The Black Masses of Michel Foucault, The Bullshit of Guy Sorman
In his recent dictionnaire du bullshit, a Franco-American by the name of Guy Sorman, known previously for his apology of neoliberalism and his defense of Reagan, Thatcher, and Pinochet, accused Michel Foucault of having violated eight-year-old children during a stay in Tunisia. This accusation was taken up by the Sunday Times and then by different French media and on the social networks, without further information ever being demanded concerning the acts alleged by that strange accuser. Some fact-checking, the refutations of persons with direct knowledge of Foucault’s life in Tunisia and his relations with young adults, plus the refusal of Guy Sorman to reply to the testimony contradicting his accusations, soon led to the conclusion that this was a case of pure slander launched by a reactionary author in search of a buzz, but we know what happens with rumors these days: without an ounce of evidence in support of Sorman’s vague declarations, the news quickly made the rounds on the internet. This article reviews those accusations, the reasons for believing they are completely false, Guy Sorman’s combat (against the legacy of ’68 and for a “conservative revolution”), Michel Foucault’s thinking on the question of sexuality and its relationship with laws, and finally the recent media and legislative fever that is allowing the State (in France) to oversee sexuality, and particularly that of minors, to a greater and greater degree.
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“I admit to having seen him buy himself little boys in Tunisia (…) He would arrange moonlight meetings with them in the cemetery of Sidi Bou Saïd and violate them stretched out on graves.”
“He would toss them some money and say ‘Meet me at 10 o’clock at the usual place’ (…) He would make love on the graves with young boys. The question of consent wasn’t even raised.”
Let it be known to those who’ve stayed away from the media this past week that these statements are not drawn from a bad B-movie, nor from a collection of anonymous testimonies about a pedo-satanic plot hatched by the Illuminati. The author of this assertion is none other than Guy Sorman, previously known mostly for his defense of the doings of Reagan, Thatcher, and Pinochet, as well as for his effort to liquidate the legacy of May’68 and the critical thoughts standing in the way of the “conservative revolution” that he advocates. The first quote appears in his aptly named “dictionnaire du bullshit” and the second is drawn from a declaration by Sorman to the Sunday Times, relayed subsequently by numerous French and international media. As for the criminal who sodomized children on graves by the light of the moon in a ritual whose description is reminiscent of the rumors that circulated about the first Christians under the Roman Empire, or the description of Jewish conspiracies in the Middle Ages, we’re asked to believe it was…Michel Foucault.
A few days after publication of the Sunday Times article, these allegations were debunked thanks to a quick inquiry conducted by the reporters of the magazine Jeune Afrique in the village in question. For several days, on the social networks, individuals from the Maghreb had already been emphasizing the dubious character of Sorman’s allegations, pointing out that the cemeteries are generally kept under a close watch to guard against desecrations. In Jeune Afrique, witnesses who had frequented Foucault reminded readers that “like in every village, one is never alone and the cemetery, especially in these maraboutic lands, is a sacred place that no one would dare profane for fear of upsetting the baraka of Sidi Jebali, the patron saint of places.” As for the boys frequented by Michel Foucault, one learns finally that they weren’t 8 or 9 years old as Sorman maintained, but 17 or 18, according to the “categorical” statement of “Moncef Ben Abbes, the veritable keeper of the village’s memory”. Nor was it a matter of “violating them stretched out on graves” but of “meeting up with them briefly among the trees, under the adjacent cemetery light”.
The matter, which seemed to be closed, would be almost comical in its absurdity if it had remained — as would have been the case when discernment had not yet fallen out of favor — confined to the internet trash bins and the conspiratorial and anti-Semitic ramblings of Alain Soral and his clones. But in 2021, Guy Sorman’s assertions found another platform in a book published by Grasset without the least suggestion of proof, and were repeated in the program C ce soir on France 5 without the presenter or any other person expressing surprise or asking for clarifications. In the Sunday Times, in connection with an article published on March 28 which met with a definite echo, Sorman was able to affirm the existence of other witnesses without having to name them, and without the journalist assigned to question him asking about the context, the dates, and possible proofs. Finally, in the media as well as the social networks, from Fdesouche, C News, and Valeurs actuelles to a number of feminist and queer Twitter accounts, by way of Le Point, Middle East Eye, and even Le Nouvel Observateur, all relayed these accusations without undertaking the slightest work of verification. When, after a week of propagation of the slander, and following the contradictions offered by the inhabitants of Sidi Bou Saïd, a reporter for Arrêts sur images asked Guy Sorman to furnish clarifications, the latter declined, of course. Apparently, it now suffices that, for assertions having to do with pedophilia, the accuser and his proxies are excused from having to supply evidence or even clarifications.
In addition to being based solely on Guy Sorman’s declaration, and without involving any journalistic inquiry, the Sunday Times article contains several factual errors. The article situates the occurrences in Tunisia in 1969, affirming that Foucault lived there then, whereas he returned to France at the end of 1968 in order to teach at Vincennes. A petition written by Gabriel Matzneff and published in 1977 is mentioned, but it’s one that Foucault didn’t sign. As we’ve said, no element or proof is furnished to support Sorman’s accusation. Or rather, Foucault’s homosexual BDSM experiences are a support, as is his critique of law and the notion of sexual adulthood. Once again, it is male homosexuality, associated with the thinker’s critical treatment of norms, that appears to buttress the accusation of pedophilia. This hype is encouraged by the fact that in a few years we have gone from the need to render justice to the victims to a total belief in every accusation, and now in the echo given to every rumor.
The Sunday Times article also tries hard to portray Guy Sorman as a brilliant French intellectual, worried for decades about the absence of democracy in France owing to the supposed effect of May ’68. It is striking to note that neither the journalists nor the vigilantes of the social networks who spread these rumors bothered to inform themselves about the political résumé of Guy Sorman. If these people, less inclined to throw themselves headlong into the rumor of crime, had taken the trouble to learn something about its source, they would have seen that for forty years Guy Sorman has been laboring at an ideological project: liquidating the legacy of Marxism and all critical thought in France for the benefit of neoliberal ideologues.
In the chapter “Pédophilie” of his dictionnaire du bullshit where the accusations against Foucault appear, another icon of the May 68 aftermath is attacked. Sorman is indignant that no one thought of “asking Jean-Paul Sartre whether innumerable conquests were of the requisite age.” If he, Guy Sorman, had concerns about this, once again he furnishes nothing further, preferring vague insinuations to the rectitude required by intellectual ethics – that is, if the latter still applies when one is waxing polemical about the sexual practices of philosophers. Moreover, this chapter, situated in a mediocre book amid reflections on liberalism and the need to privatize natural spaces and whales to better protect them, is full of contradictions. To explain the acts which he imputes to Foucault, the Reaganite Sorman seesaws, for example, between a demagogic denunciation of “the caste of artists” and criticism of the supposed Marxism of Foucault, which exists only in the mind of Sorman. For Sorman, Foucault “considered that every law, every norm was essentially a form of oppression by the State and by the bourgeoisie.” When one knows that Foucault’s thought is constructed against Marxist reductionism and economism, that it strives to show that prohibition is not reducible to juridical-legal fictions, and that power, associated with the production of knowledge about individuals, is at the origin of the processes of subjectification, obviously such a vulgar summary makes one smile.
Further, while Sorman affirmed in the media that Foucault “didn’t concern himself with the consent” of the children, we learn by reading the pages of his book that, according to him, Foucault “preferred to believe in the consent of his little slaves…" This serves as a lead-up to Foucault’s discussions regarding the juridical organization of sexuality and the notion of sexual maturity, to the point of asserting that his work would be “the excuse for his depraved acts.” Yet, unafraid of contradicting himself, Sorman pays tribute, on the set of France 5, to the influence of Foucault’s books, which he “rereads” frequently, after having written that the importance the work, which he sums up as a vulgar Marxism and a justification of crime, needed to “shrink.” In the same way that the Sunday Times affirmed a stifling omnipresence of Foucault’s work in the Anglo-Saxon universities, Guy Sorman would have one rid themselves of Foucauldian analyses that are extremely valuable in critical theory by means of a moralizing discourse, and through a recourse to rumor. In this he converges with Michel Onfray who for several years has been reducing works to a collection of anecdotes, rumors, or extrapolations around the biography of authors, and had already sought to discredit the work of Foucault by making use of a cluster of innuendos about supposed sexual practices.
By associating pedophilic violations with Foucault’s thought concerning childhood and legislation relating to sexuality, Sorman seems to be referring to the Open Letter to the Commission for a Revision of the Penal Code Governing Relations between Adults and Minors, which Foucault signed along with 80 personalities in 1977, and which he defended in front of that commission. Since a frequent misunderstanding of the aim of that text seems to have contributed in recent years to the development of a conspiracism relating to pedo-satanic elites, to the extent of lending credence to Sorman’s fanciful accusations, it seems worthwhile to dwell on it for a moment.
Far from being any sort of defense of the violation of children, the letter contained this sentence for example: “The signatories of the present letter consider that the complete liberty of the partners of a sexual relation is the necessary and sufficient condition of the licitness of that relation.”
As to the demands expressed, it was a matter of demanding an equalization of sexual maturities between homosexuals and heterosexuals (as men were being incarcerated at the time for having had relations with young guys scarcely less than 18 years old), of challenging the notion of “corruption of a minor – an infraction that can be constituted by nothing more than lodging a minor for a night,” and of demanding that the law concerning a non-violent offense against decency with a minor be changed, by considering it an infraction and no longer a crime, by limiting the duration of the preventive detention, and by reducing to five years the maximum prison sentence for that offense, with rape remaining a crime chargeable by the criminal court. Rape and pedophilia are neither defended nor relativized at any place in this text, and the signers won a partial victory starting in 1982, with an end to the differentiation between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and an affirmation of the necessary differentiation between rapes of minors, considered as crimes, and consensual relations with adolescents less than fifteen years old, still considered today as infractions.
In 1977, after signing this letter and his hearing before the commission, Michel Foucault went on France Culture to defend its demands and to present his reflections on the subject, in the company of Guy Hocquenghem, a writer and a leading figure of the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), and the attorney Jean Danet. This discussion would be published under the title La loi de la pudeur [The Decency Law] by the journal Recherches, then in Foucault’s Dits et écrits. In this interview, Michel Foucault already perceives — in the context of the development of victimology, a branch of criminology not dealing with the perpetrators of acts but with the trauma undergone by the victims – the emergence of a “society of danger” going hand in hand with the strengthening of the power of psychiatrists responsible for establishing the reality of these traumas and for organizing the victims’statements. For his part, Hocquenghem declares that “concerning the problem of actual rape,” “the feminist movements and women in general have expressed themselves very clearly,” while opposing the security panics that evolve into punitive one-upmanship or calls for revenge, for the chemical castration of rapists, or that encourage the publication of anxiety-provoking reportage in the scandal sheets that do nothing more than legitimize the reinforcement of the repressive arsenal.
In the framework of a thought aiming at limiting State intervention in sexuality, Foucault asked himself several times about the possibility of penalizing acts of sexual violence as violence and attacks against persons, while rejecting the specifically sexual definition of these violations. Here, analyzing the emergence of discourses on sexuality that no longer just target acts considered as crimes or infractions but a vague criminal figure bearing danger, Foucault sees the risk that sexuality will end up being considered dangerous in itself, in the name of preserving the family or defending decency:
“In the past, laws prohibited a number of acts, indeed acts so numerous one was never quite sure what they were, but nevertheless it was acts that the law concerned itself with. Certain forms of behavior were condemned. Now what we are defining and, therefore, what will be found by the intervention of the law, the judge, and the doctor, are dangerous individuals. We’re going to have a society of dangers, with, on the one side, those who are in danger, and on the other, those who are dangerous. And sexuality will no longer be a kind of behavior hedged in by precise prohibitions, but a kind of roaming danger, a sort of omnipresent phantom, a phantom that will be played out between men and women, children and adults, and possibly between adults themselves, etc.”
This passage is quite congruent with the rest of Foucault’s work, which involves an archeology of discourses and forms of power, a reflection on law, on norms, on medical power. It is not in any way an apology of crime, and is not a sideslip to be separated from the rest of the oeuvre. Moreover, the reflections concerning the figure of the monster, which justifies the security panics against a danger that is difficult to circumscribe, are an extension of what Foucault had already developed in his lecture series at the Collège de France in 1974-1975 which would be published under the title Abnormal.
In this course, Foucault examines the notion of the “child masturbator.” Alongside the “human monster” and the “individual to be corrected,” this is one of the three figures around which in the nineteenth century a “domain of anomaly” will be formed, in the framework of the development of a juridical-pathological power centered on psychiatry. In the lecture of January 22, 1975, Foucault explains:
“The masturbator, the child masturbator, is a completely new figure of the nineteenth century (but who can be found at the end of the eighteenth century) and whose field of appearance is the family or even something narrower than the family: his frame of reference is no longer nature and society, as it was for the individual to be corrected. It is a much narrower space. It is the bedroom, the bed, the body ; it is the parents, immediate supervisors, brothers and sisters; it is the doctor: it is a kind of microcell around the individual and his body.”
Foucault is making reference to the “pedagogical techniques of the eighteenth century.” In the lectures of the fifth and the twelfth of March, when he returns in greater detail to childhood and the discourses around masturbation, Foucault describes the family as “a space of constant surveillance” and mentions parents “assigned, enjoined to take charge of the meticulous, detailed, almost ignoble surveillance of their children.” Finally, if Foucault is especially interested in the surveillance of children, it’s because it “appears [to him] to be one of the historical preconditions for the generalization of psychiatric knowledge and power.” Thus, “by focusing more and more on that little corner of confused existence that is childhood, psychiatry was able to constitute itself as a general authority for the analysis of behaviors.”
On France Culture, asked at the end of the program about the notion of sexual maturity, Foucault replies that an “age barrier set by law doesn’t make much sense,” and rather than basing oneself solely on age or on the discourse of psychiatrists, it should be a matter of listening to minors about the different types of violence, constraint, or consent which they have experienced. Shortly after, Guy Hocqenghem takes up Foucault’s terms and affirms the need to “listen to the child and grant him or her a certain credibility.” As Jean Bérard, legal historian, will write in 2014:
“the militant expressions of the seventies(…) did not fail to make room for a questioning of the articulation between consent and power relations. Eric Fassin shows that Foucault is very aware of the problem and expresses a ‘dilemma’ more than a position. Militants are questioning themselves concerning what should be considered as coming under the rubric of ‘sexual liberation’.”
Last September, in the context of a polemic relative to the rediscovery of Guy Hocquenghem’s statements about childhood, and in particular those contained in this interview in the company of Michel Foucault, the editors of the journal remarked that “today one no longer finds, on the left, an ability to question and radically critique schooling, psychiatry, prison, or the family, [which] certainly doesn’t signify an advance, quite to the contrary.”
This tendency seems to have been reinforced, to a such a point that the government’s bill to regard as a rape every relation between an adolescent of less than fifteen and a person five years older, regardless of what was experienced and recounted by the adolescent, and without an investigation or reflection concerning the regimes of constraint or consent, was recently passed unanimously in the National Assembly and to a general approval. The absence of the slightest critical discourse, even in the name of support for “freedom of speech” is all the more patent as three years ago, faced with an analogous bill that was finally withdrawn, Family Planning criticized a proposal relating to “moral order” and stemming from an “unfamiliarity” with the practices of young people, while pointing out the risk of an adolescent sexuality that is “even more taboo and hidden”. The question of judicial threats vis-à-vis caregivers or associations with knowledge of adolescents having relations with older persons was also evoked as a risk.
The past few years have seen an intensification of calls by different feminist currents for a strengthening of the repressive apparatus under the auspices of “the struggle against acts of violence,” stressing the necessity of monitoring and punishing aggressors and focusing on individual responsibility. It’s in this climate that an event was held last September, a campaign against the memory of Guy Hocquenghem, covered by Russia Today and Valeurs actuelles. It was put together by the “intersectional feminists” of the Grenades in the company of associations for the protection of childhood fighting against sexual education at school. A few months later, the craziness (or bullshit, as Guy Sorman would say) was so much present that an assertion as absurd as “Michel Foucault would sodomize children on the graves in Tunisia when the night had fallen” has still not triggered peals of laughter or even the doubts it should have raised.
So it seems urgent to reject the enemy’s terms and learn to spot reactionary ideological aims, thinly disguised by being submerged in the communicational mass. The much-noted neoliberal reaction, individualism, the securitarian discourses and practices are not just before our eyes as a massive bloc that one can easily delimit. They have also permeated numerous spaces, where micro-fascisms establish themselves and become difficult to counter.
Meanwhile, those of all genders can turn to the fourth volume of the Histoire de la sexualité, published in 2018 [now in English translation]. As for those who enjoy reading anecdotes about Foucault’s life, let me signal the recent publication of Foucault en Californie [Foucault in California], by Simeon Wade, the story of a trip by Foucault to the United States which tells about a shared experience under LSD, and includes, among other things, the retranscription of several conversations with Foucault concerning his relationship with music, literature, the university, and his homosexuality.
Addendum : A week after the publication of this article, Guy Sorman walked back his slanderous allegations and excused himself pathetically in the pages of L’Express.
First published in French in lundimatin #282, April 16th, 2021.
Translated by Robert Hurley.