This interview with Sudhir Hazareesingh was conducted by Alexander Hurst.
At the beginning of one of the final episodes of Des Paroles et Des Actes, a political show known for the marathon of incisive questioning it throws at politicians, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut pulled out a reproduction of a painting by the late 19th century Nabi Edouard Vuillard, of a woman standing in a corridor, bathed in golden yellow light. The painting, Finkielkraut said, symbolized France because the nation was “an incarnation of the feminine,” and hence its intransigence in banning the burka.
You don’t have to agree with Finkielkraut to appreciate the moment as quintessentially French. Sudhir Hazareesingh, a French historian who teaches at Oxford and author of How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, certainly doesn’t. “If he just stuck to literature, he would be great,” Hazareesingh laments. “Instead of peddling this dark, gloomy, pessimistic, self-pitying nationalism.” But in that moment, Finkielkraut incarnated what Hazareesingh devotes a book to meticulously detailing. If that book’s sweeping argument were crystallized in a few short sentences, it might go something like this: France still believes in the intrinsic value of ideas and in the public intellectuals that engage them. Along with the mythical place of résistance, this is a fundamental part go France’s national self-identity. And one of its great malheurs is that it still cares about ideas in a world that is often too busy to stop and think.
We’re sitting in a relatively noisy café at the London School of Economics, drinking coffee that grazes the upper tier of mediocre, when I ask Hazareesingh if Des Paroles et Des Actes is a window into something that France holds on to and won’t let go of. “France has this kind of intellectual, literary tradition that goes back to the late middle age-early modern period, whose high tide is the Enlightenment,” he answers. “All the great writers are also philosophers—there is no separation between Voltaire and Rousseau, who are not just writers, but also people who have grand theories about how society should be. And of course that goes on to shape the French Revolution and Republican tradition in the nineteenth century.”
“They see themselves as a nation of resistance,” he says, “And it is something fundamental to their identity and values.” Philosophy, revolution. Words, acts. The Cartesian poles of French identity?
Ever since its Revolution, France has been marked by a universalist character that perhaps only one other nation has shared to the same degree—the United States. “A comparison with America is appropriate insofar as they both see themselves as countries that, since their revolution, have a universal vocation,” Hazareesingh says when I bring up the potential similarity. “But the American Revolution didn’t start like that,” he points out. “It’s particularly with the rise of American power after 1945 that the United States has seen itself as a beacon for the promotion of liberal values around the world.” Though French universalism is much older, the outcome is similar: When you think that you have values—or even a language--that you think everyone else should share, you go through cycles, waves of optimism and decline, he explains.
He makes another comparison between the United States and France. In the 1970’s, he says, the US was called out of a morose mindset by the “morning in America” message of Ronald Reagan. (Hazareesingh, who situates himself on the political left, doesn’t intend that as an endorsement of the economic policies Reagan promoted.) He thinks that the French political landscape could be propitious for a Reagan-like leader to emerge in that sense of a call to optimism. “In France one person who makes it to the top has extraordinary power to shape the collective narrative in the way that he wants. The last person who tried was Sarkozy, who wanted to remake France in a different way, though he didn’t think it through. He was impulsive and impetuous.”
For now, though, potential remains potential. Hazareesingh sees no collective vision emerging that could bring forth a more optimistic Républicanisme. “That idea used to be the European project,” he says, “Which France was a leader in building.” And which at the moment is teetering on multiple edges.
Perhaps a uniquely French way forward might lie in reconnecting with the idea of solidarité, as elaborated by the somewhat obscure French statesman Leon Bourgeois in 1896 as a middle path between capitalism and socialism. Bourgeois argued argued that cooperation, not competition, was the prime mover of human nature. Because we naturally exist in intricately interdependent ways, we each have an implicit obligation to the embodiment of that interdependence—society. We cannot help but live our lives, in a way, on the shoulders of giants, and thus we can only truly be free when we pay this debt forward to following generations by contributing to human progress.
“If you look at the amount that is spent on health, at the high level of taxation, that shows that the idea is still alive,” Hazareesingh says. The trouble though, he continues, is twofold. The first is whether with government spending already at some of the highest levels in the OECD, further economic solidarity can really be the basis for a comprehensive modern political philosophy. “Everyone agrees not to become laissez-faire, but how far can that keep going?” Hazareesingh asks rhetorically.
Also troubling to Hazareesingh is the realization that true social solidarity might be running headfirst into modern conceptions of laicité. As the far right—Marine Le Pen, in particular—has seized laicité as a means to normalization, observers of France like Hazareesingh think that what began as justifiable secular philosophy has morphed into something an antagonistic almost-ideology, more like laicisme. “It has become about the expulsion of religion from everywhere but the private sphere and the home; religion in general is seen as not republican,” Hazareesingh says.
France’s love of abstraction compounds social problems, he says, by making it difficult to “conceptualize the particular,” or in the case of integration, to legitimize diversity. In the abstract, the Republic acts as an enormous tricolore rug, pushing out of view everything that it covers. Indeed, the French state itself is restricted from collecting any statistic about race or religion; French is French is French. Identity then becomes a binary question of French or, when it might be better served by a more inclusive French and. Better thought of, perhaps, as a Republican rug that obscures nothing, but is composed of everything.