France’s president has blamed American social theory for the distortion of his republic. But some French social theories haven’t done the American experiment many favors either.
In the recut, redux version of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic, the American anti-hero and his comrades stumble across a rubber plantation deep in the jungle.
It’s maintained by a French family, the Demerais, determined to keep hold of the land they’ve controlled and cultivated for four generations. Despite the guerrilla war taking place around them, the family is determined to stay. They’ve raised a small militia, composed of French and Vietnamese, to maintain that control.
US Army Captain Benjamin Willard is fighting a different kind of war, ordered to undertake a secret mission to assassinate a rogue American colonel who’s gone mad with power, the head of a skull-strewn death cult across the border in Cambodia. The film dwells on the absurdity of Willard’s mission: executing just one of a million murderous prophets in a war that worshipped bloodshed. Colonel Walter Kurtz’s crime wasn’t murder. It was heresy.
The Demerais clan helps Willard’s crew bury one of their dead, and then invites them to dinner. The meal, prepared by Vietnamese servants, appears on white table clothes and clean plates, a far cry from army rations. The family’s children recite poetry for their guests. A blind, elderly uncle is fed his dinner by his daughter. A rotund man strides around playing an accordion.
At the head of the table sits the head of the household, Hubert. He hands Willard a plaque with a list of ‘’attack repels by the family.’’ Willard looks at it as Hubert recounts from memory. Here’s how it appears in the film’s script.
Vietcong, fifty-eight. North
Vietnamese, twelve. South
Yes, well, there were perhaps
Willard is in disbelief at the tenacity of his hosts to carry as though it is France, even after the end of the French Empire. He asks Hubert the obvious question. This is the clip.
How long can you possibly stay
We stay forever.
No, no, I mean, why don't you go
back home to France?
This is our home, Captain.
Sooner or later, you're --
No! You don't understand our mentality!
The French officer mentality! At
first, we lose in Second World
War. I don't say that you Americans
win, but we lose...
In Dine Bien Phu, we lose! In
Algeria, we lose! In Indochina,
we lose. But here, we don't lose!
This piece of earth, we keep it!
We will never lose it! Never!
Willard leaves the plantation and the plot continues. The fate of the French plantation owners happens off-screen. But with the American retreat from South Vietnam, it’s a safe bet that they did lose that piece of earth. Willard was right when he said ‘’sooner or later’’ their grip would slip.
Feelings Don’t Care About Your Facts
The scene represents two parallel universes of colonialism, and two parallel mentalities about its purpose. In recent months, French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has asserted that social unrest is the fault of what he calls ‘’Islamo-leftism,’’ one specifically exported from American universities.
His higher education minister Minister Frederique Vidal has pledged to root it out, and restore confidence in the French Republic, undermined by a foreign and sinister ‘’wokeness’’ that Macron seems to believe use post-structuralism and critical theory to excuse acts of anti-social violence while wielding anti-colonialism to condemn the French experiment as a whole.
Vidal told a right-wing news channel that she would ask academics to root out research that was ‘Islamo-leftist’ activism. What that means is unclear, Vidal herself admits.
“The challenge is all about balancing between the work of scientists and those who use that work to carry an ideology and nurture activism. I think Islamo-leftism is plaguing our society … and the university is part of society,” she told a French newspaper, the Sunday Journal, as reported by Politico. “Islamo-leftism has no scientific definition, but it corresponds to a feeling of our fellow citizens, first of all, and to a certain number of facts, too.”
French academics have rejected the campaign, saying they will not be restrained by state intervention in free inquiry.
Macron's problem with American social theory is that it appears to require the state to do too much apologising for French colonialism, and by extension French history, than is politically expedient. Running against the anti-apologetic far-right, Macron must navigate a minefield in next year's elections. With a 39 percent approval rating, there's also not much room for error.
American elections aren’t all that different. US President Joe Biden didn’t do any more apologising for historical injustices than he felt he absolutely had to, and even then Trump called him a puppet of the radical left. Macron should probably take note that the far-right’s electoral strategy will dismiss his push against American intellectual meddling as mere pandering by a dishonest neoliberal banker type, trying to offer a watered-down version of blood and soil salvation politics.
The United States and France are, to be sure, two separate experiments in liberal democracy, and both laboratories are, to one degree or another, on fire. Each election in the US and France brings with it a contest between two hypotheses about how to put the fire out.
Both countries designate a president to try to run the experiment in the safest way possible, keeping people from harming themselves or each other by persuasion and not physical coercion.
The job of an elected political leader is to cast spells that clean up chemical spills corrosive to public safety and assure voters’ confidence in the democratic process itself. No one has ever figured out exactly how to do this in a way that keeps everyone happy all of the time.
To Macron, there’s no question that American-imported spells are not helping. They’re making the spill spread more, the fire burns hotter and higher. American hypotheses about identity, history and culture are corrupting the French experiment, creating a toxic cloud of fear and suspicion between citizens as certainly as ammonia and bleach combined in a bucket will make a toxic mist.
‘’I see certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States, with their problems, which I respect and which exist, but which are just added to ours,’’ Macron explained in a speech last October on what he called ‘’Muslim separatism.’’
The speech came in the days after a Chechen teenager beheaded a French school teacher, Samuel Paty, who had taught a class about free speech using cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Police shot the assailant, but followed up on the case by arresting those they believed responsible for helping identify the teacher to the killer. Authorities also shut down a mosque over a post on its Facebook page that criticised the use of the cartoons in the classroom.
But Macron’s speech did not endear him to the country’s Muslim community, or to Muslims around the world. Protests in the form of boycotts of French products cropped up. The speech translated to a broad blaming of Islam for the violence and a condescending attitude that the French state could help Islam reform itself.
Macron responded to criticism of his speech with an article in The Financial Times, saying that a previous column in the same paper had misquoted him.
‘’France has been attacked by Islamist terrorists because it embodies freedom of expression, the right to believe or not to believe and a certain way of life,’’ Macron wrote. ‘’The French people have risen up to say that they will not surrender any of France’s values, its identity, or its imagination. Nor any of these human rights that it proclaimed for the world, back in 1789.’’
He continued by striking squarely at the central assumption of critical race theory: ‘’I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims.’’
To American ears, however, there is a certain uncanny familiarity to Macron’s rhetoric. Much of it seems to echo the words of George W. Bush in the years after the September 11 attacks. The Voice of America news service in 2003 quoted Bush thusly:
In reply to the question, "Why do Osama bin Laden and his followers hate Americans," the answer from U.S. President George W. Bush has been clear-cut and unequivocal: "They hate us because we love freedom. They hate us because we love and hold dear the idea that anybody can worship an almighty God in any way he or she sees fit. They hate the idea of a free press, free political discourse. That is what they hate. And so long as we love our freedoms, they will try to harm our country."
On September 17, 2001, Bush also tried to clarify that the US response to the attacks had nothing to do with Islam as a religion or against Muslims as Americans.
‘’America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.’’
Questioning the sincerity of Bush’s sentiment is irrelevant, given the decisions his administration undertook in the following years. It would be hard to reconcile Bush’s words with the invasion of Iraq, the global campaign of torture and extraordinary rendition, and the warrantless surveillance of American Muslims. It would also be hard to convince Muslims who’d seen a US president say similar things that Macron wasn’t following the same pattern.
Whether he meant to or not, Macron seemed to combine all of the hubris and hypocrisies of the Bush years in one single speech that echoed the neoconservative conceit that the US government could take a leading role in ‘’reforming’’ Islam, which in Bush’s case meant invading or bombing Muslim majority countries. That it was coming from a well educated, coiffed French president rather than a malapropism-stuttering, cowboy-hatted American president did not put Muslims any more at ease.
Macron may be right that American ideas are indeed corrupting French society, but it’s not the American ideas he thinks. They aren’t social theories that argue racism alienates its victims and perpetrators from society and drives cycles of violence, or ‘’Islamo-leftism’’ that provide excuses for murderers, as Vidal feels.
Rather, they are the ideas of American neoconservatives, like Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove or former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or the pundit Max Boot, who believed that colonialism with American characteristics would be able to evangelise liberal democracy at gunpoint better than ‘’Old Europe’’ could with their empires woven out of monarchism and telegraphs. The bleakness of the future we now live, Muslim and Christian, West and East, was first written by men with whose good intentions justified means that seem pathologically vicious, but received bipartisan applause at the time they were first proposed.
Nationalism with a smile is still nationalism, and in recent American history it’s been an appartif for a snarling, nativist fascism, that disdains openly any respect for human rights or liberal democracy. Neoconservatism with French characteristics is still neoconservatism, and expansions of state power are impossible to roll back, especially when the levers of power fall into the hands of elected megalomaniacs.
The experience of American centrists should be a stark warning to Macron, who is trying to outflank a challenge by the unapologetically xenophobic Marine Le Pen’s far- right party in next year’s elections. Hillary Clinton, who voted for Bush’s war in Iraq, was not able to defend the center of American politics in 2016 from Trump’s hostility.
Macron is trying to ride a tiger whose hunger can’t be satisfied by good intentions, and surely not by an ill-conceived anti-intellectualism that meddles in the affairs of universities. It wants raw, bloody flesh, preferably alive and screaming when it hits its jaws.
The French roots of American critical theory
There is an immediate irony to the president of France critiquing an excess of post-structuralist theory as coming from the United States and his government questioning American universities as the source of disorder in French society. These ideas during the 20th century originated in France and found themselves recombined and reapplied in the American context to help understand the ways that language, history and power intersect.
The conclusions of French philosophers found fertile intellectual soil in the US in the 20th century, when it began its long and continuing process of recovering from apartheid. Among them are the well-known writers Michel Foucault, Franz Fanon and Jacques Derrida.
Critical race theory, post-structuralism and other postmodern critiques of power, society and colonialism do not portray either American society or French society in the most favorable light, because they do not portray any society in a favorable light. At least not one favorable enough to win two rounds of a French election.
What was in the early 20th century considered to be noble pursuits on behalf of the forces of ‘’civilisation’’ have come under the harsh glare of new narratives told from the perspective of people who were ‘’civilised’’ at gunpoint or in chains.
Sometimes, it is hard for the descendants of people who held those guns to hear that their ancestors behaved brutally. It is even harder to hear that the same structures of power have not been erased by the egalitarian principles of liberal democracy alone, and that they exist in the everyday lives of minority communities who still find themselves on the deadly end of new weapons and restraints, shot or shackled with new justifications.
Macron isn’t wrong when he says that America’s social problems are not France’s social problems. The history of France and the history of the United States are not the same. But trying to divide intellectual traditions based on the nationality of the theorists is missing the point. In an age of instant connectivity, trying to establish an intellectual quarantine around any country is doomed to fail. This has been true for decades, long before the Internet.
Ryan Helterbrand, an American critical theorist, told TRT World that American universities have now seen two generations of influence by French critical theorists, whose works apply across the humanities, from history to sociology.
‘’Most American theorists will still doggedly rely on French and also German critical theorists. It would be no surprise for an American professor of comparative literature to do a study purely on Foucault,’’ Helterbrand said. ‘’American theory in an important sense never developed its own tradition because French tradition is so recent.’’
Helterbrand says that Americans took the methods of French theory and applied them to the American context, where relations between people of different skin colors had formed the bones and organs of American politics for hundreds of years. It is impossible to ignore.
‘’A lot of the post-colonial and anti-colonial literature comes from former French speaking colonists or people who were colonised by the French,’’ Helterbrand said
Franz Fanon, a Black psychiatrist from the French department of Martinque, introduced the notion of ‘’double consciousness’’ assumed by colonised people. Fanon himself participated in the Algerian war of independence. The history of French influence in American critical theory is intimately linked to the history of French colonialism.
‘’Critical theory is all about thinking the unthought in social relationships. Critical theory in and of itself from its very beginning is not meant to be objective. It’s not meant to describe the world. It’s meant to change it,’’ he told TRT World. ‘’So Macron’s demand falls apart immediately.’’
Is it possible to ever disentangle social theory from an activist purpose? Critical theory holds that a pure rationality is impossible for any knowledge to achieve. Even the American invention of the nuclear bomb, a task that required countless precise calculations, was a task undertaken with a social purpose: winning World War II. By that measure, the Manhattan Project was scientific activism.
‘’A big contention of post-structuralists is that knowledge is always made by someone, for someone or for something. So it seems like Macron is saying we don’t want to shelter those who would produce forms of pseudo-knowledge dangerous to the republic; and that we need to rout out those pseudo-intellectuals who are really political agitators and instead we want some kind of disinterested knowledge production, or knowledge that would only reinforce the status quo and the tactical needs of the French state. But there he’s arguing for a very political take on the academy and on knowledge.’’
Critical theory can offer pessimistic or optimistic narratives, but rarely in the right mixture for a compelling political speech that offers up a policy as the most reasonable one. If a candidate promises to do the ‘’logical’’ thing, critical theory might pipe up and say ‘’whose logic?’’
There is a pessimism to critical theory that does not integrate well into the priorities of politicians who promise to improve the lives of voters. It also does not conform to optimistic understanding of the intentions of the people who seek political power.
Macron is not alone in this sense. Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential run tried, and failed, to counter Trump’s ‘’Make America Great Again’’ slogan by declaring: ‘’America is great because America is good.’’ And critical theory, or even the ancient Socratic method, would slice through those words with ease. What, after all, is ‘’good,’’ anyway?
The French origins of the Alt-Right
French philosophy hasn’t just influenced the American left, but also provided inspiration for the far-right. And for as much as the American context of race, class and history is alien to France, the French experience is alien to America.
In recent years, France’s far-right has not made it any easier for Americans to live with each other. And the cultural cache of the French far-right has added a cloak of intellectual legitimacy to American bigotry. The Alt-Right that supported Trump’s candidacy in 2016 owes much of its thought to ideas first published in France.
‘’A significant argument can be made that a major source of intellectual inspiration for the Alt-Right comes from France,’’ Daniel Jenkins, an American historian, wrote in a 2018 paper. Jenkins outlined the winding road from the French New Right in the 1960s, to the Alt RIght’s Richard Spencer and the 2016 US election.
And the influence had deadly consequences in the US. Jenkins notes the ‘’identitarian’’ justifications employed by an American mass shooter who killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. The killer, Robert Bowers, had become convinced that a Jewish charity there was a threat to Western civilisation because it was aiding Muslim refugees.
‘’For some this nationalism signifies mere American or civic nationalism, but for others it is code or ‘optics’ for western civilization being under attack by non-white invaders. When this latter group hears the discourse of civilization, they very well be influenced by a strain of reactionary thought that has deep intellectual origins in France.’’
Jenkins argues that the French New Right that has underwritten turns to the xenophobic in both the US and Russia, where Aleksandr Dugin reinterpreted the concept to justify Russian hegemony across Eurasia. At the height of his influence, Dugin championed the Russian annexation of Ukraine and the rejection of multiculturalism as a neoliberal fraud. Dugin’s ideas aside, it is hard to argue that the civil war in Ukraine has made the world a safer, saner place.
But it was a term coined by French writer Renaud Camus, the ‘’Le Grande Remplacement,’’ that has since seeped into the brains of impressionable American youth. It was a rallying cry of the Unite the Right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. The next day, a car-ramming attack carried out by a white supremacist left Heather Heyer, anti-racist activist, dead and others injured.
The Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville over the proposed removal of a statue of a Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. The specific context of that statue is foreign to France, but French ‘’identitarian’’ writers like Camus were present in the minds of some of the statue’s defenders. Getting rid of the statue of a man who fought for slavery and against the republic was a symbol for that ‘’replacement.’’
The mayhem and misery his motto caused in America did not give Camus pause. Just a few months later, he founded a far-right nationalist group, the National Council of European Resistance (CNRE), and expounded further on it.
‘’The Great Replacement is not a theory, much less a "conspiracy" theory. It’s a name for an era, based on its dominant phenomenon,’’ Camus writes. ‘’The dominant phenomenon of the turn of the millennium, in Western Europe and elsewhere in the world, is the Great Replacement, the change of people and civilization, genocide by substitution, or genocide against man.’’
There is one English-language post from 2018 where Camus broadcasts his message the loudest.
‘’Immigration has become invasion, invasion a migratory submersion. France and Europe are a hundred times more colonised, and more seriously so, than they ever colonised themselves. The only irreversible colonisation is a demographic one, the one which takes place via population transfer,’’ he writes.
‘’What we need today is not a new party, not even a union of the Right: the rejection of totalitarian Replacism is no less a matter of the Left than the Right. What we need today is a coming together of all those who say a resounding No to Islamisation and the African conquest. What we need is a Council of National Resistance, of European resistance, because all European nations are invited to fight at our side for the well-being of our shared civilisation, Celt, Slav, Norman, Saxon, Germanic, Greco-Latin, Judeo-Christian and free-thinking.’’
One of the implicit pillars of Macron’s argument about the incompatibility of American social theories with France is that France stands for free expression in a way the US, with its racial grievances and woke-ism, does not.
Nevertheless, Camus’ web site is hosted by an American company, Netlify, based in San Francisco. And that’s the ultimate irony. For all his distaste for neoliberalism, Camus’s presence online, including his open letter to Le Pen, are stored quietly on a US server. They’re nestled there among the web sites for big brands like Nike, Peloton and Victoria Beckham’s beauty line.
The flattening down of Camus’ calls for European cultural purity are just another distraction in the vast mass of online information, guaranteed a space as long as he keeps his payments up to date. Those payments don’t care about cultural purity. They just care that they come on time.
If Le Pen wins against Macron next year, she’ll owe some measure of thanks to an American web services company guaranteeing her defender’s right to free speech, all for a price.
Never Get on the Boat
Camus’ web site sits there, surrounded by the swirling contradictions of the Silicon Valley, like the French rubber plantation in Apocalypse Now: Redux. It goes unnoticed in the American-made maelstrom of ones and zeroes.
Just as Macron’s government does, Hubert Demarais blames the French left for betraying the colonial mission in Vietnam.
The students are marching in Paris,
protesting, demonstrating. They
stab the soldiers in their back!
Willard listens to the argument around him. After so much time on the boat, searching for Kurtz, keeping his mouth shut about his real mission, seeing so much absurd suffering and violence flowing around him, he doesn’t know what to say.
Christian Demarais, a younger member of the family, blurts out a warning to Willard before walking away from the dinner table.
Why don't you Americans learn from
us, from our mistakes? My God,
with your army, your strength,
your power...you could win if you
The American occupation of South Vietnam followed the failure of French colonialism in Southeast Asia. But there was only one lesson to learn from the French experience there: There was no way to win the war, no matter whether it was fought for a family’s honour or for the imperatives of geopolitics.
In the year 2021, however, perhaps France can learn something from the American experience of the War on Terror, which has brought with it so much heartache and pain and caused so much distrust between people, both inside America and outside of it.
It has caused young people to question whether the concept of human rights has any legitimacy at all when it comes out of the mouth of a politician. It has brought about a boundless cynicism about democracy itself, and given reason to idealists to question whether any international project undertaken for humanitarian justifications is legitimate at all.
And it’s that cynicism that lends credence to the words of reactionaries like Camus and Dugin. If democracy is a cheap trick, why not vote for a self-obsessed con-artist like Trump? Why continue believing in the spells of politicians at all? Borrowing from Bush-era rhetoric, consciously or unconsciously, imperils the future of the French experiment just as it has imperilled the American experiment.
Universal values and human truths are not as safe as the law of gravity. They require confidence in the continuation of a collective dream, just as any social or political order is. That dream cannot stay a dream if it is diluted by even a drop of nightmare, for the same reason a cigarette is not safe to smoke at a gas station.
American society is still trying to find a way to wake up from that nightmare, clawing at the inside of its skull, running from monsters in a maze the American military entered two decades ago, lured by bin Laden’s bloody provocation. France’s labyrinth will surely have unique twists and turns, left and right, just as Willard’s jungle river of doom did. The only way to escape, Americans have learned, is never to enter at all.