A sense that French democracy is in danger is about as old as French democracy itself. Since the French Revolution of 1789, French public opinion has been divided between supporters of the Enlightenment values of reason and modernity, and those nostalgic for a pre-modern age. This rift in French society has reemerged several times since—at the turn of the century, during the Dreyfus Affair, when French public opinion split over a French Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason, and again during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied half the country. More recently, challenges to France’s tradition of secular liberalism have come from a more complicated array of ideologies—right-wing Catholic traditionalism, as before, but also radical Islamism, as well as left illiberalism. With the integrity of liberal democracies strained worldwide, is France’s especially under threat?

The French journalist and novelist Marc Weitzmann is the author most recently of Hate, about the rise of anti-Semitism in France, and a contributor to a number of publications in France and the United States. According to Weitzmann, factors including France’s colonial history and geography make France “especially sensitive to political crisis.” Meanwhile, the influence of French anti-modern thinkers is growing, now extending even to the American right. France is unusually resistant to some of the excesses of American-style progressive identity politics, Weitzmann says. But the state of French democracy, shaken by terrorist attacks and rising anti-Semitism, “may get worse before it gets better.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Is French democracy in crisis?

Marc Weitzmann: It is, like most of the Western democracies of the last 20 years. The crisis may have started in France. There’s a very strong anti-liberal tradition in France, since the early 19th century. We’re facing most of the same problems as other democracies: the rise of anti-Semitism, the rise of populism, and problems with globalism in a migrant crisis. France is a Mediterranean country, so we’re in the front row in terms of mass migrations from the Mediterranean and Africa. So each time there’s a crisis in the Muslim world or in the Mediterranean area, we feel the results of that. There’s also the fact of being a former imperial power, with special relationships to some countries in Mediterranean. There is a tradition of anti-Semitism in France dating back to the 19th century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was written in Paris. There is also a tradition of anti-democratic feeling that been huge since the French Revolution.

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