L'affaire Taubira, as it's called in France, may be winding down. Indignation finally mounted and replaced the stupor of the first days after a 12-year-old called a government minister a monkey to the delight of a hooting crowd. Writers dedicated their literary prizes to the maligned minister, intellectuals answered the call of an activist review to gather in protest at the iconic Cinéma du Panthéon in St.-Germain-des-Prés, magazines named her woman of the year, and prominent women, repurposing an old battle cry, declared that they, too, were French monkeys. The great danger of this cascade of angst and anger would be to see in it -- as one is hearing here and there -- a story of hurt feelings.
It would be an error to see it that way because Madame Taubira is not a wounded ego but the Keeper of the Seals, that is, formally, since 1848, the official responsible for the seals of the French Republic, and thus for its official signature. Through her, the Republic is the target in this affair; through her, the legacy of the ministries of the Ancien Régime, of France's Republican institutions, and, well before any of that, of the Roman inventors of the rule of law were trampled underfoot. So that the half of the National Assembly that felt it had to refuse, on two occasions, to rise in solidarity with Madame Taubira divorced itself, not from the offended official, not from a possibly weakened political adversary, but from the common goods that are France and the Republic.
It would be an error because the Keeper of the Seals is, as the title conveys and as was, by the way, another woman, Madame Dati, who preceded Madame Taubira in the post and was herself copiously insulted, the guardian of that fragile edifice of rights and duties, liberties and disciplines, that has been built up slowly through the ages and that guarantees, as long as it stands, the freedoms of the nation's citizens. So that to attack the holder of the post, to dehumanize her, to drag her through the muck, to smear her, and, worst of all, once that has been done, not to react or to react tepidly, is to chip away at what Michel Foucault called the governability of society, to symbolically loosen the bonds that seal together the aggregate of codes and rules, of commitments and debts, that makes social life possible. In short, it is to violate indirectly (but one day directly, at the expense of the concrete life and integrity of any one of us) those rights that are called "natural" but which are, in fact, the products of conventions and contracts: Solon's laws among the Greeks, the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables, and the constitutions of modern states.
And, finally, racism... The great error would be to believe that racism is merely a machine that has to be kept at bay. The great flaw, the fatal flaw, a flaw not only moral but political, would be to imagine that racism is nothing more than hate speech that enables us to distance ourselves, or to try to distance ourselves, from what Lenin and Hitler called harmful insects, and then to move closer, or to hope to move closer, to the programmed social order. The truth about racism is that it is both a factor of extreme disorder (with the pursuit of major differences degenerating very quickly into a hunt for small, minuscule, even imperceptible deviations and ensuring that no citizen will be safe in a nation burning with racist fever) and, paradoxically, a factor of order -- yes, but a melancholy order, sad and depressed. (That was Jacques Lacan's prophecy concerning the "unanticipated fantasies" of a racism that, though focused on a "beautiful future," is collateralized by the "loss of our joy" and its sudden "depreciation.") Which means that, from a purely political point of view, in the strict, almost clinical, realm of the health of of the body social, leaving aside its moral ignominy, racism is a complete disaster.
This recalls the error of the extreme left and, often, by the left at the time of the Dreyfus Affair: The proletariat had no stake in the fate of a Jewish officer, it was said, whose cause could only distract them from their sacred revolutionary task. Fifteen years later, the proponents of the other cause, the eulogists of the land and the dead, the nightingales of the carnages to come, finally prevailed and plunged the world into barbarity and chaos.
This is the same sort of trap that the far right, the nincompoops of the National Front, are trying to spring today. They talk about hurt feelings; they mock the "elites" who haven't grasped the fact that the suffering France of today, the France of social malaise and mass unemployment, the France groaning under its burden of taxes and punch-drunk from its "real problems," has better things to do than worry about a child calling a government minister a monkey. But they've got it exactly backwards. The two things, the cause of the offended minister and the struggle against job insecurity, antiracist vigilance and effective action against social distress, are not rivals but twins. And as for the familiar "real problems of real people," a France that is fusty and timid, a France preoccupied with itself and its sacrosanct identity, a France that would tolerate placing the blame on children for saying out loud what much of the nation thinks -- well, that France would be even less capable of dealing with them.
The choice is not one of fighting racism or fighting unemployment. The choice is, on the one hand, a racist, nervous France fated to sink ever deeper into crisis; and, on the other, a France that wins the battle against crisis and unemployment by taming, within itself, the sad passion of racism.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy