By Alexander Collin
Sarah Shurts is an intellectual historian of modern France and professor of history at Bergen Community College. In particular, she is interested in the construction of intellectual identity on the French extreme right during the periods of active intellectual involvement in public affairs known as “engagement.” Research in this area has led her to ancillary interests in the history and nature of fascism in Germany, France, and Italy; Holocaust studies; nationalism and national identity construction; and oppositional communities. She is the author of Resentment and the Right: French Intellectual Identity Reimagined, 1898–2000 (University of Delaware Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), among other publications on French intellectual history.
She spoke with contributing editor Alex Collin about her recent article “Identity, Immigration, and Islam: Neo-reactionary and New-Right Perceptions and Prescriptions” in JHI 83.3.
Alexander Collin: Thank you for agreeing to discuss your research with us, Sarah. I want to begin by asking about your approach to this article and how this plays into your work at large. The distinction between left and right has been central to your writing for a long time, from your first book Resentment and the Right through to this most recent article in JHI. Why is the right-left distinction important to you? What does it tell us that other lenses of political analysis might miss?
Sarah Shurts: This is an interesting question because one of the things that has fascinated me since the beginning is the movement across these left-right divides by intellectuals like Ramon Fernandez in the 1930s and Renaud Camus and Alain Finkielkraut today. There is also the phenomenon of works from one political extreme serving to inspire later intellectuals of the opposing extreme— the work of a socialist like Charles Péguy being cited by fascist collaborationist Robert Brasillach, for example, or de Benoist claiming to draw inspiration for his political approach today from the work of Antonio Gramsci. And, certainly, there is support for the argument, made by many scholars, that there is common ground in political extremism whether on the left or right and that many of these philosophies today opposing capitalism, globalization, or the establishment would find supporters on both sides.
The ni droite ni gauche argument—of a third way heavily dependent on intellectual and political sources from the left as well as the right—has been influential in studies of fascism since Zeev Sternhell first proposed it, and is today claimed with equal force by those like de Benoist for the Nouvelle Droite (New Right). So, despite recognizing these crossovers and blended influences, and trying to acknowledge them in my work, why do I still emphasize the division between left and right? In great part because the intellectuals themselves do, and they see this division, and their assignation to one side or another, as a formative influence on their lives as engaged intellectuals.
When these public thinkers begin to express certain political or social or religious views, they are categorized by the general public and by their colleagues. As more people begin to attribute a right or left categorization to an intellectual for their views, the perception begins to dictate the professional networks, media outlets for expression, and social groups individuals can access or in which they feel welcomed. But it is not just external perception and attribution of a left or right categorization that creates the divide. We usually gravitate where we find sympathetic colleagues and our ideas are welcomed and supported.
All of those who are categorized as of the right that I have studied, from Maurice Barrès to Finkielkraut (who has just begun to express this frustration with his public disapprobation), have felt themselves excluded and alienated from what they consider to be the mainstream media and intellectual spaces. They have therefore worked to build spaces with like-minded people to better express their views—whether it is a political party like Camus’s In-nocence, a think tank like GRECE (Research and Study Group for European Civilization), a publishing house like Arktos, a journal like Éléments, stations or programs or podcasts, or just a sympathetic friendship like that between Finkielkraut and Camus. This segregation based on political affiliation reinforces the perception of difference and radicalizes the sense of separation from the opposing side—often nurturing a resentment of exclusion from this other—until perception of division becomes part of a distinct self-identification. This sense of self that comes from a perceived political isolation and divide between right and left has a strong influence on the transformation and radicalization of their philosophies, their networks of colleagues, and how they present themselves and their lived experience as intellectuals. It is this that intrigues me most and it is why I still keep the right-left divide at the forefront.
AC: You characterize the four thinkers at the center of this article—Guillaume Faye, Alain de Benoist, Renaud Camus, and Alain Finkielkraut—as belonging to the “New Right.” You also note, however, that they don’t always see their own work that way. What do we gain by considering these writings in contexts that the authors may not intend or even explicitly reject?
SS: I try in the piece to distinguish still between de Benoist and Faye who are founders of the Nouvelle Droite and the intellectuals who come from leftist and republican backgrounds like Camus and Finkielkraut whom I designate “neo-reactionary,” in keeping with the designation for them used by most scholars at the moment. However, I do attribute to them the same types of discourses about immigration and Islam despite these different political labels. And it is because they share these discourses that I categorize them, or more precisely their work, as belonging together under this right-wing umbrella, whether they would assign themselves this place in the spectrum or not. I am a strong proponent of letting the voices of these intellectuals do much of the speaking in my work and of trusting their writings to be reflective of their true philosophies and experiences. Usually this means accepting their own political self-designations at face value. Occasionally, however, it means letting their work speak for itself instead and categorizing it in a way that might not match the author’s own self-perception.
Just as people often don’t see themselves as clearly as those around them do, sometimes external and even scholarly perspectives can be an important contribution. This is particularly true when dealing with designation of a discourse as right-wing—a categorization that has a stigma in much of academia and in intellectual circles. Few French intellectuals of the 1930s or 40s publicly identified themselves as fascists and yet those who enthusiastically collaborated usually were, according to our historical definitions of fascism. Today someone in France supporting the anti-immigration policies and Islamophobia of Le Pen’s National Rally would be perceived as a far-right nationalist even if they did not claim this label, just as those advocating “Stop the Steal” or QAnon in the US would be categorized as right-wing even if they didn’t claim that affiliation. At some point, the job of the historian is not just to let the sources speak but also to analyze and make assessments about these ideas, including how they should be categorized and compared in the wider context of world history. However, I do try, whenever I privilege external assessment or an analysis of their work above their own self-designation, to at least acknowledge that this is not how they view their own work or their place within the political spectrum.
AC: Next, I am interested in some of the details of these thinkers and their ideas. How should we understand some of the more extreme statements these authors make, for example, Faye’s claim that he predicts “an ethnic civil war, and sound[s] the call to reconquering”? To what extent should we take that at face value as an analysis of the political situation and to what extent should we view it as a hyperbolic mode of emotional expression?
SS: Are Faye’s predictions of race war and militant reconquest and Camus’s theory of the great replacement and his envisioned solution of remigration just hyperbolic language for dramatic effect? To some extent yes, both of these discourses are certainly overblown rhetoric unmoored from reality or any statistical evidence. Both authors are emotionally overwrought, driven by irrational fears, which they translate into dire warnings and unhinged prescriptions for saving civilization. Is this rhetoric posturing for greater audience appeal? Possibly. But if they are using emotional expression to provoke their audience, it is because they truly believe they are making a reasonable assessment of a socio-political crisis.
They are not weaving words and fantasizing about future race wars and continental reconquest for the sake of a good narrative. They are actively seeking this reconquest by their readers. This is why I am drawn to working with intellectuals who engage in political affairs. Their engagement is not ivory tower abstraction. It is intentionally dispersed among the public and becomes a tool for immediate action—often violent action—or for legislative changes that shape our present. Faye and Camus may employ hyperbolic or emotionally dramatic expression, but they do so with a clear purpose of provoking the solutions they describe and with the clear intent that those who listen will take it at face value and will act on it.
AC: On a related note, alongside their polemical statements, your four writers sometimes raise questions which should be amenable to empirical testing, for instance, on the prevalence of antisemitism or gender-based discrimination within different groups in French society. To what extent are any of these claims empirically substantiated? And if so, to what extent can we separate those more substantive claims from the ideological conclusions that these authors draw from them?
SS: Empirical data, statistics, factual evidence, and any other form of scientific or sociological proof might be useful for these intellectuals, but it certainly is not required for them to make claims. The claims about migrants flooding into France, for example, upon which both Faye and Camus have based much of their work on the threats to native French society and the need for remigration or reconquest, have no foundation in reality. A quick look at the Migration Policy Institute website shows “More than 6.5 million immigrants resided in France as of 2018, the most recent year for which definitive census data are available, accounting for about 10 percent of the total population. Of these immigrants, 37 percent were naturalized citizens.” Only 54,000 requests for asylum were approved in 2021.
These numbers hardly evidence an overwhelming flood that is destroying native French culture. But these intellectuals are not interested in the realities of immigration data, nor are their audiences. They have only a fear, a perception of change occurring in their nation that they don’t like. Camus and Finkielkraut do not provide statistics or data sets in their books, instead they describe feeling alienated walking through a town with a large Muslim population or tell stories of teachers struggling with the religious requirements of Muslim students in the school. It is the perception of a change, a crisis, and a threat, rather than the reality, that matters. This corresponds to the increasing right-wing rejection of scientific evidence, historical facts, legal evidence and court rulings, and judgment based on erudition or academic credentials.
AC: Next, I have a few questions on the broader context. As you described the French right’s liberalization on some issues, like gay rights, in parallel with less tolerance for religious or cultural differences, I was reminded very much of the Dutch politics of the 90s and figures like Pim Fortuyn, who began on the left, was openly gay, and moved right as his politics focused more on opposing immigration and multiculturalism. To what extent do these French writers operate in a strictly French context and to what extent are they drawing on figures like Fortuyn from outside France?
SS: Despite the ultra-nationalist and isolationist rhetoric of these right-wing parties, there is no longer any possibility of remaining isolated as a nation or completely unaffected by the intellectual and social currents of the rest of the world. The power of transnational currents of right-wing thought as early as the 1930s for the fascists has been well documented by scholars like Andrea Mammone, and Arnd Bauerkämper. Today, thanks to a heavy right-wing presence on the internet, these exchanges and influences are even more prevalent, constant, and immediate.
Occasionally these intellectuals will address figures and influences from beyond France directly. Camus has written an open letter to Viktor Orbán full of admiration and crowing about Orbán’s use of his concept of the great replacement. He is also a great admirer of Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, Camus, and Alice Weidel of AfD in Germany, as well as Marine Le Pen, and even Éric Zemmour are evidence of one of the more interesting shifts of the far-right community. The far-right’s focus on opposing immigration and Muslims has led it to find new allies among its erstwhile targets by supporting women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Jewish community all of whom it feels are threatened by fundamentalist Islam. This is both a reflection of the changing social attitudes of the new generations in France and a recognition of these currents among the right-wing intellectual milieu in other nations, even if the debt they owe to these external inspirations is never explicitly stated.
AC: To what extent do you see this as a particularly modern phenomenon? A number of historians have stressed use of pre-modern history by recent right-wing movements, for example, Krisztina Lajosi-Moore’s work on Hungary. Is this a feature of the French right? If so, to what extent do you see that as a real manifestation of older ideas and to what extent is it just giving historical trappings to distinctly modern phenomena?
SS: There has always been a great interest on the far-right in historic symbolism and references to the pre-modern past. Right-wing nationalists from Barrès to Le Pen have celebrated the life and inspiration of Joan of Arc, the Maurrassians glorified the ancien régime, the fascists celebrated medieval warriors and Roman virtues. The European far right and the American alt-right both have a fascination with Roman history, Nordic mythology, and all things medieval. All of this, in my opinion, is just the use and abuse of symbolism and the manipulation of history as window dressing rather than any true philosophical inspiration, particularly as it percolates down to the general public.
However, other premodern themes found circulating among the European New Right intellectuals, like paganism and ethnic communitarianism and traditional roles for men and women, have had more influence in shaping the philosophies of the far right and the policy proposals of those who follow them. And, of course, the very concept of blood and soil or blood and the dead nationalism that drives the protection of borders and the fear of deculturation and replacement is predicated on a sense of national lineage, bloodlines, heritage, memory, and ancient history in a people and a space. But even then, if we look at nationalism in general, the construction of nationalism in Europe was a nineteenth-century phenomenon despite the claims to a primordial national identity, as numerous scholars like Jo Tollebeek and Roderick Beaton have shown. So while they may utilize the symbols and reference the regimes of the past or even borrow from ideals and values of the past, the far-right as we see it today is a modern phenomenon.
AC: Lastly, a question on your experience working on this article and your previous research. How does being based in the US affect your perspective on France? What do you learn from that extra distance and, conversely, is there anything you think you miss by not always being on the ground?
SS: I always tend to think I miss more than I benefit from being in the US. While well-educated Americans might know the name Le Pen, they would not recognize any of the right-wing intellectuals and writers engaging in French political affairs today, so these individuals and their work are not part of the common conversations here. I miss the kinds of exchanges with colleagues, casual conversations, and constant news stories on right-wing politics, leaders, and ideas that would be prevalent in France the way conversations about Trump and January 6 are at the moment here in the US.
I do have the benefit of seeing some of these French ideas cross the Atlantic and become powerful tools here. This gives me a different perspective perhaps on the transmission of ideas that begin in books or articles or interviews and the transnational networks at play in spreading them to the masses worldwide (in podcasts, chats, and messaging platforms as well as in forums and conferences where these groups and speakers meet and merge and exchange ideas). And as a historian I always feel it is beneficial to have some distance from the object of study—since in this case I cannot have temporal distance, geographic distance helps to keep me out of the fray and allows me the analytical distance needed to view the forest rather than the trees.
Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal.