Interview with Catherine Fieschi, the director of Counterpoint

Short introduction to Counterpoint

Counterpoint is a research group that works on the cultural and social dynamics that underpin politics, economics and security.  Our research looks for the ‘hidden wiring’ of societies—the stories, the myths, relationships as well as formal and informal institutions that provide the context in which political and economic decisions are made.  This means that we focus on civil society as well as actors that are not the usual suspects.

We work with foundations, governments and businesses who are interested in a more vibrant and accurate view of the world and who want to improve their capacity for long-term forecasting and planning.

This project on conspiracy theories fits well with both our concern for the power of myths and stories as well as interest in comparative analysis.  In the case of France, Norway, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia we are concerned that these theories are contributing to a toxic climate for minorities and leading to poor policy-making and alarming decisions.

From outside it seems that France has a long history of antisemitic conspiracy theories. The most well-known worldwide is the Dreyfus affair. Are there any forums or political forces that are still echoing such theories?

The Dreyfus affair marks an important turning point in France—on the one hand it signals the rise of ‘the intellectual’ in the sense that, for the first time people not directly connected to politics, but rather to the arts and literature, take very strong public political positions—and get an immediate audience.  Zola’s stance (‘J’accuse’) in the newspaper L’Aurore and his defence of Dreyfus and denouncing of the conspiracy against him is seen as the beginning of a long tradition in France. This is important because as an intellectual and in his defence of a Jewish army officer and explicit denouncing of the army’s and the state’s anti-Semitism, Zola contributes to the re-inforcing of anti-Semitism and to the accusations that French Jews and intellectuals are all involved in a conspiracy against France. In other words the Dreyfus affair sets the parameters for future conspiracy theories and conspiracists and its echoes are still being felt nowadays because the actors are still seen to be the press, Jews and intellectuals.

The DSK scandal for instance, was in part immediately interpreted through the lens of anti-Semitism.  Though accusations about a possible Sarkozy involvement in a ‘set-up’ abounded, there was also an under-current of accusations that read this as the latest framing of a Jewish French intellectual fomented, if not carried out, by sections of the French state.


Is there any clear historical roots for the importance of conspiracy theorizing in France’s history?

Conspiracy theories are part and parcel of any political system, but in France the myths that immediately surround the revolution are great territory for myth—the role of free-masons and the illuminati and ‘The Terror’, the role of the Catholic Church and the papacy. All of these serve as fodder for conspiracy theories on both sides, the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionnary forces.  However, Dreyfus, l’Affaire (as it is known in France), give a new momentum and a contemporary twist to all these—it marks the beginning of modern French conspiracies. Which some see as culminating with the anti-semitism of pre-War France (through authors like Barrès and Maurras and a bit later Céline) and then Pétain’s collaboration with Germany during the war; The momentum was then itself fuelled by the debate around the publication of the Protocol of the Elders of Sion published in 1901 – a forgery detailing an alleged plan by Jews to take over the world aided by free-masons.  As Pierre-André Taguieff puts it the document served a number of purposes: identifying the forces of evil aiming to bring down legitimate powers and confirm their ruthless intentions and systematic programme; and second, organising a – very real – plot to counter-attack the alleged enemy (Taguieff, L’Imaginaire du Complot Mondial, 2006).

One important note that should be kept in mind is that conspiracy theories in France often involve not only Jews, the media and free-masons but also the United States.  Firstly because of the latter’s perceived relationship to Israel and second, because in its liberal capitalism it is often depicted as the aggressive imperialist, globaliser vs a France that wants to preserve national values and the role of the state.   The 9/11 attacks therefore saw a number of theories emerge in France (as everywhere else) around the role of Jews and America in the 9/11 plot.

How important is conspiracy theorizing in the current election campaign in France?

Conspiracy theorising has not played a prominent role in the French election, but a few strands have emerged.  Jean Luc Mélenchon the demagogue candidate of the left has made no bones about the role of the United States against a strong Europe and against strong rival currencies. Though he stops short of conspiracy theorising, his ‘populist lite’ discourse points to the enemies of France and the Republic in ways that echo conspiracy.  Marine Le Pen’s fully fledged populism, relies explicitly on the notion that intellectuals and a liberal elite are forever conspiring against ordinary people.


Beforehands, the National Front was the political force that articulated political antisemitism in France.  But Marine Le Pen, following the direction of almost all the populist right-wing political forces in Western Europe, seems to shift towards a pro-Israeli position while defining Muslim immigration as the main threat to France. Are there any remnants of anti-semitism in FN’s politics?

Unlike her father, for marine Le Pen, Jews are no longer a target (in fact she has gone out of her way to come across as very philo-semite; Something that indicates that anti-Semitism may be less widespread in France than it once was: it no longer delivers votes). However, the role once assigned to the Jews in FN political rhetoric is now being filled by ‘Islamists’ and ‘radical Muslims’.  The interesting thing here is that although there is an attempt to move from the ‘racial’ to the ‘cultural’, the tactics, even in the wake of the attacks in Toulouse, don’t seem to be paying off very well.

I think the FN is a quintessentially opportunitistic, populist party—it will use whatever gets it votes or support, or whatever can inflame at any given time. And it’s clear that they’ve realized that with a younger generation anti-semitism isn’t playing very well. So for now they’ve shelved it.  They will bring it back when they need it, of if they think it can work again.  It is more of a political tool than an actual ideological position.

Are there any similar conspiracy theories as Breivik developed in Norway (e.g. advocates of political correctness and „cultural marxists” deliberately want to Islamize Europe?) How is it related to the Toulouse?

The rhetoric in France is quite different—people refer to ‘political correctness’ but often it’s a slur against the United States.  A United States that is depicted as wanting to homogenise, ‘sanitise’ the world.  The so-called ‘puritanism’ of the Us is viewed as suspicious and is resented.  Let’s not forget that that relationship is a very complex one and that the United States are seen as both a positive, energetic presence, as well as a potential threat to culture.  They are also always viewed as a place where ‘political correctness’ rules and doesn’t leave any room for spontaneity.  Despite France’s horror when DSK was accused of rape last year, the fact is that a lot of the French public thought the US were in the midst ‘hysterical political correctness’.

Did the Toulouse-killings improved or worsened the inter-religious and interethnic relations between Jews and Muslims, Jews and Christians, Christians and Muslims?


The Toulouse murders are interesting because one of the first accusations was that Sarkozy was drawing out the siege of the house to make himself look powerful.  That was the first conspiracy theory.  The second interesting point is that the murders did not unleash a wild anti-Muslim sentiment in France and in fact seem to have a done Marine Le Pen no good at all.

Categories English, France | Tags: | Posted on April 4, 2012

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