most efficient feeding system at a chicken farm.

Those who believe it's only an issue of inadequate funding are absolutely wrong. At issue is the fact that French society doesn't offer enough incentives for integration or possibilities for professional advancement. And as a result, many young people compensate with careers in suburban gangs. This of course does not excuse their criminality, and of course there's going to be gangsters and crooks in even the most perfect society, but it does explain the mass phenomena observable just beyond the gates of our cities.

After the uprising in the fall, Nicolas Sarkozy surprised traditional France by proposing a kind of "positive discrimination," comparable to affirmative action in the USA, which would offer young people in the suburbs better perspectives.

An intelligent approach which was instantly rejected by the "republican" government establishment. The reason: we don't want Anglo-Saxon communitarianism. Of course that's complete idiocy, given that mankind has always demonstrated a need to form emotional, religious or political groups, or ones based on national or ethnic background. It doesn't have to be negative, as long as it doesn't lead to an encapsulation or exclusion of others.

Look at the Asian immigrants. Well integrated in their own community, they are well on their way to being integrated into broader French society. They too had it hard, they came from formerly colonised countries, but the form of co-habitation they've developed here has actually worked. It's similar with the Jewish community. So it's hypocrisy to blame the dissolution of the Communist Party, especially when our system of justice is not meant to be communitarian but rather to defend the rights of the individual, which is as it should be. Where others see a danger, I see an opportunity. And we shouldn't raise the "egalite" nonsense that is supposed to render "positive discrimination" unnecessary.

The fact is that the vaunted republican idea of equality has long been nothing more than rhetoric which hides the actual structural inequality in professional opportunities. Of course there is discrimination on the basis of skin colour, it would be absurd and dangerous to deny this. But unlike in Great Britain and the USA, France remains, in media, politics and business, pretty monochromatic. If society is not open, its immigrants won't be either.

Of course, an open Western society also has to believe in itself, without becoming arrogant. And it has to make certain legitimate demands of its immigrants. But what we're witnessing in France at the moment is precisely the opposite of this elasticity. That's why the really surprising thing a few months ago was the fact that the rioters were defending "their" cites against the oncoming police in the same way that France closes itself off to Europe or to the so-called "Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism." That was and is the epitome of the Asterix complex: squatting sceptically in one's own village, bitterly opposing any influence from the outside world.

Nonetheless, according to the statistics, disproportionately more immigrant daughters than sons escape the cycle of state-dependent hopelessness.

True. Unlike their brothers, young women who succeed in making their way in the "other world" don't have to fear a loss in status at home, as they're already condemned to inferiority in the macho structure of the suburbs. While this double discrimination poses a greater threat to them, it also animates the most courageous of them to try to prove themselves to both – their brothers and fathers and French majority society. They show us that despite everything there are possibilities, and I have the deepest respect for them. This is beginning to become apparent in politics, where more and more women are to be found, especially in the UMP. Unfortunately, there are not so many on the Left.

Are there really more women in the parties of the Right than the Left?

Whether we like it or not, that's the way it is. For about twenty years, the Right has been offering ambitious immigrants from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean better chances than the Left. That doesn't change anything in the structural dilemma we've been talking about, but it's not insignificant.

And does this opening-up reflect true conviction in the parties, or is it just for publicity?

As is always the case with such things, it's a combination. Whether its opportunism or not, the result is visible – if not as prominent as in the USA with Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. You can accuse Bush of many things, but he's not racist. I'm waiting for the day that we have a Turkish woman or a North African man as foreign minister in France or Germany.

You complained about French statism. Is it not society's responsibility to come up with an alternative?

Yes, but society is weak and equally nationalised. I'll go even further; even the individual who expects everything from the state and who invests all authority in the state is mentally nationalised. I think that the Left carries a greater responsibility here, because it – unlike the traditional Right – originally demanded emancipation, worker's assistance, education etc. Unfortunately, it didn't (and doesn't) invest enough faith in the energy of the individual, so its pathetic Utopia still consists of making "the masses" into happy, well provided-for wards of the state. Even leaving aside the Stalinist history of the Communist Party which still today has only been faint-heartedly worked-through, the Socialists and even some Greens still underestimate the potential of the individual. Instead of giving people reasons to oppose their fate – to borrow from Camus – and bolstering their sense of solidarity, their powers of resistance are being weakened, and they're being turned into egotistical, atomised dole-takers from a bankrupt state.

Occasionally the theory was aired that the failure to address colonial history was also to blame for the suburban revolts.

I don't think that there's been a "conspiracy of silence" here. There's lots of talk about colonialism in the schools and the media. The negative association with everything related to the colonial past has become mainstream – with a few hard-nosed exceptions. But you have to bear in mind that things are developing more slowly in France than in comparable countries. Until the 1980s, the best research on the Vichy period was coming from American historians, while universities here took a long time to adopt "post-colonial studies," even after it had been long since accepted in Anglo-Saxon academia.

Here too, France, all to happy to appraise and criticise others, limps behind in almost all areas of modern development. Despite the ridiculous legal amendment passed last February by the National Assembly on emphasising positive aspects of the colonial period in school classes – an involuntary confirmation of my thesis, incidentally – I don't believe that contemporary France is nostalgic about its colonial past. To the contrary, it dreams of being autonomous and fully encapsulated.

But that's somewhat contradicted by the neo-colonial politics in Africa.

I see what's going on there less as a planned strategy of exploitation than a jumble of diverse, Mafia-like interests. France supports potentates like Omar Bongo and Eyadema Junior and at the same time African politicians grease the palms of their French colleagues. It's not a one-way street, it's a network of mutual blackmail where everyone knows all about everyone else's dirty laundry. That's bad enough, but if there's anything like an ideology today, it's the fantasy that it's possible to cut yourself off from the outside world. I think France would even grant independence to the Antilles, Guyana, La Reunion, Tahiti and New Caledonia, even Corsica, because they devour huge sums. People are far from being proud of or boasting about the colonial past.

Despite Prime Minister de Villepin's idolatry of Napoleon?

Yes, despite these scurrilities, we are as little preoccupied with our past as with measures for shaping our future. Is a headless chicken capable of reflection? Of course there is one exception: the First World War, a collective trauma that influenced the fates of more French people than colonialism. In the public mind colonialism was "only" about the anonymous indigenous populations – plus the French settlers like the pieds noirs, business people, adventurers, bureaucrats or military who all told only made up a fraction of French society. Incidentally, the French seem to be much more concerned about the initial defeats in 1914 than about the shame of collaboration from 1940 on – books and films about World War I sell like hotcakes today.

And now we come to Alain Finkielkraut. You wrote two books together as young intellectuals at the end of the 1970s. In 1983 you created a furore with your "The Tears of the White Man", a study of the blindness of Western enthusiasm for the Third World. Don't you think, nonetheless, that Finkielkraut is on strange ground when he suddenly refuses to see anything but good in colonialism, the noble attempt to – quote – "bring education and civilisation to the savages"?

That's simply crazy. Here he's really gone astray – and departed from Western European thinking post 1945, which draws on the principals of anti-colonialism and anti-totalitarianism. Someone who accuses leftist intellectuals of being ignorant of the dictatorial situations in post-colonial Africa should be particularly careful not to go to the opposite extreme and start singing the praise of colonialism. Absurd! And weren't the East European freedom movements also anti-colonialist, that is against Soviet imperialism? And finally, how can you believably criticise Putin's neo-imperialistic power politics – which don't shy away from using "Russian cultural achievements in the Caucasus" as an alibi – when you put your own colonialism in a favourable light?

That's one side to it. But on the other, Finkielkraut was right to address the ethnic aspect of the riots. In particular it was one comment of his that got all of our moral watchdogs up in arms: "If an Arab torches a school, it's rebellion. If a white guy does it, it's fascism. But I'm colour-blind." Now of course that's putting it very bluntly, but I think that's still allowed in a democracy. As much as I disagree with some of what Finkielkraut says, I find the collective outcry over the so-called "neo-reactionaries" suspect. Words, words, words... You said it at the beginning, how absurd and escapist such self-referential ballyhoo seems to people outside France...

One last question. In Germany you are known not only as an essayist, but also as a novelist. Your novel "Bitter Moon", which was made into a movie by Roman Polanski, was just as successful here as "Les voleurs de beaute" – both books having to do with erotic obsessions. But now your German publisher Aufbau Verlag has sudden announced it will not publish you most recent book, "L'amour du prochain", calling it "obscene". A misunderstanding? A farce?

That's how I see it. The book is about a 30-year-old diplomat who one day decides to work as a gigolo in the afternoons.

A topic like that shouldn't really shock anybody, at least since Bunuel's "Belle de Jour".

That's what I thought too. I mean the book's a lot tamer than Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom"! That something smelling so much of censorship should happen to me in Germany came as a complete surprise, a shock even. And a disappointment. I mean, we're talking about Germany, not Iran or Turkey. Or am I wrong, is a new puritanism taking hold? (laughs)


The interview originally appeared in German in the spring issue of Kommune magazine.

Pascal Bruckner, born in 1948, counts among the best-known French "nouveaux philosophes". He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. His works include The Temptation of Innocence - Living in the Age of Entitlement (Algora Publishing, 2000), The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt (The Free Press, 1986) The Divine Child: A Novel of Prenatal Rebellion (Little Brown & Co, 1994) Evil Angels (Grove Press, 1987)

Marko Martin was born in 1970 in Burgstädt in Saxony. He was refused university entrance in the GDR for political reasons. In May 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he emigrated to West Germany and studied German literature, political science and history at the Free University in Berlin, where he works today as a freelance author and journalist.

Translation: nb, jab.

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