The Twilight of the Gods did not happen. In the aftermath of the attacks on the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, identity politics are once again in the forefront of political debate. A debate that has revealed the deep-rooted schism within the French and European Left-wing.

Left of Charlie

The terrorist attacks of January 7th, 2015 and the subsequent Republican march of January 11th through all major French cities have revealed long-standing fissures in the edifice of the French and European Left. Discursive breaches and political tensions have risen steeply between the universalist, laïcist camp and the relativist, multi-culturalist side. A fracture that could be an early symptom of a division within the French – and, more broadly, the European – Left-wing.

Universalism and Laïcism

The long tradition of the French and European Left stands true to the principles of its founders, particularly in regard to religion. Whether it is described as the “opium of the people” (Marx) or the “great illusion” (Freud) – one of the chief goals of this branch of Left-wing thought is to “crush the infamous thing” (Voltaire). The liberation of human existence from the persistence of religious dogma is one of the many forms of liberation contemplated by this strand.

From this point of view, Charlie’s caricatures are the continuation of a long tradition of satire aiming at the powers that unjustly govern the minds and bodies of men – not an instrument of oppression directed against a deprived underclass as it is viewed by the opposing camp.

Image voltaire poster charlie protest in paris

Relativism and Multi-culturalism

The other Left-wing builds on the tradition of post-colonial thought. A body which has flourished post-9/11 and which considers Islam as a safeguard for populations that suffer the blunt of capitalist oppression. Tracing identity politics over the contours of class warfare, it finds in Islam a religion of the proletariat in need of defense in the face of reactionary forces in Western society.

From this perspective, laïcité of the brand defended by Charlie is seen alternately as the new “opium of the Left” and as a concept used in service of Catholic values. In the former scenario, the traditional left-wing has grown unable to recognize the proletariat it claims to defend, in the latter case, the idea of laïcité itself is a fallacy as it consistently upholds France’s Catholic heritage against its multi-cultural population.

Historically-contingent perspectives

An important caveat in this reading is the importance of cultural heritage which varies within the different Left-wings in Europe. It would be caricatural to ascribe the first reading solely to the French Left and the second to its anglosaxon counterpart as both are present in the different contexts.

However, institutionally-speaking the first reading is dominant within the mainstream Left in France (Parti Socialiste) – most recently prime minister Manuel Valls renewed its defense in Le Monde. Likewise, the multi-culturalist reading is solidly anchored in the English tradition, dating back to its colonial empire in which it served as the guiding moral principle.

solidarité charlie hebdo place de la nation

Divergent readings

The disparate readings of the events of January by the two heirs of the Left only highlights a pre-existing line of demarcation between two social projects: one holding on to its universalist ambition and viewing state secularism as a safeguard against both religious fanaticism and racism, the other viewing universalism as defunct in the aftermath of decolonization and stressing instead the primacy of the local or traditional sense of community as the foundation of a social body.

The focal point of the tension between the two lies therefore in their respective diagnoses on racism and their assessments of the continued validity of universalist claims in founding a new social order.

Racism

For the multi-culturalist camp, racism is inherently multiple. Bent on demonstrating the different origins, mechanisms and results of different sets of discrimination – albeit all based on race or confession – their view is that different types of racism require different course of action on behalf of the state. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, less cultural discrimination should be tolerated to compensate for greater economic discrimination.

The universalist strand still holds that the state should be blind to religious or ethnic criteria. This doesn’t mean not recognizing different sources of different types of racism, however it does imply treating all racisms as one – whether anti-semitism, anti-islam or other – and offering a single measure by which to guide all actions against it.

The latter is an intellectual legacy of the French Enlightenment and a historical inheritance of the Nazi Occupation of France during which racial and religious information held by the French Third Republic about all its citizens were used by the occupier and the Vichy regime to facilitate the extermination of French Jews.

C'est reparti

Laïcité

Ultimately, what is contested is also about the perspectives for future change put forth in both accounts – and specifically the place of laïcité or any other value with universalist ambition. On this issue, the paths are particularly divergent.

To those who still respond to the universalist credo of “laïcité in the public sphere,” this measure of universalism is a necessary safeguard for cultural tolerance in the public space as well as for the individual to navigate his own existence based on choice. State-sanctioned secularism is considered here as instrumental to achieving the higher goal of individual freedom from external pressures.

This freedom is one which appears to be abandoned to the benefit of a larger freedom of self-determination (in an identity sense) for communities.

charlie-hebdo-fevrier

An impossible dialogue?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the dialogue is the necessary stalemate it inevitably encounters when partisans of either camp are quick to point out the existing bridge with the Right-wing.

Multi-culturalists denounce laïcité as a concept shared with the Right – and more recently the French far-right – signifying its underlying conservatism. Perhaps more insidiously, aspersions are cast upon the veracity of the blindness of the state whose rapidity to condemn anti-semitism is not seen as being matched in islamophobic assaults – parallels being quick to be drawn between the present condition of muslim populations and the Jews in the 1930s.

The laïcists dismiss these parallels as mystifying and indecent. However, their defense also calls on echoes that the multi-culturalists’ yearning for community have in common the far-right. Importantly, they assert that the universalist value of concepts like laïcité have already been reduced both to France’s own territory – following the failure of colonial assimilation-ism – and to the public sphere – a border which it considers as final in the defense of broadly shared rights and duties within the nation.

Two roads to one goal

In the last analysis, the two visions are opposed in the way they conceptualize the liberation of man that all Left-wing strands aim for. One views individual freedom as paramount and healthy communities as the by-product of liberated individuals, the latter considers community as a necessary bearing for the construction of a sense of a liberated individuality.

While the goal is the same, the means to that identical end are opposed, yielding the sense that the schism is in the process of consolidating itself in the political landscape. This shift in the composition of the Left might revitalize it. However, ultimately the schism weakens the Left’s overall influence on the national stage – a consideration that might still hold a semblance of unity over an otherwise disparate entity.