The industry of decline
Feelings of nostalgia are an essential part of French culture. They are the bedrock of our art cinema, the current slate of hipster music, and the obsession with Romantic figures of the past, from Rimbaud to Gainsbourg. However, they are also a potent political force with which the country is beginning to reckon, and a prominent source of profit in the public discourse.
Increasingly popular works of nostalgic political rumination have been creeping up the bestseller lists across France every year, led by authors such as Michel Onfray. His latest work, entitled Decadence: The Life and Death of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, is a quintessential case study in the genre. His book operates on the presumption (backed by what he says is extensive research) that the Western society as we know it is decaying at the hands of populist nationalism and terror threats. The genre is so omnipresent that the official Larousse dictionary has actually added the term “declinism” to the lexicon, to reflect how widespread the trend is.
Many other writers are reflecting on the present state of French society, and their outlook is not optimistic. Several investigative works have been published in the past year examining how radicalized Muslim youths are returning to France from Syria with emboldened terrorist tendencies, and the preponderance of exclusively Muslim suburbs and modern ghettoes in French cities, which have become an extreme danger to local law enforcement to the point that they are hardly overseen at all. These are considered existential threats to the French way of life, in the minds of genre authors.
Then there is the economic situation, which is hardly painted in a rosier light. The economy continues to stagnate, and yet the political classes have demonstrated a gross aptitude for expenditure at the public coffers, and ironically, the political books dealing with this in an apocalyptic, “declinist” mindset, are some of the biggest generators of revenue in the present market.
French nostalgia in the present day is in part a reaction to the changing French society, whether it is the influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, or the wave of
Americanisation which is transforming our food culture and consumer society. It is
anti-globalist and a reaction to the service economy which we have all resigned ourselves to being a part of: a reflection of the fact that most people do not feel useful anymore.
There is also a feeling that French innovation and manufacturing is permanently gone from the country. While artisan goods like pots, pans and cooking utensils are still produced in France, technical innovations and new devices are generally not. So, French buyers who are frustrated by their government’s inability to cope with the air quality crisis are forced to buy British air purifiers, and the causes of the air pollution in the first place are from German cars, which are infinitely more popular than the French makes which used to be at the forefront of the European market for most consumers.
Whether this mindset will continue to grow or not is a subject for debate. Liberal activists and thinkers have broached the idea that the “declinism” of today will give way to hope and change tomorrow, but this debate has been going for centuries. It is yet another reminder of the fact that we need systemic change in French politics, which will require going beyond the major parties.