On January 21, 2006, a 23-year-old French Jew named Ilan Halimi was lured to an apartment in one of Paris’s many banlieues – that is, neighborhoods on the edge of the city that are populated largely by Muslims. There he was tortured by a large group led by Youssouf Fofana, then aged 25. After 24 days of extreme abuse, which included brutal and repeated beatings and burnings, Halimi’s captors strapped him to a tree and left him for dead; later that day he perished of his wounds while being rushed to a hospital. Authorities later arrested a total of 27 suspects. Many of them belonged to a gang that called itself «les barbares» (the barbarians); many lived in the banlieues; many were unemployed young Muslims, the children of immigrants from Africa. In the wake of the crime, it emerged that Halimi’s torturers had been motivated by a powerful anti-Semitism.
This revelation was hardly surprising, given that anti-Semitism is a key element of the mentality that prevails in the banlieues. But while Ilan Halimi was being held captive, the police acted on the assumption that he was, as it were, in «safe hands» — that this was an «ordinary» kidnapping case. They ignored clear signs that Halimi’s captors had been motivated by anti-Semitism, apparently because they considered it politically incorrect to focus on the religious and cultural dimensions of the case. Ilan’s mother writes in her book 24 Days that this could have cost her son his life, because as a result the police, thinking that Halimi would make it out OK, did not take an aggressive enough approach in their investigation.
A closed-door trial of the 27 suspects took place from April to July 2009; in the end Fofana was given a life sentence, with a minimum of 22 years in prison, but many of his accomplices received far less severe punishments, including several sentences of only a few months or two or three years in prison. Two suspects were acquitted.
The French public was heavily caught up in the crime and the trial, both of occasioned a great deal of commentary, much of it sympathetic to Fofana’s accomplices. International attention has been more muted. In this essay, which was originally published in L’Arche in France and appears here for the first time in English translation with the permission of the author and the editors of L’Arche, the French philosopher Robert Redeker provides an illuminating historical reflection upon and critical analysis of the court’s gentle treatment of Fofana’s co-conspirators and the widespread public commiseration with the torturers of Ilan Halimi.
Robert Redeker is a distinguished philosopher and has written a number of books, but he is perhaps best known outside of his native country as the author of a Le Figaro op-ed in which he defended the controversial remarks about Islam contained in the famous speech delivered by Pope Benedict at the University of Regensburg in September 2006. The death threats that Redeker received after his op-ed appeared forced him and his family to go underground and live under police protection, an experience that Redeker vividly and thoughtfully recounts in his 2007 book Il faut tenter de vivre (One Must Try to Live), which has been translated into several languages.
The trial of the “gang of barbarians,” anti-Semitism, and the cult of “the people below”
By Robert Redeker
How to explain the leniency of the judgments handed down in the cases of Youssouf Fofana’s accomplices? How to account for the strange reactions they provoked on the part of some members of the general public? Many of these reactions took the form of relief at the sentences’ lack of severity. On this occasion, our “dear old country” has been swept up in one of its time-honored passions: a whiff of collective anti-Semitism.
Of course, the murder of Ilan Halimi was revealing. Everyone knows that there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the banlieues. Yet this anti-Semitism doesn’t necessarily take the form of an elaborate theory, as has been the case with certain thinkers on the extreme right over the course of the last century. What we are dealing with here is not an anti-Semitism grounded in a political party, not an anti-Semitism of the state, not an anti-Semitism that comes “from above” and is indigenous to the elites. On the contrary, today France’s established political parties and the French state condemn anti-Semitism. What we are encountering nowadays, rather, is a societal anti-Semitism – the anti-Semitism of the banlieues. The anti-Semitism of the “gang of barbarians” is, in short, an anti-Semitism of the lumpenproletariat – an anti-Semitism that has sprouted “from below.”
The trial of Youssouf Fofana, along with the verdicts and the reactions thereto, is even more revealing than the murder itself. The leniency of some of the sentences pronounced at the trial reflects a social factor about which nobody speaks: a certain vague “Bourdieuism,” which is to say a compassionate strain of sociology and a brand of journalism that is intimately related to it and that takes an indulgent and complacent attitude toward the gang of barbarians’ anti-Semitism (which we might well join Pierre-André Taguieff in calling the “new Judeophobia”) . This attitude is founded on the pretext that the anti-Semitism of the barbarians, since it is not theoretical, bears no resemblance to the official anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, which came down, as it were, “from above.” The barbarians’ anti-Semitism is, on the contrary, an anti-Semitism “from below.” This Bourdieuist mentality sheds light on the climate in which the trial unfolded and that also illuminates many of the public reactions.
When we examine the verdicts and the not inconsiderable reactions that they triggered, we find ourselves confronted with the perversity of the cult of “the people below” that has developed in France, born out of the works of Bourdieu and popularized by militant periodicals disguised as serious journals, such as Le monde diplomatique. This media, journalistic, and sociological cult (in which sociology aspires to the status of theology) has had the effect of transforming “the people below” – though in speaking here of “the people below” we are certainly not referring to the less sophisticated members of the French middle class, namely those who are caricatured in the repulsive figure of the boeuf, or yahoo – into the instrument of collective salvation.
Note the hypocrisy of this differential treatment of those who are “below”: while the yahoo is repulsive, the “youths of the banlieue” are attractive. The same applies to commentaries on the World Cup in football (soccer): though they come together in a common stupor, the yahoos and the “youths of the banlieue” are the subjects of quite dissimilar interpretations by social scientists and the media, which place them in a distinct hierarchy. Ever since the 1980s, the media subculture and certain elements of the humanities and social sciences have been relentlessly reiterating the following line about these two “ignored” groups who are “below” the rest of us: while the yahoo is depicted as vaguely Pétainist, incurably stubborn, an amateur accordion player, and politically reactionary, the youth in the banlieue – even if he is more misogynistic than the yahoo and approve of stoning – is characterized as a politically progressive rap-music aficionado and is accorded the status of redeemer.
When one looks more closely at Bourdieu and at such compassionate social scientists as Dubet, one sees that they subverted Marx even as they considered themselves to be his devoted disciples. The author of Das Kapital identified the lumpenproletariat as a product of the decomposition of what he considered a menacing society and as the source of the greatest threats to his program: the lumpenproletariat stood in the way of progress, were potential allies of the most reactionary intrigues, and formed a reserve of personnel for the mafia and for militia of every kind. Yet our contemporary social scientists project onto the lumpen – whose ethnic composition has, admittedly, been modified – the historical illusion of redemption that Marx granted to the proletariat.
The visceral, theory-free anti-Semitism of the banlieues fuels two sets of clichés: the stereotype of the Jew and money, and the stereotype of the Jew and conspiracy. The association of Jews with money, an association which has been revived today in the banlieues, is rooted in traditional Christian anti-Semitism and in the 19th-century utopian socialism of Pierre Leroux and Charles Fourier, as well as that of Proudhon.
In France, the left was generally anti-Semitic right up until the Dreyfus affair. Leroux, who was the first person to use the word “socialism” in France, wrote an article entitled “The Jews, Kings of the Age” – which is also the title of a notorious work by Toussenel. The old Communards sided against Dreyfus and accepted the association of Jews and capital. The virus of this left-wing anti-Semitism has infected the banlieues, which are highly susceptible to two strains of propaganda – anti-capitalist and pro-Palestinian.
In his 2005 book La faire aux illumines (The Illuminati Fair), Pierre-André Taguieff brought into focus an element that is essential to an understanding of the current proliferation of anti-Semitism in the banlieues: today’s popular books of fiction (Da Vinci Code), TV science-fiction series, and many video games belong to a conspiratorial genre that teaches young minds to see international intrigues everywhere. The current economic crisis encourages these kinds of clichés among “the people below”– the youths of the banlieues. It may be that the current criticism of the banks and of the financial system is also helping to reactivate these fantasies.
A further cultural element should not be underestimated: in the imagination of “the people below,” Islam can serve to legitimize these clichés. When we look at the big picture, it is clear that the Bourdieuist social scientists who are fascinated by the youths of the banlieue have revived the utopianism of 19th-century socialist theoreticians.
We have all heard and read the commentators who, by insisting on the “barbarism” of Youssouf Fofana, have found it easier thereby to minimize the role of his accomplices, whom they sometimes represent as his victims. Rhetorically, these commentators’ reasoning recalls the specious arguments to the effect that Austria was a victim of Nazism.
All of this – the commentaries on the trial, the verdicts, and the reactions to the verdicts – was made possible by a climate, a species of discourse and of alleged knowledge that Foucault would have called an épistémé, that has taken shape over the past three decades. It is this épistémé, embodied in the current cult of “the people below,” of which Bourdieu was the prophet, and which has no shortage of both high clergy (academics) and low clergy (journalists, union activists, and countless entertainers), that has prevented the administration of impartial justice in this trial.
Introduced and translated from the French by Bruce Bawer