The Emptying of Political Life
An interview with Pierre Manent on the French election and the future of the nation
Editor’s Note: This interview of Pierre Manent by Eugénie Bastié originally appeared in Le Figaro. It is translated by Ralph C. Hancock and is reprinted here with permission.
A disciple of Raymond Aron and emeritus faculty of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Pierre Manent holds an eminent place in the French intellectual landscape. The author’s work has been devoted especially to the study of political forms—tribe, city, empire, nation—and to the political, intellectual, and religious history of the West. Several of his works, such as The Intellectual History of Liberalism and The Metamorphoses of the City, are considered classics.
Here Manent analyzes the causes of the perplexity and disquiet of many French citizens following the presidential campaign and elections. What he sees at work is a process of “depoliticization” of our common life, in which a “liberal-statist” order has taken the place of the representative Republic. He bemoans the sterility of the confrontation between the parties held to be “respectable” and a “powerless protest movement.” The weakening of the representative Republic and the emptying of the inner life of the nation affect the French people as a whole.
EB: The second round of the presidential election once again confronted a candidate of elites both left and right with a “populist” candidate. What do you make of this configuration?
PM: The results of the presidential election confirm the depoliticization of our common life. They reveal a country that has become incapable of self-knowledge. The second round brought together an incumbent who had no chance of losing the election and a candidate who had no chance of winning. The first did not represent an option that is properly political; he incarnated a social class, the class “that owns the state,” the class that, by its age, its wealth, its competencies, essentially owns the collective goods. This class has received the interest built on decades of collective productivity, which is of course unequally shared, of the real estate holdings that have become a major factor in the division of our society, and also of a high-quality education that is no longer available for great numbers now entering adulthood. To be sure, this class has by its talents greatly contributed to national life, but it has stood by with an indifference that is hard to understand while a good part of the French industrial base has been liquidated, our social relations have been degraded, the level of education has been debased, and the French language has been depreciated. This class has refused to take account of the declining performance of the collective system in which it holds an eminent place, or has at least made no great effort to remedy this decline.
In opposing Macron, what does Marine Le Pen represent? She represents a powerless protest against the powerless politics into which the Republic is sinking. I emphasize that this protest is powerless. For about 30 years, the “respectable” parties and the “deplorable” populists have staged their titanic confrontation, all willing to make believe that the extreme Right is at the gates of power. Neither the RN [Rally for the Nation] nor Marine Le Pen will ever attain power. Their electoral successes, which are in any case limited to a sole kind of election, the presidential, constitute no real political force. For 30 years the movement of the “national Right” has been incapable of creating the slightest syndicate, the slightest network of groups, the slightest publishing house, or of acquiring the slightest base of social influence or prestige, whether in the media or the universities. This party that claims to be reaching the pinnacle of power is incapable of bringing those who vote for it to take a public position for it. On the contrary, anyone who holds the slightest position in society is eager to declare that he or she absolutely intends to “block” the party. The RN wants to believe that it is saying out loud what the French people only whisper. During the debate of the second round, Marin Le Pen herself failed to say out loud what she thinks—or may think—silently.
EB: Is this cleavage between “extremism” and “reasonableness” becoming a lasting framework? Should we regret the passing of the old Left-Right cleavage whose place it is taking?
PM: What makes our situation so difficult to analyze is that we are trying to describe, using the customary political terms, what is in fact a process of depoliticization. The representative Republic in which we once lived—and in which we are officially still supposed to be living—has been replaced by what could be called a “liberal-statist” order. We once governed ourselves by drawing from within ourselves the principles of political legitimacy; thus the civic body gave its confidences to those who governed, who in term were responsible before the civic body alone. This arrangement presupposed the decisive role of parties and their alternation in power.
But now a new way of conceiving common life, one that is supposed to be more rational and more moral, has become more and more dominant. Rather than a community of self-governing citizens, we have impartial institutions that protect the equal rights of all while guaranteeing free and fair competition among individuals seeking their own interests. These impartial institutions will not necessarily be national; they may be “European” or “international,” which is an advantage, since the more they are removed from “us,” the more “impartial,” and thus just and rational, they will be. Therefore—and here we are touching at the root of our “French misfortune”—there is something essentially unjust in the simple fact of constituting a particular political body, for in doing so we necessarily separate ourselves from the rest of humanity and so—and here is the peak of immorality—we “prefer” ourselves to the rest of humanity! What was once understood to be the precondition of democracy or of a representative republic—the act of forming a distinct community capable of drawing from itself its own reasons for action—has become the main obstacle to what is now for us the only defensible objective of collective action: the formation of a universal society of the human species, where we will all be the “same” and separated by no borders.
EB: National sovereignty, European sovereignty, the sovereignty of the people—different conceptions of sovereignty are in conflict. Which is the most just?
PM: We live under the authority of an idea of justice that can be summed up as follows: it is unjust to form and defend a common good that is our own. In the face of this political commandment, there are three responses that form three parties according to which public opinion is divided.
The ruling class accepts this new principle of justice. It considers nothing legitimate for France that is not extended to “Europe”: it declares nothing “French” without emphasizing that it is at the same time “European.” This is the root of the strange solecism obstinately employed by our president when he praises “French and European” sovereignty. France and Europe can be free together, strong together, or even weak together, but they certainly cannot be “sovereign together.” It takes just a bit of rigor to see that there are two and only two possibilities: either there is European sovereignty, while nations retain certain prerogatives by virtue of the principle of subsidiarity; or there is French sovereignty, as there is Italian, German sovereignty, etc., with these nations consenting to transfer certain functions to common European institutions, the ultimate source of legitimacy remaining with the constituent peoples, as the German Constitutional Court has repeated as clearly as can be wished. By refusing to accept this alternative and making it a point of honor to cultivate an equivocal language regarding these matters, we become incapable of distinguishing and then judiciously articulating a common good for France and a common good for Europe.
On the other side there is the weakness of the “nationalist” argument, which assumes that, underneath the usurpation by Europe and the rule of elites, we can find the French people, vigorous and intact, waiting only to be awakened by the good fairy. But the heart of our present collective experience, the observation that we all share, is that the bones of this people have been weakened and its muscles atrophied: the working class and the peasantry have as it were disappeared, their diminished syndicates no longer performing the great associative role that was once theirs; their spiritual families are drained of life; their historical religion has been repudiated, and the French language treated with indifference or disdain, while diversions from America are fervently embraced...the list might easily be extended. If Muslim immigration presents such a challenge, this is first of all because of the contrast between the confidence with which the new population maintains its religion and its ways and the facility with which the old population allows the sources of its moral and spiritual physiognomy to wither.
The only serious effort of political reflection comes from a third side, that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). Mélenchon, at least, is carrying on a political enterprise. He has firmly grasped that the people as a political entity has disappeared. He thus wants to create a new political people. He knows that the word “people” is itself suspect, but he also knows that there can no politics without a people that is political. Thus, he proposes a new people who would bring together a new, largely Muslim France, the most radical or “woke” wing of progressive opinion, and the extreme Left, still alive among us, which remains inconsolably nostalgic for violent revolutions, or at least for the barricades of street uprisings. He hopes that a sufficient part of the old people will also be won over by the perspective of “constituting a people” anew, even if this means sacrificing the better part of its heritage. If this movement really took hold, this would in my view be extremely damaging to our country, but it serves to remind us that we cannot escape indefinitely from the necessity of forming once again a people capable of governing itself.
E.B.: How can new life be breathed into citizenship in the face of the democratic crisis? Will it be necessary to reform our institutions in order to address the crisis of representation?
If I were asked to sum up the problem we face, this is what I would say: we must learn again to hold together France and the Republic. In our history, the Republic is the form of government that we gave ourselves at the end of the eighteenth century in order to continue the French adventure that had begun and had unfolded up to a certain point under a completely different regime. The development of the association between the old nation and its new regime was not easy; it took almost a century. The Third Republic had its faults and even its vices, but for my part I admire the way it knew how at once to impose its regime and to embed it in the continuity of France’s history, and in particular its was of conceiving the teaching of the French language and French history, so that every little French boy or girl would feel part of a long series of centuries and would be inspired to admire works produced by a world very different from his or her own and people very different from those who were familiar.
We prefer to flatten the child’s soul and to crush his or her nose into the wall of the present by making past centuries appear before our ephemeral certainties to be judged. But we will not accomplish the necessary political “reform” by invoking the glories of France against the miseries of the present. If we do not know how to link the elements of our threatened heritage with a common action to be undertaken today, then we will remain in the domain of nostalgia that may be sincere but is certainly sterile. If the two parts of our people—the ruling class and the “populist,” or simply demoralized people—manage to leave behind the mutual disdain into which they have settled, they will doubtless discover that they are both suffering, if not in the same way, from the weakening of the representative Republic and the emptying out of the nation’s interior life.
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