In April, after the deaths in recent years of such venerable French Jewish members as anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and biologist François Jacob, the Académie française increased its quotient of Yiddishkeit. That day, the author Alain Finkielkraut, born in Paris in 1949 to a family of Polish Jewish origin, was elected to join the group of 40 so-called “immortals” who defend the French language by compiling a dictionary. The son of a leather merchant who survived Auschwitz, Finkielkraut told France Inter radio after hearing the news: “Fifty or perhaps 60 years ago, certain circles of the Académie would have taken offense at the son of a Polish Jew with an unpronounceable name. Today, my national identity is being reproached. The spirit of the times changes, but what can you do? Stupidity is perennial.”
The stupidity in question was an ill-fated protest that took place after Finkielkraut had been asked to declare his candidacy for the Académie. Some academicians who remained anonymous told the French press that Finkielkraut was too “divisive” (using the French neologism “clivant” which, some journalists pointed out, is not even in the Académie’s dictionary). One objector even stated that if Finkielkraut were elected, then France’s far-right wing National Front party would “enter the Académie.”
Jean Clair, an art historian and former director of Paris’s Picasso Museum, told Le Monde it was “ignominious” to call Finkielkraut a “harbinger of the [National Front],” given his family history and the latter party’s extensive record of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Yet other observers of the French literary world contended that for some years, Finkielkraut had been “playing with fire,” as Jean Birnbaum wrote last year in Le Monde in a review of Finkielkraut’s “Unfortunate Identity” (“L’Identité malheureuse”), a lament about doomed French society, permanently ruined by immigrants. Finkielkraut was not criticizing his parents’ generation of immigrants, but rather more recent ones from Africa who refused to assimilate. “Unfortunate Identity” bemoaned that “people whom one no longer dares term pure Frenchmen” now feel lost in cities where the “cybercafé is called Bled.com [from an Algerian Arabic word meaning ‘place’] and the butcher or fast food restaurant or both are halal, these non-nomad [pure French] people feel exiled… They haven’t moved, but everything changed around them.”
Birnbaum pointed out that Finkielkraut’s plaints echoed those of National Front leaders as well as those of its adherents, such as French authors Renaud Camus and Richard Millet. In 2012, Millet published a screed, “A Literary Panegyric for Anders Breivik,” about the motivations of the Norwegian mass murderer, denouncing Breivik’s crimes but praising his views on social democracy and immigration. Finkielkraut responded by stating that he regretted Millet’s choice of title, and inviting the controversial author as a guest on “Répliques” (“Replies”), the France Culture radio program he has long hosted. Another repeat guest on “Répliques” is Camus who, as Michel Wieviorka noted in “The Lure of Anti-Semitism: Hatred of Jews in Present-Day France,” published a book in 2000 denouncing France Culture radio for presenting a cultural program (not “Répliques”) run by journalists who discussed their Jewish heritage. Camus, who in 2012 would endorse the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in a general election, complained that French culture was represented by a “majority of Jewish people, very frequently first or second generation French, who are not direct participants in this experience.” Wieviorka observed that Camus’s critics who charge him with anti-Semitism, including the French Jewish editor Jean Daniel, “tend to interpret him in terms of a virtually outmoded nationalism.” Yet Finkielkraut is a friend and admirer of Camus, praising him as “one of the important writers of our era.”
Finkielkraut’s friends and allies, who include Élisabeth de Fontenay, a Jewish philosopher, mostly seem to feel obliged to dissociate themselves from his defense of Camus. De Fontenay told Le Monde that while she found it “disgraceful” to liken Finkielkraut’s ideas to those of the National Front, she does not always agree with his views or “share all his ideas on the decline of French society, above all on the importance of the writer Renaud Camus.” Four days after Finkielkraut was elected to the Académie, Camus was convicted by a French court and fined 4,000 euros for “provoking hatred or violence” at a public meeting in 2010 at which he lamented the “great replacement” of French people by Arab immigrants.
Finkielkraut and Camus share a common nostalgia for a past that they see as superior to the present. Finkielkraut rejects the label of “reactionary,” claiming to Libération last year: “People who call me reactionary are refusing me the right to think against the mainstream.”
Reactionary or not, Finkelkraut is certainly a Luddite. He fulminates against such modern inventions as the Internet. In 2009, he told radio listeners that the Internet is the “garbage can of all information,” containing “stolen material,” views which he repeated thereafter, also targeting other contemporary technological developments. In 1987’s “The Defeat of the Mind” (“La Défaite de la pensée”), he castigated the effect of rock music and the “cult of youth” on civilization. Such wide-ranging crabbiness has had its admirers — Harold Bloom lauded “The Defeat of the Mind” as “one of the final flowerings of the spirit of Diderot.”
Still, many readers, including editors at Gallimard, which no longer publishes Finkielkraut’s diatribes, tend to find such views stuffy and backward-looking, as stifling as the Académie française itself can be. While the Académie has elected some top-flight thinkers and writers, including Pierre Nora, Jacob and Lévi-Strauss, it has also honored abject Nazi collaborators, such as the Belgian-born Félicien Marceau, who fled his homeland in 1946 after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and loss of citizenship for his extensive work with the Rexist Party, funded by Hitler and Mussolini. Never punished for his wartime crimes, Marceau found a safe haven at the Académie and died at age 98, covered with honors. With exquisite irony, the French media has pointed out that one of Finkielkraut’s first duties as an academician will be to read a ceremonial eulogy for his predecessor in seat number 21 of the Académie, who happens to be Félicien Marceau. Years of praising Renaud Camus may have honed Finkielkraut’s skills for this as-yet unscheduled public celebration of Marceau.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.