Jacques Julliard: “The French left no longer needs to be killed, it does it itself!”

9 September 2023 Interviews   496  

Illustrious intellectual and humanist figure, great historian of the French left, dean of columnists and editorialists of the Parisian press, which he enriched with his sharp analyses and enlightened opinions for more than half a century, Jacques Julliard died on September 8, at the age of 90.

“A great republican, humanist and socialist voice has just died out. Jacques Julliard cherished the Nation without ever losing his European commitments. He gave in nothing on universal values and secularism without ever stifling his vibrant faith. He tirelessly campaigned for emancipatory socialism, without ever forgiving its faults and weaknesses. He made fun of affiliations and lines as long as they offered the opportunity for elevated debate and fruitful confrontation. The press loses one of its most beautiful pens, the left one of its most fertile intellectuals, France one of its most chilled lovers, and we a friend.’’, writes François Hollande in a vibrant tribute to the author of ‘‘The Left and the People”, who has always shown “great respect” for the action of the former French President.

Last December, Jacques Julliard received us for a major interview, as part of a Special Edition of our monthly Screen Watch entitled “How to resist the cretinisation of the world?”. As a critical historian, he deplored in this interview the popular delegitimisation of his political family, considering that the fact of ‘‘abandoning universalism is suicidal for the left’’, because ‘‘that is why the exacerbation of particularisms – the migrants, women, sexual minorities – is sweeping across France’’. And concluded, with a hint of bitterness that “it is distressing, when one is a man of the left, to be constantly brought to load the boat of his own camp. I do it without pleasure and less often than I want to!’’.

Interview By Atmane Tazaghart

– The left seems to be in agony. Is this the terminal phase or do you detect the hope of a new awareness? How can political intelligence be reborn in the family that is yours and whose mutations and errors you never stop observing and describing?

 – Jacques Julliard: There are two reasons why the left cannot return to power. The first is the shift of its axis to the far left. The second is the relationship with Islam. On the first point, it’s simple: the left has only won and obtained a majority when its axis was sufficiently central or centrist. Let’s take the example of the Fourth Republic: as long as the communists were dominant, there was no question of the left coming back, apart from the Guy Mollet episode. It was only when the Socialists, under the leadership of François Mitterrand, regained ground on the Communist Party that the Left as a whole became a majority again. Moreover, there was a certain willingness on the part of the communists to accept this situation. Already in 1936, Maurice Thorez, who was also a Stalinist of the highest order, had understood that the Popular Front had to reassure. He insisted on moderate measures and even proposed the enlargement of the Popular Front towards the right! This proves that the phenomenon is mechanical. It is a question of attracting centrist voters to the left. Today, if this left presents a revolutionary figure, or rather an agitator, “bumper” as Proudhon used to say, the voters who went to Marine Le Pen or Macron remain there and will remain there. But there is nothing to show that the left is in the process of understanding this. On the contrary, its main leader, Olivier Faure, totally unknown to the public, has accepted his de facto subordination to the Insoumis. And it is not the antics of the ecolos that will improve the situation.

Why do you cite the relationship with Islam as the second main reason for the fall?  

– By the relationship to Islam, I mean the view of the Muslim phenomenon in French society. First of all, I see that the left acts in the name of its traditional tolerance. Since the 18th century, there has always been the idea on the French left that, compared to a Catholicism that was considered unacceptable, the Eastern wisdoms would be much more compatible with a democratic society. This continues to play a role, but there is also anti-clericalism. Paradoxically, Catholicism does not benefit from the tolerance of the old left towards Islam. In this mental scheme, any transgression of secularism on the part of the Church is vigorously denounced. While many transgressions on the part of Islam are admitted. This explains this: Catholicism being seen as intolerant, even everything that is not Catholic is looked upon with a certain benevolence. This is all the more absurd as Islam has made considerable progress in the direction of intolerance and French Catholicism (which accepts secularism perfectly) has moved in the opposite direction. The Church, which is losing ground numerically and morally, seeks above all to retain its flock. If at one time it tried to influence French politics, it does so less and less. Its last demonstration was on the Marriage for All and I’m not even sure it would do it again. The Church is making itself very small in the hope of getting through the drops.

Then there is the bad conscience of the Left towards the Muslim world, following decolonisation and more precisely the Algerian war. The Left under Guy Mollet insisted, let’s not forget: “Algeria is France”. François Mitterrand, Minister of Justice, sent a number of Algerian terrorists to the guillotine. Since then, the Left has had a complex. It knows that it has been condemned by almost everyone because of its effectively stupid attitude during the Algerian war. Since then, it has been so afraid of falling back into “Molletism” that it has done exactly the opposite. It is a kind of conditioned reflex rather than a reasoned attitude. She does not ask herself whether the Algerian nationalism she experienced in 1956 is the same thing as the Islamism of today. Having experienced both, I can assure you of the opposite, confessing moreover that I did not perceive the seeds of Islamism in this nationalism. It would not have changed anything because Algeria had to regain its independence.

And then there is electoralism. Wherever Muslims constitute a significant electoral force, this weighs on political options. All the more so because, in a very discreet but increasingly obvious way, Islam has organised itself into an electoral pressure group. In local elections, the left is happy to have the support of Muslims to win.

– And the reinforcement of Islamism, notably that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which openly called for a vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

– Absolutely. Last but not least is fear. Islam is scary. I am thinking of the world of schools. Since the assassination of Samuel Paty, and even long before, many teachers privately admit that they are afraid and can no longer talk about subjects related to history and religion. Political Islam, in a short period of time, has succeeded in eliminating from school most of the things it did not like. That is the truth!

This considerable set of factors explains why so many people will no longer vote left. This disaffected clientele is a bit like “lost dogs without collars”. They are looking for themselves. If they are bourgeois, they vote for Macron. If they come from a working-class background, they vote for the far right, Marine le Pen or Eric Zemmour. If the left does not become aware of these phenomena, it is not close to regaining power.

– How do you explain the renunciation of values that constituted the basis of left-wing thinking: secularism, republicanism, universalism?

It is true that today, declaring yourself a fervent defender of secularism puts you on the right rather than the left. I often wonder about this break in cultural transmission, this infidelity of the left to its own values. I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. I think that the left has lost all its training tools. Republican consciousness was forged to some extent in the parties, a lot in the unions, but there was also the whole fabric of associations. And when education and the transmission of values are no longer there, we can see the consequences twenty years later.

– So, we have a left that no longer believes in much of anything and is incapable of proving to voters that by voting for it we could restore its values…

– And the intellectuals did not have the best role in this affair. Their moral cowardice is long-standing. Not only did they not help maintain the republican conscience, but they also demolished it whenever they could. The most blatant examples are Sartre and Michel Foucault, who returned from Iran enchanted at the time of Khomeini’s revolution. At the time I was at the Observateur, and Foucault was untouchable. He had been delighted by his contacts with the Iranian authorities, who had given him a glimpse of a change in the nature of relations between the religious and the political… I was a modest journalist at the time, but I made a point of doing my story the following week on secularism. Today, among the intellectuals present in large numbers on the 24-hour news channels and in all the media, very few defend republican ideas.

– To this colonial bad conscience that you mentioned and to this cowardice, was added the fear of being accused of Islamophobia and racism by defending secularism.

– Being called Islamophobic by an Islamist is not serious. But to be called Islamophobic by a renowned intellectual or in a renowned newspaper is very serious. I myself was immediately denounced in the daily Le Monde for having once said that Zemmour, at the beginning of his campaign, was asking questions that nobody dared to ask. To the role played by intellectuals, we must therefore add the role played by the media, which are very often influenced by these intellectuals or by journalists who play at being intellectuals. This is called intimidation.  What is astonishing is that no one is surprised by this anymore! It is true that France no longer plays a major intellectual role in Europe…

– How do you explain this French exception that makes the whole left in our country subservient to the extreme left, to the insoumis, while everywhere in Europe, social democracy is the pivot of the alliances in power? 

– In Europe, the term social democracy is indeed rather laudatory. Elsewhere, it is good: in France, social democracy is bad! At best, it is minimalist in social matters, at worst, it is a traitor. This is a legacy of the Stalinist period that we never got rid of. Here again, we are a country dominated by mediocre intellectuals. By people who have no autonomy of thought and lack courage. There is no question of recognising that the revolution is no longer a political object! Result: the disconnect in France between intellectuals and French social democracy has continued. They have fled into a kind of vague moralism…

– How do you analyse the “woke” phenomenon that comes from the United States and further aggravates the denial of the left, feminism or anti-racism having turned away from universalism to become sectarianism?  

– Universalism is completely linked to a certain vision of politics. A politics that considered that whites and blacks, men and women, rich and poor, should be treated by the state and society in the same way. The critique of this universalism was that this was hypocrisy, because treating them the same way was, if I may say so, obscuring and reinforcing the differences. Today, feminism has become a way of doing politics, whereas it cannot replace politics, otherwise it will be a mystification.  There is therefore a crisis of universalism.

– For Michel Onfray, all universalism is necessarily imperialism…

– Abandoning universalism is suicidal for the left. It definitely does not need to be killed, it takes care of itself! The exacerbation of particularisms – migrants, women, sexual minorities – is therefore sweeping through France. It’s all the more amusing because most of the time, the drivers of these trends display a flamboyant anti-Americanism. France is no longer able to use the lessons of history. As if they were no longer integrated into political thinking. The United States has saved us from oppression or defeat three times, as in 1914, from Nazism as in 1944, and from Stalinism in the following period. This deserves a little consideration. Here too, the French left has a very great responsibility. We owe a lot to the United States, even if I think we should also resist them. In this respect, de Gaulle seems to me to be quite exemplary. Of course, he didn’t like them and he was well rewarded. But that did not prevent excellent political relations.  Whenever there was tension between East and West, the most loyal ally of the United States was Gaullist France. Today we have people who, unlike de Gaulle, are under ideological pressure from American thought and society but display a stupid anti-Americanism. This applies not only to the left but also to the extremist right. One day France will have to examine its conscience about its relationship with the United States.

– You describe a misunderstanding in the relationship with America. Like an echo of the denial that delegitimises the discourse of the left in domestic politics.

– Yes, some currents have a relationship with the United States that is as distorted and biased as the one I describe with regard to Islam. It is distressing, I assure you, when one is a man of the left, to be led constantly to load the boat of one’s own camp. I do it without pleasure and less often than I feel like it. I know very well that, in the past, people have hidden their distance from the left behind their reproaches. We must not fall into this trap. We are obliged to say that the left is unfaithful to itself and to its values and no longer produces anything new. It clings to totems. Above all, it no longer has anyone to help it think and to think about itself.


1933: Born in Brenod, in the Ain.

1955: Joins the magazine Esprit.

1956: Leads the UNEF student conference “For a solution to the Algerian problem”.

1959-1961: Called up during the Algerian war.

1968: Founded the History Department at the University of Vincennes. Publishes “Naissance et mort de la Quatrième République” (Calmann-Levy).

1969: Joins the Nouvel Observateur.

1974: Joined the Socialist Party.

1989: “La République du Centre” (Hachette).

1990: “Le Génie de la liberté” (Le Seuil).

1994: “Ce fascisme qui vient” (Le Seuil).

1995: “La droite et la gauche” (Robert Laffont).

1997: “La faute aux élites” (Gallimard).

2002: “Dictionnaire des intellectuels français”, with Michel Winock (Le Seuil).

2005: “Le malheur français” (Flammarion)

2010: Editorialist at Marianne.

2012: “Les gauches françaises” (Flammarion). Prix Jean Zay and Grand Prix Gobert.

2014: “La gauche et le people”, with Jean-Claude Michea


2017: “L’esprit du people” (Robert Laffont, Bouquins).

2019: “Allons-nous sortir de l’Histoire ?” (Flammarion).

2020: “De Gaulle et les siens” (Cerf Editions).

2021: “Carnets inédits, 1987-2020’s (Robert Laffont, Bouquins).

2023: Death in Paris, September 8.