Europe is in crisis and so is France: the right-wing National Front presidential candidate made it to the second round, terrorist attacks claimed many victims and the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent. Is France doing particularly badly?
It is difficult to be fair to France. France is still a rich country, but since my childhood I have felt a sense of loss. France feels wounded, one of these wounds has to do with its colonial history. Le Pen is a product of the Algerian war. Another wound has to do with the fact that every country has carried out liberal reforms, Germany under Schröder, Great Britain under Blair, but not France. Not for 15 years. The third wound is the terrorist attacks, which in turn are related to the first, the colonial history of France. Of course there is also a certain French lament, the complaint about a fading culture. French film is no longer what it once was, nor is its literature. The French feel poorer than they are. But hatred is everywhere. It's not like in Germany, where the riots at the G20 summit in Hamburg were an exception. We have this violence every day. There is a desire for war in French society, by Islamists, identitarians who want crusades, there are summer camps organised by neo-fascists, there are students who fight the police, and so on. Nevertheless, we will not have a civil war here. It is more like a circus, a theatre, a symbolic stage on which these impulses are carried out.
France is deeply divided: into a white working class, an elite accused of sealing itself off, an insecure bourgeoisie, and the banlieues, where immigrants mostly live; there are jihadist groups and Salafists. How did this happen?
It’s the same in other countries, in the northeast of the US, for example. In Amiens in northern France, where I taught, there are families with three generations unemployed. The people who voted for Le Pen are largely white workers who feel humiliated by their unemployment – but also culturally. They are supported by the state, but this former working class is restless because they have no music of their own, no style of dress, no streetwear. They have to invent their own culture. Even though things are bad economically in the banlieues, their inhabitants have succeeded in inventing a culture with which they identify. The youth in the banlieues, for example, believe in football. Symbolically, football makes people proud, but many kids leave school because they think they can have a career in football. That's bad, of course.
So it's about the social tensions?
There is another reason for the deep division of the country: secularism. The Republic, the promise that we are all equal, is a lie that we have been told for 40 years. There’s never been a discussion about minorities. Until I was 25, there was no black person in the National Assembly apart from a single Member of Parliament from Brittany. Blacks and North Africans were non-existent, even in the films of Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer, they don’t even appear as extras on the streets! The Republic made them invisible. That only changed with the 2011 film "The Intouchables." The same applies to women. France is a chauvinistic country. Feminism was only strong in theory. These lies explain why today many people are obsessed with identity issues. And this has all erupted suddenly. France is more violent today, but it is also more honest, it sweeps less under the carpet. Today people talk about religion and sexuality.
Macron would like to help France to return to that former greatness, to become la Grande Nation again, also in the world politics. He has thus taken the wind out of the sails of the Front National. He says that France's struggles must be bigger than itself. What do you think of this?
People elected Macron so that Le Pen wouldn't come to power, he didn't get many votes, he's the weakest president we’ve ever had. The left in France is also weak. Macron embodies an old modernity, that of Blair. I don’t know if he has much room for manoeuvre. He’s also entrenched in a political system with its own processes. Even if the office is symbolically charged, Macron cannot make unilateral decisions. And he quickly irritates people. He is better than Sarkozy and Hollande and definitely better than Le Pen. But Macron plays with a phantasm of France, he makes use of old images like those of Napoleon, Jeanne d'Arc or de Gaulle, but it's another one of those French lies.
You say France is no longer a white country. Then what is it?
France is not a multicultural country, everything is centralised in Paris, meaning it is uniform and unified, but the country in its entirety is no longer white. I would describe France as a post-colonial country, and it is marked by this question. It is less multicultural than some parts of Germany. It is far and wide the only secular country. This secularism has an authoritarian tendency, it is the last wound. I think France should stop being a secular country. Religion is only included in other academic subjects, sociology for example, you can’t study theology as an independent subject apart from at Catholic universities. Emmanuel Todd spoke aptly of the "Catholic zombie."
How could a new social cohesion emerge?
There is one thing that remains strong in France, and that is the language. French is a language that can change. There are Arabic words in it, it is a playful language that is very permeable, that moves from one layer quickly to the next, it circulates, it has imagination, it is fluid and it is a world language. Language holds people together in France.
What once were great ideas can come to seem outmoded, even if many people are looking towards them for orientation: Nationalism, individualism, capitalism, right-left. In your book "The Life Intense" you dedicate yourself to another idea of modernity: intensity. What is it about this idea that interests you?
Intensity is a promise of modernity, of the 18th century, just like emancipation. What interested me was the question of how this promise can be found again, how it can be linked back to. Over the years, the idea has been misinterpreted. I am not a reactionary, I am critical and wanted to find my way back to the original meaning of intensity. With the invention of electricity, the promise of an intense life was born. Before, it was about salvation in the afterlife, fame or justice and suddenly this idea of intensity was there.
What does an intense life mean for the individual?
Intensity can be increased infinitely, you can have it again and again, but it comes up against the finiteness of the body. The demand that one must always be able to perform never comes to an end, and this leads to depression, burnout. Today we have reached the limits of this idea and need something else.
Which French people succeeded in leading an intensive life?
The intensity is a very French ideal, that of the free spirit, from Diderot to de Sade or de Laclos in "Dangerous Liasons." The libertarians experimented with the body, which is very French. They did not believe in life after death. Intensity is part of the French spirit, but in its libertarian form it was very chauvinistic.
21.6 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed. What social promises can they believe in?
That's really very complicated. You have to listen to and try to understand these young people. I grew up around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the end of the century, a rather depressing time. People were talking about the end of history. Young people today are at the beginning of a century, and that's something you have to tell them. A hundred years ago there was the Russian Revolution, it was the time of the avant-garde, of Dada. Today, boys find themselves in a violent time, but they are at the beginning of something, that is the hope. The 20th century can be safely left behind – I don't mean that one shouldn't remember, but it was a terrible century with world wars and concentration camps. You can also say goodbye culturally: The novel, for example, belongs to the 20th century. Technology wants to accelerate the new, I believe, but the Internet also slows down the emergence of the new. It works like a powerful external memory, everything can be found there. But we no longer have knowledge within us. The Internet is not creative.
If intensity isn't the answer, what's important these days?
It is always necessary to accept the equality of people. This is often equated with confusion, but I believe in a deep equality of things. We don't live in a hierarchical cosmos. The one is as good as the other, but you have to be able to distinguish and not create confusion. Late modernity has made us insecure and verticalised, in other words it has placed us in a hierarchy like the reactionaries do today. Heidegger said that the Greeks and the Germans were the origin of culture – what an idea! I have also explored the philosophies and religions of other countries, China, India ... We need to stop concentrating on the West, this superiority complex is terrible.
Who in French society could be the source of renewal and cultural development?
In the 1990s there was a culture of banlieues. The past 15 years have been very exciting in French philosophy: Alain Badiou, Bruno Latour, Francis Wolff, Catherine Malabou, Quentin Meillassoux. More has happened in philosophy than in linguistics, psychoanalysis or history.
I also believe that France will become decentralised. Many young people have moved to the countryside because of the enormous rents. There’s a lot happening in Brittany and Picardy. Places have been created - with the support of older people - where artists come together, in communities that are interdisciplinary, without hierarchies. It’s a bit underground and anarchic, but very dynamic. They live outside the media. Sometimes there are spontaneous actions, you invite someone you like. The crisis has brought people together again.
So, no more Paris?
Paris is a dead city, a museum, a fake city, full of tourists and successful people. The blame for this lies largely with Airbnb. In the north of Paris, where I used to live, the highrise building consisted almost entirely of apartments rented to tourists. In Paris, the streets are teeming with homeless people and refugees, in the middle of the city, at the Porte de la Chapelle, for example, there are people who are wretched.
The interview was conducted by Stephanie von Hayek