Probing the Heart of French Malaise

Published April 14, 2015

New York Times

France is in the throes of a unique cultural moment — one that stretches way beyond the soul-searching debates over Islamist violence and Muslim integration, or arguments over its economic travails, fractious labor politics and troubling brain drain. This collective angst has crystallized as two of the country’s most prominent and controversial authors — Eric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq — published blockbuster books warning of the creeping Islamization of France just as the Charlie Hebdo attacks shook the nation. Though both men foresee a France falling prey to militant Islam, there is more to their vision of the country’s past, and future, than meets the eye. Both offer a unique window into the French mind.

Mr. Zemmour is a member of that esteemed French tradition of intellectual firebrands who are public pugilists and encyclopedically cultured writers. Though his latest book, “Le Suicide Français,” has rocked the charts, it is really a previous work, the much denser history tome “Mélancolie Française,” that offers the best lens into his worldview.

Mr. Zemmour argues that the well-known French “melancholy” — the typically French feeling of gloom and decline — has its roots back in the early High Middle Ages. In his telling, as the Valois kings were building what would become the French nation into a prominent European power, jurists from the south — where the tradition of Latin legal scholarship had survived the Dark Ages — pined for a restoration of the Roman Empire. They saw the fledgling French monarchy as the tool to implement their beliefs. Joining the royal court, they laid the foundations of the modern nation-state by building Europe’s first technocratic, merit-based central government bureaucracy, a crucial innovation in feudal Europe. This enabled King Philip the Fair to crush nonstate powers like the Knights Templar, and even to push the pope to move the seat of the papacy to Avignon.

This vision of a new Roman Empire, Mr. Zemmour recounts, explains the French self-definition of identity as relating to language, culture and laws (as with ancient Rome), and not simply a question of shared ethnicity or territory, as with most European countries. Hence the relentlessly expansionist foreign policy of the French state up to World War II. Hence the self-aggrandizing French belief in the country’s vocation to greatness — and hence the French melancholy, since the state failed to achieve that grand goal.

The Industrial Revolution happened first in England, where economic power fueled the expansion of the British Empire. When Napoleon lost Russia, the death of the Grande Armée also meant the death of the French dream of uniting the West under French culture and laws. Until then, France had always been the foremost European power, helped by greater population and natural resources, although always frustrated in its designs for true hegemony, either by meddling Hapsburgs, English resistance, or alliances of rival Europeans fearing French might.

The trauma of the 25 years of total war that followed the French Revolution caused France’s birthrates to shrink and its power in the 19th century to wane. England ruled the seas, and Germany ruled the Continent. Two World Wars dealt the final blows to the French dream, the first leaving France too exhausted to build upon its victory, the second laying bare the nation’s spiritual exhaustion.

Today, the Anglosphere is the new Roman Empire, and the culture that is to the modern world as Latin was to the ancient is Anglo-Saxon, not French.

The French reassure themselves that they can be Athens to the Anglosphere’s Rome — a cultural and intellectual capital, if not a financial and political center. But even if this were true, or even possible, that was never the dream. Hence, the French melancholy.

Only within this context can Mr. Zemmour’s warnings about Islamization be understood. Islamization is such a danger, he warns, because the French melancholy has caused a loss of trust in France’s own identity, which is fatally weakened and liable to be replaced by confident Muslims who harbor no crushing self-doubt. France, he warns, has a long history of civil war.

Mr. Houellebecq’s analysis, on the other hand, is psychological, not historical. All his work is concerned with the anomie of postmodern existence, and the budding sense that postmodern liberation from laws sexual and economic has been a dismal failure. The existential angst that this failure arouses is compounded by the sense that there is no alternative. In his latest novel, “Soumission,” the Islamization of France is a device to explore this theme — the novel is not, in itself, an attack against Islam or a warning of Islamization.

What are their diagnoses worth?

Mr. Zemmour is a polarizing figure because he is a provocateur. In this role he is often off-base, as when he claims the Vichy regime tried to save French Jewry from the Holocaust. But he sometimes finds real truth — and is always worth reading. He is right that there has been a French national project of West-leading greatness that dates back almost a millennium, and he is right that the failure of this project has created a very special kind of malaise that when married with a postmodern multiculturalism makes it harder for France to integrate its Muslim youth.

Mr. Houellebecq is a finer psychologist than Mr. Zemmour. It is hard to read tales of everyday Western youth dropping everything to join ISIS and not conclude that there is something to the idea that postmodern anomie and libertinism leave a secret part of us craving an all-embracing, confident, life-shaping creed.

In the end, what Mr. Zemmour and Mr. Houellebecq have in common is not a critique of Islam or immigration, which is really secondary to their concerns. Instead, what they have in common is that they point to real wounds in the French soul, wounds that too often go unmentioned — wounds for which they freely admit they have no cure.

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