Manent on the French Situation
Essays Society Religion

Manent on the French Situation

Antonio Sosa

A review of Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge by Pierre Manent, South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016.

The failure of Eric Zemmour to qualify for, and that of Marine Le Pen to win, France’s 2022 presidential run-off, should not blind us to the fact that the nationalist orientation in French politics continues to grow. For those left of center, this trend is typically understood to herald the troubling advent of a political movement that rejects tolerance, pluralism, and France’s storied liberal tradition in favor of an inchoate form of political atavism. For those right of center, this trend is increasingly understood to promise the restoration of a politics that takes its bearings by culture rather than economics. In this vision, French citizens are not seen as interchangeable workers and consumers but as inheritors and bearers of a particular history, and deep attachment to that history is understood to be much harder to generate than work visas and naturalization papers.

Whatever one may think of Zemmour and Le Pen’s growing prominence, the political situation which spurred their rise to prominence surely merits the attention of all thoughtful observers of European politics. One way to amply reward such attention is to revisit Manent’s treatment of the question of Islam in France, which he articulated in his succinct 2015 work, Situation de la France (translated into English as Beyond Radical Secularism). Manent puts the question in the following terms: “are the transformations implicit in our acceptance of Muslim ways in our country compatible with the maintenance of our political regime and of our form of society in their main features?” Manent’s book is both a negative answer to this question and an attempt to find the contours of a moderate political solution to the serious problem entailed by his answer.

The approach France has so far adopted to solve this problem is modern secularism. Manent rejects it in favor of simple laïcité or, as the translator has helpfully rendered, “secularity.” By secularism Manent understands, in addition to the mere separation of Church and State, also “a religiously neutral society,” in which not only the political but the social authority of Christianity is abrogated. Secularity, by contrast, entails a secular state that does not also secularize society. It welcomes Christianity as the authoritative though not exclusive moral guide in society. In France, secularity would entail the “collaboration and interpenetration between the secular State and a Christian society profoundly marked by Catholicism.”

The adherents of secularism hold that serious religious belief is a transitory phase in the development of societies, which inevitably progress from their particular and benighted beliefs to the universal and civilizing truths of modernity. They therefore expect that, like French Catholics before them, French Muslims will eventually become secular and thus integrate into French society. The modern secular state need only wait. Manent thinks the French nation would cease to be recognizably liberal and recognizably French before that wait would be over. The reason is that France is not currently in a position to secularize, let alone meaningfully assimilate, Muslims. The history of the relation between France and its Muslims certainly carries wounds that complicate this endeavor, but the deepest cause of the difficulty lies elsewhere. It lies in the gradually eroding status of the nation in the French and European self-understanding.

The evidence of this erosion is visible in the way France is understood by and through the French state. In comparison with the state of the Third Republic, the present-day French state is weak. The state of the Third Republic was strong, Manent explains, because “it represented a nation that all held sacred.” This reverence was reflected in the fact that French history and the French language constituted the unquestionable core of the Third Republic’s national education program. It exhibited and nourished a healthy pride in the nation, in the common historical experience that had shaped the contours of the French soul. It could therefore confidently ask French Catholics to embrace a state which, though legally divorced from Catholic doctrine, represented and safeguarded a cultural physiognomy they recognized as their own. A genuine common good could be built on such foundations. As the present-day French state lacks confidence in the distinctive nobility of the French language and history, it lacks the basis from which to confidently ask French Muslims to embrace France.

In place of the nation, the secular French state of today upholds the idea of Europe and the individual. “Everyone looks partly towards another association of indeterminate form and status, ‘Europe,’” Manent writes, “the main effect of which is to cause each European people to be sorry it is only what it is.” And as “the people as a national community” continues to be “politically delegitimized and even morally disqualified, the function of politics tends to be reduced to the protection of individual rights, which themselves obey a principle of indeterminacy and limitlessness.” The advent of the European Union corresponds with the diminishment of any civic spirit held by individuals who live more and more for the gratification of an ever-expanding plethora of rights. These twin poles of European integration and individualism make it difficult to discern a national common good. There is therefore little the French state can offer French Muslims that can compete with the passionate sense of community they derive from Islam.

From the point of view of Europeanist individualism, mere peace and prosperity, rather than a a deeply rooted civic life, are the ultimate source of human satisfaction. . A strong appeal to nation and church as the fulcrum of politics is thus an appeal to standards that “bear the stigma of rupturing human unity.” To be concerned with the Islamic challenge to France is in this view to betray a belief in the continued legitimacy of important and perhaps inexorable differences between human beings. To affirm the enduring legitimacy of these differences is to accept the continued—and to a multiculturalist and humanitarian liberal, heartbreaking and hence unacceptable—legitimacy of a state of affairs that has the potential to lead to violent conflict in the name of affirming or preserving those differences.

To counter the limitless individualism and Europeanism of the modern French state, Manent proposes the recovery of what he calls the French “way of life.” Key to its recovery is the understanding of the nation as the product of a certain development of Christianity in Europe. For while “Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form,” Western Christianity found its ideal form “in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called precisely ‘Christendom,’ then ‘Europe.’” Western Christianity landed on such a form as the result of the striving by Europeans to satisfy both their need for self-government and their need “to respond to the Christian proposition of a ‘new life,’ henceforth accessible to every person of goodwill, which consisted in participation in the very life of God in Three Persons.”

Manent speaks of the nation as a political form that can combine civic pride and Christian humility. He thus indicates that the value of the nation is in its power to mediate the relation between what is one’s own and what is everyone’s. The nation supplies a practicable if not perfect mean between the political form of empire and city. On the one hand, the empty universalism of empire includes a vast number of human beings but is too extended and heterogeneous to enable them to live as a genuine community. Alongside, on the other hand, the inhumane particularism of the city provides its members with genuine community but is too small and homogenous to enable them to see outsiders as full human beings possessed of a dignity equal to their own. “Europe was great through its nations,” Manent writes, “when it was able to mix Roman virtues, courage, and prudence, with a faith in a God who is friend to every person.”

Its openness to this combination of virtueshas enabled the Christian nation in Europe to remain as distant from the xenophobia of blood-and-soil nationalism as it was from the oikophobia of trade-and-tech transnationalism. Moreover, only the distinct nations of Europe can serve as the locus of political life because Europe in any concrete sense exists only through them. A remote administrative super-state that unites nations by abstracting, as it unavoidably must, from everything that makes those nations worthy of deep attachments, cannot possibly satisfy the requirements of man’s humanity. Man needs much more than a legal framework within which to consume goods in safety. He needs to belong to a particular society with a distinct history that he experiences and reveres as his own.

In France, the recovery of the nation entails the restoration of French Catholicism to its traditionally predominant status—the restoration, in other words, of secularity, and the rejection of secularism. Manent writes that,

France’s Muslims will only find their place in French society if they find it in the nation. They will only find it in the nation if the nation accepts them according to its truth and according to their truth—not simply, therefore, as rights-bearing citizens accepting other bearers of the same rights, but as an association marked by Christianity granting a place to a form of life with which it has never before mixed on an equal footing [emphasis added].

The integration of French Muslims into France thus requires that French public opinion again become capable of affirming the Christian orientation as the authoritative standard to which Muslims seeking admittance into French society must bow, even as they retain the right to keep those parts of their way of life that do not conflict with that standard. The practice of Islam mostly falls within the bounds of this standard, but burqas and polygamy, and the rejection of freedom of speech, squarely conflict with it, as Manent explains at some length. But to return to Manent’s signature theme in this book, French public opinion cannot recover the confidence to insist on these terms until it recovers the idea of the nation.

Now, since Manent’s solution to the question of Islam in France hinges on the recovery of the nation, one may wonder why France, and Europe more broadly, began to drift away from the nation in the first place. Manent treats this question in his more philosophical work, Les Métamorphoses de la cité. The basic difference between Manent’s treatment of the nation in Metamorphoses and in Situation may be summarized simply but not misleadingly as follows: whereas the nation marked by Christianity is treated as a solution in the latter, it is in the former treated as leading to the difficulty that has brought us to the current impasse.

The core of this difficulty may be grasped by noting the key difference between the way in which Manent treats the nation in Situation and the way in which he treats it in Métamorphoses In Situation, Manent speaks of the nation primarily with reference to the Reformation; in Métamorphoses, he speaks of it with reference to both the Reformation and the French Revolution. In Situation, Manent makes clear that the Reformation is the crucial element in the development of the European nation. This is because the Protestant abolition of the Church’s mediation between God and man rendered the European nation “in a way immediately Christian” and thus enabled it “to take on the attributes of the Church” and to remain “throughout its history this kind of community of spiritual education that wove together self-government and a relation to the Christian proposition.” The Reformation nationalized Christianity and Christianized the nation, in other words.

But the French Revolution further radicalized this Protestant innovation, as Manent argues in one of the concluding passages of Metamorphoses. Describing the Civil Constitution of the French Clergy—one of the signature policies of the French Revolution, which tried to subordinate the Catholic Church in France to the state—as an expression of national self-assertion, Manent contrasts the principle guiding this self-assertion with that of the Reformation. Whereas in the latter case the nation asserted itself “in the name of an appropriation of Christianity,” in the case of the French Revolution the nation asserted itself in the name of humanity simply. Manent describes this process as follows:

In the framework of the Christian nation, the State has progressively relinquished its confessional partiality; it had manifested and recognized more and more clearly a plane of humanity, of humanity simply—the plane where people are free and equal in their rights. If the nationalization of religion produced an increase in national energies, it was at the same time the cause of permanent difficulties within each nation. A way had to be found to radically neutralize confessional differences, to cut the principles of the confessional disagreements at the root. Ultimately that meant positing and declaring that the reference point of human association, of substantial human association, was no longer the Christian association in any of its definitions, which were all in all accidental. The substantial human association was humanity itself.

The preceding passage recalls the problem for which liberalism, and transnational liberalism as its apotheosis, claims to have found the solution. If passionate religious belief engenders religious conflict and therefore both inter- and intra-national conflicts, then weakened belief engenders peace. The secular state in promoting a secular society therefore achieves peace. In the context of the problem of Islam in France, however, weakened belief invites the weakening of the secular state and the ascendancy of a form of passionate religious belief that is neither Christian nor conformable to the European nation. This is the ironic self-contradiction in the liberal solution to the theologico-political dilemma that Manent’s Situation spells out. Notwithstanding the deep politicalproblem once posed by the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe, the urgent political problem posed by Islam in France should compel the thoughtful liberal to at least question certain tenets of the liberal solution.

Taking a broader view, we may summarize Manent’s argument as follows. The Reformation nationalized Christianity and thus spiritualized the nation. The French Revolution prioritized the most humanitarian dimension of Christianity and in so doing made humanity rather than the Christian nation the ultimate reference point of human association in this life. The nation thus progressively ceased to be a mediator of man’s relation to Christianity in order to become a mediator of man’s relation to humanity. The Christian nation turned into the universal or modern nation. This turn prepared the way for the apolitical universalism inherent in contemporary calls for more transnational integration, less restrictive immigration policies, and education programs that neglect or vilify the historical distinctiveness and nobility of European nations. The view underlying these calls is predicated on the belief that humanity has overcome, or is in the process of overcoming, the need for the nation as a political form.

The preceding is only a brief sketch of the story of how Europeans arrived at what Manent has called the depoliticization of politics. In light of it, it is easy to see why Manent’s work is one of the most significant recent attempts to recover the idea of political politics. This recovery begins with the awareness, which is as far from arrogant chauvinism as from shallow cosmopolitanism, that the concern for the particular, for what is one’s own, is an indispensable condition of human happiness. The longing for the universal, though noble, and in the case of certain rare individuals rightly all-consuming, ought to be mediated by the longing for the particular, if political life is to retain those features that address man’s need for deep attachments. In the story of Europe thus far, the nation guided by a Christian horizon is the closest approximation to a meaningful balance that gives each of these longings their due.

It would be a shame to turn to Manent’s work merely to figure out for whom one should vote, but it would be a greater shame to come away from Manent’s work without having deepened one’s understanding of the political alternatives available to us. In this vein, I would submit that Manent’s meditation on the situation of France shows that at least a certain dimension of the present-day growth of nationalistic political movements in Europe and the United States stems, not from a desire to reject liberal democracy in favor of some atavistic alternative, but from an anxiety about the survival of the cultural conditions that make the liberal democratic nation-state possible.

Featured image: Arc de Triomphe in photo courtesy of Rodrigo Kugnharski via Unsplash.

Antonio Sosa is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at the University of Dallas and Policy Director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.