French Philosopher Finkielkraut: 'There Is a Clash of Civilizations'
Part 2: 'This Has Nothing to Do With Aggression.'
SPIEGEL: Is the modern French identity still shaped by the Revolution of 1789?
Finkielkraut: Back in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the revolution, I signed a petition against the Islamic headscarf. For me it had to do with the notion of secularism, which is running into criticism around the world these days. France believed at the time that this was a model for the world, and is today reminded of its distinctiveness. It is no longer a question of exporting our model. We have to remain modest, yet steadfast.
SPIEGEL: But doesn't French secularism today also serve to justify the aggressive rejection of Islam?
Finkielkraut: How is that? We have prohibited the veil; we have not banned the individual. Previously schoolgirls were urged to place under their blouses or sweaters the crosses or medallions of the Virgin Mary that they wore on their necklaces. That is not asking too much, merely a bit of restraint on everyone's part. This has nothing to do with aggression against Muslims.
SPIEGEL: Hasn't Islam long since become a part of Europe, a part of France and Germany, as former German President Christian Wulff once put it?
Finkielkraut: Former French President Jacques Chirac made a similar statement. Islam may one day belong to Europe, but only after it has Europeanized itself. It is not an insult to the others to point out their otherness.
SPIEGEL: Well, the Muslims are here now. So don't they also belong?
Finkielkraut: The question is: How are they here? Immigrants lose nothing when they recognize their difference from the established population. Today the Muslims in France like to shout in an act of self-assertion: We are just as French as you! It would have never occurred to my parents to say something like that. I would also never say that I am just as French as Charles de Gaulle was.
SPIEGEL: In France immigrants are covered by the jus soli , or "right of the soil," meaning that every child born there has a right to French citizenship. Do you want to abolish this?
Finkielkraut: No. But all equality of rights aside, such a child has become a French national in a manner that differs from descent. The automatic right to French citizenship by being born on French territory makes many French people feel uncomfortable these days, because the act of wanting to be French gets lost in this process. Like most other Europeans, the French have the feeling that immigration has become an uncontrolled process -- something that happens, not something that is willed into being. The countries are not directing this process; at most, they are escorting it.
SPIEGEL: Isn't it extremely easy to attribute all problems to poverty immigration from the developing world?
Finkielkraut: A public political debate on the issue is the least that one could expect. Instead, this field is ceded to the extreme right.
SPIEGEL: How do you view the political rise of Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front party?
Finkielkraut: This disturbs me, of course. But the National Front would not be continuously on the rise if it had not discarded the old issues of the extreme right. Nowadays the National Front focuses on secularism and the republic.
SPIEGEL: That sounds as if you could imagine voting for the party.
Finkielkraut: No, I would never do that because this party appeals to people's base instincts and hatred. And these are easy to kindle among its supporters. We can't leave these issues to the National Front. It would also be up to the left, the party of the people, to take seriously the suffering and anxiety of ordinary people.
SPIEGEL: What do you say to people who call you a reactionary?
Finkielkraut: It has become impossible to see history as constant progress. I reserve the possibility to compare yesterday and today and ask the question: What do we retain, what do we abandon?
SPIEGEL: Is that really any more than nostalgia for a lost world?
Finkielkraut: Like Albert Camus, I am of the opinion that our generation's task is not to recreate the world, but to prevent its decline. We not only have to conserve nature, but also culture. There you have the reactionary.
SPIEGEL: When you see all these problems in France -- the debts, unemployment, educational crisis, identity crisis -- do you fear for the future?
Finkielkraut: I become sad and feel a growing sense of anxiety. Optimism would seem a bit ridiculous these days. I wish the politicians were able to speak the truth and look reality in the face. Then, I believe, France would be capable of a true awakening -- of contemplating a policy of civilization.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Finkielkraut, thank you for this interview.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: 'There Is a Clash of Civilizations'
- Part 2: 'This Has Nothing to Do With Aggression.'
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