A review of Melancolie francaise, by Éric Zemmour
and La France est-elle finie?, by Jean-Pierre Chevènement

Is France doomed? And would its demise be a Gallic tragedy only, or signal the dismal prospects of European nation-states in general, as well as those in other parts of the world founded by Europeans? The specter of decline haunted French society after 1870, 1918, and 1940. Two prominent French authors now offer brilliant, in-depth analyses of a nation that has relinquished its sense of mission, and the desire to succeed or even survive. Both Éric Zemmour's Mélancolie Française and Jean-Pierre Chevènement's La France est-elle Finie? are erudite, thoroughly researched, tightly reasoned, and elegantly written.

Zemmour is a well-known political columnist for the center-right newspaper Le Figaro, a ubiquitous debater on television, and one of the rare public intellectuals on his side of the political ledger. Predictably, the Left has turned him into its bête noire, devoting entire books to discrediting him. Last year, several far-Left organizations had him condemned by the courts for hate speech after he declared that "French people from immigrant stock are more frequently controlled by the police because most drug dealers are black and Arabs; this is a fact!" In the national debate on freedom of speech that ensued, Zemmour sarcastically remarked that anti-French and "reverse racist" lyrics, for example in rap songs, do not draw the same ire from the politically correct.

Among Zemmour's supporters during his widely-publicized trial was Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the former leader of the Socialist Party's left wing, several times a cabinet minister and presidential hopeful. Even though they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two authors share a belief in the nation-state, national identity, and what the French call "the authority of the state." Their common foes believe attachments transcending the nation—to Europe, the human race, or the environment—or multicultural ones fragmenting it should dominate and ultimately extinguish nationalism. The overarching conviction that prompted Zemmour and Chevènement to write their books is that, for the first time in its tumultuous and glorious history, France's survival as a nation-state is under threat. The reason: the combined assaults of European integration, globalized markets, and the growing attraction of multiculturalism as a way to integrate immigrants.

The books follow distinct paths of inquiry. Zemmour embraces the grand epic of France's history since the birth of the nation in 496, when, according to the Historia Francorum by Gregory of Tours, the Catholic baptism of King Clovis established France's political and religious identity. Zemmour's revisionist interpretation of that history posits that France's vocation from the start has been to emulate and succeed the Roman Empire. France modeled its approach to integrating foreign people and territories on Rome's, in search of a new "Pax Romana." Yet despite successes under Charlemagne, Louis XIV, the Revolution, Napoleon, and more recently at the launch of European integration, it fell short of establishing a lasting empire that would comprise most of the Benelux, the Rhineland, and Northern Italy. Hence, Zemmour's book title Mélancolie Française reflects the country's waning sense of identity and self-confidence even before the world came to be dominated by continent-size nation-states, masses, and markets.

Chevènement confines his intellectual inquiry to the last half-century, making clear that "A nation need not become an empire to succeed…. Waterloo did not prevent the message of the Revolution from spreading across Europe." His model is the nation-state inherited from the 1789 Revolution. In this "meditation on how France came to doubt of herself," he leaves open the possibility of another national rebound, but without specifying how and when. For Zemmour, on the contrary, France has long been on a downhill slope and is about to perish as a nation-state from the same causes Rome did: less from enemy invasions than from losing control of its own territory and failing to turn its own Visigoths into fervent patriots.

Both Zemmour and Chevènement concur with the late historian Fernand Braudel that "France's great and permanent tragedy since the 16th century" is, paradoxically, the result of its enviable geographic position. France could define its grand strategy and place in the world in relation to the European continent, or in terms of the open seas of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Never forced to choose or combine, England benefitted from the clarity of being dealt only one option.

According to Zemmour, France's decline started not in the 19th but the 18th century. Its causes are two-fold. Externally, Britain's determination to prevent a "Pax Franca" on the continent favored the rise of a united Germany as well as anti-French coalitions—provided these powers did not interfere with Britain's interests in the open sea. Unlike Britain, Catholic France chose not to rely on private finance to fund its overseas expansion, or on emigration to secure its conquered territories. It is no small irony that the largest flow of emigration, by the Huguenots following Louis XIV's revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685, primarily benefitted France's enemies. Over time, France became unable to stop Britain on the sea, while Britain succeeded in undermining French dominance on the continent.

But Zemmour also argues that, more than its rivals, France was inclined to prefer a fragile peace over the pursuit of its own interests. He ascribes this failure to France's "pacifist" inclination. After pointing to Louis XV and Talleyrand's shortcomings, Zemmour even indicts Napoleon for failing to exploit his victory over the Prussians at Jena in 1806, allowing a vengeful Marshal Blücher to tilt the outcome at Waterloo. In the mid-19th century, leaders of the Romantic movement, such as poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, welcomed the "liberal" German unity inspired by the French nation-state and improved by the absence of militarism! Socialist leader Jean Jaurès advocated pacifism until his assassination on the eve of the declaration of war in 1914.

Zemmour criticizes Marshal Philippe Pétain, of course, but surprises by condemning his choices in World War I no less than his role in World War II. The hero of Verdun stopped General Robert Nivelle in his tracks at Chemin des Dames in 1917 to save lives and prevent mutinies, even though Nivelle was "potentially on his way to Berlin." American participation in the final victory allowed Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George to deny Georges Clémenceau the left bank of the Rhine in the 1919 peace settlement, in the hope of avoiding more German humiliation. Viewing Germany as the "victim of Versailles," France's allies deterred it from using force after Hitler reoccupied the de-militarized Rhineland in 1936. Britain's traditional view of France as too powerful and a greater threat than Germany survived into the 1930s.

Much criticism can be—and has been—offered about Zemmour's historical accuracy and objectivity. His provocative argument manages to confirm the liberals' distorted view of France as "nationalist," as well as everybody else's equally flawed image of a "pacifist" France. Has France made more strategic mistakes and had more missed opportunities than its rivals? Did these result from pacifism or its internal divisions, political instability, and available means and objectives? Paradoxically, Zemmour fuels the "Blame France First" mood he otherwise, justly, denounces. Yet, unlike the Left, he tries to rehabilitate power as the nation's legitimate goal, and military strength as a legitimate way to achieve it. This alone goes a long way towards explaining why his opponents hate him.

Chevènement and Zemmour point to European integration as today's cause célèbre of the pacifists. The Left's embrace of Europe is in line with the shift of messianic nationalism from Left to Right since the middle of the 19th century. One disturbing implication of that shift is documented by the Israeli historian Simon Epstein in Le Paradoxe Français (2008), discussed by Zemmour. According to Epstein, many in the higher echelons of the Vichy government came not from the Right, as is widely assumed, but from the Left. They were attracted by the prospect of peace in a fraternal albeit German-dominated Europe. In the process, these Vichyists, often pro-Dreyfus in their youth, adopted the anti-Semitism of their likely saviors. Most French nationalists joined Charles de Gaulle rather than Pétain. Epstein's stunning paradox explains why the Left was so keen to demonize Vichy as a "fascist" regime: in one stroke, they exonerated themselves and discredited the Right for decades. Zemmour sums it up best: "The Right perished from a crime committed by the Left."

European unification within the boundaries of the Carolingian empire was France's last attempt to establish its "Pax Romana." Both Vichy Leftists and European federalists guided by Jean Monnet were convinced that lasting peace required nation-states to wither away. Zemmour and Chevènement try to debunk the illusion that the world has entered a post-national phase, pointing out that today's great and rising powers are…strong nation-states.

Once again, France was frustrated in its quest for empire. Europe became too large, too market-oriented, too divided politically, and too German. America and Britain have successfully prevented a French-dominated but not a German-dominated Europe. Yet, pro-Europeans in France echo their Vichy forbears: "France has missed its European opportunity, but a German Europe is better than a nationalist France."

Chevènement's intellectual puzzle is "why has the Left sacrificed its soul—the nation—state, the universalist/egalitarian model of integration of foreigners, and socialism itself—to an economically liberal Europe and multiculturalism? Even the Gaullists renounced the nation for Europe's sake." Once a close ally of François Mitterrand, Chevènement explores the reasons that led the former president to take that "fateful turn." Less than two years into his failed socialist experiment, Mitterrand changed his message: "I can't give you socialism, but I can give you Europe." He did not purposely use Europe as a cover for economic liberalization, which did not appeal to him, but neither did he challenge that kind of Europe either, in an effort to avoid France's "isolation." The author's conclusion is that, after the debacle of June 1940, Mitterrand—who was born the year of Verdun—lost faith in France's ability to survive on its own as a nation-state. For most French elites, recovery under de Gaulle was a mere parenthesis, the last hurrah in an unstoppable downfall.

Chevènement is wrong to believe that France did not benefit from Europe. External pressure greatly facilitated internal reforms, the political blame for which was conveniently directed at Brussels, not Paris. But market reforms are exactly what Chevènement, who still believes in the obsolete dirigiste model, wants to avoid. With the rest of the Left, he'd rather denounce what he perceives as an ever-harsher form of capitalism than emphasize France's reluctance to reform. The socialist platform for the 2012 presidential elections evokes the Beatles' song "Back in the USSR": more public employees and social programs, and increasing taxes on the rich. Plus ça change….

More convincing is the denunciation by both authors of multiculturalism. The traditional universalist, egalitarian French model of integration emphasized citizenship at the expense of ethnic, racial, and religious allegiances. That model is now unraveling in the face of massive immigration, combined with the anti-assimilationist ideology of left-wing activists and European bureaucrats.

Chevènement asks the crucial question: "How can a nation that does not like itself succeed at integrating immigrants?" A nation that has lost its self-confidence is an easy target for the foes in its midst, who stand ready to deliver the final blow. The description of French history as a succession of crimes against ethnic and racial communities lays the groundwork for retrospective guilt over colonialism and demands for open-ended repentance.

Self-hatred is indeed the favorite French way of coping with a sense of decline. In 2005, for example, President Jacques Chirac cancelled the celebration for the bicentennial of the victory at Austerlitz, on the grounds that Napoleon reinstated the slave trade outlawed by the Revolution. Deploring the great pressure put on long-term French citizens to adapt to immigrants, compared to the weak and diffident efforts to induce immigrants to emulate or even accommodate the ways of the native French, Chevènement comes to the conclusion that "there is no longer a dominant French culture; it has lost its identity, its legitimacy and attractiveness at home and abroad."

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In an illuminating book, Fractures Françaises, social geographer Christophe Guilluy further documents Zemmour's analysis. Immigrants, especially Muslims, increasingly live and marry among themselves. They are no longer adjusted to French society by the white working-class, which now has left the banlieues—urban neighborhoods dominated by public housing projects—to resettle in exurbs and rural areas. Misusing the analogy of the black American ghetto of the 1950s and '60s, the political Left, along with most American observers, has concluded that segregation is motivated primarily by racism.

Guilluy and Zemmour beg to differ: the reasons for the working-class exodus have more to do with socio-economic factors and crime than racist attitudes, which most social scientists have found to be almost non-existent. Hence, Guilluy's insistence, in line with Edward Banfield's argument about America in The Unheavenly City (1970), that "crime creates the ghetto, not the other way around." In addition, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the banlieues are neither isolated nor confining—they were once populated by the middle-class and their residents are highly mobile. Thanks to drug trafficking, welfare benefits, and the presence of more, not fewer, public services than in the rest of the country, thebanlieues are less poor than many of the working-class exurbs. Yet, for the Left, immigrants are the new proletariat, so riots and crime are the legitimate expression of the new communitarian struggle. No wonder the Left is soft on crime!

The prospect for more integrated neighborhoods is clearly hampered by the anti-assimilationists' reluctance to socialize immigrants into the French culture. A minimum wage set too high to make those lacking qualifications employable, coupled with over-generous welfare and unemployment benefits, further impedes integration.

Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-Right party, the National Front, now led by his daughter Marine, is no more racist than most of its supporters. It has become the party of those in the working- and middle-classes who have been left behind. Hit hardest by globalization, these people are also alienated by the ideology of multiculturalism. Unlike the "Americanized elites" and "Islamicized immigrants" (to use Zemmour's words) who ignore them at best and call them racists at worst, these citizens still believe in national identity, patriotism, and the work ethic.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Left, comprising public employees, bourgeois bohemians in the cities, intellectuals, and immigrants, is split between rigid defenders of laïcité (secularism) and multiculturalists, who prefer tortured arguments about the benignity of Islamist extremism to uttering a word critical of a Muslim minority. The Left has managed to downplay these tensions by focusing on what it believes are France's two main curses: growing social inequalities induced by globalization (notwithstanding the fact that income distribution in France is the most egalitarian of all Western democracies), and President Nicholas Sarkozy's policies on immigration and crime, allegedly inspired by the National Front. The Left's policy proposals are testimony to its unreconstructed ideology and its radicalization in the face of the financial crisis.

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The success or failure to integrate immigrants will determine what kind of country France will turn out to be in the future. Muslims, doubling in numbers every 15 years, a growth rate four times higher than the indigenous population, are expected by some demographers to constitute a majority in France by 2050. Sarkozy has been criticized by the far-Right for too much legal and illegal immigration, as well as the lack of results on integration and crime. Conversely, he has been chastised by the Left for even timidly trying to regulate immigration and for referring to "national identity." For the first time in national elections, ethnic voting has become an important factor, which could give the Left an overwhelming advantage in 2012. Let's hope Zemmour is proven wrong when he asserts: "The paradox is that by the time demographics might help put France back into the lead in Europe, France will have ceased to exist as a nation."