The Magazine

French Undressing

Where PC meets overweening government power, a terrible politics is born

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Paris
On a bright Wednesday afternoon in late February a bunch of French Muslims gathered in an upstairs room at the Café du Pont Neuf on the Seine. They had summoned a group of Internet journalists before whom they intended to lay out a few grievances. Their leader, Farida Belghoul, a 55-year-old Frenchwoman of Algerian Kabyle background, is a veteran of the movement that, back in the 1980s, sought to rally North African immigrants’ children (known as beurs) behind Socialist president François Mitterrand. Belghoul was the eloquent and camera-friendly voice of the so-called Second March of the Beurs in 1984, but she drifted from view after that. She has spent the intervening years teaching, writing novels, making films, studying, and, most recently, living in Egypt. Journalists who have written about ethnicity, immigration, and left-wing politics in decades past retain a vague memory of her name. 

French Undressing

Gary Locke

Those who have reacquainted themselves with Belghoul in recent months have been shocked to see what has become of this onetime hope of socialism. She has seen a few things. She has drawn closer to God. And she has become the sworn enemy of the French Ministry of Education’s ideas about what children should be taught about sex. In the audience at the café, silhouetted against the windows that face across the Seine toward the towers of the Conciergerie, there were women in headscarves. But the speakers sitting at Belghoul’s side included leaders of Christian organizations, conservative politicians, a priest, and a former member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet. Many of them until quite recently thought of Muslim immigration as a menace to the Republic. All were there to pay their respects to a woman who, for now at least, has become one of the most important right-wing leaders in France. 

An embitterment has entered French politics under the presidency of François Hollande, the first Socialist to run France since the last century. Voters chose Hollande in 2012 as a way of administering a slap to the brassy martinet Sarkozy, but Hollande’s popularity has fallen steadily since. The economy is flat. Hollande’s advisers—mostly people of retirement age—keep scolding the public about how they ought to work harder. The Red Bonnets, a movement of protest against the green taxes that are hitting farmers hard, have been on the march in Brittany. Economic inequality has worsened, and the Paris economist Thomas Piketty—whose new book on inequality has made bestseller lists—took to the pages of the daily Libération to describe Hollande as a “serial bumbler.” Hollande is his party’s most prominent champion of French involvement in the 28-nation superstructure of the European Union, at a time when a majority (58 percent) of Frenchmen want less of it. The country’s unemployment rate is over 10 percent, and Hollande’s approval ratings have fallen into the teens. Never in recent decades has a Western European leader been less popular.

It is not usually fruitful to compare foreign leaders with American presidents, but there is a reason Hollande hit it off so well with President Obama on his state visit last month. Both have a mild manner that is an inestimable asset when the leader of the party that likes to shake things up is courting swing voters. Both, though, are ideological adventurers, with a reverence towards what the university utopians in their party dream up, even if they are not dreamers themselves. But Obama has trump cards Hollande lacks: a reserve currency, an empire, a vast army. He also has Republican opponents who have restrained him from nominating too many Van Joneses and Debo Adegbiles. Hollande has had the personal good fortune, and the political bad fortune, to get the allies he has wished for. He has wound up beholden to the Europe-Écologie party (EELV), which is too radical for most French voters’ tastes.

It was partly at the EELV’s suggestion that Hollande went out on a limb last winter and legalized gay marriage. It was a mistake. The law has been more ferociously resisted in France than in any Western country. As with President Obama’s health care reform, the passage of the law has done nothing to settle the argument over it. The protests have continued. The problem, it is clear, was not just the law itself but also the spirit in which it was offered. “It’s a reform of society,” said justice minister Christiane Taubira in late 2012, “and you could even say a reform of civilization.” That remark, and others like it, awakened a section of political France that had been slumbering for decades—the Catholic part, the traditionalist part, the sort of people who have five kids, favor cardigans over hoodies, and can describe France as the “eldest daughter of the church” without snickering. 

Unmitigated Gaul

It is hard to say what made Catholics in France more hostile to gay marriage than those in other countries. Perhaps they have been so long at a distance from power that they have not acquired the habit of political negotiation and compromise. One factor in the resistance is certainly the incentive gay marriage offers to irregular adoption. French people are uneasy about mixing up money values and human values. Surrogate motherhood is still not legal; in fact, one sees it likened to the slave trade in certain newspapers, although legal activists have sought to ease restraints on the practice. 

Gay marriage in France is called mariage pour tous, “marriage for everybody.” The mostly church-inspired movement against it is called la manif pour tous, “the demonstration for everybody,” manifestation being the French for a political march or protest. After all, everybody used to be Catholic. In the spring of 1984, several hundred thousand marchers convinced François Mitterrand to withdraw his project of absorbing the country’s Catholic schools into the state system. 

This was what the anti-gay-marriage protesters had in mind. The main voice of the marches when they started was Frigide Barjot, a gifted and gentle eccentric who had been growing more and more serious about her Catholic faith for a decade. Barjot was an admirer of Pope Benedict XVI. She wrote interesting memoirs, was married to the comic writer Basile de Koch (his name and hers are pseudonyms), and had even made racy music videos. She had (and retains) many gay friends, and she appeared not to have a milligram of ill-will in her body. (“Who am I to judge?” she often says, quoting the present pope.) She was good on TV and the Internet, a person of integrity, living poor as a church mouse with her husband and children in an apartment in a modest block near the Eiffel Tower. (The left-leaning city government of Paris has begun proceedings to kick them out of it; when I visited, it was crammed with dress racks and piled high with cardboard boxes.) 

Barjot described gay couples as a blessing for France and even backed civil unions for them; she insisted only that every child was the product of a mother and a father and deserved to be raised that way. The universe of people ready to sign on to these views turned out to be vast. It ranged from the lay Catholic bloggers of Salon Beige to the Jérôme-Lejeune Foundation (which campaigns for those with Down syndrome) to former housing minister Christine Boutin’s pro-life group Alliance Vita. That is leaving aside Muslims, Jews, the “fundamentalist” Catholics who reject Vatican II, and those who reject gay marriage for reasons that are nonreligious. 

By last winter, the Manif pour Tous showed itself capable of drawing millions—1.4 million showed up for its event in Paris in March 2013, almost double the turnout of the biggest marches in 1984. It was stunning—most polls put Mass attendance in France at around 5 percent, and Catholics themselves had come to think they were dying out. Many Catholics describe the spirit of the Manif pour Tous in exactly the same terms gays did when they began protesting after the Stonewall riots of 1969—they were shocked to discover how many people there were who felt just as they did. Some even described them as “Catholic Pride days.” 

Just as Scott Brown’s election to a Massachusetts Senate seat in 2010 was assumed to signal the end of President Obama’s health reforms, these marches should have meant the end of gay marriage in France. The constitution of the Fifth Republic turns the French presidency into an elective monarchy, which was fine in 1958 when it was designed for Charles de Gaulle. But it has proved a bad fit for anybody who cannot write on his résumé: “Saved the nation in World War II.” France doesn’t have midterm elections (although the approaching municipal elections will permit the public to send a signal). It has little local ability to temper the will of the capital. What it does have, especially since 1968, is a virtually constitutional role for street protests. If you can put enough people in the street to protest a government action, the government will back down. No one understands that better than the 59-year-old Hollande, who was mentored by his party’s soixante-huitards, or ’68ers. Mitterrand had to let Catholics keep their schools in 1984. Chirac had to abandon budget cuts in 1995 and a youth jobs program in 2006. 

That didn’t happen last time. The anti-gay-marriage protests of 2012 and 2013 drew record crowds, and yet the government didn’t relent. In fact, it dug in. The number of arrests at Manif pour Tous parades was high. In recent days, a Russian student has told reporters that police offered her help obtaining citizenship in exchange for spying on the movement. “The government saw it as a sign of their own virtue to have these people marching against them,” said one non-Catholic sympathizer of Frigide Barjot. If this really was a reform of civilization, then those families marching in the streets were the new civilization’s enemies.

Cold front 

Oppponents often describe the social-issues protesters as being on the “extreme right” or even a “French equivalent of the Tea Party,” both of them labels that get applied to whatever force the political class is most eager to exclude. These epithets were not ones that the broad, pious, native-French upper-middle class would have chosen as descriptions of itself. In fact, these people seem to have no political allies at all—either in the center of French politics or on the extremes. The Gaullist UMP, the closest French equivalent to the U.S. Republican party, is no place for “values voters.” Sarkozy talked a good game to them but left them no less disappointed than the rest of his coalition of followers. His housing minister, Christine Boutin, the only outspoken pro-life politician in the party, has now left the party, gravitating to Christian Democracy and the world of Farida Belghoul. The party’s candidate for mayor of Paris, the yuppie ex-Sarkozy spokesperson Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, not only distrusts the Manif pour Tous but has demanded recantation from any candidate in her party who ever expressed the slightest sympathy for it. This included Hélène Delsol, whom Kosciusko-Morizet dropped from her list of candidates, allegedly for her links to a centrist candidate. Conservatives often speak of the political establishment as the “UMPS”—a jamming-together of the party acronyms of the Gaullists and the Socialists.

There is nothing to drive a population rightward like the softening of its putatively conservative party. Most people in any society would like to be considered easy-going and accommodating. They will say the proper, tolerant things as long as they are confident someone else is willing to endure the social stigma of being the humorless keeper of order. When people lose confidence there is anyone more conservative hiding in the woodwork, they reluctantly take on the embarrassing job of expressing conservative thoughts themselves. That is what happened with the Tea Party. 

And it is part of the explanation for why the rightist National Front (FN)—which, while democratic in its conduct, has for decades spoken with fascist overtones—has gained popularity in recent years, and why 40 percent of the UMP are ready to form alliances with it, according to an IFOP poll. Purged of its anti-Semitic and some of its anti-immigrant elements by its new leader, Marine Le Pen, it is leading the polls for the upcoming European elections. But the FN never rallied to the Manif pour Tous. Some attribute this coldness to Le Pen’s excess of caution, others to a reluctance to offend the Front’s gay supporters and members. Whatever the reason, these were not the Manif’s people. The National Front’s rank and file opposed gay adoption, but only by 56 percent to 37, not far from the views of the French public at large.

About a year ago, though, the Manif pour Tous movement began to harden. Cast adrift from the French political system with no weapon but their numbers and their good intentions, by turns ignored and calumniated by an unpopular but steely government, certain marchers began to see the beautiful soul of Frigide Barjot as more of a liability than an asset. She was frozen out of her leadership position, replaced by Ludovine de la Rochère, an officer of the Jérôme-Lejeune Foundation. At the March 2013 demonstration of the Manif pour Tous, the one that drew 1.4 million people and ran for miles down the Avenue de la Grande Armée, police blocked the route. A group of marchers tried to end-run a police blockade and enter the Champs-Élysées, a nonauthorized parade route, to the chagrin of Barjot and some of the movement’s more orderly leaders. A businesswoman named Béatrice Bourges backed the marchers. 

That was the beginning of Bourges’s explicitly political movement Printemps Français. The name, which means “French spring,” betrays an assumption, perhaps, that France is not much freer than the countries of the Arab world, where Bourges was born. Bourges wants to remove Hollande from office under the little-known Article 68 of the constitution for extreme dereliction of duty. She has not been specific about whether he most deserves ousting for his economic, his immigration, or his gender rights policies, nor has she been particular about whose company she travels in. In late January she organized a Day of Rage. The 17,000 people who gathered in the Place de la Bastille were not Frigide Barjot’s live-and-let-live types. There was a bit of humor. One held a sign reading “We want a state that is transparent, not a state of ‘trans’ parents.” But there was other stuff as well. “Jews!” read one placard. “France does not belong to you!”

M’Bad news

There have been incidents like this for at least 15 years in France, but they have tended to look like mere dérapages, moments when somebody loses his head and does something stupid. No longer. What seemed even two or three years ago to be only a serious potential problem has emerged as a present danger. There now exists an identifiable constituency for anti-Semitism in France. It is not necessarily broad, but it is not just a few fringe individuals, either. It is what you could call a “market.” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a gifted and sometimes riotously funny comic of Cameroonian descent and pronounced left-wing views, began to attack Israel and Zionism at the turn of the century, just after the second intifada and the September 11 attacks. Since then his ideology has evolved in a Farrakhanite direction and beyond. The literary scholar Robert Faurisson, France’s highest-profile denier of the Shoah, as the Holocaust is known, participated in one of Dieu-donné’s onstage routines in a striped Auschwitz-style suit. Dieudonné sings a bouncy song called “Shoah-nanas” (a homonym for “Hot Pineapple”), complete with a dance. In December he said of one of his journalistic critics, “When I hear him talk, Patrick Cohen, I think .  .  . you know .  .  . the gas chambers .  .  . too bad .  .  .”

Dieudonné’s defenders often say he is not anti-Semitic, only “anti-system.” But at times like now, when France’s “system” seems bent on dismantling its old institutions and adapting its culture to the cyber-economy, the system has suited Dieudonné fairly well. He churns out homemade videos that get millions of hits on his theater’s website, on YouTube, and on EgalitéetReconciliation.fr. This last is the brainchild of Alain Soral, a bestselling underground author, the brother of a famous Swiss actress, and an inspired provocateur. In one sense he resembles the television commentator Glenn Beck, an apostle of autodidacticism who offers his presumably angry viewers long reading lists with which to arm themselves intellectually—in Soral’s case, an interesting mix of left and right that includes Kropotkin, Ezra Pound, the contemporary economist Satyajit Das, the Dréyfusard Bernard Lazare, and the Marxist philosopher Pierre Clouscard. But whereas Beck’s books are mostly attacks on Woodrow Wilson or New Deal statism, many of Soral’s favorites question the whole modern order, and would have been found congenial by French fascists in the 1930s. He, too, spends a good deal of his energy thinking about Zionism. He has moved from Communism to the National Front to what he calls a “national socialism à la française.”

At the turn of the year, word spread that Dieudonné was about to take a particularly rebarbative show on tour. Interior minister Manuel Valls—the Socialist party’s only public figure with a reputation for being tough on crime—decided to come down on him like a ton of bricks. Valls sought to have the show banned before it even opened. When the city of Nantes, the first stop on the tour, refused to ban it, on the grounds that this would constitute prior restraint, the Conseil d’État—a sort of supreme court that operates out of the country’s executive branch—overruled it. Tax authorities raided Dieudonné’s house. 

The public’s response was nothing like what the government might have anticipated. Valls, who had started the week as the most popular politician in France, saw his approval ratings plummet. The French pollster BVA showed his approval among young people, who are disproportionately of immigrant background, falling from 61 percent to 37 percent. It may be that they were unnerved by the government’s weakness—the realization that it required the entire disciplinary apparatus of the state to constrain one Afro-French vaudevillian. On the other hand, they may have been unnerved by the government’s presumption. France’s tools for disciplining opinion have been so wantonly overused that many who sincerely deplored Dieudonné’s views may have felt they had less to lose from his opinions than from giving the state more means of control.

In such a context, though, the Day of Rage alarmed even the government’s most vocal opponents. They saw it as a pointless squandering of the Manif movement’s hard-earned reputation for constructive engagement, and a foolish opening, intentional or not, to extremists. The Figaro columnist Ivan Rioufol, usually a slashing opponent of political correctness and conformism, called the demonstration “the example not to follow” and faulted Bourges for failing to distance herself from the wackos a protest movement inevitably draws. Bourges said afterwards that she hadn’t seen the worst offending placards during the march. Rioufol had been used by the mainstream media, she said, adding: “The people are almost pre-revolutionary.” She insisted that channeling people’s rage was not the same thing as violence. What she didn’t do was apologize.

In this she sounded a bit like the Ukrainian boxer and political activist (and now presidential candidate) Wladimir Klitschko, who, when asked by the Guardian in January whether it bothered him to protest alongside the occasionally anti-Semitic extremist Oleh Tyahnybok, replied: “In order to land a punch, you need to bring your fingers together into a fist. We need to join all of our forces together. That is the only way that we can win.” In other words, no, it didn’t bother him. There are suddenly a lot of people talking and thinking this way in France. In forming political alliances, the extremism of one’s allies is becoming a second-order consideration. 

A week after the Day of Rage, the Manif pour Tous held a much larger, much milder demonstration, amid threats from Valls that there would be a massive police reaction to any excesses. The following day, the Hollande government withdrew a law on the family that would have eased adoption rules and given new rights to stepparents. This occasioned another “day of rage” against Hollande, this one coming from his own party’s left wing. Was it the quiet, decent side or the unsavory side of French conservatism that had brought about this reversal? Was it the gentle Christians or the fuming radicals? Both sides claimed the credit.

 Everybody’s naked

The French government has been speaking about sexual matters almost nonstop for two years now without ever giving a satisfactory explanation of its philosophy. So incoherent has Hollande been that many commentators assume he has chosen sex and gender arbitrarily, as a means of diverting attention from his economic-policy failures, or, more ambitiously, following a Leninist strategy of sowing confusion in the public. Compare him with Barack Obama. The president has backed gay marriage on the grounds that marriage is such a noble institution that it ought to be opened to everybody—a grounds that, while debatable, is also perfectly straightforward. Hollande appears bizarre by contrast. He married neither Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, nor Valérie Trierweiler, the journalist whom he publicly acknowledged as his companion in 2010. Nor has he announced any plans to marry Julie Gayet, the actress for whom he evicted Trierweiler from the Elysée Palace. He has shown himself willing to risk civil strife over an institution he does not believe in in the first place.  

(A question that has interested French observers somewhat more is how the chubby 59-year-old has had such success as a .  .  . a .  .  . you could almost call him a sexagenarian. French women tend to explain it with reference to Hollande’s sense of humor, which is legendary in political circles. Une femme qui rit, runs the French proverb, est à moitié dans ton lit. If you can make a woman laugh, you’ve got her halfway into bed.)

On the eve of Hollande’s visit to the Vatican in January, which came just days after his household reshuffle, 120,000 Catholics wrote an online petition to Pope Francis, asking him to raise a long list of grievances with their president: a 1993 law against “hindering an abortion,” which has been used against antiabortion protesters and carries a prison sentence of up to two years; the desecration of churches by the Pussy Riot-style Ukrainian feminist group Femen; and the stated wish of the minister of education, Vincent Peillon, to “free the student of all determinisms.” This last bit of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo may not sound like much. But it is what drew those enraged Catholics and Muslims to the room over the Café du Pont Neuf in February. 

Political correctness came late to France, but the country has made up for lost time. France is now at the nadir of politically correct Zhdanovism, the stage America reached in about 1991, when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of harassment at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Antioch College required lovers making passes at one another to obtain verbal or written consent at each “base,” people said things such as “differently abled,” and elementary schools raised the consciousness of children by forcing them to read Heather Has Two Mommies

Yet PC has acquired institutional redoubts in France that it never did in the United States, and it now appears almost invincible. This may have to do with France’s Jacobin tradition, which centralizes everything governmental and discourages wiggle room. Right now the Ministry of Education is conducting a monomaniacal campaign to persuade schoolchildren that there is no difference whatsoever between boys and girls, other than the ones they have been taught by a sexist culture. The ministry aims to fight centuries of sexism and bigotry through a kind of counter-brainwashing: giving girls trucks and balls, boys bottles and dolls, and turning Little Red Riding Hood into a boy. So much for Vive la différence.

Opponents call such teachings la théorie du genre, or gender theory. In February, conservative UMP leader Jean-François Copé publicly criticized a list of books that were either required or suggested for use in schools. It was a bold move, a real coup, and might have had more effect on French voters had not the UMP already introduced a certain amount of gender theory to the schools under Sarkozy. The books Copé publicized included Does Miss Zazie Have a Peepee?, Daddy Wears a Dress, and Everybody’s Naked!, which contained vivid pictures of children and adults (“The babysitter is naked,” “The policeman is naked,” “The teacher is naked”) and promptly rose to number one on Amazon’s French website.

Two things turned the controversy over théorie du genre into a scandal. The first is that education minister Peillon and his associates claimed there was no such thing. Peillon professed himself “absolutely against” gender theory; he was just for teaching children about the interchangeability of the sexes at ever-younger ages. “You mustn’t confuse it with gender studies,” said women’s rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. “What they’re teaching [kids] is the values of the republic,” said finance minister Pierre Moscovici, “those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” They were, it turns out, taking their voters for dummies. The conservative television gadfly Éric Zemmour claimed that what was being taught came not from child psychology but from gay political activism. The new school materials were “carbon copies” of activist documents, he said, and he began to produce them: a plan to have the national railways “educate against homophobia,” memos from the Socialist party group Homosexuality and Socialism, last year’s government “Teychenné Report” on “LGBT-phobic Discrimination in Schools.”

The théorie du genre was the principle on which the government had been legislating in practice for the past two years—why on earth wouldn’t they avow it? If you accept that sexuality is chosen, not given, then there’s no shame in taking steps to broaden the options on a child’s sexual menu. It was obvious to everyone except the government that this new vision of the Rights of Man was precisely what parents did not accept. Normally in such circumstances, confronted with dug-in resistance, the government would adopt a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone and explain that the country was changing. It was getting more diverse. Our schoolbooks had to be opened to a greater variety of people. .  .  . But apparently there was a limit to diversity. In the weekly Marianne, the journalist Éric Conan noted a striking omission in this dynamic, multicultural time. “The Ministry of Education and the editors,” he wrote, “have carefully avoided Mohammed Has Two Daddies or Fadela Has Two Mommies.” 

That is where Farida Belghoul came in.

Path of Middle East resistance

Belghoul is a heroine of French antiracism. It is an odd-sounding role. One of the mysteries of contemporary French political life is that the government has institutions for combating race prejudice patterned on American ones—but without having perpetrated slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, or any of the historic misdeeds that made the corresponding American remedies necessary. The political action group SOS Racisme was founded in the mid-1980s at the urging of President Mitterrand, just after his root-and-branch reforms had led the country into an economic collapse. It was what we would call an “Astroturf” group, a top-down movement designed by leaders to be passed off as grassroots. The first leader of SOS Racisme, Harlem Désir, is now the chairman of the Socialist party. A few people at the time, most forcefully the sociologist Paul Yonnet, suggested that the campaign against racism was a bizarre priority for France, having more to do with Mitterrand’s political needs than with France’s historic responsibility. 

More people think this now, and Belghoul is one of them. As communism once did, the French antiracism movement is producing renegades. Ex-Communists often took the menace of communism more seriously than they had taken the promise in their more credulous days; their exposure to both sides of certain arguments often gave them a more profound sense of ideological battles than their contemporaries on either side.  

On a Sunday afternoon in February, Belghoul ex-plained her beliefs over sugar cookies in the sunny living room of her house a train ride into the modest banlieues (or suburbs) northwest of Paris. Fighting for the rights of second-generation North Africans in France made up a big part of her early life. Belghoul herself spent three uneventful years in the Communist party starting at age 17. She considers it a passing enthusiasm of little importance, but she retains from somewhere a gift for dialectics and wounding political invective. Taking the government literally in its insistence that there is no difference between a man and a woman, she calls the beautiful Najat Vallaud-Belkacem “Monsieur” and Vincent Peillon “Madame”—when she is not calling him the “minister of re-education.”

Belghoul studied at the Sorbonne and read a lot of history, philosophy, and literature. She marched with the groups that would eventually be swallowed up in SOS Racisme and spent the early 1990s working for Radio Beur. She now believes the antiracist movement was about securing the votes of the heavily Arab banlieues, not about solving their problems—particularly illiteracy, an obsession for her. On a personal level, too, she felt used and discarded. After leaving Radio Beur she disappeared off the Socialist party’s radar screen. 

Belghoul sees a common thread between the anti-racism movements of the 1980s and gender theory: Both are means, in her view, of “destroying the basis of people’s identity.” Confusing children about their sexuality is just another way to break them of their ability to think clearly (déstructurer la pensée is her phrase), to make them more pliant before the state. Belghoul homeschooled her children, something that is easier to do in France than one might assume. Her response to the government’s gender theory has been to organize a movement of journées de retrait de l’école (JRE), when large numbers of parents keep their children home from school. To keep the government from organizing against the parents, she does not announce these days in advance. By February, the movement had spread to a hundred schools.

Obviously, antiracism aims explicitly to make native French people feel ashamed of their prejudices. For Belghoul it threatened the identity of minorities, too, including her own. In the 1980s, SOS Racisme and the Union of Jewish Students of France promoted a Jewish-Arab dialogue. This was an “illegitimate debate” in Belghoul’s view. “It was as if we were living in the Middle East,” she says. Many conservative Jews have made the same complaint—that the requirements of left-wing identity politics turned French Jews from citizens like anyone else into something they had not been in generations: a “minority.” The focus of Muslims’ attention on Israel is similarly the result of politicians’ need to blame someone other than France for the difficulties of French Muslims. There is a lot of truth in this.

But Belghoul has made many of these points on Soral’s EgalitéetReconciliation.fr—a website that few people visit for its sensitivity to the plight of the Jews. You don’t have to press her to get her views on why she has consented to be interviewed there—enough people have raised it with her that she anticipates the question. “You’ll see me alongside anyone who speaks out for the banning of gender theory in school,” she says, “even if I am in total disagreement with the rest of their opinions. We need to set priorities. Today’s attacks on the family put the future of our society at risk. When that goes, I don’t see what’s left. So we need to set aside—and maybe this is an instance of grace—all our quarrels, even those that seem most important to us, in order that the sacred priority of defending childhood may win out.” It is a very good answer. Whether it is a satisfactory one depends on whether you share Belghoul’s view of the seriousness of the threat to France’s children.

Belghoul is always talking about grace. She shouted a doggerel version of Romans 5:20 (La grâce est toujours là / Là où le péché sera / Là où le péché abonde / La grâce surabonde) at a television interviewer named Saïd on the network OummaTV in February. Anyone who thinks this way is bound to see Catholics and Muslims as involved in the same struggle—“même combat,” as French political activists are fond of saying. Almost all of the Christians who stood up at her press conference at the Café du Pont Neuf, from Christine Boutin to Béatrice Bourges to Alain Escada (of the Catholic fundamentalist Civitas movement), described themselves as converts of a sort—to the view that those who want to make France more Muslim and those who want to make it more Christian are not necessarily at odds. 

One thing Belghoul says again and again is: “France is a Christian country.” It is a description that would have made sense any time between St. Irenaeus’ tenure as bishop of Lyon, less than a century after the death of Jesus, and a generation ago. But today Christianity has eroded in France in two ways. First, people have stopped going to Mass. Second, immigration has brought France its large and fast-growing Muslim minority. Two dozen young Frenchmen have been killed fighting with the Islamist rebels in Syria, and hundreds more are there now, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

In a way that no one seems willing to acknowledge, Muslim politics is a key to Belghoul’s power. Although the JRE is small, it is one of those small things with the potential to bring an entire political coalition crashing down—in a U.S. context, imagine the Democratic party if its hold on the black vote were threatened. Hollande’s government was able to ignore the mostly Catholic Manif pour Tous, no matter how large its marches got, because he had never had and did not need the votes of devout Catholics. Muslims are a different story: In the first round of the last presidential election, 57 percent voted for Hollande, versus only 7 percent for Sarkozy. What is more, their power is magnified (and that of Catholics reduced) by a system meant to respect the rights of “minorities.” Should a silent majority of Catholics, by making common cause with Muslims, gain access to the same right to be heard, they will have picked the lock that has kept them out of politics since the 1990s. 

Peillon has called the JRE “an insult to the Ministry of Education and to teachers” and threatened to summon any parents who keep their children out of school. “There is a certain number of extremists who have decided to lie and to scare parents,” he told the press recently. “All we are trying to do in school is teach the values of the Republic and, thus, respect between men and women. I call on all the manipulators, all the sowers of trouble and strife, to stop.”

And that does not exhaust the government’s means of imposing its plans on schools.

Defending the sexbox

Alll Western countries are becoming less politically free, but France is doing so at a faster rate than most. The government has many tools for enforcing conformity. Twitter is capable of suppressing tweets at the request of governments in certain extreme cases, the website Atlantico reported in February, and last year, of 352 such requests worldwide, 306 came from France. Valls, the justice minister, has looked into banning Bourges’s French Spring group. The activist group Collectifdom sued the director Nicolas Bedos for opinions expressed in a magazine column that it considered an assault on “the honor of the Antilles.” These are tip-of-the-iceberg cases.

And consider what happened when Valls lectured the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut on the TV talk show Des paroles et des actes in February about France’s sterling record of welcoming the uprooted—Valls’s own family from Catalonia under Franco, Finkielkraut’s from Poland and Auschwitz. Finkielkraut agreed, but said that that didn’t entitle France to ignore those of French stock—the so-called français de souche. For having used that expression (and for having expressed the worry that France was turning into “the Soviet Union of antiracism”), Finkielkraut found himself in legal trouble—two high-ranking members of the Socialist party called for a sitting of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, a rough French equivalent of the FCC. 

It is a bad sign that, when the ruling party clashes with freedom of expression in this way, the media tend to take the side of the ruling party. Le Monde’s newly active blog section has covered the popular movement against théorie du genre not as a clash of political opinions but as an epidemic of intox, or collective insanity. In column after column, the paper of the ruling class mocks people who are utterly shut out of decision-making for their attempts, necessarily based on partial information, to make sense of the mandates imposed on them. There is little attempt to address the large kernel of truth in what they say, no attempt to address directly the question of whether teachers indeed are imposing on their children an ideology about sexual matters. And there is no acknowledgment whatsoever that parents could ever have a legitimate interest in what their children are taught about sex in school. There are only restatements of the government viewpoint and worries about the mental health of its opponents. 

Le Monde, for instance, notes that there is a rumor about children having to play with toy sex organs. False! “It’s probable that this rumor comes from Switzerland, where in the canton of Basel, sex-education teachers actually have at their disposal a ‘sexbox’ containing fabric stuffed sexual organs.” Le Monde’s blog linked to the left-wing site rue89 (recently bought by Le Monde), where a Swiss sexologist described the anti-gender-theory parents as groupuscules, or “splinter groups.” Parents, of course, are always groupuscules, usually consisting of two people, sometimes of one. The assumption here seems to be that parents are entitled to speak on their children’s behalf only as part of some nationwide patriotic front. 

Probably the most interesting magazine in France now is the monthly Causeur, edited by Élisabeth Lévy, who has opened its columns to the best journalists, historians, and philosophers of left and right. Last month Lévy and her colleague Gil Mihaely interviewed Dieudonné. It was a hostile and highly enlightening conversation, Causeur having been more relentless than most French publications in attacking his (and others’) anti-Semitism over the past several years. But Bruno Roger-Petit of the Nouvel Observateur (also owned by Le Monde) saw interviewing Dieudonné as tantamount to endorsing him. He wrote of Lévy: “When you share the same goals—fighting ‘political correctness’—you wind up understanding one another.” So “fighting political correctness” (a fairly good synonym for “freedom of speech”) and Dieudonné’s kind of anti-Semitism are cast as virtual synonyms. Roger-Petit may well be interested in constraining Dieudonné. But he sounds less interested in constraining Dieudonné than in making sure that orthodox intellectuals not give up an iota of the professional advantage that political correctness affords them over independent thinkers like Lévy. A country whose intellectual and political leaders do not distinguish between Dieudonné and Élisabeth Lévy will have a hard time either disciplining extremists or accepting constructive criticism from any quarter.

France has, through political correctness, maneuvered itself into a bad position. In rough times, people fall back on what they have—savings, family, faith, various things that no decent government feels entitled to violate. What France is doing in the name of equal citizenship is ripping up every last refuge and source of identity people have. Its political leaders have met legitimate popular opposition to their plans not just with punishment but with ridicule, ostracism, and exclusion. Many of its intellectual leaders have fallen into line behind the politicians. For now, France’s leaders have managed to insulate some of their wilder schemes from popular complaint. It would be a mistake to consider that a triumph in any but the very short term.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.

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