“Tunisia, for me, represented in certain respects the chance to reintegrate me into the political debate. It was not the month of May 68 in France that changed me; it was in March 68, in a third world country. This is how Michel Foucault, French philosopher, described his stay in Tunisia, a country that welcomed him and offered him his first post as an academic teacher at the University of Tunis.
Foucault, a public figure and famous theorist of power and sexuality, was indebted to Tunisia for his first transformative experiences. He was captivated by the intensity of the intellectual debates in which he participated and by the radicalism of political activism against dehumanization that he witnessed during his stay in Tunis in the late 1960s.
At the same time, Foucault, the private figure, allegedly sexually abused Tunisian prepubescent children.
Rumors of child sexual abuse by Foucault have long been known to Tunisians, but recently there was a devastating new account from famous French essayist Guy Sorman.
In an interview with French public broadcaster France 5 on March 5, Sorman confirmed that by visiting Foucault, he “had witnessed what Foucault did with young children in Tunisia… vile things. The possibility of consent could not be sought. These were things of extreme moral ugliness.
In a second interview with British newspaper The Sunday Times on March 28, he recalled that “they were eight, nine, ten years old, he would throw money at them and say ‘Meet at 10pm at the place. usual ” ‘, a local cemetery in the town of Sidi Bou Said, north of the capital Tunis. “There he made love on the tombstones with young boys. The issue of consent was not even raised.
Foucault is the latest in an infamous list of French writers, artists, intellectuals and politicians who allegedly sexually abused children in the (neo) colonies: Paul Gauguin, André Gide, Gabriel Matzneff, Frédéric Mitterrand, Jack Lang, and others. Matzneff now faces prosecution, while Mitterrand and Lang have flatly denied all rumors and accusations. In Foucault’s case, however, the issue will likely be swept under the carpet without much debate.
It should be noted that none of the main newspapers in France, such as Le Monde and Liberation, or even in Tunisia, reported Sorman’s accusation.
This lack of media coverage of Foucault’s alleged pedophilia in Tunisia may also be linked to the distortions and silence that characterized the way Sorman’s claim was framed by The Sunday Times.
The British newspaper undermined the possibility of an unbiased account of Foucault’s alleged sexual abuse story by presenting his report as an attack on “a beacon of today’s ‘awakened’ ideology” and “l ‘Parisian intellectuals’. In doing so, he disparaged the much-needed conversation about Foucault’s alleged sexual abuse by turning it into yet another biased critic of the French left by right-wing British media.
Meanwhile, Matzneff, a renowned French writer, has been publicly disgraced and faces prosecution by French authorities on pedophilia charges against French and Filipino children. Although he wrote in his many novels about his experiences of sexual abuse of boys and girls in the Philippines, he was abandoned by his editors and stripped of his literary awards and chronicles only after the publication of a damning book Consent, by Vanessa Springora, one of the writer’s white minor victims.
The uncomfortable truth is that the difference between the intense backlash against Matzneff, as opposed to the tame indictment against Foucault, stems from a long history of seeing the (neo) colonial subject as a disposable body.
What is often dismissed in the current global #metoo reckoning movement is the child figure of developing countries.
As Sorman notes, Foucault’s abuse of Tunisian boys is similar to that of the sexual exploitation of Tahitian girls by French painter Paul Gauguin. They were both trapped in the native “other” whom they saw as primitive and exploitable; they both escaped the French metropolis to escape scrutiny and unleash their predatory selves; and they both used their prestige and economic and cultural power to allow full control over the bodies of young victims.
The only difference between these two French child molesters is the way they portrayed their sexual brutalization of the child from developing countries in their works: Gauguin laid bare all of his sexual and racial stereotypes in his paintings and made explicit celebrated his predatory desires.
Foucault, however, was much more strategic. Although he is the most influential theorist and critic of the relationship between sexuality, knowledge and power in the West, Foucault completely ignored the colonial subject in his writings on sexuality. And yet, I now believe that Foucault’s sexual abuse of Tunisian boys largely informed and shaped his critique of notions of normal or natural sex and of children’s sexuality. After all, dehumanization and exploitation in the (neo) colony has always been at the heart of Western universities.
Foucault’s stay in Tunisia continues to be inexplicably underestimated. Most of the biographies of the French theorist focus either on his appointment as a university professor between 1966 and 1968 and his intellectual and political awakening, or on his engagement in the social and political issues of post-independence Tunisia under the regime of Habib Bourguiba.
It is not known whether Bourguiba applied for Foucault’s appointment to the University of Tunis and therefore offered him full immunity. The claim that Foucault decided to leave Tunisia for France after being beaten by Tunisian police for his political activism also remains questionable, as before this incident he had already accepted a new post as head of the philosophy department at the University of Vincennes. And above all, we suspect that there is no public criminal record covering Foucault’s years in Tunisia. At the time, Beji Caid Essebsi, originally from Sidi Bou Said, who later became President of Tunisia, was Minister of the Interior and was known for his policy of panoptic police surveillance. And yet, there appears to be no official record of Foucault’s predatory behavior in the country.
Even today, it is naive to expect Foucault to be held responsible for his monstrous actions. The French intelligentsia has always been very protective of its personalities when their sexual abuse targeted victims in developing countries. Thus, calls to consider this terrible legacy will likely be reduced to a footnote in academic and cultural work.
To be clear, I’m not asking that Foucault be “canceled” or that the sexual abuse of his child be used to attack his academic work and academia in general.
But it’s important to recognize that Foucault’s monstrosity had definitely changed the lives of many faceless and nameless Tunisian children and caused traumatic effects in their lives. Given his sexual abuse in Tunisia, social justice can finally be brought to his victims.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.