The History Of French Self-Hatred

by Dish Staff

Alexander Stille describes Éric Zemmour’s book, Le Suicide Français, as “a wildly over-the-top broadside condemnation of everything that has happened in the past fifty years, such as birth control, abortion, student protests, sexual liberation, women’s rights, gay rights, immigration from Africa, American consumer capitalism, left-wing intellectualism, the European Union”:

In Zemmour’s view, both the traditional French left and right (really, everyone but the French far right) have, through a mixture of blindness and cowardice, allowed for the dismantling of a national edifice based on paternal authority. It is highly revealing that Zemmour uses the term “virilité,” or virility, some twenty-three times in his five-hundred page book, suggesting a certain fixation.

The popular success of “Le Suicide Français” is in keeping with a well-established tradition: it takes its place on a long shelf of books that have declared the decline or death of France.

As early as 1783, as Sean M. Quinlan notes, in “The Great Nation in Decline,” the French began to churn out tracts like one which laments that “a flagging, weak and less vivacious generation has replaced, without succeeding, that brilliant [Frankish] race, those men of combat and hunting, whose bodies were more robust, cleaner and of greater height than those of today’s civilized peoples.” The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, in 1871, set off a spate of self-flagellation, with writers decrying a declining birth rate, an inferior education system, and moral bankruptcy. Although nostalgists like Zemmour consider the late nineteenth century a golden age, when France emerged as an imperial power and a center of cultural greatness, his counterparts in that period saw a cesspool of effeminacy and decline. One of the big books of 1892 was “Degeneration,” whose author, Max Nordau, was Hungarian but lived most of his life in Paris. He excoriates Émile Zola and writes that the Impressionists can only be understood in terms of “hysteria and degeneracy.”

Stille tries to put things in perspective:

France is no longer an empire, but it is a prosperous medium-sized country with an extremely high standard of living. It is no longer the world’s cultural center, but it has far more influence than most societies. France remains among the top twenty countries by virtually all measures of the World Bank’s Human Development Index. Life expectancy in France has increased from fifty to nearly eighty-two years in the past century, even as France’s global role has shrunk. Aging population, declining birth rates, slower growth, a more skeptical attitude toward authority, and greater gender equality—those are all typical of advanced, post-industrial societies, not unique to France.