A sense that French democracy is in danger is about as old as French democracy itself. Since the French Revolution of 1789, there have been strong divisions in French between support for modern ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and anti-modern reaction. This rift has reemerged over and again—notably, at the turn of the century, during the Dreyfus Affair, when French public opinion split over the issue of 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 complex array of ideologies—right-wing Catholic traditionalism, as before, but also radical Islamism, as well as an illiberal left. With the integrity of liberal democracies strained worldwide, is France’s distinctively under threat today?

The French journalist and novelist Marc Weitzmann is the author of Hate, on the rise of anti-Semitism in France, and a contributor to a number of publications in his country and the United States. According to Weitzmann, a set of factors, including its colonial history and geography, have made France “especially sensitive to political crisis.” The influence of French anti-modern thinkers is meanwhile now growing, extending even to the American right. France is, Weitzmann says, unusually resistant to some of the excesses of American-style progressive identity politics, 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.

Those factors combined make the France case specific. They may make it especially sensitive to political crisis, more than any other country in Europe. The level of terrorism in 2015 and 2016 happened in France and nowhere else in Europe. Globally, we’re facing a wave of populism everywhere, whether it’s in Muslim countries under the form of Islamism, or in the U.S., or in Europe, or in Russia, but France may be specifically vulnerable because of its history.

The Signal

Bovy: When you mention the origins of anti-liberalism in early 19th-century France, what politicians or writers are you referring to? Were they on the left or right?

Weitzmann: It started on the right, with the Swiss writer Joseph de Maistre, who wrote in French. But all of the best French writers, from Balzac to Baudelaire and Flaubert, were anti-democracy and anti-modern. The notion that the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution gave birth to a toxic society was born in France, in the first decades of the 19th century. The idea that big cities are bad, full of corruption, that modernity is bringing decadence to culture and politics, is a French notion.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in