Eric Aeschimann and Xavier de la Porte's interview with Régis Debray — about Macron and his new book on the Americanization of France — was first published in l'Obs. Transated by David Broder.
Emmanuel Macron appears on page 92 of your book Civilisation. How We Became Americans, where you note that he listens to the national anthem not "with his arms down by his sides" but in the position expected of US citizens, with "his right arm bent, hand on his heart." Is the new president American?
Obviously yes, even if he does not know it — and he is not the only one. The fact that he adopts this position is a reflex, it is not something he has thought about doing. Everyone is the child of their own time and the circles they move in. That is the cost of his youth: for this generation has known nothing other than the hegemony of American visuals, an unconscious domination that has become like second nature. And the Finance Inspectorate, or banking [in which Macron worked] is also a mental ecosystem in which the United States, the parent company, takes the code name "globalisation."
That is his world — the world of contracts, the digital, minorities, media, the enterprise, marketing, where the image is all. American — or, if you prefer, postmodern — civilisation is the civilisation where the economic order commands all the others, including the political one. That is where we are.
Are you not reducing Macron to just one of his aspects? There are others, like the fact that he worked with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur…
You forget that Ricoeur did much of his career in the United States, and he was right to so so. For any philosopher, that is the condition of having an international standing. And being a Protestant is an excellent factor for integration in the homeland of "In God We Trust." That said, we can only be pleased to have a head of state finally breaking us out of the intellectual desert where our two last presidents had camped out, de-culturalised as they were by communication and the elements of language. In the Atlantic world, a politician who reads books is something absolutely original. And given that his wife is a former French teacher, we can expect a certain pressure on educational questions. In this sense, not everything has already been decided. If he succeeds in his adventure, if he puts some Erik Orsenna [novelist and economist] into his Alain Minc [businessman close to Macron], then the French Touch will be protected. Pray to God.
And what about the comparison sometimes made with François Mitterrand?
One had been through the war, the prison camp, the Resistance. He experienced hunger and thirst. The other has only known offices in chic districts and business-class travel. That is a fundamental difference — the difference between those who have confronted History and death and those who have pursued their career in peace and happiness. It is a question of chronology. That said, Macron has demonstrated a certain courage in throwing himself into this scrap. He moves quickly, and he thinks quickly. Most importantly, he is capable of reworking and stretching himself — that is, he shifts in relation to his surroundings. We will surely see that. But the important thing is that we put his election in a historical perspective.
Indeed — so putting things in perspective, how far has our Fifth Republic itself also Americanised?
We can detect this civilisational change at the level of the ordinary: and the décor is never just a detail. The replacement of the armchair by the — White House-style — Plexiglass podium at presidential press conferences in the late 1980s was a turning point. Up till that point in France, authority had been seated, immobile. Today you have to move: you approach your podium with a youthful, supple stride. To be stood is to be dynamic; to be sat down is to be authoritarian, paternal, too sure of yourself. In cathedrals’ tympanums Christ is seated. When our president stood up to deliver his message, he was in fact bowing down to the new Rome. Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 was the turning point. He was also a Finance Minister, youthful, English-speaking and successful, alone against everyone else, and hostile to the old farts. But he came too early, before Disneyland, the think tanks, mobile phones and selfies. Mitterrand tried to slow down this process, with the village belltower in the background. Americanisation has its phases of latency and acceleration. Today we are living through its coronation: this is an anthropological experience, a nice gift of these new times.
Your book is entitled ‘Civilisation’. How would you define this word? And what distinction do you make between a civilisation and a culture?
A civilisation crosses centuries and borders. It is a collective personality that exports itself and radiates outwards. In general, it implies an empire. Jazz arrived in France in 1917 together with the US Army. Why wasn’t it candomblé that came instead? Because Brazil was not an empire and it did not have an expeditionary corps. Culture is a local personality that holds out and subsists, but stands still. Just as in the Ancient Roman era there was a Gallo-Roman, Hispano-Roman and an Afro-Roman culture, there is and there will be a Gallo-American culture. We will still have the right to our Roquefort, our Prix Goncourt [literature prize] and our Place du Tertre [artists’ square in Montmartre]. That does not trouble anyone: quite the contrary.
And what is identity?
A rather troubling word — a sadly defensive one. A civilisation aims at universalism. It takes things in, it unites the power to take in with the power to give out. The fearful attitude toward immigration in France has nothing very happy to say. A civilisation in good shape does not fear taking in foreigners, for it will make its own stamp upon them. A culture barricades itself in. In that regard, Europe is no longer making a civilisation: it no longer exports its own standards, but is itself being standardised. Being part of a civilisation on its way out is a little distressing. But it is striking that so few people are distressed by this. That is itself a success of this acculturation.
All the same, nostalgia and lamentation for the past are rather widespread sentiments in France. It is what we call declinism.
Declinists are short-sighted, navel-gazing people who confuse their own world for the world. There is a constant metamorphosis, shifts in the centre of gravity. All this is alive — that is all
Why has America become modernity’s empire?
Modernity was born in Protestant countries and today we are witnessing their global victory. This is also Germany’s victory. The United States, which at its foundation was Protestant, invented evangelism, a neo-Protestantism. As Olivier Abel notes, this was at first an oceanic religion, a religion of travellers and migrants. Geneva was conceived as just a platform, from which one had to set off walking — if I dare say it… — carrying the Good Lord in the soles of one’s shoes. A Bible was enough: they did not weigh themselves down with clutter. No need for a cathedral, priests, parties, the sacraments, rules! Only faith counts. Protestantism is the emancipation of the individual from anything that might blur his dialogue with God; it is the end of intermediate bodies, it is the freely negotiated contract. We have all become Protestants — and Ricoeur is very relevant, here.
You pick out some of the characteristics of American civilisation: the capacity to occupy space, the passion for images…
America is immensity, mobility and liberty: nothing is fixed in place [lit: "under house arrest"]. Hence the impressive mastery of space — including the Moon, and soon Mars. History and memory do not play the same role there as here in France. Macron should contemplate the American motto "E pluribus unum" (out of many, one) and the line written on dollar bills, "In God We Trust." French liberals want to import the cult of the enterprise and individualist norms, but they overlook what makes these viable in the metropolis itself: a biblio-patriotic religion. Similarly, if national sentiment in Europe was born with the printing press, the United States emerged with the industrial image, photography, cinema. It is the biggest and best producer of images. And the image prints more, and more quickly, than writing does. It has no need for a translator.
Except that the USA of 2017 is living under threat of Chinese economic power and has just chosen a dysfunctional president. Is this truly an empire at the height of its powers?
An empire is something that lasts for centuries. The USA has 700 military bases and 10 aircraft carriers. Russia and China only have one. It is a hegemonic country at the level of science, currency, trade, technology, cinema, and music. The Chinese competition does exist, but China has no project for the world. It could not give a damn about our souls, it has no divine mandate. It wants nothing but our businesses and Bordeaux wines — it has no desire to conquer our spirits. We are barbarians, and so we will remain. Chinese civilisation does exist, but its language is the true Chinese wall. The Chinese do not have a monotheist religion and so do not have the sentiment of being a chosen people; as such, they do not consider themselves in charge of humanity’s well-being.
Faced with the predicted twilight, we would expect more concern from your part. Yet you seem fatalist, or almost pleased.
That is because, fundamentally, we can consider this as a matter that has already been decided. We may have some halts or some grumbling but ultimately, this is the way things are going. Perhaps it owes to the fact that I take technology seriously. As an interpreter of the media I study the interactions between technology and culture, and what these tools do to those who invent and use them. The material and mental toolkit of our time was invented in America, and it is the vehicle for a way of being, of living, of imagining and feeling. For example, each mode of transport is a worldview. The train is collectivist and social-democratic. It supposes a clockmaster central state. The plane is globalist. The canal is ecologist. The car is neoliberal and individualist. Each person goes where they want and when they want. And when we turn on our computer we have to speak globish in order to find our bearings. Obviously, that has consequences.
Does recognising that much lead to a political proposal?
Each person will act according to their own temperament. If they seek social advancement and the Légion d’honneur then they will become a big columnist, a CEO, a geek, or a minister for Macron. If they take more pleasure in reflection, then they will contemplate the comedy of the day at more of a distance, without losing their cheerfulness, despite a little melancholia in their heart. The depressing thing is banalisation. Perhaps I am over-attached to this bizarre country where you can recite a poem in a meeting, where not everyone considers capitalism as the final stage of human history, where we do not fear dreaming of having an independent foreign policy, and where the writer has a role they do not have elsewhere. This particularity is fading away. I do not take any joy in this, but no one will stop me in my own corner from continuing to write in French. Even when what I write is no longer understood. I am not comparing myself to them, but ultimately, how many people can still read Gracq or Mauriac’s Bloc-notes? That said, what we lose on the one hand we gain on the other. Certain faculties are atrophying and others are developing. Our capacity to decode images has made extraordinary progress. We are passing from the graphosphere to the videosphere. Since I am more at ease in the former than the latter I find myself made a little redundant by technology.
What is intellectuals’ experience of this change? Some are very much at ease on TV panels or on the internet.
Intellectuals are forced to take part in the game. Their influence no longer proceeds by way of writing, but through the audiovisual and the digital. To sell a book you have to go on [Laurent] Ruquier’s show [Saturday night talk show, On n’est pas couché]. Alas, I do not watch this show, for I am already in bed. Others have a plasticity that I do not. Or a courage. Or a certain modesty: going on Ruquier’s show is humiliating when you have a little pride. Nonetheless, I understand why they do it. The search for an effective influence is part of the job. For to be an intellectual is to shape opinion, to want to weigh on the course of things, to conquer people’s minds — unlike the scholar who produces theories or establishes facts. The intellectual is to the scholar what the priest is to the monk: they preach, go up into the pulpit, and dream of a captive audience. Whereas the researcher only addresses other researchers.
Some commentators criticised Michel Onfray and Emmanuel Todd — two intellectuals with a wide audience — for having refused to vote for Macron in the second round. What is your judgement on this?
Listen — I have some esteem for them, and I am not going to be the one handing out the gold stars. In the election that we just experienced, the system was able to disguise itself as an anti-system, in order to ensure its own perpetuation. The people who refused this system were consistent with their own thinking when they abstained.
Which you did not do…
I hesitated. But it is a secret ballot, dear friends.
Will you say nothing more than that?
No, for I no longer make absolute judgements. Everyone does what they can do, marked by their youth, the corners of the planet where they discovered the world and themselves, their friends, the films, the books that made a mark on them. That is our karma. Let us remain modest.