Reckoning with Foucault’s alleged sexual abuse of boys in Tunisia

I am not calling for Foucault to be ‘cancelled’, but we need to address recent reports about his predatory behaviour in Tunisia.

Michel Foucault, French philosopher and historian, is seen smiling in this picture of November 5, 1979 [File: Getty Images]

“Tunisia, for me, represented in some ways the chance to reinsert myself in the political debate. It wasn’t May of ’68 in France that changed me; it was March of ’68, in a third-world country.” This is how Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, described his time in Tunisia, a country that welcomed him and offered him his first academic teaching position at the University of Tunis.

Foucault, the public figure and famous theorist of power and sexuality, was indebted to Tunisia for his early transformative experiences. He was enthralled by the intensity of the intellectual debates he took part in, and the radicalism of political activism against dehumanisation he witnessed during his stay in Tunis in the late 1960s.

During the same time, Foucault, the private figure, allegedly sexually abused Tunisian prepubescent children.

Rumours of Foucault’s sexual abuse of children have long been known to Tunisians, but recently there has been a new devastating account by well-known French essayist Guy Sorman.

In an interview with the French public TV channel France 5 on March 5, Sorman confirmed that while visiting Foucault, he “witnessed what Foucault did with young children in Tunisia … ignoble things. The possibility of consent could not be sought. These were things of extreme moral ugliness.”

In a second interview with the British newspaper The Sunday Times on March 28, he recalled that “they were eight, nine, ten years old, he was throwing money at them and would say ‘let’s meet at 10pm at the usual place’”, a local cemetery in the town of Sidi Bou Said, north of the capital Tunis. “He would make love there on the gravestones with young boys. The question of consent wasn’t even raised.”

Foucault is the latest addition to an infamous long list of French writers, artists, intellectuals, and politicians who have been rumoured to have sexually abused children in the (neo)colonies: Paul Gauguin, André Gide, Gabriel Matzneff, Frédéric Mitterrand, Jack Lang, and others. Matzneff is now facing prosecution, while Mitterrand and Lang categorically denied all rumours and accusations. In the case of Foucault, however, the issue will likely be swept under the carpet without much debate.

It is worth noting that none of the main newspapers in France, such as Le Monde and Libération, or even in Tunisia has reported on Sorman’s accusation.

This absence of media reckoning with Foucault’s alleged paedophilia in Tunisia can also be linked to the distortions and silencing that have characterised the way Sorman’s claim has been framed by The Sunday Times.

The British newspaper undermined the possibility of an unbiased reckoning with Foucault’s alleged history of sexual abuse by framing its report as an attack on “a beacon of today’s ‘woke’ ideology” and “Parisian intellos”. In so doing, it cheapened the much-needed conversation around Foucault’s alleged sexual abuse by turning it into just another biased critique of the French left by a right-wing British news outlet.

Meanwhile, Matzneff, a renowned French writer, has been publicly disgraced and is facing prosecution by the French authorities for accusations of paedophilia against French and Filipino children. Despite writing in his many novels about his experiences with sex abuse of boys and girls in the Philippines, he was dropped by his publishers and stripped of his literary prizes and columns only after the publication of a damning book Consent, by Vanessa Springora, one of the writer’s white underage victims.

The uncomfortable truth is that the difference in the intense backlash against Matzneff, as opposed to the tamed indictment against Foucault, results from a long history of viewing the (neo)colonial subject as a disposable body.

What is often dismissed in the current global movement of #metoo reckoning is the figure of the developing countries’ child.

As Sorman notes, Foucault’s abuse of Tunisian boys is similar to that of the French painter Paul Gauguin’s sexual exploitation of Tahitian girls. They were both ensnared with the native “other” who they viewed as primitive and exploitable; they both escaped the French metropolis to evade scrutiny and let loose their predatory self; and they both used their prestige and economic and cultural power to enable total control over the bodies of young victims.

The only difference between these two French child abusers is how they represented their sexual brutalisation of the developing countries’ child in their works: Gauguin laid bare all his sexual and racial stereotypes in his paintings and explicitly 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 disregarded the colonial subject from his writings on sexuality. And yet, I believe now that Foucault’s sexual abuse of Tunisian boys largely informed and shaped his criticism of the notions of normal or natural sex and children’s sexuality. After all, dehumanisation and exploitation in the (neo)colony have always been central to Western academia.

Foucault’s time in Tunisia continues to be inexplicably underreported. Most biographies of the French theorist either focus on his appointment as a university professor between 1966 and 1968 and his intellectual and political awakening, or celebrate his engagement with social and political issues in post-independence Tunisia under the regime of Habib Bourguiba.

It remains unclear whether Bourguiba requested that Foucault be appointed at the University of Tunis and therefore offered him total immunity. The claim that Foucault decided to leave Tunisia for France after he was beaten by Tunisian police over his political activism also remains questionable, since prior to that incident he had already accepted a new position as head of the philosophy department at the University of Vincennes. And most importantly, it is suspected that there is no publicly available police record covering Foucault’s years in Tunisia. At the time, Sidi Bou Said native Beji Caid Essebsi, who later became Tunisia’s president, was the interior minister and was known for his policies of panoptic police surveillance. And yet, there appears to be no official record of Foucault’s predatory behaviour in the country.

Even today, it is naive to expect Foucault to be held accountable for his monstrous actions. The French intelligentsia has always been very protective of its prominent figures when their sexual abuse is directed towards victims from developing countries. So the calls to reckon with this terrible legacy will likely be reduced to a footnote in academic and cultural works.

To be clear, I am not calling for Foucault to be “cancelled” or the reports of his child sexual abuse to be used to attack his scholarly work and academia in general.

But it is important to acknowledge that Foucault’s monstrosity had permanently changed the lives of many faceless and nameless Tunisian children and caused rippling traumatic effects in their lives. Reckoning with his sex abuse in Tunisia means that social justice may finally be brought to his victims.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.