French Philosopher Finkielkraut: 'There Is a Clash of Civilizations'

Interview Conducted by Mathieu von Rohr and Romain Leick

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

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1. tell me about your childhood
td2554 12/06/2013
There are, of course, a lot of previously migrant French doing quite well in France, and their integration process should not be seen in too dark a light. However, it is true that the current political controversy on these matters is bordering on the ridiculous or exasperating, as Mr Finkielkraut points out. As an example, here is a former football player saying France should seek inspiration in Mandela : http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2013/12/06/01003-20131206ARTFIG00406-thuram-notre-pays-devrait-s-inspirer-du-combat-de-mandela.php The comparison between France and apartheid is obviously ridiculous. But the problem is that it is quite typical of the way a growing fraction of the left handles the issue... Besides, Mr Finkielkraut is quite right to point out that political leaders from both the right and left seem to be planning to be renouncing the way France used to handle integration. For example, by using 'affirmative action' policies for access at top universities, in direct contradiction with their organisation dating back to the French Revolution, based on meritocracy alone. And such breaches with tradition and history seem to be devised without deep thinking about the consequences, in a very shallow media conversation. It seems to me this is just the aftershock of the riots in november 2005, through 2 presidency. Hopefully, things will settle down and become a bit more rational. Likewise, the last question of the interview, while pointing accurately to current issues, seems to see the situation of France in too dark a light. The problems facing France, or other countries (such as pension equilibrium in Germany) have to be dealt with, but should be manageable. However, it is also true that a part of France's "identity crisis" is linked with the European construction, and the irritating mania of importing "models" or reforms from other countries. This mania seems to be considerably less prevalent in Germany than in France, which probably also accounts for Germany's current better psychological health.
2. ...
Newspeak 12/06/2013
Finkielkraut states that everyone in France has the chance to benefit from the French education system, but that's, among most of the other statements, not true. The French education system is elitist and favours the wealthy, it is not at all about equal chances. And this known for long time and plain obvious. So many other statements are not true, either. The US also had people who acclaimed the 9/11 attacks, the US is not really multicultural but also is more favouring the ghettos, the little italys etc. There are even forms of hidden Apartheid, when it comes, for instance, for the restructuring of election regions such that the white politicians are favoured to the african-american or latino ones. The other thing is, that patriotism and nationalism are no good for anything than creating hatred. I do not give a f... about it, to be german. I only want to live my life in freedom and for this it does not matter if I am called a german or me living in germany. I could be equally satisfied with any other nationality that respects my individual rights. To insist on patriotism is close to being a Nazi, nothing less than that. A more "cultured" Nazi, but a Nazi anyhow. Stop it!
3. Right but pessimist
albertos 12/07/2013
Mr Finkielkraut is right in his understanding of the cultural problem. However he is extremely pessimist. As a matter of fact most French Muslims are integrating, despite of the so called "personal islamization" Indeed despite what Finkelkraut claims, the riots of 2005 were more social than Islamic. The Law of Laicite was passed without problems, the burqa law was passed without problems . NO riots no nothing, and that was a law against Muslims, (despite the fact that it was rationalized as a law in favor of 'decent' Islam.) Slowly but steady ,European societies are awaking up of the multicultural flaw. Even in Britain, there is a growing debate on sharia courts, and on segregation on schools that Muslims wish to implant. The state is tackling this problem , timidly by the time being, but state intervention will grow, because as Camerun, Hollande and others political leaders of left and right understand... if they do not it, the Radical Right will take over. No comparison with America. The 'Muslims' of America are the Latinos. The difference is that Latinos do not challenge the American ethos. Muslims do challenge. However, as I said, most of them are integrating and the rest will understand the rules of the game. With other immigrations, the process of integration worked smoother. With Muslims it works harder. However, everybody knows that the Radical Right is lurking.
4. optional
atheist_crusader 12/07/2013
>>> 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.
5. optional
phreak123 12/07/2013
Now that's something new. Isn't there a book by Samuel P. Huntington called exactly the same published in 1996?
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ABOUT ALAIN FINKIELKRAUT
  • Robert Kluba / DER SPIEGEL
    Alain Finkielkraut 64, was born in Paris, the son of a Jewish man of Polish origin -- a dealer of fine leather goods who survived Auschwitz. Today he is widely seen as a leading voice among French conservatives, as a critic of the modern age and a defender of the ideals of the French Republic. He teaches philosophy at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

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