“Today, with the decline of socialist ideology, especially in its Marxist form, we are witnessing a revival of the idea of national identity.”
— Club de l’Horloge, 1985
Americanization. Less than a year from the 2022 French presidential election, the concept is on everyone’s lips. The idea, as the New York Times recently pointed out, has become a familiar refrain, increasingly held responsible for all the problems of the nation.1 Politicians, media commentators, and scholars from both left and right all seem to agree that the French political debate has been contaminated by American ideas. While over the last forty years the French have been watching more American than French movies and increasingly eating at McDonald’s, and traveling to the United States has become a required voyage initiatique for its elites, none of these cultural trends is what worries French politicians and intellectuals.2 What they’ve been labeling “Americanization” is a certain kind of identity politics they believe is threatening French republicanism. Conservative thinkers such as Marcel Gauchet have denounced the “racialist and ‘decolonial’ ideologies … transferred from North American campuses,” while some progressives have also deplored the race reductionist lens of such an approach.3 Others, like Étienne Balibar, have rather celebrated the arrival of American debates in France, where they may open the path to an anti-racist and decolonized French Republic.4 All seem, however, to agree that, one way or another, France has been intellectually and politically transformed by American ideas over the last couple of years. In October 2020, President Emmanuel Macron himself warned against the influence of social science theories he thought were imported from the United States. Intersectionality in particular, he would later add, “fractures everything.”5 But it would be a mistake to see such dissent as hostility to identity politics as such.
Indeed, despite Macron’s professed disdain for identity politics, his alternative can scarcely be construed as anti-identitarian. Building on what we have in common, Macron argued, meant finding an answer to the question, “What does it mean to be French?” The doubts plaguing French citizens, according to him, arose from mass immigration and the “cultural insecurity” it created for their identity. Flirting with far-right rhetoric threatening a great replacement of the French people by immigrants, Macron has decided to wage his next electoral campaign on the question of identity. From this perspective, the problem with American woke culture isn’t that it essentializes identities, but that it essentializes the wrong ones.
In fact, disputes over the meaning of “Frenchness” betoken not the rejection of identity politics but its triumph. Macron and, with him, most of the French political class have more in common with their bugbears across the Atlantic than they might like to admit. To understand this state of affairs, we need to look at the recent history of identity in France, a history that begins not with woke concepts colonizing French universities but rather with the long-term decline, beginning in the early 1980s, of class politics and alternatives to capitalism.