The Racism of Intellectuals
by Alain Badiou
The record vote for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in this year’s French elections stunned everyone and left them scrambling for answers. The political establishment has always had easy sociological explanations at hand. They blame the French lower classes, the small town folk who have been misled, the working class, the under-educated, those frightened by globalization, the decline in purchasing power, the outsourcing of jobs, the presence of unfamiliar foreigners at their borders and the desire to retreat into nationalism and xenophobia.
By the way, is this not the same “latecomer” France that voted “no” in the referendum for the new European constitution, as opposed to the educated, modern, urban French middle classes who are the pillars of our democracy.
It seems that the French lower classes have been made into a scapegoat to explain all the evil that the Le Pen party stands for. Isn’t it strange that the political and media circles resent ‘populism’ so bitterly? Could the democracy that we are so proud of be completely allergic to the concerns of this very populace? At least this is what the people have begun to believe.
When policy makers were asked if they were concerned with what people think, the completely negative response “Not at all” increased from 15 percent in 1978 to 42 percent in 2010! As for the affirmative responses, “Very much” or “Somewhat” declined from 35 percent to 17 percent. (For this and other interesting statistical trends, refer to the special issue of La Pensée, Le peuple, la crise, et la politique by Guy Michelat and Michel Simon.) Needless to say, the relationship between the people and the state is not based on trust.
Should we then conclude that our state does not consist of the people it actually deserves, and that the dismal Le Pen vote proves how inadequate these people are? So to strengthen democracy, the government should, in fact, be electing a new people, as Brecht once suggested ironically…
I am arguing that there are two other culprits: The successive stewards of state power, the left as much as the right and the intellectuals.
Ultimately, it was not the poor small town folk that decided to limit the fundamental right of the worker to live here with his wife and children irrespective of where he comes from. It was a socialist leader and all the others from the right who created this rupture. It was not a poorly educated peasant who declared in 1983 that Renault strikers (who were mainly Algerian or Moroccan) were, in fact, “immigrant workers (…) roused by religious and political groups toward causes that had little to do with French social realities.”
It was a socialist prime minister, much to the delight of his “enemies” from the right, who promoted these agendas. Who had the clever idea to declare that it is Le Pen who really speaks to the citizen’s legitimate concerns? Some Alsatian militant from the separatist Front Nationale? It was socialist Prime Minister Francois Mitterand. It was not the backward rural populations that created detention centers where people deprived of the opportunity to acquire residency papers are held without legal rights.
It is not the frustrated people in the ghettos on the outskirts of the cities that issued the order to grant French visas at the rate of a trickle while simultaneously boosting quotas for deportations to be met by police at all costs. These restrictive laws, which attack the freedom and equality of millions of people who live and work here as aliens, have not been created by the “populace.”
It is simply the State that is responsible for these legal crimes – every government from Francois Mitterrand on. There are two examples to prove this: the socialist Lionel Jospin, who announced the moment he came into power that he had no intention of abolishing the xenophobic laws of Charles Pasqua and the socialist Francois Hollande, who has publicly declared that during this presidency he will not issue papers for undocumented workers at a greater rate than did his predecessor, Sarkozy. The general direction is not changing. It is at the stubborn encouragement of the state that ugly racist opinions and reactions are shaped, not vice versa.
It is quite well known that Nicolas Sarkozy and his clique were always at the forefront of cultural racism by constantly propagating the “superiority” of our dear western civilization. They voted for an endless succession of wicked and appalling discriminatory laws.
The left always fails to rise up in opposition strong enough to resist these determined reactionaries. The left frequently even admits that it “understands” this need for “security” and has voted without any qualms for flagrantly paranoid measures aimed at banishing women from public spaces simply because they cover their hair or bodies.
The left candidates keep declaring that they are waging a ruthless war, not so much against capitalist corruption or the tyranny of austere budgets, but against undocumented workers and juvenile repeat offenders, especially if they are black or Arab. When it comes to this, the right and the left have become impossible to distinguish in their eagerness to trample every single value. For those without citizenship, it has been, and continues to be, not a state of law but a state of exception – a state of no-law. They are the ones that are insecure, not wealthy nationals. If we were – God forbid – forced to deport people, it would be better to choose our leaders than our very respectable Moroccan or Malian workers.
And after twenty years of this, who do we realize is behind it all? Who are the glorious inventors of this “Islamic menace” which they claim is causing the disintegration of Western society and our beautiful France? Who else but the intellectuals, busy publishing fiery editorials, twisted books and rigged sociological research? Is it a group of retired senior citizens and workers from economically depressed towns who have patiently fabricated this whole business of the “clash of civilizations,” the defense of “democracy,” the threat to our wonderful “secularism,” widespread “feminist” outrage at the daily lives of Arab ladies?
Isn’t it unfortunate that only leaders of the far-right (who simply pull the chestnuts from the fire) are interrogated for this? Why aren’t there more frequent attempts to expose the overwhelming responsibility of the so-called left, who are often the teachers of “philosophy” rather than cashiers at the supermarket? Aren’t they the ones passionately arguing that Arabs, blacks and young people are corrupting our education system, offending our freedoms and insulting our women? Aren’t there too many of “them” on our football team? This is exactly the way one spoke of Jews and foreigners in the past while claiming France was doomed because of them.
There is without question an emergence of fascist splinter groups labeling themselves as Islamist. But there are also many fascist movements that wish to reclaim the West and Christ, Our Lord. This fact has not prevented the Islamophobic intellectual from repeatedly praising our superior “Western” identity and to devote our admirable “Christian roots” to the worship of secularism. And Marine Le Pen, one of the most fervent practitioners of this religion, has finally, despite herself, revealed to us what it really is about.
In truth, it is the intellectuals who have manufactured this violence against the common people, particularly aimed at the inner-city youth, which is at the core of Islamophobia. And it is the different administrations that are unable to build a civil society based on peace and justice. It is the immigrants – Arab workers and their families being first in line – that have been fed to an insecure and fearful electorate. As always, it is the idea, even if its wrong, that precedes authority and this in turn shapes public support. It is the intellectual, however deplorable, that precedes a leader who then builds a following.
Books, however meaningless, come before propaganda and mislead rather than enlighten. It has taken thirty years of patient efforts in writing, invectives and directionless political campaigning to reap the sinister rewards now found in the tired conscience and the herd mentality of voters.
Shame on these governments who all compete with one another on interrelated issues of security and the “immigration problem,” just to obscure the fact that they are primarily serving the interests of the economic oligarchy! Shame on the intellectuals propagating a neo-racialism and a narrow-minded nationalism. They have patiently covered the void left by a temporary eclipse of communism with the nonsensical cloak of Islamic peril and the disintegration of our “values”!
They are the ones who must be held accountable today for the rise of a rampant fascism, the development of which they have tirelessly encouraged.
Translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Natasha Rusiecki.
Born in Rabat, Morocco in 1937, Alain Badiou is a leading French philosopher, novelist and dramatist. A lifelong communist, he is the author of The Meaning of Sarkozy, Being and Event, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil and The Communist Hypothesis. He is a professor at European Graduate School and formerly chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). The above article was originally published in Le Monde on May 5, 2012.