France's obsession with decline a booming industry

Michel Onfray.
Michel Onfray.

PARIS• Michel Onfray, a best-selling French pop philosopher, was sounding pretty upbeat on the phone, even though the title of his latest book is Decadence: The Life And Death Of The Judeo-Christian Tradition. His book had just come out, with an impressive press run of 120,000 copies and was selling briskly in spite of - or perhaps because of - its gloomy prognostication.

"If you think today about terrorism, the rise of populism, it was important to put that in perspective," he said recently. His research, he added, "shows a civilisation that had been strong, that had ceased to be so and that's heading towards its end".

He is one of the latest popular authors to join France's booming decline industry, a spate of books and articles (with a handful of television shows) that explore the country's (and the West's) failings and France's obsession with those failings. (Last year, the word "declinisme", or "declinism", entered France's Larousse dictionary.)

It is a phenomenon that cuts across the political spectrum and has picked up velocity in recent years by tapping into an anxious national mood.

And its loudest voices are intellectuals with platforms in the national news media.

Beyond Onfray's, other books with decline on their minds have appeared in the past few weeks. The Returned, a bestseller by journalist David Thomson, is an investigative report about French jihadis who have returned home from Syria. A Submissive France: Voices Of Defiance compiles interviews on France's troubled banlieues, or suburbs, overseen by historian Georges Bensoussan. Chronicles Of French Denial, by right-leaning economist and historian Nicolas Baverez, is about how France continued its economic decline under President Francois Hollande.

There is also An Imaginary Racism by left-leaning philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who was recently cleared of charges of inciting hate speech and argues that fear of being labelled Islamophobic is leading people to self-censor their speech, while in November, Sciences Po professor Gilles Kepel published The Fracture, which explores how the radicalisation of some young Muslims is tearing apart French society.

"The thing that's very striking now is how pervasive those ideas are," said Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University and author of How The French Think. "One of the things characteristic of the present moment is this idea that decline and decadence are not just the preserve of the extreme right."

France's preoccupation with decline has been dated by some scholars to the counter-Enlightenment of the early 19th century, and to the late 1970s and the end of three decades of post-war economic growth by others.

Today, different "declinist" strains have merged, from Catholic reactionaries to non-religious thinkers preoccupied by questions of national identity and political corruption.

With France's presidential elections looming in April, these often- abstract ideas are taking more concrete form as the hard-right National Front and the centre-right Republican Party capitalise on sentiments of decline exacerbated by economic malaise and terrorist attacks.

Onfray's Decadence begins with early Christian history, traverses the French Revolution, then sweeps in the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, which Onfray says prefigured the 2015 attacks at the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. Although he looks beyond France in his diagnosis, his homeland is central for much of its nearly 600 pages.

Baverez, a lawyer and economist whose Chronicles came out last week and whose France In Free Fall was a hit in 2003, said he did not believe in the idea of declinism.

"It's a false concept because it gives the impression that decline is something fated," said Mr Baverez, who has consulted with Francois Fillon, the centre-right presidential candidate caught up in a worsening corruption scandal. "We have to diagnose denial; we have to accept reality to find solutions."

Even in a country like France, where pleasure is held sacred, decline does seem to be better business than optimism.

"To put it in Manichaean terms: Anything positive doesn't sell and anything negative sells, as if there were a sort of masochism on the part of some readers," said historian Robert Frank, author of the 2014 book The Fear Of Decline: France From 1914 to 2014.

Even if declinism is going strong, France's birthrate is still among the highest in Europe and studies have consistently shown the French to be more pessimistic about their country than about their own lives.

Some hope the decline industry has peaked. "I think Trump and Brexit were a kind of electric shock and something changed," said Ms Cecile Daumas, editor of the Ideas section of the French left-wing daily Liberation.

She pointed to A World History Of France, by mediaeval historian Patrick Boucheron, which seeks to put French history in a broader context and argues that the country has absorbed immigrants for centuries.

The challenge is that "the partisans of decline have formed a vocabulary, a way of speaking that's accessible to the broader public," Ms Daumas said. "The progressive intellectuals of the left lost their public and are trying to get it back," she added. "It's a real battle."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'France's obsession with decline a booming industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe