Nations have different ways of talking about themselves. Americans tend to discuss their country in an idiom of national greatness, however radically they may disagree about the nature of this providential blessing. The French, on the contrary, make berating their country a national sport. Anyone who has recently spent time in France has heard the exasperation with which its citizens are prone to speak of their homeland, often describing it as “little country” whose glory days are behind it. Such talk is hardly new. In the 1930s, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline—a master in the genre—mused about his nation’s fate: “We’ll disappear body and soul from this place like the Gauls … They left us hardly twenty words of their own language. We’ll be lucky if anything more than ‘merde’ survives us.”1
Despite these antecedents, French preoccupation with national decline has now entered an acute phase. Anxieties surrounding persistent unemployment, France’s waning cultural influence, the viability of its social model, and the integrity of French national identity have generated a steady flow of pessimistic verbiage. Last year’s terrorist attacks only confirmed the darkest of these fears. Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, is emblematic of the national mood: in a deliberate swipe at both his country and Islam, Houellebecq presents a France grown so dysfunctional and morally bankrupt that only a Muslim president can save it.
Recent books by two prominent French political philosophers, Marcel Gauchet and Pierre Manent, are both symptoms of France’s crisis and attempts to comprehend it. Both thinkers see their nation’s trouble as tied to a far deeper problem: the fact that, in late modernity, we no longer grasp the meaning of politics. This problem, they claim, is tied to and exacerbated by another, equally troubling development: the loss, in Western societies, of any sense of what religion is (or was). The dual eclipse of political and religious understanding is, for both authors, the theologico-political wellspring of France’s predicament.
Gauchet and Manent have made versions of these arguments before, though in a distinctly different context. In the 1970s, they were key figures in a movement that challenged the leftist shibboleths then prevalent in French intellectual life. Marxism, they maintained, had blinded French thought to the era’s critical issues—human rights, individual emancipation, the politics of recognition—which could be properly grasped only as emanations of contemporary society’s liberal democratic core. Since then, Gauchet and Manent have promoted the study of political philosophy, and particularly liberalism, as colleagues at the Raymond Aron Institute, housed at Paris’ École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.
In Comprendre le malheur français (roughly, “Understanding the French Malaise”), Gauchet argues that France’s quandary is the result of the disappearance of overarching collective bonds and, consequently, of a sense of a shared national destiny. The book’s mood is undeniably elegiac. Gauchet, a member of the once radical ’68 generation, now pines for the days when France was a great nation and culture’s native home. This results in some surprising statements. He describes France’s colonial empire as “an eminent expression of the country’s grandeur.” Particularly striking is his fascination with May ’68’s nemesis, Charles de Gaulle. Oedipal ire has given way to paternal identification: due to the student revolt’s essentially passive character, “the 68 protester,” Gauchet concludes, “was a Gaullist without realizing it.”
Yet for all his nostalgia, Gauchet is no vulgar nationalist. What he longs for is not French grandeur as such, but the historical conditions that made it possible: namely, the belief that human destiny is shaped by political action. “France,” he observes, “is the country of the belief in politics.” Historically, this faith has taken the form of what Gauchet calls the “French model,” a political system characterized by universalism, an emphasis on the common good (embodied in the idea of the Republic), a conflictual style of politics, and, intriguingly, the preservation of elements of the pre-revolutionary monarchy.
The final point is particularly revealing, as it evokes the philosophy of history that Gauchet sketched in an earlier work, The Disenchantment of the World. Human societies, he maintains, fall into two basic categories: those founded on the belief that human fate is controlled by a supernatural order, and those based on the principle that human beings are the masters of their own destiny. The former, which Gauchet calls “heteronomous,” are theocratic; the latter, which he dubs “autonomous,” begin with the rise of the state. For Gauchet, history is the long, drawn-out process of “leaving religion,” as human beings travel the never entirely complete path from heteronomy to autonomy.
Yet while Gauchet sees the shift towards autonomy as a one-way street, he also believes that autonomy works best with a little heteronomy mixed into it. The democratic structures that emerged in France by the late nineteenth century were a felicitous compromise between these two principles. Representative institutions and personal liberties made governments responsive to their citizens’ needs, even as public life remained steeped in transcendent principles—the public good, citizenship, the idea of the nation itself—thus ensuring that democracy served a higher purpose. France’s crisis, Gauchet believes, springs from the unravelling of this model, which he traces to the 1970s. The onset of globalization and the rapid economic integration of Europe undermined the nation state and the democratic principles upon which it rested. The relentless pursuit of these policies by political elites, despite periodic expressions of public hostility, has created a climate marked by cynicism and mutual distrust between the rulers and the ruled.
Yet just as importantly, for Gauchet, these political developments have been reinforced by the emergence, also since the 1970s, of cultural attitudes characterized by an unprecedented level of individualism. These constitute, he claims, “modernity’s final theologico-political turn,” the “completion of the process of leaving religion.” These trends are particularly evident in family life—heteronomy’s last redoubt—which has been utterly transformed by increasing sexual equality and diminishing parental authority. Gauchet observes: “when one now re-reads … what someone like [Jacques] Lacan taught about the paternal function a decade or two earlier, one wonders what world he is talking about.”
These trends are the background against which the recent terrorist attacks occurred, and are, Gauchet suggests, the deeper reason why Islam has become a “problem” for Europe. Just as neoliberalism has made genuine politics inconceivable, it has also rendered unintelligible the idea of hitching one’s existence to a transcendent truth. At best, we see religion as local color, as folklore. At worst, we see it as nothing more than yet another individual preference, which, for Gauchet, has the disastrous effect of making all religions identical.
However compelling one might find Gauchet’s critique of the neoliberal mindset, the alternative he proposes is problematic. In the name of taking religious difference seriously, he offers a rigid and essentialized picture of Islam. He describes it as a faith that is theologically “closed,” as lacking a mediator between God and humanity, and as rooted in a revealed and hence infallible holy book. Islam, he maintains, never developed a tradition of biblical criticism comparable to Christianity’s. There is, in short, a “considerable civilizational and cultural lag” between European religions and Islam.
Such an analysis of Islam is surprising from a thinker who, in his previous books, never described religions in such static terms. Indeed, an important implication of Gauchet’s “leaving religion” thesis is that phenomena like fundamentalism are in fact quintessentially modern, since they represent attempts to grapple with the meaning of religious faith in social contexts defined by autonomy. Rather than consider contemporary Islam in this light, Gauchet presents it as a faith entrenched in a retrograde theology.
Gauchet seems to believe, moreover, that those who reject Islam’s “otherness” and think that Muslims terrorists do not necessarily implicate their entire religion are complicit with neoliberalism and its celebration of unrestrained individualism. Multiculturalism, which holds that all people (and thus all religions) are fundamentally the same, can only address Muslims with patronizing indifference. Secularism, in its authentic, politicized form, at least has the merit of taking Islam seriously, rather than reducing it to a lifestyle choice. Yet what Gauchet calls “understanding religion” risks becoming, at least as far as Islam is concerned, a license to caricature it, in a way that has more in common with the condescending accounts of religion by nineteenth-century freethinkers than a genuine engagement with difference. Gauchet’s longing for a revival of French political life is poignant, but the frank conversation about Islam he seeks seems more likely to stigmatize already marginalized communities than to repair the frayed bonds of French civic life.
For Manent, knee-jerk objections to “essentializing” Islam are symptomatic of Europe’s inability to deal with it politically. Like Gauchet, he believes this is a consequence of the prevailing ideology: our “political regime and mores encourage us to reduce spiritual entities to the individuals that constitute them.” In Situation de la France, Manent’s analysis of France’s crisis overlaps significantly with Gauchet’s. The French no longer understand religion; individualism has scuttled the possibility of any serious political project; and a feeble state and the dissolution of the nation into a generic Europe have deprived the French of the tools needed to confront their problems. The key difference between the thinkers lies in the respective solutions they propose. If Gauchet believes the answer must be found in politics, Manent maintains that religion is key—specifically, that a new politics can rise only on the crest of a new religiosity.
Manent’s essay is unusual in that his description of French Islam draws on the discourse of the far right, even as he proposes policies that xenophobic nationalists would abhor. Islam, he thinks, is slowly taking over Europe. Immigrant communities have largely shut themselves off from national life. And last year’s terrorist attacks were indeed acts of war, waged by Muslim immigrants against their host countries. The startling conclusion that Manent draws from this analysis, however, is that France must surrender to this fait accompli. “Our regime,” he writes, “must yield, and frankly accept their ways because Muslims are our fellow citizens.” His proposal rests on two mutually supporting pillars. First, French Muslims should be accepted “as they are”: having come to France on the tacit assumption that they could preserve their way of life, they cannot now be asked to integrate or even to embrace secularism. The sole exemptions from this policy of acceptance would be polygamy and the full-body veil, which are already prohibited. Second, in return for these concessions, France would be in its right to “sanctify” its core political principles: freedom of expression and, most importantly, the idea of the nation itself.
The nation plays a crucial role in Manent’s political fantasy. In his eyes, Islam and France need one another. Neither, in its current state, has a political form adequate to its ambitions. Islam has, historically, been afflicted with the “curse of expansion,” which compels it to throw its political energy into unifying the ummah. In Europe, this has resulted in an unwillingness to participate in democratic politics as a force in its own right. France, meanwhile, has surrendered its national destiny to the imperatives of globalization and European integration. A France in which Muslims could be hyphenated citizens—“Franco-Muslims,” as it were—rather than citizens whose religious identity is airbrushed out by secularism might, Manent implies, be the occasion for a synergetic renewal of the nation and Islam alike.
Yet this fantasy hides another: the incorporation of Muslims “as they are” is, for Manent, an opportunity to overcome the error on which, he believes, modern European politics is founded. Nation states, he contends, emerged after the renunciation of the medieval dream of a unified Christendom. Yet for all their assertion of temporal authority, nations were conceived as vehicles for seeking “the best means of governing oneself while obeying divine government.” Contemporary views about the separation of church and state have repressed, he believes, this fundamentally Christian rationale. Now that Islam’s arrival in France has rendered the secularist project obsolete, the theologico-political settlement that has prevailed in Europe for two centuries can be renegotiated: the question of the right way to live, rather than the nature and limits of state power, will return to the public forum. Religion—albeit in a pluralistic mode—can once again assume a prominent in role in the affairs of the city. Intriguingly, it is not from Islam that Manent expects the greatest theological élan, but from his own faith, Catholicism: having acquired, in recent decades, a certain equanimity, it is ideally suited, as “the least intolerant and most open of [contemporary] spiritual forces,” to mentor its sister faiths in this new theologico-political dispensation.
Ultimately, both thinkers maintain that the solution to France’s crisis involves a revival of national traditions: the primacy of politics, for Gauchet; the Christian nation-state, for Manent. It is striking, moreover, that two thinkers regarded as champions of liberal thought both maintain that liberalism—understood as a potentially limitless project of extending individual rights—lies at the heart of France’s plight. At a time of rising international outrage at the putatively predestined nature of neoliberal globalization, Gauchet’s and Manent’s plea for the reinvention of politics as a collective project is compelling—up to a point. Neither says much, for instance, about inequality and social disqualification in French society, at least as it relates to immigrant populations. Their impatience with calls for new rights (or for making old rights meaningful) would seem to close off important options for grappling with these issues, as does their thinly veiled scorn for multiculturalism, at a time when many in France—immigrants or otherwise—feel like second-class citizens. Nor is it clear that the recognition Manent proposes of these groups as Muslims does full justice to the complexity of their identities. Gauchet and Manent remind us that the pursuit of rights can become a dead end if untethered from a collective political program. Yet for those in France who are still waiting to be treated as full-fledged citizens, dismissing rights talk as a symptom of neoliberal egotism seems overhasty indeed.