On March 23, an ISIS-affiliated terrorist stormed a supermarket in the small French town of Trèbes, shot two people dead, and took others hostage as human shields. After security forces had negotiated the release of all but one of his captives, a senior gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, volunteered to take her place. He saved her life and paid with his own. Later that day, in Paris, two hoodlums murdered a Holocaust survivor, 85-year-old Mireille Knoll. Prosecutors have characterized this as an anti-Semitic crime.
The events had this in common: One could not speak intelligibly of them without discussing Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The faiths of the murderers and the victims were central facts, not incidental ones. This, precisely, is not supposed to happen in France: France is culturally inhibited and legally prohibited from recognizing citizens as Jews, Christian, and Muslims. You are either a citizen of France or you are not. Faith is a private matter. The French believe the government has no business involving itself in religious affairs, nor does religion have any business involving itself in government.
Yet this happened in France, and the outpouring of emotion that followed, and the way this emotion was expressed, was suggestive. The words the French didn’t use to describe what had happened, the allusions they didn’t make, hint at France’s inability fully to confront, or properly to mourn, traumatic and neuralgic episodes in France’s own history. These same words suggest the limitations of laïcité as a legal and intellectual apparatus.
From the French state’s mythical origins in 496 CE to the Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church and the French state were entwined.1 They were legally wed, in a sense, lending legitimacy to an arrangement that might otherwise seem sordid. Yet one suspected that avarice played some role in their ardor, and the more extravagantly the two spent, the more one wondered if the pious devotion was a pretense.
Nonetheless: The Church was undeniably beautiful. Skeptics, Voltaire most notably, chafed under royal censorship and deplored the clergy’s influence on the monarchy. But the unyielding fact remains: The period France spent under the influence of the Catholic Church before the Revolution was much longer than the time elapsed since the Revolution. Unsurprisingly, the Revolution failed to expunge the legacy, institutions, and habits of mind of Catholicism. The notion that France could simply start anew was a conceit.
The Revolution was as anti-clerical as it was anti-monarchical. On October 10, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly seized the properties of France’s largest landholder. This was the Catholic Church. They stripped the Church of its privileges. Clerics who refused to swear their loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, placing it above any religious doctrine, were first replaced, then punished, then exiled. Subsequently, if caught they were subject to summary execution, along with anyone who harbored them.
Some 30,000 priests were sent into exile or penal colonies. During the Reign of Terror, mobs aroused by ghastly rumors and equipped with munitions from plundered arsenals descended upon bishops and priests, massacring them and mutilating their bodies. Women on their way to mass were beaten on the streets. Clerics were drowned—200 at once, in Paris; Carmelite nuns sent to the guillotine, buried naked in mass graves. Countless more died in prison of disease or hunger. The Sabbath and the Christian calendar were abolished, replaced with months named “Liberty” and “Reason.” Monastic vows and religious holidays were banned. Shrines, statues, icons, bells, abbeys, and priories were destroyed, and crosses, heaped into piles, were set alight in public bonfires. Saints’ days were abolished. St. Tropez was renamed Héraclée. By 1794, the vast majority of France’s 40,000 churches had been sold at auction, converted to another use, or destroyed.
The revolutionaries took special pains to desecrate Notre Dame Cathedral by holding the “Festival of Reason” inside it. Perhaps it is this suppressed memory that has given rise to hysterical fantasies of ISIS raising the black flag over Notre Dame. ISIS will never raise that flag. Anyone who contends otherwise is deeply confused. The French themselves did this, to themselves, and have never managed to come to terms with it.
Every ideology in France since has represented an attempt to replace the faith that was lost with a new form of devotion: nationalism, reason, science, liberty, the rights of man. The substitute ideologies have proven their power to compel faith, for better and for worse, and not just in France. They are all creedal systems; they are different from Catholicism, but all fulfil the same human yearning to make meaning of things.
The Revolution was hope, spectacle, and infamy. Without it there would be no modern France. But it was also a failure on its own terms by the time Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804. France does not know quite what to think of it. The monarch and the aristocracy had to go, but did monarchy and aristocracy as ideals have to go with them? And the Church, too? And the Terror—was it a necessary evil? Might the ends have been achieved without the bloodletting and the inexorable, permanent rancor to which it gave rise? Even Jean-Paul Marat, of all people, saw what was coming. His timetable was wrong, his prophecy correct: “You are forever annihilated, 50 years of anarchy awaits you, and you’ll only emerge with a dictator, a true patriot and statesman. O babbling people, if only you knew how to act!”2
Many on the French Left to this day cannot admit the revolutionaries did anything wrong. Others cannot quite define what the Revolution did right. It was something, to be sure; but what exactly? They do not agree. A few have regretted the whole business, as the history of the founding of Sacré Coeur church illustrates vividly. Laicité, usually translated as secularism, descends from this history of irreconcilable division. Its purpose, in a sense, is to cordon off this debate, that political life might proceed.
Laicité is one of the creedal values of Republican France, with overwhelming public support. But this is not secularism as Americans understand it. If contemporary Americans imagine that Christian piety and Enlightenment values fit together, this is owed not to their natural fit but to a uniquely American experience of reconciling them. France has never reconciled Christian piety and the Enlightenment. We see evidence of this in the species of perplexing spectacle I will soon describe.
Republican France has inherited another ideal directly from the Revolution: individual rights, as opposed to communal rights. Official France recognizes citizens, not the religious or ethnic groups to which they belong. When the French Revolution emancipated Protestants and Jews, it did not emancipate them as groups. It declared them citizens of France. By implication this meant they were equal citizens, entitled to the rights of all citizens. To this day, the French state vigorously rejects religious or ethnic particularism in the public sphere.
The 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and State finalized this process by ending all public funding of religious groups.3 In other European countries, religious groups have long enjoyed something like a corporate identity. In Germany, for example, the state subsidizes officially recognized religious communities, affording the state some measure of control over instruction in religion and binding members of these communities to the state’s secular codes of public appearance and behavior. Not in France. Because most Catholic churches were built well before this law was passed, the state continues to maintain them as public facilities. But immigrants who have arrived since—Buddhists, Protestants, Muslims, or Jews—must build and pay for their own places of worship. In theory, this means the Church and the State have at last been near-perfectly separated. In practice, it means that France’s mosques are often foreign-funded, usually by states that do not remotely share French ideals.
In theory again, laïcité, guaranteeing equality before the law for all citizens, militates against anti-Semitism.4 This is why the religions of the murderers and their victims must be irrelevant. But they are obviously not irrelevant, because secular France is today home to half a million Jews and some 4.5 million Muslims. These figures are estimates based on polling data: France counts its citizens by their citizenship, not their religion; questions about religion are banned from its formal census.
The overwhelming majority of Jews and Muslims are recent arrivals to France, most from former French colonies in North Africa. If anyone suggests to you that French Muslims are not “really French” because they are not part of its ancient and traditional fabric, keep in mind that this is also true of French Jews. When dignitaries and celebrities declare that France would not be France without its Jews, as in this manifesto, they are forgetting—perhaps deliberately?—that before decolonization, when some 80 percent of contemporary France’s Jewish population arrived, France was France.
No matter: Here they are. They have perhaps brought some enmity with them, the narcissism of small differences, but many will attest that they lived together amicably enough in North Africa. French Muslims, however, have since been worshipping at mosques where imported imams advance a more astringent agenda than the folk Islam practiced by their grandparents. French society lacks both the habits of thought it needs to describe with precision the obscurantist currents beneath le long fleuve tranquille of French life, and it moreover lacks the legal apparatus to deal with them.
The achievements of post-Christian France have been remarkable. Reason, science, liberty, and the rights of man are now universal ideals. France is a humane, advanced, and decent country. There is no hunger. Bakers are never on strike. By law, bread must be abundant in the capital. The government will never make that mistake again. Heretics are not burnt at the stake. Agents of the state lay down their lives to save ordinary citizens. It a free country, where all may practice their religion as they see fit, so long as they don’t see fit to murder anyone in its name. Or they may practice no religion at all. Everyone in France may speak freely, as Voltaire hoped—but there are some telling exceptions to this rule, exceptions that show where laïcité and reality cannot quite be reconciled.
Through the process of psychoanalysis and conscious mourning, Freud held, neuroses and their associated hysterias and compulsions could be transformed into ordinary misery. France has not escaped the tangle of religion and politics, faith and ideology, that the Revolution was to have ended. Many believe they have moved beyond it, but when events prove them wrong, their tongues get tied in knots. This haunted house of repressed memory, not political correctness, is why the French cannot bring themselves to speak forthrightly about Jews and Muslims, or about Christians for that matter. The memories are too painful and give rise to longings that produce too much internal conflict.5
It is no easy matter to work out the connections, of course; any thesis about the way mental habits and psychological traits formed by centuries of religious culture inform the secular present is by definition untestable. Carl Jung, inspired by a Freudian notion, wrote that, “The faith of a Catholic is not better or stronger than the faith of a Protestant, but a person’s unconscious is gripped by the Catholic form no matter how weak his faith may be.” He believed this accounted for the fanatical atheism of lapsed Catholics, particularly in Latin countries like France: “The absolutism of the Catholic Church seems to demand an equally absolute negation, whereas Protestant relativism permits of variations.” No one can prove such an assertion true or false. But no one can dismiss it out of hand, either.
France, largely—and certainly the rest of the world—has forgotten the details of the Revolution. That a psychological struggle over it is nevertheless at work is clear to any outside observer. I will show you how.
Let us return to the events of March 23. Redouane Lakdim, a 25-year-old dual citizen of France and Morocco, hijacked a car in Carcassonne, wounding the driver and killing the passenger. According to toxicological reports, he was stoned out of his mind. He opened fire on four police officers, seriously wounding one, then drove to nearby Trèbes, where he stormed a supermarket. Swearing allegiance to the Islamic State, he demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the only terrorist to survive the coordinated attacks on Paris of November 13, 2015.
The news flashed across everyone’s screens: ISIS, a supermarket, at least two dead, more trapped. GIGN, the elite tactical unit of the French National Gendarmerie, was on the scene almost immediately. The hostage has since been identified as Julie, a married 40-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl. A professional engineer, she was working at the Super U because she had been laid off. For 45 minutes she was the last captive remaining, with a terrorist’s pistol glued to her temple.
The gendarmes entered the supermarket. Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame put down his weapon and walked toward the terrorist with his hands in the air, asking him to release the hostage and allow him to take her place. He left his cellphone on the table, the line open, so that his colleagues could listen. The terrorist agreed, having told Julie how eager he was to kill someone in uniform. Julie fled, unharmed. Three hours later, shots rang out. GIGN stormed the building. They killed the terrorist, but it was too late: Beltrame had been mortally wounded, shot in the throat and stabbed.
Beltrame was a devout Christian. He had recently married his wife in a civil ceremony; they were engaged to be married in a religious ceremony in June. As he lay dying, the priest who was to marry him at the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus instead married him in his hospital bed. Then he performed the last rites. As Beltrame’s brother Cédric said, “He certainly knew he didn’t stand a chance.” Julie says she cannot stop thinking of her savior.
Does this bring any particular story to mind? Of course it does.6 If it was obvious beyond words, it was also beyond words. The event triggered an unconscious, or half-conscious, collective memory, and a grief long suppressed. Thus Aurélien Marq, a columnist whose biography describes him not only as a Senior Official in charge of Homeland Security, but as a man “passionate about religious history,” wrote a tribute to Beltrame that made every imaginable allusion to one particular religious history—and yet could not put it plainly in a column published four days before Easter Sunday:
It seems as if by pouring your blood you have caused myriad flowers to bloom at the foot of the tricolor, placed by the hands of an entire people. There has never been such a spring. . . .
I do not think anybody imagined how much France needed you . . . you made the sacrifice of your life to save someone else’s. . . . You have proven to us in the most beautiful way that we are still capable of grandeur, of courage, of nobility, of heroism. Because you are a hero—and about you, this word is not overused.
Because there is Arnaud Beltrame, every Frenchman can feel proud of his country and his culture, of a certain chivalrous idea of what we aspire to be. Because there is Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, every French soldier can carry even higher the honor of the army, and every gendarme now discovers, putting on his uniform, that it shines with greater brilliancy than he realized just a few days ago. Because there is Arnaud Beltrame, everyone knows that France is worth it, that its dignity is intact, and that it will never surrender. …
One day, our children’s children will ask not “why” but “for what” did Arnaud Beltrame die? Our children will be able to answer them: “He died to save an unknown, because he was a good man. He died to save France, because he was a soldier. He died so that we could think and speak freely today, because he was a man of faith and a seeker of truth. And do you know? Arnaud Beltrame is immortal.
Beltrame, in this column as in so many others, and in every official oration in his honor, died for every glory of France—for its culture, for the honor of the army, for the uniform, for France’s dignity, its chivalry, its nobility, its grandeur, its freedom of expression—except Christian virtue.
The philosopher Martin Legros struggled on television: “President Macron says he is a French hero, a servant of French liberty and fraternity.”
“The hero is one who, by his decision, embodies values and revives them. Watch how he almost erased the terrorist attack through his heroic action. As if the hero conquered death by his own death.”
A psychiatrist, Legros finally allowed, might even see something Christ-like in the gesture. He pronounced the word—Christique—as if it were a rare psychiatric condition.
Why is this? It is because France has no history of being both a Christian country and a free one at once. Morality has been officially defined since 1789 in exclusively secular terms. As a Christian country, France did not embrace religious tolerance; to the contrary, anti-Muslim sentiment here may be traced to the Battle of Tours. French anti-Semitism, too, is an atavism of its Christian past. The long French history of killing and expelling Jews culminated in the most shameful event of modern French history: The 1942 roundup of Jewish refugee children, by French police, on behalf of the Nazis. More than 4,000 children were herded into the Vel d’Hiv velodrome and deported to Auschwitz. How did the police justify this to themselves? On the grounds that these children were not French citizens. The very logic that emancipated the Jews was used as a pretext for infamy.
This rafle du Vel d’hiv was precisely the event Mireille Knoll escaped. What we were watching, then, in the wake of March 23, was a France trying to reconcile its shame, not only about Madame Knoll’s murder but all the other murders it has committed in the name of religious particularism—of Jews, of Protestants, of Muslims—with their longing to love Beltrame’s sacrifice as the Christ-like act it was.
This admixture of shame, grief, guilt, and longing for the taboo resulted in a strange day. On the morning of March 29, the French took to the streets to honor Arnaud Beltrame, laying flowers before every gendarmerie and police préfecture in the country, watching the procession of his coffin, accompanied by a full honor guard, from the Pantheon to les Invalides. Flags were lowered to half-mast on public buildings. Throughout, the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral tolled. In the evening, they took to the streets again to protest Madame Knoll’s murder, all the while unable clearly to say why Beltrame’s heroism was so glorious or Madame Knoll’s murder so infamous.
Everyone (or Americans, anyway) defaulted immediately to the hypothesis that Madame Knoll was murdered by Jew-hating Muslims, as opposed to “real” French people. Some Americans concluded that this proved the National Front must be good folk who basically had the right idea about Muslims. Bari Weiss made an argument all too close to this in the New York Times and got far too many of the critical details wrong. Yes, France has a Muslim anti-Semitism problem. It also has far-Right and far-Left anti-Semitism problems that are far older and much deeper.
But it’s not yet clear that any of these problems defined this murder. From what was reported at the inquest, it may not be easy to prove beyond reasonable doubt the charge of anti-Semitic motivation. The prosecutors were under tremendous political pressure to describe it as anti-Semitic, particularly because of the symbolism of Madame Knoll’s escape from the roundup at Vel d’Hiv. But from what we know so far, it sounds as if these were garden-variety criminal lowlifes who murdered her for kicks or spare change—or perhaps, as one of them confessed, because she reported the other to the police.
One of the murderers is named Alex Carrimbacus. He has probably never set foot in a mosque in his life. Indeed, this human scum seems to have been so “authentically French” that his prison nickname was “Le Marseillais.” His accomplice, Yacine Mihoub, was of North African origin and one assumes in some sense a Muslim, but neither a devout one nor even a radicalized one. In fact, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb was clear on this point: Whereas the terrorist who killed Arnaud Beltrame was indeed a radicalized Muslim, known to French security forces, Madame Knoll’s murderers were not. At first, Collumb told the National Assembly that Mihoub had said to his accomplice, “She’s a Jew, she must have money.” But according to anonymous judicial sources, even this is unclear. These words, they say, cannot be found in any recording of the hearing.
Mihoub, an alcoholic and an addict, had previously been committed to a mental hospital, having threatened to burn down his own mother’s building. The murderers met in prison, where Mihoub was doing time for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl, and Carrimbacus for aggravated theft. Carrimbacus sounds like what the far Right would call un français de souche—a real Frenchman. And Mihoub? If we assume Carrimbacus is a real Frenchman who harbored a real French hatred for Jews, it’s plausible to imagine that under interrogation he sought to exculpate himself by telling the police that Mihoub did it because he was a Muslim. He says he did not know Madame Knoll was Jewish until Mihoub told him before murdering her. Mihoub, however, who had known Madame Knoll since his childhood, emphatically says he did not kill her—Carrimbacus did. In any event, the prosecutors indicted both men for murder aggravated by religious animus. But Carrimbacus alone is the source of the report that Mihoub cried the takbir before murdering Madame Knoll, and he couldn’t even keep that story straight.
Writing for the New York Times, Bari Weiss, or more likely her editor, clearly thought she would offer refreshing moral clarity with the headline: “Jews Are Being Murdered in Paris. Again.” Weiss continued: “Authorities are investigating the murder as being motivated by the ‘membership, real or supposed, of the victim of a particular religion.’ But euphemisms should have no place in describing the nature of Mireille Knoll’s death.” It is not a euphemism. It is a legal definition, like “a person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when, with criminal negligence, he or she causes the death of another person.”
“Anti-Semitism,” Weiss continued, “was supposed to be a disease of the far Right. But the people actually killing Jews in France these days are not members of the National Front. They are Islamists.” Anti-Semitism wasn’t supposed to be a disease of the far Right; it is a disease of the far Right. The National Front has a surprising amount of support in the so-called sensitive urban areas. (That is a euphemism.) The anti-Semitism of the National Front does not turn Muslims off. Islamists and the far Right are on the same side of the spectrum in France: the counter-Enlightenment side. And no American Jew, including Bari Weiss, has any business apologizing for the National Front.
In reality, anti-Semitic crime has of late been declining sharply, not rising, in France: Since 2015, such crimes have decreased by 58 percent.7 Spectacular terrorist murders aimed at Jewish targets—a school, a kosher supermarket—make the news precisely because they are exceptionally rare events. Jews are extremely safe in France.
“She was murdered by men apparently animated by the same hatred that drove Hitler,” Weiss continued. No. There is no evidence that they ascribed to anything like the Nazis’ ideology, or any ideology at all. The murder of an elderly Holocaust survivor is an abomination, and particularly upsetting in its symbolism because she was a survivor of the rafle du Vel d’Hiv. (Let’s remember where the National Front stands on that event.) But to insinuate that contemporary France is anything like Nazi Germany—or even like Vichy France—trivializes Nazi Germany and Vichy France alike.
The French pride themselves on France’s freedom of expression, and given its history, it treasures particularly the freedom to blaspheme. France paid a heavy price for that freedom in the blood of the French Revolution, and continues to pay it now. In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the words ascribed to Voltaire (though he never said them) were recited endlessly in the French media: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” At the same time, there are exceptions. They are telling.
In the wake of Beltrame’s death, Stéphane Poussier, a former candidate for la France Insoumise, disgraced himself. Poussier, appropriately, means dust. Upon the news of Beltrame’s passing, with the nation convulsed in grief—but also stunned with pride to have produced such a man—Poussier immediately took to Twitter to relieve himself: “Whenever a cop gets whacked, and it’s not every day, I think of my friend Remi Fraisse. But this time, it’s a colonel,” continued Poussier, “what a kick! At least that’s one less Macron voter.”8
It was a repulsive thing to say, but that is all it was. Poussier, however, was arrested on terrorism charges, tried almost immediately, given a suspended sentence of a year’s imprisonment, and stripped for seven years of his civil rights. He had company. The same fate befell a vegan activist who posted an odious Facebook message about the butcher who had been killed in the attack on the Trèbes supermarket: “So then, you are shocked that a murderer is killed by a terrorist. Not me. I’ve got zero compassion for him, there’s some justice in it.” A crazy vegan said a crazy vegan thing. What of it? Here is what: She too was immediately hauled off to trial and given a seven-month suspended sentence.
However proud the French may be of their freedom of expression, France does not enjoy the protections the First Amendment affords Americans. Its constitution emphasizes the preciousness of freedom of speech by incorporating Articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of 1789, but these articles are wan and emaciated compared to the words, “Congress shall make no law.”
Article 10: “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.”
Article 11: “The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.” (My emphasis.)
It is not unconstitutional, therefore, to forbid speech that is “tantamount to the abuse of this liberty.” The Gayssot Act, for example, forbids Holocaust denial. I oppose criminalizing speech—even that speech, but its legal logic is not subject to dispute. The Gayssot Act is the law of the land, so penalizing Jean Marie Le Pen is the natural sequel. Le Pen is a Holocaust denier, and what he has done repeatedly violated a law with well-defined terms. That is why, on March 27, Le Pen’s conviction was upheld.
Poussier, however, was convicted for “apologizing for terrorism.” This law was enacted in 2014, transferring the interdiction of “apologizing for terrorism” from an 1881 press law to the entire population. Its scope is near limitless and the penalty may be seven years in prison:
Apologizing for terrorism consists in describing or commenting favorably on a terrorist act that has already been committed. For example, approving of an attack.
Apology is different from denial. The denial of a terrorist act is when a person totally or partially denies these acts without directly approving them. If, for example, she invokes a conspiracy theory.
To be punished, the apology must have been made publicly. The public character of speech should be assessed in the same way as insults or defamation. Thus, comments made on a social network open to the public may be repressed.
“Terrorism” has no juridical definition, nor does the law confine itself to prohibiting apologies for terrorist attacks committed on French soil. Any expression of sympathy with a terrorist attack, defined in any manner, anywhere, could thus potentially result in a seven-year prison sentence. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described writing a poem as a terrorist act. The PKK is—both under EU law and in fact—a terrorist group, but like all Western newspapers, the French media is full of paeans to the eco-feminist paradise in Rojava. If applied rigorously, this law would surely put half of France’s population in jail.
The law is what the French would call liberticide. It is absurd to imagine that Poussier, or the vegan, in any way incited a terrorist act. Poussier is a pathetic stunted adolescent who, when confronted with the actions of a real man, thought it would be clever, or deliciously transgressive, to mock another man’s heroism and death. That’s detestable, but it should not be criminal.
As for the vegan? She’s a vegan.
I suspected this law would be abused, but assumed it would be used—as it was—to arrest loudmouthed Muslims who couldn’t yet be nailed for a real crime. To do so was obviously wrong, but at least conceivably connected to a real terrorist threat. Arresting a lunatic vegan and a boor? However repulsively, both expressed strains of political thought that have always run through French life: This country gave us the phrase épater le bourgeois, after all. Were they arrested, I wonder, to prove that when it comes to repressing speech, France is entirely secular? Or was something stranger at work?
Something stranger, I suspect. Beltrame’s death represented not only a remarkable act of heroism, but a disciplined masculinity typical of France’s police, armed forces, and firefighters. France does not deserve its reputation for cowardice. Its political leaders have sometimes been beneath contempt—Pétain and the Vichy government were morally complicit in the collapse and surrender of 1940—but a class of otherwise ordinary French men adheres to a code of chivalry. The motto of the sapeurs-pompiers—the fire service—is “save or perish.” They mean it, and the deep well of religious-historical precedent from which it comes is not obscure. Poussier and the vegan literally committed an unspeakable crime. Let us then divulge its name: blasphemy.
The murder of an elderly Jewish woman shocked the nation’s conscience and caused street demonstrations. The outrage was entirely genuine. France is a secular country, and a liberal one that is tolerant of all religions; indeed, religious tolerance, often scarce in Catholic France, has become an article of faith in post-Revolutionary France. France believes it is governed by reason in the full manifestation of secular logic as law—except, as Poussier discovered, that secular logic is obviously not free of faith, nor is the law logical. His arrest and conviction, along with the lunatic vegan’s, tainted a dignified, appropriate—and fully warranted—national homage to a heroic man, for can anyone be sure this is what people in France really feel if they know it is forbidden to say otherwise?
Thus France, far from God yet longing for holiness; disdainful of priests yet priestly in bringing judgment on the blasphemous—or, as Voltaire really did say, “What a fuss about an omelet! How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!” The old theology has long crumbled, but the logical and emotional forms that held it in place for centuries past have migrated, surprisingly intact, to the early 21st century.
Such things happen all the time, and not just in France. But when countries refuse to look clearly at the past, they are like neurotics controlled by compulsions they cannot understand. Freud proposed that through the process of psychoanalysis the suppressed memory of trauma might be restored to the light of consciousness; allowing analysands honestly to mourn what must be mourned, transforming their hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness. Surely that would be more wholesome that the spectacle of such an Enlightened country arresting a vegan for being an idiot.
1Clovis I unified the Franks. France as a recognizable national entity appears much later. Charles de Gaulle nonetheless identified 496 as the beginning of French history: “For me, the history of France begins with Clovis, chosen as king of France by the tribe of the Franks, who gave their name to France. Before Clovis, we have Gallo-Roman and Gallic prehistory. To me, the decisive aspect is that Clovis was the first king to be baptized a Christian. My country is a Christian country and I date the history of France from the accession of a Christian king who bore the name of the Franks.” David Schoenbrun, Les trois vies de Charles de Gaulle (Julliard, 1965). My translation.
2L’Ami du peuple, September 20, 1792, Number 684.
3There are a few anomalous regions, such as Alsace-Lorraine, governed by older laws.
4See The Hope of Marseille for a fuller explication.
5Adam Garfinkle recently described American strategic culture, in these pages, as “a secularized manqué of Anglo-Protestantism.” Religious sentiment in the United States, he argued, migrated into politics, and if few Americans now remember the origins of their mental habits, they may nonetheless be discerned. I am arguing that this is also true of France. Presque tous les malheurs de la vie viennent des fausses idées que nous avons sur ce qui nous arrive, as Abraham Lincoln said.
6John 15:13. Rom. 5:10 and 5:18. Cor. 15:3. John 19:30. Eph. 2:16. Phil. 2:8. Col. 2:14. Heb. 2:14. 9:15-16. 1 Pet. 1:18-19. 1 Pet. 3:18. 1 John 2:2. Isaiah 53:4-7. Zech. 12:10.
7If you want to wander into a wasteland, try to find meaningful statistics on anti-Semitism in France. This is the best data we’ve got. Note the sharply downward trend, and see page 18, particularly. Which is more logical, if you are a Jew: leaving France for the safety of Israel, or vice-versa? But even this report tells us little that warrants definitive conclusions. We can’t distinguish from this the difference between a crime wave and a crime-reporting wave. Graffiti and homicide are not comparable crimes.
8Fraisse, a 21-year-old environmental activist, died in a violent clash with the police protesting construction at the Sivens dam. He was hit by a stun grenade, in principle a non-lethal instrument of crowd control. But something went wrong. His death prompted riots throughout France. An administrative inquiry, conducted by the Inspector General of the Gendarmerie, resulted in the suspension of the use of stun grenades.