Raphaël Glucksmann at an election campaign event in Paris, May 2024

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France’s Handsome Socialist Jewish Hamlet

Raphaël Glucksmann sought to follow in the footsteps of his philosopher father, André, as an engaged intellectual. Now he’s the leader of the French Socialist list for the EU Parliament, whose bright political future may depend on abandoning everything his father stood for

Marc Weitzmann
June 05, 2024
Raphaël Glucksmann at an election campaign event in Paris, May 2024

Jeremy Paoloni/Abaca Press/Alamy

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
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At 44, Raphaël Glucksmann has been tasked by histories both large and small with the job of leading France’s Socialist Party into the EU elections. He is tall, slim, dark, unmistakably Jewish (even if his mother wasn’t). His cool, his golden child aura, his intellectual sophistication and his, at times, clumsy phrasing—when he looks for the right word to express his thoughts as precisely as possible —are all part of his charm (today, the media love him for it).

So far, Glucksmann’s leadership of the Socialist campaign is going quite well—even remarkably well, considering the country’s disenchanted mood. As of this writing, the polls place him at 15%, only a single point behind the Macronist candidate Valerie Hayer (at 16%)—though far behind Jordan Bardella, the right-wing candidate who dominates the vote with 34%. When you think about where Glucksmann started back in 2019, as a political neophyte, 15% would be a star-making success.

By all accounts, Glucksmann’s first parliamentary campaign was at best clumsy. On stage, he appeared stiff, messy, unable to deliver his speeches properly. In public debates on TV, he looked confused, an intellectual Kaspar Hauser wandering across the political landscape. That year, with only 6% of the votes—the minimum required is 5%—he scraped into the EU Parliament. He was also seen, and still is, as a privileged member of the global elite. “I was born on the good side of the sociocultural frontier,” he himself acknowledged on TV during that first campaign. “When I’m in New York or Berlin, I feel a priori more at home, culturally speaking, than when I travel to Picardie [a region in the center of France], and that’s the problem.” The difference with today’s campaign is all the more striking. Admirable, even.

I happen to know Glucksmann from way back in his early adulthood in 2006-07, when along with his father and a handful of former left-wing “dissidents,” we founded a journal called Le Meilleur des Mondes that meant to transcend political categories (those being the categories of right and left, invented right here in France). The journal was short-lived, but during the year we had worked together I had witnessed Raphaël’s brilliant mind and enthusiasm. However, when his first book-length essay, “Génération gueule de bois (Generation Hangover), came out in February 2015, the French magazine’s chief editor for whom I offered to review it answered it was a waste of time. The son of André Glucksmann, one of the most renowned Jewish intellectuals in France, Raphaël Glucksmann had spent the last decade following in his father’s footsteps in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. At 35, he was now back in Paris, where he was virtually unknown, and trying to make a name for himself as the improvised leader of a so-called “new generation” of disappointed left wingers. Why didn’t he follow a normal career? What was he looking for? But to the media world, he was just a sympathetic loser, idealist son of an idealist father. I however, thought his book was on to something. Despite its terrible title and even worse subtitle—Manuel de lutte contre les réacs (Practical guide to fight reactionaries), he’d captured something of the French left’s actual helplessness. So, I wrote the piece anyway.

The Socialist François Hollande had won the presidential election in 2012 on the illusory promise of resurrecting a decade of middle-class prosperity. His (anticipated) failure to do so had destroyed his popularity among left-wing voters almost entirely, and the country was swept by a populist wave. In January 2014, a weird demonstration called “day of wrath” that united traditional Catholic, anti-abortionist far-right parties, Islamist groups, and leftist fans of the Black, antisemitic, populist comedian Dieudonné had taken to the Paris streets, asking for Hollande to resign. One year later, and one month before Glucksmann’s book was released, the Charlie Hebdo team had been decimated by the Kouachi brothers. In the general confusion, the prospect of a pro-Putin right-wing candidate winning the next presidential elections in 2017 was beginning to look plausible.

“People who call themselves progressive rarely take their reactionary opponents seriously,” Glucksmann wrote. “They decree them inadequate to the world as it is and even more so as it is called to become. But who defines what the times are? Who gives meaning to the century in which we all evolve?” The implicit answer was that he would do so himself.

The French elite is trained in managerial “grandes ecoles” and is unfit to comprehend unconventional journeys such as Glucksmann’s—and therefore hate them. But in fact, this unusual if not unique ride for such a young French intellectual was precisely what gave his thinking its interest. On the one hand, his book provided a vivid, well-informed analysis of anti-Enlightenment, anti-Western ideologues such Alexander Dougin in Russia, Alain de Benoist in France and Steve Bannon in the U.S., who were giving shape to the forces that would come to be known as international populism two years later. On the other, Glucksmann’s family’s background also helped him to diagnose correctly the historical problems of the French left.

Having spent most of his adult life out of France, Glucksmann’s claim to glory at 35 rested on three political documentaries focusing on human rights, one on the genocide in Rwanda called Kill Them All! that emphasized France’s responsibility (and had created outrage among former socialists), another, Orange 2004, on the Ukrainian revolution, and the third on the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. That same year, he’d settled in Tbilisi to become the adviser for European affairs of the pro-West, U.S.-trained President Mikheil Saakashvili and, in 2009, had married the young, tough Georgian deputy minister of the interior, Ekaterina Zguladze, who was in charge of fighting corruption among the Georgian police force. The couple, who had one child, had briefly moved to France after Saakashvili lost the presidency to a pro-Russian agent in 2012, only to resettle in Ukraine in 2014 to help the Euromaidan movement.

Glucksmann’s seeming attachment to deeds over words was not without relevance to the domestic French political scene. In 1981—two years after Moscow invaded Afghanistan, Khomeini took hold of Iran, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan launched neoliberalism in the U.K. and in the U.S., and Deng Xiaoping set up the Chinese economic miracle—François Mitterrand had won a presidential election at the head of a Socialist-Communist coalition that borrowed much of its slogans and mythology from Leon Blum’s Popular Front of 1936 (which was the last time the left had been in power in the country). On the night of the election, May 10, everybody danced in the streets to celebrate a victory that in fact, could not have been less timely. While the world was slowly getting ready for the 21st century, France was looking backward to the first decades of the 20th.

Predictably enough, two years after that victory, the Socialists were forced into an “austerity plan” to catch up with the tough economic realities of the present, thus confirming the unbridgeable gap between the left’s ideals and the state of affairs. From then on, the French left willingly reduced itself from a movement focused on real-world goals to a narrative “symbolically” acted out in culture, media, and “anti-racist” campaigns, while the economy was managed in a quasi neoliberal fashion.

One of the results of the left’s emphasis on narrative over action was the gradual disappearance of any concern for the middle and lower classes that were quickly drowning under the combined weight of the economic crisis and of the austerity plan that was supposed to solve it. Another consequence was the rise of what would soon be labeled in right and far-right circles as “la gauche caviar”—the caviar left: a new sociological category composed of left-wing cultural and media personalities with financial means whose globalized members were drawn from the former radicals of the ’60s, and whose credo was ostensibly human rights.

Among the elite progenitors of the French narrative left were a group of intellectuals won over to liberalism at the end of the ’70s through their support for the boat people of Southeast Asia and for Eastern European dissidents. They were called Les Nouveaux Philosophes, and the most prominent among them were Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann—Raphaël’s father. Raphaël’s judgment on them in his book was harsh. “My father, all these alleged ‘kings of the world,’ remained faithful to their passions and to their adolescent dead-ends. They did not wear ties and left the state in the hands of a conservative right-wing or left-wing elite shaped not by the barricades of the Latin Quarter but by the ENA (the Ecole nationale d’administration which trained generation after generation of technocratic politicians).”

Hollande’s presidency therefore seemed like the late result of that disconnection between words and things—a story of widely publicized good intentions and great ideas on the one hand, and technocratic/capitalistic management on the other. But Raphaël thought that the youth of the country—which had mostly voted for Hollande—had to overcome its disappointment. The road to renewal was through the “civic insurrections” already underway in Ukraine and in the Arab countries swept up by the (then new) Arab Spring. The fight against global technocracy and global illiberalism was one and the same. The new left to be born would at once be European and international.

Glucksmann’s intellectual decency was obvious as soon as you talked to him. He was precise, sharp, he was passionate, and, especially when the subject turned to Russia and Europe, he knew what he was talking about. His friend the moviemaker Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), who had produced his three documentaries, admired his honesty and his guts. The story of their altercation in 2008 with General Borisov, the commanding officer of the Russian troops in South Ossetia during the Russian invasion of Georgia, who yelled at Glucksmann and Hazanavicius to “go back to their decadent country,” but only convinced Glucksmann to offer his services to Saakashvili instead, was legendary. His book came from live experience turned into intelligence, something French intellectuals rarely offer.

On Nov. 10, 2015, Raphaël’s father, André, died of a stroke. We all gathered at the Père Lachaise Cemetery to bury him three days later, and, on the way back, the first news of the Bataclan massacre reached us. Killers were roaming the streets of Paris—another sign of how fast the country and the world were changing. History was not dead after all.

In 2016 Glucksmann published his second book—Our France: To say and to love who we are—and in 2017, he became chief editor of the aforementioned magazine I was then working for, the one that hadn’t wanted to review his book. We worked together for a bit more than a year, and then suddenly, upon the release of his third book—The Children of the Void: From individualistic dead end to a citizen awakening (a commercial hit)—he quit and launched his electoral campaign to enter the EU Parliament. He had turned into a politician. I was stunned—and remain so today, as I watch him winning his reelection as European representative on the Socialist ticket, the very party he had castigated in his books.

“I think there’s something impure in the desire for purity,” he acknowledged to me when we meet over a coffee in a terrasse of the 10th arrondissement of Paris last September after his first campaign rally in the city.

What led to his entering politics, then? I asked him. Two things, he answered. “First was the decision to come back to France. In 2014 I was living in Kyiv campaigning for Euromaidan when I read a poll naming Le Pen’s party No. 1 in the country. My immediate reaction was, ‘what the hell are you doing here?’” He resettled in Paris on the spot, with the not-too-original intention to write the books I mentioned above and “make some anti-fascist agit-prop” to give the left new ideas.

The second break happened during a book tour, when, at the close of the debate, an unknown woman came to him. “‘You’re just a piece of shit,’ she said to me,” Glucksmann recanted “You speak well, but deep inside you don’t give a fuck. Because if you did, you would enter the ring, instead of making money over our problems with your bestseller books.” Glucksmann and the woman began to talk: “She told me about her working-class family,” he told me, “the way they had fought all their lives in politics, and I thought, ‘yeah, there’s something I really hate in this intellectual position. When you can see that the left is not fighting the good fights any longer, when you know that political representation is in shambles, and you think that you could do something about it but you don’t, what does that make you?”

This understandable unease is Glucksmann’s originality and also his ontological contradiction. How can you not be pro-human rights after having been conceived on a beach of Pulau Bidong, Vietnam, by parents who were there to help the boat people to escape the Khmer regime? An only child, growing up in one of those old, vast Parisian apartments asphyxiated with dust and books, filled with the intellectual elite of the times, and with refugees from all over the world (in the ’80s Vaclav Havel was a regular, followed in the ’90s by Algerians hiding from the Islamists, Bosnians fleeing Karadzic’s militias, and later, Chechens and Ukrainians), Glucksmann was the heir to a distinct history, which in turn gave him an inescapable angle on reality. When he was 5, he and his father used to lie on the kitchen floor to discuss the nonexistence of God. At 8, André would put him to sleep by reading Voltaire and Montaigne. “My dad was less a father than a friend and a collaborator,” he keeps repeating today.

André Glucksmann’s parents—Martha Bass born in Prague and Rubin Glucksmann born in Czernovicz—were activists themselves, left-wing Zionists who’d first emigrated to Palestine in the 1920s, before Rubin was recruited by the Soviets. Under Komintern instructions, the couple resettled back in Europe, specifically Hamburg, an easy place to travel from across the continent at GPU’s orders—but a place that, as Jews, they had to escape (for France) after 1933. André himself owed his name to the Jewish communist activist Etkar Josef André, who was decapitated by the Nazis the very year of his birth (1937), and whose name was also given, that same year, to the Third Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain.

André and Raphaël Glucksmann, 2008
André and Raphaël Glucksmann, 2008

Alessandro Albert/Contour by Getty Images

Raphaël’s mother, Françoise Villette, nicknamed Fanfan, had been the movie director Robert Bresson’s assistant. She made documentary films about union strikes and social movements during the ’60s and the ’70s. Her mother, Jeannette Colombelle, had been a Stalinist philosopher of sort turned leftist in the ’60s, and a close friend of Sartre’s and Foucault’s. Trained in ideology, Fanfan “was the true political one, says Raphaël. “My father had studied with Raymond Aron and Lacan and without her, he would have argued with Thucydides and Hegel all his life—with the Greeks that he loved and with the Germans he had a problem with as a Jew. But Fanfan did not leave him any choice in 1968. It was ‘either you join the Maoist party with me, or I leave.’”

André’s journey from Maoism to the banner of human rights, from revolution to pragmatism, and from the far left to the right-wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he supported on the naive grounds that Sarkozy would keep his promise of opposing Putin on the Chechnyan issue, is central to Raphaël’s own decision to enter politics.

“Through my father,” he told me, “I saw how hard it is to be an engaged intellectual. I saw how rich and beautiful his life could be, but also, especially during the last 15 years of his life, what happens when you knock at every door to explain the danger Putin represents and no one answers. For him, Chechnya was the absolute emergency in 2007. And he was right. We wouldn’t have a war in Ukraine today if we had been able to stop Putin then. Nobody listened to him then except Sarkozy, who as a candidate badly needed a foreign policy program to distinguish his candidacy. And of course, Sarkozy played him. I saw very closely the kind of frustration that generated in him when Sarkozy let him down. Right there was a huge lesson for me. When you deal with politicians,” added Raphaël, “you deal with people so good at seducing people! They have this inner capacity to actually believe in the lies they’re selling to you, knowing perfectly well that they’re lying. It’s very peculiar. And someone like my father, a philosopher by trade whose quest was the truth, wasn’t equipped at all for this kind of game. Because at the end, you can write all the theoretical books you want and be a philosopher star, but it’s in politics that decisions are made. Not in bookstores, not in amphitheaters: in politics. The politicians always have the final word and at a deep, deep level, I don’t trust them.“

That fall of 2023, as I was interviewing Raphaël, Sarkozy had just released a new volume of his memoirs in which he actually praised Putin enthusiastically. I asked him: “isn’t this what you entered politics for? You were speaking of impurity. Isn’t politics impure by nature?”

“Those are two different things,” he answered. “That you need to shake hands with bad guys or compromise with reality in order to open new possibilities and do what needs to be done is part of the game and I have no problem with it. But impurity in politics works out only if you have a very clear frame inside of you pointing out what truth and justice are. If you start with the assumption that words are just empty balloons moving with the wind, if you think truth is relative, you’re gonna drown very quickly.”

Glucksmann’s ire was aimed at the actual president, Emmanuel Macron—whom everybody in the country today accuses of having no spine at all. Back in 2017, Macron was elected on a program that integrated Raphaël’s first book analysis at least implicitly: Left and right were outdated categories; the old world was dead; France needed a fresh start and a new language; politicians had to enter a dialogue with civil society … It was the old obsession of the country for catching up with realities and with “the truth” all over again. But in six years, not much seemed to have emerged from this “new world” promised by Macron.

Glucksmann’s frustration at seeing Macron “steal” his ideas and do nothing with them may well have played a role in his entering the political arena. “For fuck sake, he’s read my book!’ was his reaction when Macron arrived on the scene, a friend and mentor of Glucksmann’s confirmed to me.” And the fact is that when Macron had contacted Glucksmann after he won in 2017 to solicit his support, Glucksmann passed. Officially because he did not trust him, but also perhaps less officially because he felt he had a place of his own to create – which turned out to be in Brussels.

“May ’68” is widely seen today as an attempt of the youth to liberate itself from the series of lies on which France had rebuilt itself after WWII. The lies of the Gaullist mythology on the one hand—according to which every French person had fought the Nazis, therefore France was among the winners, and still a powerful empire; and, on the other, the lies of the Communists, at the time the second most powerful organization of the country, subservient to Moscow, who controlled much of the postwar left narrative. May ’68 was an attempt from the youth to build a narrative more attuned with the realities of the country and with its new demography.

The public figure who best understood and expressed the spirit of May ’68 best in France was the histrionic then-anarcho-libertarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who is the third character of consequence in Raphaël Glucksmann’s journey. Cohn-Bendit was the son of two communist Jews from Frankfurt, Erta David and Eric Cohn-Bendit, who during the 1930s had found refuge in France, where they’d befriended Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. After the war, they returned to Frankfurt where they’d kept close ties with Adorno and Horkheimer. Expelled from France to West Germany as an undesirable foreigner at the end of May ’68, the young Danny the Red, as he was then nicknamed, involved himself in politics in what was then West Germany. He ended up being elected in 1994 as a German Green to the European Parliament, where he stayed for 20 years. It was thanks to his influence that André Glucksmann and Fanfan gave up Maoism for a more humanist approach during the ’70s.

Today 79, Cohn-Bendit spends his time between Frankfurt, Paris, and Brussels, and serves as an unofficial advisor to André’s son. “Even though we didn’t recognize it as much as we did later,” Cohn-Bendit told me, “‘André and I were both the children of German Jews that had fled Nazism. Historically speaking, we came from the same place.’”

“André was very uneasy when the Arafat period of the Maoists started,” says the moviemaker Romain Goupil, a former Maoist as well and a close friend of both Cohn-Bendit and André Glucksmann. “He would translate that into a philosophical discussion. Where do you put the limit? What moral border are you ready to transgress for your ideas? In 1972, the Munich massacre was an important step in his journey away from radicalism.”

By 1974, André Glucksmann had left Maoism and both him and Fanfan were reading Solzhenitzyn. Cohn-Bendit remained a close friend. “I think it’s in Raphaël’s mind as well, Cohn-Bendit says. “There’s a sympathy between us that has to do with that history. He’s done his training with the Chechens his father was fighting for, with the European cosmopolitanism and the concept of refugees that both my parents and his grandparents once were.

“The role I play or played was symbolically important to him when it came to Europe. He told me in 2019, ‘I wanna make a Danny Cohn-Bendit-like campaign.”

One of Raphaël Glucksmann’s first moves at the European Parliament after he was elected in 2019 was to leave the human rights commission he had originally joined for the international commerce panel. “It’s more real, he told me. “Commerce is where you can both fight for principles and create actual tools to implement them in daily lives.” His second move was the creation of a Special Committee on Foreign Interference in charge of investigating allegations of corruption and lobbying that was central to the Qatargate scandal of December 2022, when Qatar was exposed for bribing members of the EU Parliament—which resulted in the arrest of EP Vice President Eva Kaili and Representative Antonio Panzeri.

A lone man, without a party, Glucksmann used his small structure Place Publique (Public Place) and his 700,000 Instagram followers very smartly, and managed to make a name for himself at the EP by campaigning against Russian imperialism in Ukraine, internal corruption in Brussels, and for the Uighurs—the Muslim minority that the Chinese government has reduced into quasi-slavery and regularly threatens with genocide. These were themes that remained remarkably attuned with his historical and family heritage, but had no chance to mobilize anyone inside of his own country. Then—as a confirmation of his analysis—the war in Ukraine started.

“One of the reasons for French political outrage today,” says Glucksmann, “is the disappearance of lyricism in politics. French politicians used to be writers and philosophers. Look at Mélenchon—the leader of the radical left La France Insoumise—look at what he’s doing. He understands that. Same thing for Eric Zemmour. The strength of the far right and far left is to have enemies that they can identify easily. And I think we need to work on that. We need to exalt a new sense of history.”

“But how can you do that from Brussels?” I asked him. The Parliament is riddled with technocracy and people there speak 27 different languages. How do you invent a new lyricism with that?

“Well, for years we thought that the European flag represented nothing of value. Then, in Kyiv, I saw people dying with that flag in their hands! From Riga to Barcelona, as soon as the invasion of Ukraine started, there was a lyrical sense of European belonging. You can feel it.”

Dying for an international flag. It was hard not to hear in his words echoes of the romantic leftist war par excellence, the Spanish Civil War, which had given both a battalion of the International Brigade and his father the same name.

Maybe Glucksmann is exactly what France needs today—he certainly is what the nonextremist left needs. While he still writes his speeches himself Glucksmann has hired a media trainer and has learned. He has also formed an “alliance” with the Socialist Party (PS)—an alliance that, in fact, looks a lot like a conquest at least for now. A score of between 15% and 17% of the vote would have the effect of placing the Socialists back in the game for the next round of presidential voting in France as an alternative to the far-left France Insoumise, with the former President Hollande waiting in the wings as the likely candidate. A success for Hollande would in turn open up a path to power for Raphaël Glucksmann in France, as minister for Europe or foreign affairs. Right now, in any case, he is the golden child of a social-democrat left led by the media (it doesn’t hurt that his current wife is the TV star Lea Salamé).

But of course, therein lies the trickiness of this current political moment on the left. The Socialist Party that Glucksmann is leading into the EU elections is not simply whatever the media proclaims it to be in the moment. For years, the Socialists have partnered with the far-left France Insoumise (FI) and the Green Party into a common structure called la NUPES—a brilliant strategem concocted by FI’s leader Mélenchon, who thereby became the leader of a unified French left under the guise of an coalition. While the NUPES has exploded, the radical atmosphere that it has helped to create has hardly disappeared—with elites, international human rights campaigners, pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian politics, and “Zionist Jews” being particular objects of hatred and scorn.

Thus, for many inside of the Socialist Party and even more among the Green and the FI whose electors Glucksmann needs, the Socialist candidate appears as a member of the elite denouncing the elite, an agent of the resurrected “gauche caviar,” a CIA asset, and of course a suspected Zionist. During the campaign, both Glucksmann and several people on his list have been targeted as Jews by left wingers in an openly antisemitic campaign.

Oct. 7 has certainly put Glucksmann even more at odds with his own alleged camp, and perhaps also with himself. If he was one of the rare leftists to denounce Hamas in the wake of the giant pogrom, the tension between his personal history and beliefs and his commitments as a professional leftist politician have become more complicated to manage since accusations of “genocide” prevailed and became “the truth.”

To succeed on the left, Glucksmann needs the votes of people who hate him—or at least he needs a good number of those votes. Which is perhaps why on May 24, he published an article in Libération advocating for the international recognition of a Palestinian state. “I support the initiative of our friend and social democratic ally Pedro Sanchez, Prime Minister of Spain, of a recognition of the Palestinian state,” is how the article ended. (Sanchez is the leader of the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party whose support Glucksmann also needs in Brussels.) Only the day before, May 23, Yolanda Diaz, the labor and economy minister of Spain (and member of the far-left Sumar party, which is a coalition partner of the PSOE) stated that Spain supported the creation of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.”

How did Raphaël Glucksmann phrase it? “When you deal with politicians, you deal with people so good at seducing people! They have this inner capacity to actually believe in the lies they’re selling to you, knowing perfectly well that they’re lying. It’s very peculiar.”

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.