Christopher Caldwell writes in The Weekly Standard:
Although the French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel in October, he has lately been bumped off the charts by Eric Zemmour, a talk-show pundit who is persona non grata among the country’s intellectual establishment. Zemmour’s Le suicide français (Paris: Albin Michel, 534 pages, 22.90 euros) is made for the moment. It argues that, since the French student uprising of May 1968, women’s libbers, Muslim migrants, crooked bankers, and overzealous judges have brought France to ruin. To judge from the reaction to Zemmour’s book—which sold a quarter-million copies in the fortnight after publication despite furious condemnations in all of the daily papers—large parts of the French public think he is right.A.k.a., “Going Places.” I tried watching that a year ago and only made it through ten minutes of the young Gerard Depardieu in his breakout role as a petty criminal harassing some poor woman as she tried to walk down the street.
It is tempting to look at Zemmour as a television hothead in the Bill O’Reilly mold. He is that, at times. But his book has a great ambition, too. As Paul Johnson did in his magisterial Modern Times (1983), Zemmour takes a half-century of events that have been shrouded in progressive clichés and places them in a more logical relationship. His method is the one that historian Richard Reeves uses in his biographies of U.S. presidents. Zemmour will take an episode in France’s political or cultural life, describe the long train of events that made it possible, and extrapolate to its consequences. These are generally episodes that show the French choosing to do away with something they had formerly cherished: the release of director Bertrand Blier’s sexual picaresque Les valseuses in 1974;
the 1993 law abandoning the list of approved (usually saints’) names that had been in force for two centuries;Here’s a French baby name tracker (via Andrew Gelman’s stats site). The French used to have a fairly limited list of first names, but now they’ve dispersed like crazy, except for Mohammed.
President Jacques Chirac’s abolition of military conscription in 1996; the introduction of affirmative action in one of France’s elite universities that same year; the booing of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, by North African immigrant spectators during a game against Algeria in October 2001, weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center; the lack of any commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), perhaps the greatest victory of Napoleon, who until that point had been revered almost as a demigod in French popular culture; and so on.And here’s F. Roger Devlin’s review in American Renaissance.
Zemmour’s idea of France is built around its great nation-builders: Richelieu, Napoleon, and above all General (later president) Charles de Gaulle. It was de Gaulle who rescued French honor after the country’s surrender and occupation in World War II and unified the postwar nation around a narrative of its fight against the Nazis—even if that narrative was mythological, the fight having been in large part confined to Communists, various Christians, and the general himself. De Gaulle’s conservatism was different from conservatism elsewhere. He was attached more to the grandeur of the French nation, less to liberty and small government, and he neither admired nor trusted the United States. After his death in 1970, French politicians made their peace with the free market and a less ambitious view of their country’s destiny. Its intellectuals came to treat their fathers as a bunch of collaborators. Zemmour now sees the post-de Gaulle consensus as an unpatriotic sellout. “We were taught to love what we used to hate,” he writes, “and to hate what we used to love.”
The means by which France’s institutions were pulled off their hinges will be familiar to Americans. Utopian court decrees had a lot to do with it, but even commonsensical laws could be interpreted in radical ways, leaving French people asking: When did I vote for that? Mass immigration, especially from France’s hastily abandoned colonies in North Africa and West Africa, looms over this book as the great unintended consequence. It was already transforming France by the time de Gaulle left power. But a seemingly straightforward antidiscrimination law of 1972, by introducing “the principle of nondiscrimination between French and foreigners,” made it impossible to stop. The law was interpreted in a spirit that led not just to equality but to an outright preference for foreigners. The North African traditional family was treated as essential to the flourishing of its members, so that “family reunification” became grounds for bringing in vast numbers of new residents, once a single family member was working on French soil.
By contrast, with the women’s movement in full swing, the French traditional family was treated as an oppressive vestige from which wives and children must be liberated. Zemmour sees feminism as one of the central tragedies of postwar France (even if, to the outsider, there appears to have been less of it there than elsewhere). Feminists had called for “liberated” relations between the sexes. …
But women turned out not to like that kind of man very much, once they had him. Zemmour notes that the ruthless Don Juans of the old macho sexual order had feared two things above all: pregnancy and marriage. “The paradox of feminism,” he writes, “was that it fulfilled the dreams of generations of male predators.” …
The son of North African Jewish immigrant parents, Zemmour is sensitive about immigration in both senses of the word “sensitive.” That is, he is highly nuanced and easily angered. Even if it was retreating from a large colonial empire, France had no recent legacy of slavery and segregation to atone for, as America did. But it was not lost on the Socialist president François Mitterrand, who came to power in 1981, what a powerful rallying cry and organizing tool the rejection of racism had proven to be in the United States. In 1984 his government helped establish the NGO SOS Racisme to agitate and propagandize. It was a solution in search of a problem, but it was mightily effective in intimidating French journalists and politicians. Thereafter the press covered immigration, Zemmour writes, through anecdotage, discussing “the individual fates of immigrants, their wives, their children, their emotions, their resentments .??.??. willfully obscuring their collective, historical side, as members of a people that had its own roots, its culture, its religion, its heroes, and its dreams of postcolonial vengeance.” Much as feminism was a windfall for macho men, the sort of antiracism that protects the foreign-born from hard questions proved good news for a certain kind of racist. According to the filmmaker Alexandre Arcady, in the public schools of the vast suburban département of Seine-St-Denis, once heavily Jewish and now heavily Arab, there is “not a single student of Jewish faith.”