Furthest Right

Racism, Antiracism and the Decline of the French Left (Frank Adler)

Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Les Fins de l’Antiracisme (Paris: Editions Michalon, 1995), 708pp. + 14.

The last two years have been difficult ones for Pierre-Andre Taguieff. Despite his undisputed status as one of France’s leading experts on racism and right-wing politics, he has progressively run afoul of what Jean-Francois Kahn has called “le systeme intello-mediatique”[1] During the Summer of 1993, Taguieff was attacked in the “Appeal to Vigilance” controversy[2] on grounds of having helped legitimate the far Right by confusing public opinion with his complex analyses of racism and his criticism of the growing ineffectiveness of fashionable antiracism. He responded first by writing a 440 page book on the New Right,[3] then a 722 page book on antiracism, reviewed here. To the extent that they were both cut-and-paste operations, recycling material Taguieff had already published b re the polemic actually began, yet they also stand on their own as impressive and perhaps definitive scholarly monographs.

Why has Taguieff so infuriated the Parisian left-wing literati, for whom anti-racism, with the rise of the Front National, became the basis of an opportunistic reconfiguration of the classic Left-Right distinction, and, in the aftermath of 1989, an ersatz ideological formula for the standard but no longer tenable Left doctrine of class struggle? Basically, Taguieff has contended that French antiracism is both analytically vacuous and politically ineffective: on the one hand, it fundamentally misunderstands the changing nature of racism in France; on the other, it not only fails to check the growth and consolidation of the National Front but has actually helped generate a new form of xenophobic anti-antiracism which made Le Pen’s movement even more popular.

Taguieff has repeatedly argued that racism is a complex phenomenon which has from multiple causes and presents itself in multiple forms, frequently amalgamated with such other phenomena as nationalism, populism, fascism and imperialism. For example, the anti-Semitism associated with the Holocaust (based on physical extinction) has little in common with the legacy of racial prejudice against blacks (based on economic exploitation); to consider them identical would be misleading and to anticipate some common antiracist solution which could adequately address both would be naive. And just as racism itself is complex and multiple, so too, Taguieff contends, would are forms of antiracism. Yet French antiracism, if anything, has become progressively more undifferentiated and simplistic in substance, while more dogmatic, accusatory and self-righteous in tone. In fact, more than once Taguieff suggests a direct relation between the growing vacuity and stridency of French antiracism (a “poujadisme” antiraciste). More and more, French antiracism has extended itself into a common struggle against all forms of social exclusion (where la lutte contre l’exclusion is substituted for the old lutte de classe): immigration, delinquency, feminism, homosexuality, unemployment, homelessness, Aids, hate, distrust, aggression, all things bad.[4] The suggestion here is that all partake of some (unspecified) common cause, and therefore may be solved by some (unspecified) common solution, whereas in actuality the manifest demands and interests of groups representing these “victims” are often eclectic, conflictual and contradictory. Without some transcendental abracadabra (e.g., socialism), which could in the distant future reconcile all difference, antiracism, unlike past Left myths, lacks the ground upon which the various negatives may be transformed into an overarching affirmative.

Not only is French antiracism theoretically vacuous, its diverse sources and claims are often contradictory and mutually incompatible. For example, be classic form of antiracism is based on universalism, a presumed common human nature and the “brotherhood of man” which was part of the formative vision of the United Nations. This form is hostile to the retention and defense of particularistic cultural identities, especially solidarities based on ethnic, religious or racial difference, and promotes a real homogenization based on its presumed universal-ism. A later form of antiracism emerged during the early 1980s in response to the National Front’s campaign against immigrants, based on the slogan of “living together with our differences.” This differentialist form of antiracism, however, not only stood in contradiction to the universalist form (and its French republican manifestation), it lacked any principled defense against the new differentialist form of racism promoted by the National Front, which held that a French droit a la difference was no less valid than differentialist communitarian claims made by Third World groups. In fact, the National Front formally rejected the legitimacy of biological racism (and its presumed hierarchy of races) and made no claims regarding the superiority of the French vis a vis other nations. Instead, it argued that if Algerians have the right to be Algerians in Algeria, the French should have the right to be French in France; if Algerians have the right to preserve their difference, so do the French. In fact, appropriating the differentialist discourse of the antiracist Left, Le Pen argued that the real form of racism in France was an anti-French one which denied the integrity of French identity. The National Front set up its own “antiracist” organization based on the differentialist defense of French particularity (the AGRIF, L ‘Alliance Generale contre le Racisme et pour le Respect de l’Identite Francaise et Chretienne). Left-wing antiracist attacked Le Pen as an old-fashioned (biological) racist and as a fascist (a particularly anachronistic “commemorative” form of antiracism, according to Taguieff, a reductio ad Hitlerum), neither of which hit the mark but rather tended to generate popular sympathy for Le Pen as a persecuted defender of French identity.

Beyond treating the particularities of racism-antiracism in France, Taguieff’s book, like his earlier study of prejudice,[5] is encyclopedic in range. There is no doubt they will become classics in this field, just as there is no doubt that Taguieff is the preeminent scholar writing on racism today. Which raises the question as to why he is so isolated and under attack. To answer this requires a political analysis, which Taguieff himself might have pursued. The point of departure here would be the crisis of the French Left, particularly Left intellectuals. After having been the dominant party in the 1980s, the Socialists find themselves without a distinctive Left program or a traditional Left electoral base. In the May presidential elections, one would have needed an electron microscope to detect any significant programmatic difference between Jospin and Chirac, both of whom ran American-style “personality” campaigns. The Socialists no longer represent the working class but rather New Class professionals with, as it is called in France, post-materialist values (like fighting against social exclusion). Most of the working class voted for Le Pen whose National Front can now claim to be the leading party of blue-collar workers, more interested in materialist than post-materialist values. This outcome shatters the classic Left-Right distinction. How can a party of the far Right get more workers’ votes than the parties of the Left, how can a party of the Left legitimate itself if not on the basis of popular concerns? The crisis is no less severe for the Gaullists; six months after his victory, Chirac’s approval rating is 14%, his prime minister’s 12%. In an attempt at distinguishing himself from his Gaullist opponent, the conservative Balladeur, Chirac made the “social fracture” his issue, promising to end unemployment (currently at 12%), lower taxes and social security payments, give youth (the so-called Chirac generation) a new future, and, yes, combat exclusion. Recently, he announced that all of this would have to wait, that balancing the budget was his number one priority (meaning higher taxes and social security payments, and no program of social reforms). No sooner did Chirac make this announcement than Charles Pasqua, as far right as a Gaullist could be, and in the doghouse for having supported Balladeur, called for immediate action on the social fracture.

Could it be that the Right and not the Center or the Left will be the new site of populist politics? Gaullists and Socialists, the “establishment” in the words of Le Pen, are losing electoral confidence. A recent poll indicated that, despite Chirac’s poor approval rating, 55% of the French did not think the Left would do any better (in fact, 46% of Left voters felt the same way). Another poll indicated that 55% of the French believed that politicians had little integrity and little concern for the public good.[6] A recent study described the contemporary state of French society as “a sociological black hole,” without dynamism or optimism for the future.[7] It would seem that in this context the Left’s rhetorical combat against exclusion and concern for post-materialist values, and Chirac’s call for austerity, are hardly issues which will bridge the gap between the established political elites and the country. The socialists and Gaullists, whatever the programmatic differences that once separated them, are fundamentally statist. It is the state, in their view, which will create jobs, integrate immigrant teenagers in the housing projects, and eliminate social exclusion. Yet it is the statist French model, not only its advocates, which is in crisis. Racism and antiracism have to be situated within the context of this crisis, if for no other reason than that the populist “anti-system” party, the National Front, is the only force, however myopic and self-contradictory its program, which seems to be posing alternatives to unacceptable status quo. Though Taguieff has written on the National Front’s “national populism,” and on racism-antiracism, what he needs to do now is relate these phenomena to the French statist model in crisis, and begin to speculate on how alternative non-statist political configurations might shape new approaches to race relations.


1. Jean-Francois Kahn, La Pensee Unique (Paris: Fayard, 1995), especially Chapter Two, “Sur la Crise du Systeme Intello-mediatique.”
2. For a complete dossier on the controversy, see the special double issue of Telos on the French New Right, Numbers 98-99 (Winter 1993-Spring 1994).
3. Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Sur la Nouvelle Droite (Paris: Descartes & Cie, 1994),
4. One manifestation of this trend is a recent issue of Magazine Litteraire (July-August 1995) devoted to les exclus, (racism, madness, delinquency, homosexuality, unemployment, etc.).
5. Pierre-Andre Taguieff, La Force du Prejuge (Paris: Editions La Decouverte, 1987).
6. Cited in L’Evenement du Jeudi, No.572 (October 19-25, 1995), pp. 6,11.
7. Cited in Journal Francais d’Amerique (October 27-November 9, 1995), p. 4.

[Telos; Spring 95 Issue 103, p189, 4p]


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