Illusions of Control in the Omnicompetent French State

Should there be any limitation on the freedom of public expression, and if so why, how and when imposed? The question has become acute in France where the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has declared his intention of seeking to silence a stand-up comedian, Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, because of his increasingly anti-Semitic tirades. M. Valls, hitherto the most popular minister in President Hollande’s government, has managed to corner himself by an astonishing lack of adroitness, having fallen prey to the illusion of many politicians in a highly centralized state, namely that they can control what happens in society.

M’Bala M’Bala – known universally in France by his first name – was born 47 years ago of a French mother and a Cameroonian father. He started his career as a left-wing satirist in a duo with a Jewish colleague called Elie Semoun, but they fell out and M’Bala M’Bala thereafter grew ever more anti-semitic in his comic act. In 2007 he was fined nearly $10,000 for having called the Holocaust ‘memorial pornography.’ Increasingly refused access to mainstream media, he bought and still runs a one man theatre in Paris, the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, where it now takes several months to obtain a ticket. Repeated denunciation by the great and the good has done nothing to curb his popularity: he has 400,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook (more than half the number of Jews in France) and has popularized a gesture called la quenelle whose precise meaning is contested (especially by M’Bala M’Bala when he is in trouble with the law) but which now seems to almost everyone to be a forme fruste of the Nazi salute.

The social composition of M’Bala M’Bala’s friends and supporters is revealing and instructive. There are Holocaust deniers, of course, or those who think it did not go far enough (among them M’Bala M’Bala himself, who said of Patrick Cohen, a Jewish radio announcer, ‘When I hear him speak, I say to myself, gas chambers… what a pity.’); members of the national Front; disgruntled youth of North African origin and Palestinisan sympathies; Third-Worldists who, again like M’Bala M’Bala himself, are against what they call ‘the System.’

Hostility to, and resentment against, ‘the System’ is what unites these groups, and what makes possible a de facto, and indeed intellectually semi-coherent, alliance between the far left and the far right: for what both really hate is the spontaneous order of liberalism which they see as the origin of their woes and dissatisfactions.

The French press, media and intellectuals castigate ad nauseam what they call the ‘ultra-liberalism’ of the present-day western world: and their characterization, as intellectually lazy as it is inaccurate, now goes virtually by default. Very few are the commentators who see through its inaccuracy. That a country whose public sector accounts for more than half of economic activity, and which is as highly-administered as France (and, it must be said, often well-administered, for who would not rather go on the Paris Metro than the New York Subway?), cannot plausibly be described as ‘ultra-liberal,’ ought to be perfectly obvious even on the most casual reflection, but alas it is not. If France is ultra-anything it is ultra-corporatist, but even that would be an exaggeration. And so present discontents are laid at the door of ultra-liberalism, though in fact a considerable proportion of the resentments and discontents of the young who approve of M’Bala M’Bala are attributable to the rigidity of the French labor market, which is caused precisely by an illiberal nexus of protections and restrictions.

The problem, then, is not ultra-liberalism but insufficient liberalism. The difference between France and other western countries, incidentally, is one of degree and not of type, though even degree can be important: illiberalism in the French labor market has in a matter of a few years turned London into one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.

What unites the Third-Worldists and the National Front is the desire to suppress the effects of whatever spontaneous order still exists in France and in the entire iStock_000025800870Smallworld. They share this desire with socialists of all stripes. And while it may be true that in a spontaneous order the vast majority do better in aggregate than they would do under a more centrally-organized (or supposedly ‘rational’) order, it cannot be denied that, in such a spontaneous order, some will do better, even much better, than others. A winner in an abstract aggregate may be a loser in a particular situation, and his status as loser will almost always be more real to him that his status as winner. He is then on the lookout for a scapegoat because a) we tend to assume that everything that happens in the human realm is the result of someone’s intention and b) hatred is by far the strongest, longest-lasting, and most gratifying of all political emotions.

For those who both hate spontaneous order for the ill it has done them but who also believe that such an order cannot really exist because everything that happens does so because of someone’s wish that it should, the fact that Jews should be so successful in France (and, of course, elsewhere in the western world), and the North Africans so comparatively unsuccessful, can only be explained on one hypothesis: conspiracy. To an age-old prejudice is added a reinforcing paranoia, and it is that M’Bala M’Bala both evokes and panders to. Here I must add that the structure of socialist economic thought is exactly the same as the structure of ant-Semitic economic thought: if anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, socialism is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.

M. Valls is the member of a government that wants to reinforce the illiberalism of the French economy (using the term liberal in its economic sense). In other words, he supports the very policies that provide a fertile ground for M’Bala M’Bala’s ‘ideas.’ But I think it would be utopian to imagine that, with a more liberal policy, the problem would disappear of its own account. Discontent springs eternal, and therefore so does the search for scapegoats. I recall British Dracula films of the 1960s in which, referring to the phenomenon of vampirism in Transylvania, a character would ask, ‘When shall we be free of this evil?’, a question to which Professor van Helsing (of Amsterdam) would return the answer ‘Never.’ And that, in the present context, is the correct answer.

To attempt to ban M’Bala M’Bala from public performance, as is Valls’ wish, is a sign both of impatience and overestimation of governmental ability to direct society, to say nothing of its theoretically dubious assault on freedom of expression. The attempt would make a martyr of M’Bala M’Bala while simultaneously (and paradoxically) giving him all the more prominence. Indeed, he has never been as prominent in French media as immediately after M. Valls announced his intention.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

About the Author

Comments

  1. Doubting Rich says

    Please, of all commentators you should be able to distinguish between the left and right. The FN is a socialist-statist party, not in any way right-wing.

    The blood libel against the right, linking all racism to right-wing politics, might be widespread but it is also incredibly ignorant and ahistorical. Racism is not unique to either side by any means, but if anything is more closely associated with the left. It has been associated with trade unions, with national socialism and communism (international socialism) and research has connected racist views with approval of redistribution. The Democrat Party in the US has always been connected with racism of the most horrible form, albeit now it is often hidden as attempts to help racial minorities. This was at its height under the “progressive” (American for socialist) Woodrow Wilson and under FDR, whose socialism was a disaster for the US with effects continuing to this day.

    The UK has not had overt racism in mainstream politics for a long time, but our own political racists, the BNP, are an obviously left-wing party rather similar to the Front Nationale.

  2. says

    To work, censorship has to be very brutal, far more brutal than current French politicians can unleash.

    In general, the best approach to anti-Semitism is to realize that it’s an ideology that attracts chronic losers. Hatred of Jews (seen as successful) rationalizes and excuses failure. On top of those losers is a collection of crypto-losers whose success depends to a great extent on the crowds they draw by bashing Jews. How good a comedian would this M’Bala be without his bigotry?

    The problem the French government faces is that the Weimar Republic had, failing economies create more losers and thus feed the ranks of the bigoted. Growing affluence has issues, but at least it keeps people busy spending money rather than hating. If the politicians in the UK and France want to deal with racial animosities, they need to work on improving their economies, particularly at the bottom.

    That, incidentally, is what has happened in the once segregated southern U.S. Under unending Democratic party rule, the economy of the SE U.S. was morbid. The racial mess kept away factories and immigrants with new ideas. The only job-attraction the region had was woefully low wages.

    When state-sanctioned racism ended, the economy began to turn around. I left Alabama for Texas and then Seattle in 1972. When I left race was still a hot topic. This past August, I moved back to my old university town, Auburn. Now the perennial topic of conversation is attracting business to the state. I was surprised to discover that my little Southern college town has almost as many Asians as west-coast Seattle, That’s in part because it’s the closest highly developed town to a huge KIA factory just across the Georgia border. Subcontractors, many of them Asian, line the Interstate from Atlanta to Montgomery.

    When I left, no one built cars in the state. Now about half-a-dozen global businesses build about a million cars a year in state-of-the-art factories. The one outside Montgomery is running around the clock to meet demand. Airbus is building a factory in Mobile and Huntsville was in the running for a new Boeing factory. Pratt and Whitney are building jet engine parts in Auburn.

    Instead of race baiting, state and local politicians now run on their success at bringing jobs here. People, black and white, are too busy getting ahead to fret over race.

    In contrast, France and the UK seem headed in the opposite direction. Bad economies, except perhaps for a few in government or finance, create anger and frustration that feed bigotries.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

    • gabe says

      Michael and Doubting Rich:

      How right you both are!

      Racism / anti-semitism is certainly more closely associated with the historical left. The persistence of this misperception may have something to do with the fact that the Nazis are incorrectly (yet deliberately) defined as a right wing movement. A closer look at the origins of the party and its leaders should disabuse one of that notion; however, as it is politically expedient to continue this falsehood, we will continue to be confronted with this falsehood.

      Further, I would argue that if one were to look at the domestic agenda of many “nationalist parties they more closely resemble leftist political machines with their calls for state protectionism, guaranteed employment, benefits, etc etc.

      FDR and the Dems were certainly (and quite often openly) racist. FDR personally approved the tabling of several anti-lynching laws in the congress; LBJ single handedly defeated numerous civil rights measures as Master of the Senate.
      Finally, the south did not come out of its slumber until after Democrat / racist dominance began to wane and more “rightist” policies gained a foothold. Now if only the Northeast and West would “re-learn” the old lessons on economics, we just might make a go of it.

      take care
      gabe

  3. says

    To work, censorship has to be very brutal, far more brutal than current French politicians can unleash.

    In general, the best approach to anti-Semitism is to realize that it’s an ideology that attracts chronic losers. Hatred of Jews (seen as successful) rationalizes and excuses failure. On top of those losers is a collection of crypto-losers whose success depends to a great extent on the crowds they draw by bashing Jews. How good a comedian would this M’Bala be without his bigotry?

    The problem the French government faces is that the Weimar Republic had, failing economies create more losers and thus feed the ranks of the bigoted. Growing affluence has issues, but at least it keeps people busy spending money rather than hating. If the politicians in the UK and France want to deal with racial animosities, they need to work on improving their economies, particularly at the bottom.

    That, incidentally, is what has happened in the once segregated southern U.S. Under unending Democratic party rule, the economy of the SE U.S. was morbid. The racial mess kept away factories and immigrants with new ideas. The only job-attraction the region had was woefully low wages.

    When state-sanctioned racism ended, the economy began to turn around. I left Alabama for Texas and then Seattle in 1972. When I left race was still a hot topic. This past August, I moved back to my old university town, Auburn. Now the perennial topic of conversation is attracting business to the state. I was surprised to discover that my little Southern college town has almost as many Asians as west-coast Seattle, That’s in part because it’s the closest highly developed town to a huge KIA factory just across the Georgia border. Subcontractors, many of them Asian, line the Interstate from Atlanta to Montgomery.

    When I left, no one built cars in the state. Now about half-a-dozen global businesses build about a million cars a year in state-of-the-art factories. The one outside Montgomery is running around the clock to meet demand. Airbus is building a factory in Mobile and Huntsville was in the running for a new Boeing factory. Pratt and Whitney are building jet engine parts in Auburn.

    Instead of race baiting, state and local politicians now run on their success at bringing jobs here. People, black and white, are too busy getting ahead to fret over race.

    In contrast, France and the UK seem headed in the opposite direction. Bad economies, except perhaps for a few in government or finance, create anger and frustration that feed bigotries.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

  4. Michael Hiteshew says

    (they) are against what they call ‘the System.’
    Wise to this scam yet? Define the System as being against them, therefore you owe them something, got that?
    * On the street they’d be seen as Swindlers, they’d be laughed at and told to be on their way.
    * In academia, they’re hallowed as The Opressed.
    * In politics they’re co-opted and held up as a reason you need to transfer more power and more money to Leftist Politico’s who will see to their interests, as long as they stay on the plantation and vote Left.
    See how that works?

  5. werewife says

    When an enemy of civil society poses as a martyr for “speaking truth to power” and claims that The Man is trying to silence him, the last thing you want to do is anything that might prove him right…

  6. Melissa says

    With all due respect Mr. Dalrymple, there are many disaffected “youths” of muslim origin in all Western societies. While France may have the most highly developed corporatist economy, and we are not too far behind, I feel economic policy fails to fully explain the nihilism of many muslims to assimilate into society. Could it be that their religious teachings play a larger role than you are willing to admit?

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