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How The French Far Right Is Perverting Voltaire

To counter Islam, conservative groups are twisting the ideas of the Enlightenment writer famous for his advocacy of freedom of religion.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Misquoted?

PARIS — A recent headline on the French anti-Islam website Riposte Laïque (Secular Response) read: “On Islam, Voltaire was three centuries ahead of us.”

To support his thesis, columnist Maurice Vidal quotes a famous article about fanaticism from Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. In the Enlightenment writer’s work published in 1764, there was absolutely no mention of Islam. Instead, he targeted the Catholic upper-class involved in the killings of thousands of protestants during St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Oh well.

Three months earlier, Vidal called for French support of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen for the sake of “France’s ideals.” Created in 2007, Riposte Laïque switched from far-left to far-right over a matter of weeks, saying that “Islamophobia was not a crime but self-defiance.”

Robert Ménard, the former Reporters without Borders representative who also changed his political leanings and is now a candidate supported by the French far-right party Front National, launched a website called Boulevard Voltaire last year. Although Ménard claims he comes from the Enlightenment tradition, he doesn't hesitate to characterize French President François Holland as “infamous” or to form an alliance with Catholic activists of the so-called French Spring — a movement launched during the debate on same-sex marriage that divided the country a few months ago.

Voltaire’s label

An association founded in 1994 by the conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan is yet another example of the many perverted uses of Voltaire as a symbol of the right. To wit, Meyssan’s organization is called “Réseau Voltaire,” or the Voltaire Network.

Buried in the Pantheon in 1791 by revolutionaries looking for a hero, a Republican icon, Voltaire is now a code name used for defending secularism against religion. There is no doubt the sarcastic philosopher would have found the right words to counter the Islamist folly of our time. But it’s difficult to imagine him laughing at raucous jokes over pork-and-wine free-for-alls where the far right mocks Islam. It is likely that he would have called it silliness, because Voltaire’s war, as Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo, was a war “without warrior behaviors or pathetic gestures and squirming.”

Secular fundamentalism

As he fought the infamous, Voltaire spoke in favor of tolerance. He was striving to make fools of the most powerful people, and to defend the oppressed. Opposed to religious dogma as much as atheistic materialism, he did not mistake the system for individuals.

This tendency to invoke the Enlightenment — but apparently just Voltaire’s French Enlightenment — is flawed. “This desire to find a secular golden age, like all fundamentalists vis-à-vis their religion, is a sign of secular fundamentalism,” argues historian Jean Baubérot.

Voltaire’s century wanted to look toward the future. To be faithful to him, the 21st century should not get stuck in the past.

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