Marine Le Pen hates nomads. In her March 11 speech announcing the change in the name of her party from Front National to Rassemblement National, the far-right French political leader opened with a tirade against rootless, unscrupulous wanderers. Nomads, she warned, travel from place to place, “poisoning the well.” They have no respect for the traditions and values of the peoples they encounter on their journeys, and “money is the only authority they recognize.”
Who are these nomads? They dream of a world without states and borders. They promote multiculturalism, massive immigration, and international capitalism. They loathe protections for workers and the environment, which are obstacles to the free flow of capital. From the world’s financial centers, they undermine France’s national identity and political sovereignty, preparing its final ruin.
Since taking over the party in 2011, Le Pen has tried to clean up its image, scrubbing its historical ties to anti-Semitism, racism, and fascism and distancing herself from the party’s former head, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Few observers in the English-speaking world, however, seem to have noticed Le Pen’s recent invocations of well-poisoning, money-loving nomads. Fewer still noted that these references, which might seem to be echoes of her father’s well-documented anti-Semitism, are in fact something far more bizarre. They are citations from the writings of Jacques Attali, one of France’s most prominent and powerful intellectuals of Jewish origin.
Architect of Emmanuel Macron’s economic policy, and author of bestselling volumes on nomadism and Jews’ relationship with money, Attali has become both Marine Le Pen’s perfect enemy and her accidental inspiration. One of the key figures of French neoliberal economics for the past four decades, he is also an omnipresent intellectual with dozens of books to his credit, and a frequent guest on France’s leading television talk shows. In the eyes of many, he is the real power behind the rise of Emmanuel Macron, and he is accordingly despised by Macron’s critics on the left and right. It is hardly surprising that conspiracy theories, many of them blatantly anti-Semitic, swirl around him.
What is surprising is the extent to which Attali himself happily confirms that Jews, whom he figures as the inventors of money and the key agents of capitalism, are a nomadic people destined to remake the world in their own image. In books such as Les juifs, l’argent et le monde (Jews, the World, and Money, 2002) and L’homme nomade (Nomadic Man, 2003), Attali argues that today’s economic and cultural globalization, which he enthusiastically endorses, is an “avatar of nomadism,” and that Jews are “nomads par excellence.” Attali outlines a vision in which capitalist equals nomad equals Jew: a formula dangerous enough on its own, and terrifyingly so when articulated by one of the most eminent figures in French politics.
Published back-to-back and written nearly simultaneously during a period when Attali was relatively absent from French politics, Les juifs, le monde et l’argent and L’homme nomade are hymns to global capitalism and multiculturalism, which are forms of a general phenomenon Attali calls “nomadism.” French intellectuals took up the concept of nomadism in the 1980s, after Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduced the term in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus. Attali made the word his own, arguing that nomadism, meaning the possibility of movement, innovation, and abstraction, is “the essence of mankind,” and that history should be understood as a succession of forms of nomadism interrupted by brief episodes of “sedentarism.”
Attali’s fast-moving narrative begins at the dawn of humanity, passes through the present era (dominated by “trading nomadism: capitalism”) into a near future in which the abolition of borders and the fusion of cultures create a laissez-faire utopia. Along the way, various historical figures, including cowboys, hobos, and Mongols appear as expressions of humanity’s essential nomadism. But the most nomadic of nomads are the Jews, whose identity is shaped by their peculiar “nomadic dimension.” Attali reads the stories of Adam, Cain, and Abraham as theological endorsements of nomadism, seeking biblical justification for this thesis that, well before the Babylonian captivity or destruction of the Temple, the first Jews already had a uniquely “nomadic” relationship to money, focused on the accumulation and investment of financial resources.
The accounts that Attali offers of such phenomena as the Jewish trading diasporas of the Roman Empire and early modern Mediterranean, or the visibility of Jewish families like the Rothschilds in modern European finance, are unoriginal and, in themselves, unproblematic. But set within his larger narrative that presents Jews as the avant-garde of economic development in almost every historical era, and as a people who, even in their religion, think in financial terms.
Attali takes few precautions against the potentially incendiary implications of his arguments. In the preface to Les juifs, le monde et l’argent, he notes, with fleeting lucidity, that to speak of “the Jews” as a unitary people with a common, singular destiny—let alone a special connection to money—risks confirming anti-Semitic stereotypes. Attali is convinced, however, that Jews today have become unremarkable, assimilated members of globalizing societies, and thus he tends to treat anti-Semitism as a vanishing prejudice of no importance to politics. He displays startlingly little awareness of the fact that the nomadic qualities he attributes to Jews have long been part of anti-Semites’ rhetorical arsenal, from the wandering Jew of medieval Europe to the rootless cosmopolitans of Stalin’s purges.
In fact, Attali offers only one glancing note on the relationship between accusations of nomadism and anti-Semitism, when he comments on a bizarre passage in Mein Kampf. It seems that Hitler was frustrated by other anti-Semites’ repeated claims that Jews were nomads, and furiously asserted that it was in fact the ancient Aryans who had been the true nomads, crossing Eurasia with their flocks. Attali takes this extraordinary outburst as a sign that his own analysis must be on the right track (it’s surely a good sign when one disagrees with Hitler!). But he ignores that Hitler’s comments were made against widespread, and highly negative, associations of Jewishness, nomadism, and the problems of capitalist modernity.
By insisting on the supposed connections among these three elements, Attali is playing with fire, while defending his own career as a free-market reformer. Since the beginning of his career, he has made a name for himself as an advocate of neoliberal reforms, making himself the bête noire of anti-capitalists of the right and left. He first gained notoriety as an adviser to Socialist President François Mitterrand, who came to power in 1981 on a left-wing platform that included the nationalization of key sectors of the French economy. By 1983, external pressure from European banks and internal lobbying by advisers, particularly Attali, forced Mitterrand to make a U-turn, embracing a version of the laissez-faire policies championed by the Reagan administration in the United States. The French Socialist Party, which had long positioned itself as an anti-capitalist and revolutionary organization that competed with Communists for working-class votes, abandoned the language of class struggle in favor of a new discourse, shaped by Attali, which promoted innovation and mobility.
As Attali advocated for further reforms in France and (after 1991) in the former Soviet Bloc, he promoted the careers of young politicians, including that of future president François Hollande. While Attali nominally remained a socialist, he served as an economic adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy after the latter was elected president in 2007. The following year, Attali, at the head of an ambitiously titled Commission for the Liberation of French Growth, presented the president with a wide-ranging set of proposals for deregulating the economy. These included whittling away protections for workers, promoting the privatization of the university system, and weakening the power of unions and local governments. The report, coinciding with the arrival of the 2008 financial crisis, had little immediate impact. But it played a key role in shaping the economic vision of the 31-year-old Emmanuel Macron, then one of the chief aides to Attali’s commission.
Losing influence with Sarkozy after the dismal reception of his 2008 report, Attali returned to his roots in the Socialist Party, which he would push even further to the right. In 2010, he introduced his current protégé Macron to his former protégé François Hollande, who would defeat Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election. Macron then became part of Hollande’s cabinet, and was named finance minister in 2014. As minister, Macron proposed a set of deregulatory policies that owed much to the 2008 Attali commission, but, in the face of opposition from within the Socialist Party, he resigned to create his own political party. Against the expectations of many—but not Attali’s own predictions—Macron swept into power in 2017, demolishing the Socialist Party and securing an immense parliamentary majority for his new center-right party, En Marche! Although he has no formal role in Macron’s government, Attali is often cited as its éminence grise, if not its puppet master.
Yet for all the talk of being a power behind the throne, Attali is hardly a shadowy figure. Throughout his long career, he has announced his vision of the world in consistent terms—albeit often with regrettable phrasing. In a 2011 interview, which has achieved a sort of cult status among French anti-Semitic websites like that of Alain Soral, Attali quipped that “a country is like a hotel.” For him, the task of a government, like that of a hotel owner, is to keep the facilities in order and attract new clients. It does not particularly matter who the clients are; governments have no business trying to ensure the dominance of a particular culture or population on the territory they manage. Countless analyses of this clip circulating online point to Attali’s statement as proof of a Jewish conspiracy to bring about the Great Replacement, a demographic transition in which African and Arab immigrants become the new majority in France.
The Great Replacement, whose most prominent exponent is the French writer Renaud Camus, is one of the major themes of French far-right discourse, and has begun to infiltrate mainstream French politics. Yet while the Great Replacement is a conspiracy theory, Attali endorses something eerily close to such a project—especially in his comments on the future of Israel. Believing that Jews are an essentially rootless people and natural agents of globalization, Attali is unsure what to make of a Jewish state. On the one hand, he celebrates Israel’s accomplishments—particularly its economic success and cultural diversity. The country appears to him as a meeting ground of Western and “Oriental” cultures, and thus as a potential model for a 21st century in which rising Asian economies will take an increasingly large role in global affairs.
On the other hand, he looks forward to a near future in which Israel will no longer exist. Attali hopes for the emergence of a Middle Eastern economic union that will unite Israel with its Arab neighbors. “Israel will have to accept having its borders crossed by populations who, for the moment, are hostile” but could become productive citizens of a new kind of multi-ethnic polity. Israel would thus “lose its identity … the Zionist project will lose its meaning.”
Of course the French far right does not need Jacques Attali’s permission to be anti-Semitic, just as the left does not need his permission to hope that Israel will disappear. But Attali’s writings, and his political legacy, may fuel a bipolar revival of a comprehensive program of anti-Semitism cast as resistance to economic and cultural globalization. In her March 11 speech and in other recent comments, Le Pen explicitly cites Attali, presenting him as the father of Macronism and the “prophet of nomadism.” She even offers a strained interpretation of En Marche! (which means, loosely, in motion) as a “profession of faith” in Attali’s principles of nomadism.
Adopting Attali’s discourse, and presenting Macron as a mere vehicle of Attali’s agenda, allows Le Pen to use the term nomad to a double effect. As she quotes Attali’s own writings, she can claim that “nomads” are symbols of borderless capitalism and multiculturalism, while implicitly invoking anti-Semitic associations of rootless well-poisoners. As she continues to reorient her party toward the center of French political life by adding elements of environmentalism and anti-capitalism to traditional appeals to limit immigration, it could be that, far from renouncing her father’s anti-Semitism as a thing of the past, Le Pen finds Jews an invaluable target. Attali’s carelessly totalizing historical narratives give the far right and its sometime doppelgangers on the far left a useful new political terminology to dress up political anti-Semitism in new clothes.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.