Académie election of Alain Finkielkraut sparks controversy

Secular Jew philosopher’s elevation coincides with the French drift to the right

French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut poses in the Institut de France library prior to his induction ceremony at the Académie francaise on Thursday. Photograph: EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut poses in the Institut de France library prior to his induction ceremony at the Académie francaise on Thursday. Photograph: EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

 

Republican Guards stand to attention in a swirl of gleaming swords. A drum roll echoes through the cupola, as academicians enter, wearing gold-and- green embroidered frock coats. Some of the “immortals” are so decrepit that they must lean on each other for support.

The newest member of the Académie francaise, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut (66), was formally inducted on Thursday. “Finky” had been elected by 16 of 28 votes in April 2014. Eight academicians so objected to his candidacy that they marked their ballots with a black X.

“Fifty, perhaps 60 years ago, certain circles of the academy would have been offended by a child of Polish Jews, with a name to sleep outside,” Finkielkraut said at the time. “Today, I am reproached for my national identity.”

When Finkielkraut was a schoolboy, the name was so difficult to pronounce that his parents asked teachers to shorten it to “Fink”.

He began his acceptance speech on Thursday with a peroration on his own name, which he called, “cacaphonic, dissuasive, unsellable, bristling with offputting consonants . . . To be called Finkielkraut and to be welcomed among you to the sound of the drum is unbelievable.”  

Finkielkraut is best known for his 2013 book, Unhappy Identity, in which he wrote of an alleged “refusal to integrate” on the part of the children of immigrants. 

Shipwreck of culture

In his address welcoming Finkielkraut to the academy, the historian Pierre Nora said he agreed with the philosopher’s description of “the disintegration of historic and social cohesion, the shipwreck of the culture we grew up in”. 

But Nora disagreed with the conclusions of Unhappy Identity. “You tended to place principal responsibility on immigration and to reduce the phenomenon to a confrontation with Islam,” Nora said. “Immigration seems to me to have accelerated and revealed, and to have been a scapegoat . . . The main problem of France is not the power of Islam but the weakness of the republic.”

Nora’s opinion evolved with jihadist attacks. “It was inevitable that the repeated tragedies of last year would lend national resonance to your words,” he said, addressing Finkielkraut. “In these conditions, collective anxieties have met up with your personal anxieties.”

Finkielkraut started out on the left, which now labels him a “neo-reactionary”. If he was elected, one academician had warned, “the [extreme right- wing] National Front will enter the academy”. 

Finkielkraut has presented a radio programme on France Culture for three decades. Detractors accuse him of nurturing French moroseness and fears of decline. In his induction speech, he said “the patriotism of compassion” had moved him to abandon cosmopolitan leanings. He had seen France “slipping softly into forgetting herself” and felt “tenderness for a beautiful, precious, fragile and perishable thing”.

Drift to right

Finkielkraut’s elevation coincides with the French drift to the right, but also with the blurring of lines between left and right. The embroidered frock coat, sword and cocktail receptions that are part of joining the academy cost close to €100,000. The list of Finkielkraut’s donors reads like a Who’s Who of French culture and finance, not all right-wing. 

Prime minister Manuel Valls, nominally a socialist, attended the two-hour ceremony, where his presence was interpreted as tacit approval of Finkielkraut’s views.

Finkielkraut’s most controversial friend, the writer Renaud Camus, says the French population are undergoing a “great replacement” by immigrant Muslims. Camus supported National Front leader Marie Le Pen in the 2012 presidential election. He was not invited to Thursday’s ceremony.

Pay homage

Tradition requires new academicians to pay homage to the deceased predecessor whose chair they have taken. For months, Finkielkraut lamented that he, a secular Jew, had to praise Félicien Marceau, who died in 2012 at the age of 98. French media had reduced Marceau’s biography to the fact that he had been convicted of collaborating with Nazis in his native Belgium, and subsequently joined the Académie francaise.

When Finkielkraut researched Marceau’s life, he discovered the deceased academician reviled anti-Semitism as “petty bourgeois”. But like the Irish writer Francis Stuart in wartime Germany, Marceau made radio broadcasts favourable to the Reich – five in all, which Finkielkraut admitted were “not neutral”.

Finkielkraut referred repeatedly to La Doxa – the ambient, politically correct general consensus that he blames, with the internet, for the mediocrity of contemporary thought.

He had found words to explain “exactly what scandalises me in the (collective) memory for which Félicien Marceau today pays the price,” Finkielkraut concluded. “It is memory become Doxa, sheep-like memory, dogmatic and automatic memory, stage memory, memory reviewed, corrected and spit out by the system.”

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