An American in Paris? Non, It’s the French President
‘Entrepreneurship is the new France,’ says Emmanuel Macron. One philosopher is skeptical.
‘Seeking the American Macron!” the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol tweeted the other day, expressing his disdain for Republicans and Democrats. To hear the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut tell it, Mr. Kristol should look in Paris.
Like the anti-Trump Mr. Kristol, Mr. Finkielkraut didn’t care for either choice in his country’s recent presidential election. He has no truck with the xenophobic nationalism of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. As for President Emmanuel Macron, he is far too American for Mr. Finkielkraut’s taste.
The new leader’s official presidential portrait photo was unveiled last week, and the French media noted its striking resemblance to Barack Obama’s from 2012. Mr. Macron sent supporters to knock on voters’ doors, a campaign practice that is familiar to Americans but was unheard of here. When the president sings “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, he closes his eyes and holds his hand over his heart. “This is not our tradition,” Mr. Finkielkraut, 67, told me in a recent interview at his book-lined apartment near Jardin du Luxembourg.
Mr. Finkielkraut himself is a distinctly French type, a celebrity intellectual à la Régis Debray, Pascal Bruckner or Bernard-Henri Lévy. His complaints about Mr. Macron—and America—run deeper than political symbolism and ritual. He argues that France faces a “civilizational” crisis, a degeneration of social bonds whose symptoms include a decaying language, an inability to integrate immigrants, a contempt for French history, and a rise in terrorism, which he calls “the new ambient music of Europe.”
Much of this he blames on multiculturalism, which he sees as a worldview made in America. “France is an old civilization; it has the right to preserve itself,” he says. “The multicultural society is a multi-conflicted society.” In particular, large waves of Muslim immigrants have failed to adopt the values of the secular republic, known as laïcité. Candidate Macron celebrated France’s cultural disunity, proclaiming: “There is no such thing as a single French culture.” To Mr. Finkielkraut, multiculturalism is a form of American “imperialism”—one that, by denying a country like France its right to maintain its particular identity, belies its claim to celebrate diverse cultures.
“We willingly accept the replacement of the French language by ‘Globish,’ ” Mr. Finkielkraut laments. To illustrate, he cites the English-language slogan of Paris’s 2024 Olympic bid: “Made for sharing.” Originally used in a Cadbury chocolate commercial, the slogan was later adapted by Burger King for its wedge-sliced Pizza Burger.
Then there is the new president’s economic program. “Emmanuel Macron’s philosophy is that of homo economicus,” Mr. Finkielkraut explains, referring to the theory that man’s motivations come down to rational self-interest. Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, often sounds less like de Gaulle than Zuckerberg. Last month he proclaimed in English: “I want France to be a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.” He promised the French state would be a “platform and not a constraint” and added: “Entrepreneurship is the new France.”
The new France sounds a lot like the old America, but Mr. Finkielkraut isn’t alone in thinking the country already resembles the U.S. in its social problems. One of the most popular books in Paris is Christophe Guilluy’s “The Peripheral France,” which cites growing inequality between big cities like Paris and Lyon, which benefit from globalization, and the left-behind rest of the country.
Never known as a cheery people, the French are now the most pessimistic on earth. One 2016 global poll found 88% of Frenchmen felt their country was heading in the wrong direction—the highest rate of gloom among all nations surveyed. To be sure, France’s sclerotic welfare and regulatory state has stymied growth. But Mr. Finkielkraut argues that what his country needs isn’t a Silicon Valley on the Seine, but a raison d’être—a sense of confidence in its purpose and way of life.
Mr. Macron ran on the slogan, “En Marche!”—“Forward!” or “On the Move!” That’s also the name of his new party. It begs the question: En marche où? Where to?
Ms. Katz is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal.