For the Frenchmen who lived through World War II, the defining event of their lives was quintessentially political. It was the great refusal, embodied by General Charles de Gaulle, to accept the defeat of June 1940. With that refusal came a determined commitment to reestablish national sovereignty. This was more than a matter of overthrowing German occupation. As de Gaulle recognized, it required Frenchmen to recover the spiritual independence of France, to recommit themselves to the project of building a unique and identifiable nation.
For the next generation, the events of May 1968 were their decisive experience. Both its partisans and critics agree that after May ’68 we became a society that undoes its bonds. France was no longer seen as a distinctive nation that strives for unity and independence. Collective rules, both political and social, were delegitimized. The citizen of action was succeeded by the individual of enjoyment. This movement appeared to be very political, even revolutionary, with its various groups competing to be the most radical ideologically. In reality, political differences were leveled in a flood of slogans, and the scene was prepared for the great withdrawal of loyalty from the community, a withdrawal that would take place over the years to follow.
One might be tempted to see in these years a mere inflection of France’s political regime, and a softening of its traits without a change in its essential features—just the Fifth Republic reaching its cruising speed. After the stress that accompanied the assertive leadership of General de Gaulle, some relaxation was deserved, and was moreover very pleasant. This interpretation is plausible and reassuring, but wrong.
After ’68, relaxation became the law of the land. Every constraint appeared to be useless and arbitrary, whether in civic or in private life. Now, as each letting go justifies and calls forth the next, successive governments tout themselves, no longer because of the guidance and the energy they give to common life, but because of the “new rights” they grant to individuals and groups. Underlying the ostentatious solicitude for the wishes of society and the desires of individuals, there is a growing incapacity to propose goals for common action. Here is the cause of the growing distance between the French and their political class. Faced with a number of threats, people sense the need to gather themselves for common action. They want to recover something of the Gaullist strain toward national solidarity. But the political class remains locked in the May ’68 mentality and is incapable of putting forward a vision of France as a nation. Instead, they present themselves: their expertise, their earnestness, their celebrity.
The gravity of this crisis has long been hidden by what we like to call the construction of Europe. The energies of our political class have been devoted to buttressing the authority of an enterprise that delegitimizes the nation and promises a new way of bringing humans together. As national political life becomes less and less satisfying, citizens and government officials look elsewhere. The people, unhappy with government, and the government, unhappy with the people, both turn their faces toward the promised land of Europe, a new, post-political way of being, in which each would finally be rid of the other.
These sweet hopes have become less and less plausible. Those who govern and those who are governed remain prisoners of each other. And both are prisoners of a European Union that is now just one more insoluble problem. Neither the institutions of Europe, nor the government of France, nor what is called civil society have enough strength or credibility to claim the attention or fix the hopes of citizens. As rich as we still are in material and intellectual resources, we are politically weak. Nothing seems to have the power to gather us toward the common action we all feel necessary. Faced with crises such as Greek default and the attacks of radical Islamists, we are capable only of offering technical fixes or hollow platitudes. Real political leadership of the kind that calls on our deepest loyalties and highest capacities is nowhere to be seen.
This political weakness has not escaped the attention of those who now attack us. To be sure, when men have at each other, they do not precisely calculate the power ratios, and it sometimes happens that the weaker attacks the stronger. Still, it would be a mistake to look at things this way. When some of our citizens take up arms against us so brazenly and implacably, this means that not only our state, our government, and our political body but we ourselves have lost the capacity to gather and direct our powers, to give our common life form and force.
What to do about our diminished collective capacity is the great political question of Europe. Whether in relation to European unification or to Islam, it is clear that we have nothing pertinent to say if we refrain from making claims about European identity. One way to outline essential characteristics of European political and spiritual life is to contrast them with certain fundamental features of Muslim life.
Running the risk of a somewhat rough stylization, we might say something like the following: Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse, and the consciousness of empire (traits that are found with renewed vigor today), while Western Christianity, though born in an imperial form, and very much subject to great missionary and conquering movements, found its relative stability in a very different arrangement. Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form that Christianity could never assume in a lasting way. Christianity instead found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called “Christendom,” then “Europe.”
Today, because we hold the history of Europe at a distance, because we have emptied Europe of its old nations and its old religion, Islam’s entry into European life appears to elite opinion as a problem that does not arise. In our present way of thinking, “Europe” is an abstract social space where the sole principle of legitimacy now resides in human rights, understood as the unlimited rights of individual particularity. No really significant associations or communions remain; fundamentally, none truly exists. In a post-political world in which there exist only individuals and legal machinery to guarantee rights, human associations—that is, nations and churches—are no longer social realities. They are, according to ruling opinion, pretended realities that recalcitrant “reactionaries” invoke only to block newcomers. Treating old nations or the old religion as legitimate realities that must be accounted for in political judgments about the common good is now regarded as attacking Islam.
Because only the individual and the human race are legitimate, intermediate communities in which human beings actually live, such as nations and churches, have no legitimacy of their own and in fact bear the stigma of rupturing human unity. However, to be consistent, this delegitimation of communities should include or implicate the Islamic community. But this does not happen. European political elites speak of Islam and the Islamic community in a way they would never speak of Christianity and the church. In our public discourse, there are Muslims and there are Europeans. Why is it that only one form of living communal identity, the Muslim form, receives the unreserved recognition of ruling opinion?
The most decisive reason, I think, is the following. Those who decide what we have the right to say and do do not engage Islam as a social reality. It is not considered in itself. Instead, “Islam” becomes a test of our post-political resolve. It must be accepted without either reservation or question in order to verify that Europe is indeed empty of any national or religious substance that might get in the way of human universality. The refusal to treat Islam as a social or, more generally, a human reality therefore has nothing to do with Islam but instead with Europe’s self-image.
The fact that human rights might be less well guaranteed within a Muslim polity than in the old, residually Christian nations does not imply any indulgence toward the latter; in fact the contrary is true. It is not a question of comparing the respective characters, including strengths and weaknesses, of human associations that have long histories and distinctive identities. Rather, “Islam” must be accepted so as to verify the absence of anything common—political or religious—in Europe. The unhindered presence of Islam thus takes on a paradoxical role. Its threat to a European future is actually its importance as supreme marker of our spiritual evisceration, which is taken as an achievement of human universality. Precisely because it has been the enemy of Christianity over the centuries, and because its moral practices are now the furthest from those of the Europe of human rights, a post-political European sees Islam’s unhindered presence as demonstrating the triumph of European ideals. We have become so universally human that we have no enemies.
A part of the public, though very detached from the old nations as well as from the old religion, looks at the Muslim community as a reality and worries about whether human rights, and in particular the rights of women, are respected within it. This opinion willingly and sincerely declares itself secular. This secularism that is critical of Islam expresses a cultural attachment to European history and life, an attachment that is sincere and even lively, but that does not perhaps allow itself to think clearly about the political and religious bases of European culture. It has a tendency to treat culture as a self-sufficient reality. For this very reason, it overestimates enormously the powers of secularism to sustain a particular identity, while underestimating Islam’s capacity of resistance and redoubled affirmation. This is because secularism treats religion mainly as a mere “culture.”
Therefore, in the two great sectors of politically correct opinion that seem opposites of each other—namely, the opinion that rejects even the slightest obstacle to the establishment of Islam, and the opinion that demands restrictions derived from the rule of secularity—we see an underlying commonality: Islam is not treated as a social and political reality. Europe is considered on one hand as empty of any common substance, and fortunately so, so that anyone and anything is allowed to find its place among us. On the other hand, Europe is seen as a “culture” worthy of being preserved and extended. The key point is that in both cases Islam exists only as a shadow cast by its relationship to Europe, or in a predefined role in the self-consciousness of the esteemed persons of Europe. What we say about Islam cannot be separated from what we maintain about Europe, about its politics and its religion.
We must recover a view of the European experience that allows us to see Islam as an objective reality, instead of making it the reflection of our self-misunderstanding. We need not claim to determine the truth of Islam. Like Christianity, it too has its uncertainties and its possibilities. Europeans, and especially the French, must come to terms with Islam and try, with its help, to bring about its entry into European life in a way that takes account of European realities and possibilities, not into the dream world of hundreds of millions of individuals united by the promise of ever-greater human rights.
While elite opinion in Europe tends to consider Europe as a “nothing,” a space empty of anything common, or at most as a “culture” that is neither religious nor national in character, far from all Europeans agree. After all, despite the efforts of an almost unanimous ruling class over more than half a century, Europeans still live mainly in their old nations, and the prospect of a leap into a post-national Europe, whatever meaning one attaches to that expression, has lost almost all plausibility.
To be sure, our relationship to the nation has changed along with the nation itself. This relationship is more and more defensive and less and less confident and hopeful. We have lost faith in the idea of self-government that animated European nations since they began to take shape in the high Middle Ages. Simultaneously—and perhaps this is not a coincidence—we have lost faith in Providence, in the benevolence and protection of the Most High; or, if these expressions appear too obsolete, we have lost faith in the primacy of the Good. Unlike the Americans, we no longer call on divine protection over our nations, even if we still pray for ourselves and for those close to us. How long has it been since the bishops of France prayed for France, except perhaps very rarely and timidly?
I know that this question might appear strange, and yet self-government and petition for the protection of the Most High are two operations of freedom that are inseparable. Every action, and especially civic or political action, is carried out in view of the common good. This common good, which depends on us, is nevertheless bigger than us, too big for us. We are tempted to appropriate it wholly for ourselves, seeing ourselves as the exclusive authors of this good. When we do so, the nation becomes an object of idolatry, an idol that, in the name of its incomparable particularity or its unequaled universality, demands human sacrifices.
We can also, doing what depends on us as best we can, decline to take exclusive responsibility for this good that is greater than us. Softening our pride a little, we can appeal to the Agent who is greater than any action and any human good. As vacillating and prone to fail as we are, it makes sense to put our common goods, so mysteriously substantial and durable, under the protection and the direction of Providence. To do so is a natural expression of the recognition that there are goods too great for us to be their exclusive authors. This natural movement of appeal to the Christian God for the special cares of the nation always carries a risk of paganization, to be sure. But for us as citizens, our part is not perfectly to imitate Divine impartiality. We address the Most High from the site of our action and for the common good of the city of which we are citizens. Moreover, Europeans never excluded their neighbors, allies or enemies, from divine benevolence, until they were subjected to the modern regimes that explicitly rejected the God of the Bible.
It is precisely the crimes committed by such regimes in the twentieth century that now prevent Europeans from turning to Providence with confidence and faith. It can be argued that the destruction of Europe’s Jews has made it impossible to believe in a God who is friend to humanity and master of history. I have touched on this question in other contexts with a trembling hand. It bears down on Europe in more ways than one. The Judge seems to be under judgment. Where was He?
And yet, to renounce divine Providence because of the crime committed would only bring us back to the religion of Epicurus, which teaches that the gods are indifferent to men. Such a view preceded the Shoah by a long time. If we return to it, what would we have learned from the Shoah? We will be going back to the impotent and ill-intentioned gods of paganism, and with them to the aimless, purposeless life of men that encourages apathia and withdrawal from public affairs.
In order to act for the common good, we must have confidence in the possibility of the Good. Why forbid ourselves, out of conscience, this confidence? A great deal is at stake. If we do not succeed in turning once more with confidence toward the possibility of the Good—as we find it in the God of European history and in the nations that history produced—we will not recover the ability to govern ourselves.
Right now, we lack that ability. The idea of acting for the common good has lost its meaning for us. We do whatever it is we do not because it is useful, honest, or noble but because it is necessary, because we cannot do otherwise. In the name of a global marketplace, we have constructed a system of action that can best be described as an artificial providence. We tell ourselves that the only thing we can do, and the best that we can do, is to allow ourselves to be governed by the global marketplace. My, how we love this providence! How docile we are when its invisible hand comes down upon us! And how well the wise and powerful know how to interpret its dictates!
With appeal to the god of the marketplace, as well as to other gods that minister to the high god of utility, we have organized public life in ways that have less and less need of free will, less and less need for political communities. Today, we no longer want to act except as driven by necessity. We will not be able to reopen the domain of communal action if we do not set aside the prestige of this false providence. We need to recover the desire for and hope in a provident God if we are to restore the political order as the framework and the product of choice for the common good.
Here the Church must play a central role. Although Catholics seem to be pushed ever further toward the periphery of public life, even in our secularized present the Church is the spiritual domain at the center of the West. Her responsibility is proportional to this centrality, which in truth is inseparable from her identity. The universal Church alone is up to the task of holding together a European form of life that has the capacity to offer hospitality to Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrine of human rights. And so, the Church in France—that is, French Catholics—have a special responsibility for the common good in which the other spiritual forces of my country participate. One suspects that these other forces are not necessarily aware of this special responsibility, nor disposed to recognize it. This is only fair. Those who feel responsible for the whole can bring others to accept this special role only if their own contribution to the common good is sufficiently convincing. French Catholics must perform their centrality.
It is my contention that France’s Muslims will find their place only if the French nation accepts them, not just as rights-bearing citizens, along with other bearers of the same rights, but as a distinctive community to which that nation, shaped by Christianity, grants a place. Our Muslim fellow citizens must obviously enjoy the rights of French citizens without any kind of discrimination, which is not always the case at present. They cannot, however, find a place in a vacuum. They find their place only within a nation that has the spiritual and intellectual resources to be generous without being complacent.
To find their place in a France alive to its Christian center, Muslims must want to participate actively in the life of a political body that does not and will not belong to the umma; they must therefore accept a degree of separation from the umma. For the nation to accept them as Muslims without reducing their religious mark to a private particularity with no relevance to the political body, it is necessary that they accept this particular nation, the French nation, as the site of their civic activity and, more generally, of their education. A certain “communitarianism” is inevitable. Muslims will inevitably form a visible and distinct community. This will lead to difficulties, on one side or the other. But this is desirable to the degree that it prevents the ideological lie of the new secularism, which obligates us to pretend to be nothing but citizen-individuals who are permitted common action only for the sake of “humanity.”
The French Republic in which all citizens have equal rights is not an abstraction. It is a nation of a Christian mark in which Jews play an eminent role. It is in this Republic that Muslims may enjoy their rights, and it is in this nation that they must find their place. The more the nation is able to conserve its historical form, the more the Republic will be able to guarantee the equality of rights. Only a French people capable of political action in pursuit of the common good can offer a place for Islam within the body politic.
Exactly the opposite is happening, however. Islam has sprung up in a Europe that has dismantled its ancient parapets, or has let them crumble. No longer daring to be at home in their own countries, Europeans seek repose in moving toward a post-national future, a movement that nothing can control or slow down. No border must be allowed to obstruct the free movement of capital, of goods, of services, of people, just as no law must circumscribe the unlimited right of individual particularity. A life without law in a world without borders—this has been the horizon of Europeans for at least a generation.
The history of Europe, as I have emphasized, is animated by a very different notion, one elaborated by ancient Israel, reconfigured by Christianity, and then lost when the arc of European history was broken in the great wars of the twentieth century. This notion, without which the history of Europe is unintelligible, has become unintelligible to contemporary Europeans. I am speaking, of course, of the Covenant, the confidence that the Highest Good oversees and perfects the common good of our nations. This is not a simple rational notion, to be sure, but it is not exactly a religious dogma. It is a certain way of understanding human action in the world, of understanding at once the greatness of what we can accomplish and its precariousness. God is here the one who gives victory, but who also chastises lack of measure. He confers on actions an excess of good that makes them truly good, allowing us to venture collective ambitions that exceed a sober assessment of our powers. And he prevents the bad from taking the evil they bear to the limit, thereby saving us from despair in our times of collective trial.
It is up to Christians to renew the meaning and the credibility of the political community ennobled by the Covenant. We will not do this by inviting Islam to join a vague fraternity of the children of Abraham. We will renew the meaning and credibility of the Covenant only by renewing the meaning and credibility of the distinctively European association that bore the Covenant until only recently—that is, the nation. Now that the Jewish people have taken the form of a nation in Israel, the nations of Christian Europe cannot break with the national form without fatally wounding the legitimacy of Israel. So long as the walls of the Arab-Muslim world are crumbling and Muslims seem to have more and more difficulty producing a political form from their own resources, to admit them into, or rather to abandon them in, a Europe without either political form or gathered collective action for the sake of the common good would be to take away their best chance for a civic life. It does not suffice to bring men together to declare or even to guarantee their rights. They need a form of common life. In France, a nation of the Christian mark is the only form that can bring us all together.
Pierre Manent was director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, until his retirement in 2014. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge.