Navigate to Arts & Letters section

France’s Sins, and Yours

Sex, race, and religion divide two revolutionary universalist nations

Pascal Bruckner
January 05, 2021
Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The French passion for anti-Americanism began in the 19th century with Charles Baudelaire, who translated Edgar Allan Poe. Channeling Poe, Baudelaire described the United States as “gaslight barbarism.”

Today anti-Americanism spans the entire French political spectrum, from the far left to the far right. It expresses the inferiority complex of a declining Europe confronted with the emergence of a power that is marginalizing and provincializing it in the conduct of world affairs.

But anti-Gallicism is no less virulent among American elites, with varying inflections depending on whether said elites are Republicans or Democrats. Barely 17 years ago, the administration of George W. Bush blamed Paris for choosing not to take part in the Second Gulf War. Today another offensive is in progress, emanating from the left wing of the Democratic Party, particularly two East Coast newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. In their eyes, France’s crime has three facets: romance, religion, and race.

The complaints are three. First, the Gauls continue to worship gallantry and seduction, instead of bending to the procedures of affirmative consent in use on American campuses. Second, France persecutes Muslims by prohibiting the wearing of veils in school and niqabs on the street. Washington Post journalist Karen Attiah even accused Emmanuel Macron, on the strength of a tweet from Pakistan, of stigmatizing Muslim children in schools in the same way the Vichy regime marked Jewish children during the Second World War (she later corrected the tweet). Third, France is unwilling to recognize that it oppresses its minorities, notably Blacks and North Africans, hiding its misdeeds under the pretext of republican universalism.

Thus Time magazine named as one of its 2020 “Guardians of the Year” the young French activist, Assa Traoré. Traoré, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Angela Davis, founded the Truth for Adama Committee in memory of her brother, who died in police custody in a Paris suburb; she contends that her brother’s case is the French equivalent of the George Floyd case, though no forensic examination supported this version of events and Adama Traoré was best known for holdups, robberies, and extortion, as well as for the rape of a fellow prisoner.

But never mind. What is essential for this segment of the press, which sets itself up as a fearless righter of wrongs, is to induce France to conform with what America does better in the way of gender and racial justice. The little Gallic rooster perched on his talons need not hinder the glorious progress of the woke American eagle. As President Barack Obama said about Nicolas Sarkozy: “Sarkozy … was all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric. With his dark, expressive, vaguely Mediterranean features (he was half Hungarian and a quarter Greek Jew) and small stature (he was about 5-foot-5 but wore lifts in his shoes to make himself taller), he looked like a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. ”If I wanted to be spiteful, I might observe that the former American president, known both for his elegance and for his irreproachable commitment to fighting racism, described Sarkozy in a manner similar to how the right-wing newspapers of the 1930s depicted people from Southern Europe and the Near East. But let’s move on.

A little historical reminder: The French Revolution, like the American, was undertaken in the name of universal human rights. All of humanity was exhorted to shake its chains, abolish tyranny, and write a new page of human history. What’s more, the two countries aided each other, with Lafayette crossing the Atlantic to fight the English alongside the revolutionaries and Benjamin Franklin coming to Paris on several occasions. Those visits were replicated by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John Adams. Louis XVI, in 1778, became the first monarch in the world to recognize the independence of the United States. The news of Franklin’s death in 1790 led the Constituent Assembly to pause its work for a period of mourning, as an immense crowd gathered in the middle of Paris to pay its respects to the American leader.

But similarity and rivalry are close cousins. Despite their differences in size, France and the United States preach a similar message with subtle differences on three subjects: sex, race, and religion.

With respect to sex, the United States contrasts with France not in the way puritanism contrasts with amorous pursuit but in the way the two nations’ shared passion for democracy and equality is expressed. In the name of an ideal of equivalence between men and women, America advocates a sort of obsessive codification of gender relations administered by judges and lawyers, a codification tinged with hostility and distrust in which men, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, are viewed a priori as suspects. France, by contrast, without overlooking this concern, emphasizes affinities rather than divisions. In the name of emancipation, America disconnects; in the name of civility, France connects.

Yet France’s case file has become more complex in recent years. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, brought back to mind by a recent Netflix documentary (Room 2806), has cast a dark shadow on a distinctly Gallic tradition of licentiousness extolled and exemplified by our writers and literary figures. The near-total impunity that the former IMF chief and candidate in the 2012 French presidential election enjoyed before the revelation of his forcible relations with maid Nafissatou Diallo at the Sofitel hotel in New York (and of his relationships with supporters in northern France) shocked public opinion, all the more so because numerous political leaders, particularly on the left, defended him. The Gabriel Matzneff affair, unveiled in 2020 in a book (Consent) by one of his former mistresses, Vanessa Springora, who was a minor at the time, revealed the strange omertà that reigns in France between political and cultural institutions, on the one hand, and dubious characters such as the pedophiliac Don Juan and writer, now 84 years old, who has written openly of his exploits with boys and girls.

In the name of emancipation, America disconnects; in the name of civility, France connects.

In an account published on Feb. 12, 2020, The New York Times did not fail to admonish France for tolerating such practices. In the view of specialists such as historian Joan Scott, France is nothing less than a cultural sham. “Dodo the Pimp visits Madame du Deffand” is the apt phrase of Los Angeles professor Laure Murat, alluding to DSK’s procurer in Lille and the liberated French hostess in the reign of Louis XVI. Our country makes a show of setting seduction against prudishness, the argument goes, but that is a red herring.

Endeavoring to shed light on French sexual violence, Joan Scott explains that, in France, one must “summon five hundred years of literature, four hundred classical authors, and a thousand years of civilization” to force women into bed. In France, to hear Ms. Scott tell it, sophistication is another name for macho toughness. By indulging the cult of secrecy and ambiguity, France justifies the worst practices of the patriarchy.

So it is with our gallant Gallic countrymen: They’re chic rapists wielding the argument of courtesy the better to hide their game. They beguile and dupe their prey in order to abuse them. Refinement and compliments defended by a vast literary and painterly tradition are ruses that imprison while appearing to praise. In France, you are aggressed, but with flowers and to the words of great poets and dramatists. Our country, in the eyes of its North American critics, is nothing more than a rose planted in manure. It is therefore time for the country to abandon the somewhat utopian feminism of the pioneers—Simone de Beauvoir, Gisèle Halimi, Simone Weil, Françoise Giroud—and fall in step with North American activists.

The 2018 petition issued in response to #MeToo by a group of women that included Catherine Millet, Ingrid Caven, and Catherine Deneuve defending persistent hookup efforts and “the freedom to pester that is indispensable to sexual life” therefore raised an outcry in Anglo-American circles. Even the very respectable and old-school Emma Thompson, who has never been considered a bomb thrower, went so far as to portray in an interview the otherwise courageous Deneuve as a “collaborator with male power.” It was a strong statement, enabling Thompson to demonstrate the truth of Godwin’s law.

The second complaint: France is supposedly congenitally racist and does nothing to neutralize this penchant passed down from its colonial and imperial history, unlike the United States, which instituted positive discrimination in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The fact is that racism—in several forms—does indeed exist in our country, but one can also point to major differences with the United States. In addition to the fact that the French Republic never practiced slavery or segregation on its soil, the French approach is not to assimilate communities, as in America, but rather individuals, whom it strives first to emancipate from their origins. That is why it refuses to collect statistics on ethnicity.

Although France has objective reasons to be ashamed of its colonial past and of the attitude of the Vichy government during WWII, it also has reasons to feel pride. While America was hanging and burning Blacks into the 1950s, Paris was welcoming African American singers, jazz musicians, writers, and dramatists who sought refuge in France to escape the plague of torchings and lynchings. I had the opportunity to meet James Baldwin in Paris in 1984; he had been living in Saint-Paul de Vence since 1948. Over drinks, he told me that the homeland of Voltaire and Victor Hugo had saved his life: Not once had he been bothered about the color of his skin or about his “sexual orientation,” though that is not how we referred to it then.

Curiously, it was the disinterest of the French that Baldwin believes had saved him; their detachment was a surprise and a relief. “They rid me of the crutches of race,” he wrote in an article. He then delivered this insight: Unlike the case in the United States, the French do not exhibit “libidinal racism,” in which desire courses through color prejudices. Another American who became a French citizen was Josephine Baker (1906–75). As the dancer, singer, and resistance fighter told the LICA congress in 1957, “when I arrived in Paris (1925), I found myself standing before people like you. I was happy to know that I could hail a taxi in the street without fearing that the driver would refuse to take me. I was happy to know that when I was hungry, I could stop in any restaurant. And when I was sick, I was so happy to know that a white doctor and white nurse would not be reluctant to care for me. They fought for my life here in France. … You saved me. … No one called me black. No one called me a ‘negress,’ a word that hurt me terribly. And then, little by little, all of these fears disappeared. I have been a woman raised by France, to which I offer my gratitude.” Many, including myself, are advocating for Josephine Baker to be moved to the Pantheon.

Today, one Thomas Chatterton Williams, an African American writer, has chosen to live with his wife in Paris, where he appreciates not being constantly reminded of the color of his skin but rather judged for his literary achievements and human qualities. This may be the chief difference between our nations: The French republican ideal is to free each individual from his community of origin and make him a citizen, whereas the United States defends identity affiliations tooth and nail. That explains the reluctance of the French to embrace multiculturalism and positive discrimination or to abandon class struggle in favor of racial struggle.

I would add that the explosion of anti-Semitism in France now stems less from the far right than from the far left, which weaves anti-Zionism with political Islam to justify attacks on synagogues and private citizens. In this view, the Jews are doubly guilty of having “crossed the color line” (Enzo Traverso) to become dominant “Whites” and of supporting the politics of Israel, the ultimate avatar of European colonialism.

Last point: the controversy over secularism. This is probably the greatest misunderstanding between the two sides of the Atlantic. For two centuries, the French Republic built itself up in opposition to the Catholic Church and its claim to regulate individual conscience, while America sought to offer asylum to all those persecuted in and by the Old World, including various Christian denominations. In France, the state protects citizens from the power of the churches; in America, it protects faiths and sects from possible encroachments.

The 1905 French model of secularism is subtle: It reaffirms religious liberty by separating politicians from the churches and forbids religious symbols in public spaces and on public monuments. Professions of faith must be confined to private life and religious sites—churches, temples, synagogues, and, later, mosques, the first of which opened in Paris in 1926 to honor the thousands of Muslims who died for France in WWI. As a practical matter, French secularism ensures the peaceful coexistence of different religions but also protects the freedom not to believe. In a major departure from the Anglo-Saxon variety, it protects religions while also protecting us from religion. This panics the zealots.

France is hated not because it oppresses Muslims, but rather because it liberates them, offering them the chance to live their belief but also to leave it behind if they choose. Indifference with regard to faith becomes an option open to everyone, which does not appeal to those who seek to impose rites and ablutions upon the faithful day and night, from cradle to grave. The protection of minorities is also the right of everyone to withdraw without penalty, to live as a private individual who is not defined by his roots, in contrast with North American multiculturalism, which rivets everyone to his epidermis and his origins.

The French Republic does not recognize the so-called crime of apostasy any more than that of blasphemy, an offense that has been off the books since 1792. The strain of neighborhood Islam applied by imams in the thrall of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists—a strain that claims the right to regulate women’s behavior, to require the wearing of veils or bulky clothing in the name of modesty, and to forbid the consumption of pork or alcohol—appears to French eyes like a return to the worst practices of pre-revolutionary Christianity.

Contrary to the arrogant bigots writing in The Washington Post, Vox, The New York Times, or The Financial Times, one does not see massive flows of French Muslims exiling themselves to North Africa and the Middle East to escape the persecutions they are imagined to suffer in France. These Muslims feel French first and have relegated piety to their heart of hearts. If our nation is such a hell, how do you explain the fact that so many followers of the Koran continue to move here?

As for citing “Islamophobia” or the Charlie Hebdo caricatures to explain or excuse recent terrorist incidents in France (the decapitation of a secondary school teacher and the slitting of the throats of worshippers in a church in October and November 2020), as some across the Atlantic have done, these “explanations” are both ignorant and ignoble. They make the mistake of denying the worldwide reality of jihadism and fundamentalism, while blaming the victims for the crimes committed against them.

What would Americans have said in September 2001 if the French media had made them collectively responsible for the attacks against the World Trade Center? (In fact, two French intellectuals—Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida—took this tack; it was not the best writing that either has done.) The New York Times’ former Paris correspondent, Adam Nossiter, now posted in Kabul, in the course of a broadcast on France Culture on Nov. 24, 2020, stated shamelessly that the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Charlie Hebdo reminded him of the exhibition titled “The Jew in France” held in Paris in 1941–42 under the German occupation. Alas, numerous North American commentators have a tendency to read world events through their doctrinaire lenses so as not to be shaken by reality. And that is precisely the definition of ideology.

I would like to remind them of a marvelous article that Saul Bellow penned for The New York Times in 1984, before the prestigious daily had become the American leftist version of Pravda. The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature explained that in Paris, “the sacred city of secularism,” God can take a rest during cocktail hour, when He is not bothered by the prayers and supplications of His followers.

Preaching to the French on all and sundry topics—literary prizes, the fight against rape and pedophilia, maintenance of public order, and Islam—may be a way for the American left to exorcise the four years of the Trump presidency, which have pricked the narcissism of numerous Democrats. They seem to wish to regain their virginity at the expense of the French, whom they admonish with imperious and imperial naiveté. The preachers of The New York Times and The Washington Post dream of reeducating us as if we were a backward tribe. But for we French, what is happening on American campuses, the vogue of the feeble religion of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” is far indeed from the founding ideals of socialism and feminism, and most closely resembles a kind of anti-racism run amok. The attacks on France say little about our country but a great deal about the decay and foolishness of a segment of the American left. But that is another subject.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

Pascal Bruckner is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel Bitter Moon, which was made into a film by Roman Polanski.