Situation de la France by Pierre Manent (in French)

Situation de la France is a book written in reaction to the January 2015 terrorist attacks in France. Its stated aim is to tell the truth about the integration of Muslim in France. It starts from a diagnosis that France is in a position of weakness. Having lost a sense of direction, France is apathetic. On the other hand, Islam comes in in a position of force with a strong political and cultural will. The only way forward according to Pierre Manent is to accept the Muslims as they are, to welcome them in the national community as they come; that is, with their own mores, culture, and evidently, religious practices. Even if it means going against the French myth of laicite (a special form of secularism). So far, the book seems to promote a tolerant and open society towards others. However, the attentive reader notices that the central players in Manent’s narrative are all entities, never individuals with their own incentives and experience.

Thus, it comes as a little surprise that the second part of the book moves far way from tolerance. For Manent, the solution to French problems of integrating Muslims as they are can only come from a return to the Nation. But not a Nation, the historical Nation with its Christian roots. Only the Nation can give again a sense of purpose to France to counter the imperialism of Islam (an imperialism by default). Only the Nation can provide a framework where Muslims can enter into the French society as an equal community with its own specificity. Why not a renewed Nation rather than the historical Christian Nation? Because only Catholicism can serve as mediator for the different parts within the Nation—via the Church—and for the different Nations within Europe—via the Doctrine.

The book, which started as an essay on integration, ends as an apology of the old nations, with the Muslims somehow an afterthought. This is done via a series of implicit assumption and more explicit omissions. First, for Manent, individuals are incomplete if they are not stakeholders in the Res Publica (he reserves his most disparaging comments for today’s individuals and their endless quest of new “human” rights). As far as I can tell, we are far away from Tocqueville, an early source of inspiration for Manent. For Tocqueville, the risk is that the comfort of private life yields the greatest public tyranny. Paying attention to the public realm is a necessary evil to protect individual private life. In his book, Pierre Manent stands close to Hannah Arendt. The full realization of human beings requires them to be first and foremost involved, if not defined by, politics. My goal, here, is not to discuss the advantage of one position over the other—-though one can easily imagine that political thinkers too easily see involvement into politics as the human activity per excellence. My aim is to point out that Manent’s view of individuals is an implicit assumption that informs all his book. And especially, as I explain below, his view of Muslims and their integration.

But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that humans are incomplete absent a properly functioning and demanding Res Publica. Why the Nation then? For Manent, it is only via the Nation that Europe reached its heights. But what are these heights? As far as I can tell, they are left undefined.  The horrors of Nations are slightly clearer as Pierre Manent recognises. Indeed, he spends some time on the Holocaust, the ultimate crime. But, there, he seems to find some arguments in favour of his narrative rather than against it. After all, the Holocaust was committed by a country with dual confession. It was done by Nation not moderated by Catholicism. Other crimes deserve barely a sentence. It is, however, strange that a reader of Celine would not mention World War I. In Journey to the End of the Night, the hero in the first chapter is bewitched by a national parade. But the national appeal does not fulfil his quest of meaning, does not solve his boredom. It is, instead, the beginning of a quest into the darkness of the soul. Maybe, here lies the splendour of Nation. Their greatest achievements are choses publiques (arts maybe, conquests, development, science, technology), the suffering, the tragedies that accompany them are choses privees, and so of less significance.

A similar duality—privee/private versus publique/common—is at play when it comes to Muslim integration. Pierre Manent recognized without pain that most Muslims came to France (and Europe) not in view of propagating Islam, but to improve their material condition. Migrants share many common values with European private individuals. They are Homo Economicus. But this is not enough. Even if few care about imposing Islam, all are defined by their religion because it is their political condition. For Pierre Manent, the main issue is this political division, an involuntary one maybe, but a division nonetheless, that we—as French, European, Westerners—have to mend. Alas, as I (here) and, even more so, others (here and here) have shown, focusing on divisions, attributing a Muslim identity to these citizens, only create further divisions, this time in the economic realm. Political divisions, if they exist, are not contained by invoking them, they rather become contagious to other domains. Hence, only seeing a Muslim when we see a compatriot harms what we all have in commons—our individual quest for better private life.

It seems to me that there lies the lesson of Manent’s reactionary book (in the sense of only taking element from what was, mythically or factually). Proposals that center around the Res Publica risk triggering further wedges. Solving private problems (such as labour market discrimination), in turn, may provide for a more efficient solution. A better life for all not be the good life, but it may be good enough for now.