French Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was elected on Thursday to the Academie Francaise, the most prestigious institution for language and literature in France, despite the polemics his candidature engendered for his politically incorrect positions on a series of issues crucial for the country’s intelligentsia.
Finkielkraut, 64, the son of a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, is retiring as a professor of philosophy and the history of ideas at the world-famous Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, a post he held since 1989. He is the author of many books, most of them bestsellers.
Recently he expressed his desire to enter at the Academie Francaise, founded in 1635 by the powerful statesman Cardinal Richelieu to protect the French language and to write the official dictionary of the language.
The academy is composed of 40 members, so called “immortals” since they are elected for life, and when one dies, the survivors elect his successor.
Finkielkraut succeeds novelist, playwright and essayist Felicien Marceau, whose Seat 21 was unoccupied since he died in 2012.
Finkielkraut was elected in the first round, with 16 of the 28 votes cast. It was a “consecration” for this media-savvy lover of language and the literature, according to commentators.
In a statement to AFP, Finkielkraut said: “I am happy for this election. It is not only me, it is also my name, and in some way my progeny, which enters the French Academy... I am proud to be a member of this anachronistic institution.”
Influenced by German- American Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906- 1975), French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) and Catholic- French writer Charles Peguy (1873-1914), Finkielkraut is one of the most brilliant wits France has seen in decades, according to his supporters in the Academy (novelist Jean d’Ormesson, historian Pierre Nora, writer, historian and politician Max Gallo, lawyer and politician Simone Veil and historian Helene Carrere d’Encausse, the permanent secretary of the Academy). His friend, the French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, said of him: “This man doesn’t know how not to react.”
Finkielkraut’s proud Jewish origins, his pro-Israel opinions and open Zionism, his critiques of Islamism and massive immigration to Europe, and of racism, have been for a long time controversial in the country, but much more since he published in late 2013 L’identité malheureuse (“The Unhappy Identity”), a book on the crisis of French (and European) identity.
He wrote in the book: “The immigration and Islam reveal the identity deficiencies of France and of a certain Europe that was for long ashamed of itself. In danger is the very idea of democracy itself.”
Discussing the book, Finkielkraut said in an interview: “Do I have to pay for my commitment to the national identity? It would be ironic since in the far past I would maybe have to pay on the contrary for my name.”
He has been accused of Islamophobia (and of being an”agent of Sharon” after he defended during second intifada the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself – he participated to demonstrations for IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, then a captive in the Gaza Strip).
Licra, the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, saluted Finkielkraut’s election, saying his “positions raise polemics but [also] contribute to the richness of ideas and exchanges in a democratic society.”