[For the earlier posts in this series, see Paris Notes, Spring 2006.]
So are the French waking up? And if so, are they like someone who’s fallen asleep at the wheel and wake up after they’ve smacked into the central median strip only to watch the car careening across the highway into a boulder on the other side?
The analogy is poor, since the social process is happening too slowly for sustained paralysis without something inhibiting a sane response. Unquestionably, the events of the last several months have sobered the French. Traditionally left-wing papers print things that they never would have said before, much as the murder of Theo van Gogh untied the tongues of Dutch observers in an otherwise PC-smothered discourse. Daniel Leconte, a notably courageous journalist where the al Durah affair is concerned, wrote a very strong denunciation of Islamism in Libération congratulating Charlie Hebdo on its courage in printing the cartoons.
Is it enough? Will it last? Or, as in the past, when the MSM briefly caught on, will they sink back into the old patterns of denial and silence?
Having affirmed that the victory over terrorism would come through more democracy, in the name of what twisted logic should we now say that we should renounce here what many democrats and intellectuals would supposedly like to see flourish over there? What desertion of our post this must seem in the eyes of those, Lebanese, who have payed with their lives for having said “The Arab tragedy” (Le Malheur Arab) was above all the responsability of their own elites?
In other words, how will self-criticism ever “take” over there, where the honor hungry alpha male elites control the media, if we won’t even hold the line here, where supposedly the battle for freedom of the press has already been won?
On my last day in Paris, I went to an extraordinary conference in the Mairie du 3e arrondissement [the Town Hall of the 3rd District] entitled “Democracies confronted with Islamism.” An unusual collection of speakers and commentators addressing the real problems of France, the demographic and ideological time bombs that have already been set, and now begin to go off periodically. French intellectuals, including “lay” Muslims, Americans, even an Israeli specialist. Nelly Sayagh wecolmed the audience with a speech one is only beginning to hear in France. Among others she quoted Thérèse Delpech from her book L’ensauvagement : Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle :
In such circumstances, it’s not astonishing that the battle that most reveals the weaknesses of western societies against its enemy occurs neither in the arena of military or police or judicial actions, but intellectual and moral. The specific force that comes with conviction is entirely in the other camp. Nor is it by chance that the ability to die for one’s ideas comes back in the monstruous form of suicide terrorism the world over. They raise crucial questions for the societies that are their victim: what ideas are still worthy enough that our post-heroic societies risk their lives to defend them?
Granted the room wasn’t as full as the pro-Palestinian auditorium at Jussieu, but hopefully the crowd was made up of opinion leaders, people who could change the direction the wind blows so when the Gaulois pick up their fingers to judge its direction, they won’t join the raging lemmings that cheer Hamas to victory in the insane belief that these global Jihadis fight for the same revolutionary cause as European “radicals.”
But it’s too early to tell.
People still get ostracized for speaking out. “Those who ‘wake up’ are discredited at an incredible speed,” commented one friend, who explained that the French have difficulty getting clear on what’s important and what’s not. He noted that one of France’s great and radical intellectuals, Pierre Bourdieu had argued that the French intellectual elite elaborately reproduced itself (shades of Milner’s observations, and my own experience with medievalists), but that now, they were just sterile, unable to even reproduce themselves.
At the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France at Tolbiac, there’s a major new exhibition, The Enlightenment. It’s a courageous effort to reclaim the tradition of individualism, tolerance, dissent, reason, universalism, humanism, love… all the good things that made Europe the cradle of modern democracies. And unlike most French exhibits about the past, this one does not have the musk of antiquarianism to it: it directly tackles the shortcomings of the Enlightenment and its relevance today. Its subtitle, An Inheritance for Tomorrow.
We cannot “return” to the Enlightenment. Their world is not ours. But we should not renounce them either, as some of the revolutionaries and anti-humanists of the last century [a subtle way to say Communists and Nazis]. It’s rather a reformulation of the Enlightenment that we need, which preserves the heritage of the past, but testing it, as the Enlightenment taught us to do, in confronting them lucidly to their desirable and undesirable consequences. In criticizing the Enlightenment we stay loyal to it and do the very work they began. We need this thought in action because, let us repeat, contrary to what some of their representatives hoped for, humanity has not, since, reached maturity. Worse, we now know that she [humanity] will never do so, but only aspire to do so. Even that’s not a revelation. When someone asked Kant if we lived already in a truly enlightened era, he answered, “No, but an era on the path to enlightenment.” This seems to be our species’ vocation: begin every day this labor, knowing it’s interminable.
The exhibit is clear, as was the Enlightenment, on who are the enemies: “obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism.”
The French, confronted with a population of immigrants who show no sign of adjusting to the demands of Republican values, begin to reclaim the cultural features that made their civic achievement possible. But they don’t dot the i’s. The exhibit never addresses the problems of today except by indirection. In their big volume accompanying the exhibition they have an article provocatively titled: “The Unfinished Business of Modernity,” by no less a cultural giant than Jurgen Habermas. Alas, it was not written for the occasion (despite Habermas’s current opinion of himself as someone who, with Derrida, could solve the world’s problems), but a piece from 1984 which does not foresee any of Europe’s current dilemmas.
And rather than end with a grand call to forging a new cultural direction based on reality-testing and honest discourse, the exhibit ends with a curious note on the role of America in the Enlightenment. The final paragraph of the final panel that visitors read, begins by conceding that many Americans participated enthusiastically in the Enlightenment project and wrote important works, especially scientific ones.
These [American] texts, innovative, struck the French who made haste to translate them and disseminate them in their gazettes and encyclopedias.
What? An openly, unalloyed positive comment about the Americans that suggests that the French “avaient des leçons à recevoir” [had lessons to learn] from them? Surely there’s a “but…” coming.
But these inventions were not purely American. They are part of a much larger public space, that of the European Enlightenment whose most famous authors were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot et d’Alembert, John Locke, David Hume, Beccaria…
D’Alembert? Rather than Kant? Or Vico?
And so, we leave the exhibit with one final testimony to the French’s inability to give the Americans a compliment without taking it back, without re-asserting their primacy in all that really matters. Sa gloire. Like other areas of French scholarship, littered with paths not taken, and insights blunted by their own inability to let go of a glorious past and an enduring claim to prominence. Like the Arabs, the French were once the leaders of European and global culture (from the 11th to the mid-19th centuries); and like the Arabs, they have a deep sense of grievance at “history gone wrong.”
Is that what’s going on here? Is the obtuseness of the French the product of some deep resentment at America because they sit where the French should sit? Is this their secret bond with the Arabs — the brotherhood of envy?
French academics make a clear distinction between globalisation — a hegemonic, imperialist process that would homogenize the world, and mondialisation a peaceful multi-cultural endeavor that would allow a thousand cultures to bloom. When I first heard the distinction, I asked the daughter of friends, a student at Science po[litique], whether French intellectuals objected to globalisation in principle, or because not they, but the Americans were not the drivers of that process? If France could lead, would they argue for globalisation? She gave me the French equivalent of a “No duh.”
The exchange was brief and remained on the level of repartee — witty honesty. But on another level the painful truth one arrives at, if one can discipline oneself to stay on topic long enough, was an admission that the stand of French intellectuals on the process of culture-formation that now takes place on a global scale reflects a politics of ressentiment. As Charles de Gaulle notably commented:
France cannot be herself if she is not in the front rank… France cannot be France without her grandeur (Memoires de Guerre : L’Appel, 1940-1942, p. 1).
The real question before the court of history is: can the French regain their place in the front rank by renouncing this borderline megalomania and tap into some reality-based relationships? The world may have survived this peccadillo during the Cold War, but it now threatens the very survival of French and European modern culture. Can France be a leader by innovating in modesty and learning? Or will they pull everyone down as they demand a glory they have neither earned nor deserve?
[“And,” retorts the Gaulois upon reading this, “I suppose you Americans have earned your position on top of the world?”]
Next: Falling Asleep in the Skid