The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Holocaust survivors, is an accomplished, even gifted, pessimist. To his disciples, he is a Jewish Zola, accusing France’s bien-pensant intellectual class of complicity in its own suicide. To his foes, he is a reactionary whose nostalgia for a fairy-tale French past is induced by an irrational fear of Muslims. Finkielkraut’s cast of mind is generally dark, but when we met in Paris in early January, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he was positively grim.
“My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.” We were seated at a table in his apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. I had come to discuss with him the precarious future of French Jewry, but, as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers seemed to be reaching its conclusion, we had become fixated on the television.
Finkielkraut sees himself as an alienated man of the left. He says he loathes both radical Islamism and its most ferocious French critic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing—and once openly anti-Semitic—National Front party. But he has lately come to find radical Islamism to be a more immediate, even existential, threat to France than the National Front. “I don’t trust Le Pen. I think there is real violence in her,” he told me. “But she is so successful because there actually is a problem of Islam in France, and until now she has been the only one to dare say it.”