France’s Far-Right Claims a Left-Anarchist Martyr as Its Own
Why French conservatives' new favorite philosopher is Simone Weil.
In March, Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of The Republicans, France’s largest conservative party, was subjected to the French tradition that requires politicians to expound on their love of literature. However high-minded its origins, it’s now treated mainly as an opportunity to stump for votes by signaling one’s cultural commitments.
It was surprising, therefore, that Wauquiez—who has been at pains to establish his socially conservative bona fides by voicing opposition to same-sex marriage and declaring welfare policies to be a “cancer on French society”—declared his love for the work of Simone Weil, the maverick 20th-century thinker usually associated with the left. Weil’s L’Enracinement, or The Need for Roots, Wauquiez said, was his favorite book, one he rereads regularly: “This book is a compass, an inspiration, definitely.” The reason, he explained, is that Weil understood that “the greatest violence consists of depriving future generations of their history, their roots, and their memories.”
Wauquiez is part of a larger wave of French conservatives to recently appropriate Weil’s writing on French and European identity. In one sense, this newfound appreciation is well timed, as next month marks the 75th anniversary of Weil’s death. But these most recent endorsements could have set Weil spinning in her grave. She famously fought alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and exiled herself from France during World War II, worked in factories and fishing trawlers after graduating from an elite university as a show of lower-class solidarity, and was raised as a French Jew before ending her days as a pacifist Christian mystic—and never along the way did she comment on the ideological battles over multiculturalism and immigration that animate the contemporary French right.
If Weil’s conservative admirers feel an affinity with Weil, it’s only because they are misreading her work and her vision of a properly rooted France and Europe. In doing so, they are corrupting the legacy of one of the country’s intellectual luminaries—and betraying their own superficial grasp of the very French culture they claim to want to preserve.
Weil drafted The Need for Roots during the last months of her life, when she was still well enough to work for the Free French, France’s government in exile, in London. Asked to draft a paper on postwar plans for France, Weil understood that France and Europe’s liberation from Nazism was just the first step. The next and more arduous step was to create a France and Europe worthy of this monumental effort. The Need for Roots was the manual Weil provided for this reborn and renewed Europe.
It appears that Weil’s boss in the Free French movement, Charles de Gaulle, never read this text. (One paper written by Weil he did read was her proposal to parachute white-clad, unarmed nurses onto battlefields. His famous reaction, upon finishing the text, was “Elle est folle!”—“She is mad!”) But one of her great admirers, Albert Camus, did read the work and saw to its publication in 1949. “It seems impossible to me,” he exclaimed, “to imagine a rebirth for Europe that does not take into account the demands” that Weil had identified in her work.
In certain superficial respects, Wauquiez rightly identifies Weil as a deeply conservative thinker. She held a dim view of the benefits of technological progress, of the prerogatives of the state (whether in its capitalist or its communist guise) to shape the lives of citizens, and of intellectuals (on the right as well as the left) who prattle in abstractions and pretend to speak for the people without knowing anything about them. These are all factors in what she identified as Europe’s greatest threat: déracinement or “uprootedness.”
With this rhetoric, Weil was making common cause with a reactionary French tradition, which had long had dibs on the metaphor of roots. Ever since the late 19th century, the myth of les racines, or roots, and the malady of being déraciné, or uprooted, has been watered by the current of xenophobia that runs unbroken from l’affaire Dreyfus to the National Front party. One of the 19th century’s most influential French novels is Les Déracinés, written by the anti-Semitic and anti-republican intellectual Maurice Barrès. He follows the trajectories of several provincial youths who, moving to Paris for their educations, uproot themselves from their native soil and allow themselves to be seduced and corrupted by foreign and abstract thinkers such as Kant. Needless to say, these French 20-somethings, once they are exposed to the Critique of Pure Reason, no more stand a chance to flourish than do the carrots my daughter dug out of our garden yesterday.
Right-wing luminaries now claim that the kind of rooted French and European rebirth Weil had in mind dovetails with these xenophobic ideals. For example, in his best-selling book L’identité malheureuse, the neoconservative intellectual Alain Finkielkraut enlists Weil in his crusade against multiculturalism and immigration. More recently, the journalist Pascale Tournier, in her book Le vieux monde est de retour (The Old World Is Back), presents what she calls the “nouveaux conservateurs.” In this riff on the “nouveaux philosophes” of the 1970s—the young and telegenic Turks such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann who rebranded French socialism—Tournier profiles new conservatives such as Eugénie Bastié and Charlotte d’Ornellas who represent what is known as the “droite décomplexée,” i.e., young conservatives not embarrassed to embrace anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, anti-immigrant causes. These same thinkers, moreover, also claim as their intellectual ancestors the likes of Weil, Camus, and George Orwell.
Then there is Wauquiez, who not only retweeted his interview excerpt about Weil to his many followers but also had himself photographed holding The Need for Roots for an article in the conservative Le Figaro magazine. Moreover, when he kicked off his primary campaign last year, Wauquiez quoted Weil’s exhortation that the youth “must be given something to love, and this something must be France.” Four months later, during his victory speech to the party, he repeated the same line, adding the one that preceded it in Weil’s book: “It is through our roots that we must rediscover this sentiment of tenderness for a thing so beautiful, precious, fragile, and perishable.”
Tenderness is a quality, however, rarely associated with Wauquiez. His language closely echoes—critics would say mimics—that of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. In fact, Le Pen has taken note of their similar views and, more than once, has called for a rapprochement between the two parties. While Wauquiez has refused the offered hand, his affinities with Le Pen are especially clear on the subject of immigration. Last year, he warned that France’s identity risked becoming submerged by waves of “uncontrolled” immigration and, after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, called for the creation of internment camps for the several thousand French youths—almost all of whom are Muslim—whom French intelligence services consider potential terrorists.
Wauquiez has since ratcheted up his anti-immigrant rhetoric by demanding a referendum on immigration policy. His goal is to eliminate the automatic granting of citizenship to children born to immigrants living illegally on French soil. Stirring the already simmering pot, he has also said that France granted a record-busting 260,000 visas during Emmanuel Macron’s first year as president. As a result, Wauquiez grimly predicted, 1 million more immigrants will be in France by the end of the president’s five-year term. As several fact-checkers quickly pointed out, however, more than 20 percent of those visas were granted under the newly created category of “Passport Talent,” which identifies highly skilled applicants. Equally important, when one subtracts the number of those who left France during that same year, the net immigration total falls below 70,000.
Wauquiez has even enlisted Victor Hugo to his cause. The Republican president of the United States would never make loving Herman Melville a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship, but not so for the French Républicain. Apparently, professional background or marital status are not the only criteria for immigrating successfully to France. Immigrants must also, Wauquiez declared (with a straight face), love Victor Hugo more than they do French welfare benefits.
Weil had no truck, however, with this constricted conception of roots. France’s defeat in 1940, she declared in The Need for Roots—though perhaps Wauquiez skipped this part—“forces us to change our way of loving the homeland.” She makes clear that her patrie is not founded on the myth of an eternal France bursting with grandeur. Instead, it is an earthbound world enabling both the native-born and newly arrived to seek rootedness in one another—in the lives and souls of one’s fellow citizens and neighbors—rather than more abstract notions of shared history.
Weil described this grounded feeling of rootedness—a connection to those around us—as “the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” That’s why she placed compassion, which allows us to perceive this need in others and ourselves, at the center of her political philosophy, although it’s not a quality we usually associate with public policy. For Weil, France’s revival depended on a new understanding of patriotism that had compassion at its very center. Rather than duty to a nation—which, she insisted, was a practical necessity at certain times, but not otherwise a value worth privileging—patriotism consisted instead of something far more demanding: a duty to other individuals. In the end, compassion is the recognition of both the frailty of the bonds that maintain a community and the lives that constitute it.
Seventy-five years ago, Weil already grasped how the growth of technology and automation, and state and corporate institutions, “made people hunger for something to love which is made of flesh and blood.” The problem, she recognized, is that knaves across the political spectrum can easily exploit this hunger. In this respect, seeing the man who may become France’s next president quoting Weil is no more comforting than seeing the current president of the United States retweeting Fox & Friends. But Weil, were she alive, would have nevertheless persisted in her campaign on behalf of compassion. The one thing that is eternal, she would remind us, is neither France nor the United States, but instead “duty toward the human being as such.”