Jean-François Revel

Review of “Les Plats de saison” and three other books

Paru dans le Times Literary Supplement le 30 novembre 2001, by Henri Astier.

Reviewed books:

– Régis Debray, L’Emprise, Gallimard, 146p, FF75, ISBN 2-07-075861-3
– Régis Debray, I.F. suite et fin, Gallimard, 190p, FF85, ISBN 2-07-076069-3
– Tzvetan Todorov, Mémoire du mal, Tentation du bien, Enquête sur le siècle, Robert Laffont, 356p, FF149, ISBN 2-221-09079-9
– Jean-François Revel, Les Plats de saison, Seuil, 442p., FF135, ISBN 2-02-037137-5

Non-French people can be forgiven for wondering how the French intellectual sees the world these days. He was last seen planning the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in a Paris café in 1972, and apart from gnomic utterances about post-modern society little has been heard from him since then. What happened was that by the 1980s the French intellectual had lost his trademark faith in Marxism and become a believer in democracy, civil liberties, the rights of minorities, and relief for the wretched of the earth. In short he was just like other western intellectuals; he had ceased to be an object of study or curiosity. In many ways this was good news. Humanitarianism is a nice sort of doctrine; you can’t get things spectacularly wrong by preaching it. Surely it is better for young idealists to dream of building clinics in Africa than blowing up their parents’ home. So have French intellectuals put their support for collectivist monstrosities behind them? Has the rise of humanitarianism led to a new age of responsibility and maturity in France’s public debate? The authors of the books under review beg to differ.

Régis Debray, a 1960s radical turned champion of the nation-state, formally broke with humanitarianism during the Kosovo conflict. He made himself thoroughly unpopular by travelling to Serbia, dodging the bombs, and writing on his return that the NATO campaign was doing more harm than good. The humanitarian Left rounded on Debray, lambasting him as naïve at best and a closet supporter of Milosevic at worst. The debate raged briefly in Le Monde in May 1999, and ended with Debray’s discomfiture. France’s smart opinion, like the public at large, applauded the bombing of Yugoslavia.

After a spell away from public view, Debray responded by publishing two short books. His aim was not to revive old disputes over Kosovo, but to expose what he viewed as the biases of his critics. The first book, L’Emprise takes on journalists. This is not a new departure for Debray, who has elevated the art of deconstructing newspeak into a new academic discipline, “médiologie”. L’Emprise (“The Hold”) compares the French press of today to the Roman Catholic church of old. The new religion, Debray contends, has its articles of faith (human rights), its charitable orders (French doctors and the like), and its crusading knights (NATO). The role of the media, as the new clergy, is to uphold the faith and keep people to the straight and narrow. “Major excommunication used to be fulminated ex cathedra by bishops in dark churches,” Debray writes. Now dissenters like himself are confronted by new inquisitors: “Heavyweight commentators (…) , foes of totalitarianism entrenched in all the weeklies, channels, and dailies without exception.”

The second book, I.F. suite et fin, takes on intellectuals. Again, Debray is on familiar territory: in 1979 he published a broadside against Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: the Intellectuals of Modern France (Le Pouvoir intellectuel en France) His latest book contends that the intellectuel français, the “I.F.” of the title, is a pale imitation of the 1900 model (the noun “intellectual” originated during the Dreyfus affair). Émile Zola was an international celebrity, unlike his parochial heirs. The original “I.F.” was an advocate for unpopular causes; today’s is a prosecutor bent on bringing evil-doers to book. Above all, he is a moralist: his mind is programmed to tell Right from Wrong, rather than truth from error. As Debray remarks, the opposite was true of Dreyfus’s defenders. The question they asked was: “Is he guilty or innocent?”, and not: “Is it better to be for or against the accused captain?” Debray argues that because French intellectuals are more interested in moral correctness than in factual accuracy, they are condemned to irrelevance. The “I.F.”, he says, is on the verge of extinction.

Debray’s main merit is that he does not go for easy targets. Human rights groups and relief agencies are so obviously well meaning that we readily take them at their own estimation of selfless keepers of the public interest. But as Debray reminds us, good people are vulnerable to self-righteousness: their very goodness leads them to regard opponents as morally tainted, rather than intellectually wrong, and public debate is stifled as a result. Ultimately self-righteousness does not work: there may be excellent arguments for cancelling Third World debt or ending child labour, just as there might have been good reasons to bomb Serbia — a point Debray concedes. But only through reasoned discussion can a point of view lastingly prevail.

But to hit hard target you need to focus your sights. Debray does not, and wastes much ammunition as a result. He is reluctant to quote, or even name, his opponents, and prefers to inveigh against the intellectual media-hounds in general. Debray’s bugbears seem to be Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, but one gets the impression that he cannot bring himself to confront them head on. Unfortunately for Debray, a biting irony and a zest for metaphorical pyrotechnics are no substitutes for clarity and attention to detail.

When he does give specifics, he is sloppy with his examples. While making a point about the tendency of those who support armed intervention to exaggerate atrocities, Debray dismissively mentions estimates of 100,000 dead in Kosovo and one million in Rwanda, suggesting that both figures were plucked out of the air to stir up international outrage. This may have been true regarding Kosovo: in the end, the number of ethnic Albanian pronounced dead or missing after the war was just over 6,300 — a terrible crime, but hardly a case of genocide. In the case of Rwanda the one-million figure is close to the truth, the word “genocide” was justified and the rest of the world let it happen. One can argue that the international community disgraced itself in both Kosovo and Rwanda, but not in the same way.

Even in his basic contentions, Debray gets carried away. He offers no evidence that French intellectuals are a dying breed. And has their quality really declined in recent decades? It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but few in France lament the passing of Marxoid structuralism as a model for social sciences (although the old deconstructionist flame is being kept alive in American universities). No French intellectual today would affirm a duty to lie for a good cause, as Sartre did, or sing the praises of Iran’s Ayatollahs, as Foucault did, and that must be an improvement. Of course, the fact that intellectuals have embraced human rights, arguably a worthier cause than the class struggle, does not entitle them to feel smug. Anyone claiming superior wisdom in the name of modernity is bound to be judged harshly by future generations. Ideologies may change, but basic attitudes remain: the combination of naïveté and arrogance that has characterised France’s intellectual life for centuries shows no sign of disappearing. That charge is damning enough. Debray would have made his job easier by concentrating on documenting it, rather than stating a dubious law of intellectual decline.

Tzvetan Todorov in Mémoire du Mal, Tentation du Bien offers much more thorough and effective critique of political Manicheism than Debray does. A Bulgarian-born linguist and guru of 1970s structuralism, Todorov turned to the history of ideas late in his career. His latest book is an intellectual survey of the Twentieth century that draws many of its illustrations from his country of adoption, France. Todorov argues that the most fateful innovation of the past hundred years — the “mal du siècle”, as he puts it — has been the introduction of moralism into the heart of politics. As morality ceased to place strict demands on private conduct, public life became shot through with it.

The transformation of politics into a struggle between good and evil was carried out to its deadliest extremes by totalitarian regimes. What characterised Nazism or Communism was the mass murder of large sections of the population for the good of mankind. Tororov makes clear that both variants of totalitarianism can, and should, be understood rationally, a point controversially made about the Nazis by the German historian Ernst Nolte in his 1986 book The European Civil War (whose French translation last year triggered a local version of Germany’s “historians’ debate” of the 1980s). The word “rational”, as used by both Todorov and Nolte, is not meant as justification, but suggests that both systems have their internal logic. Stalin or Hitler did not kill millions out of sheer bloodlust. Kulaks had to be exterminated because private property was the root of all evil; for the Nazis, a healthy nation had to be rid of Jews and other parasites. “The Chekist or SS who kills ‘enemies’,” Todorov writes, “believes he is working for the benefit of others and acting rationally.”

This idea is hardly new — “Who does not view his own cause as just?” Erasmus asked — but it seems to have been neglected in the twentieth century. The Nazis and their racist ideology are justly condemned as evil; but many westerners find it difficult to judge communists as harshly because their ideals of peace and brotherhood are generous. Todorov is not for a moment suggesting that we should judge regimes either on their own terms or not at all. Some are clearly wicked, he says, but we must not pass judgment on the basis of self-proclaimed intentions. Almost by definition, these are admirable. What makes distinguishes good from evil systems is the means they are ready to use to reach their ideals.

Todorov’s central point is that totalitarian regimes do not have a monopoly on oppressive self-righteousness. “Totalitarianism may sometimes be seen, with justification, as the evil empire,” he writes, “but it does not follow that democracy embodies, in all places and at all times, the kingdom of virtue.” Like Debray, Todorov considers the war over Kosovo as a raw affirmation of western power: NATO was spoiling for a fight with an enemy conveniently cast as a new Hitler. One does not need to agree with him on this to accept his wider point: by presenting the war as a combat against pure evil waged on behalf of pure victims, the allies justified a ruthless use of their firepower.

Similarly, one does not need to share Todorov’s dim view of the United Nations International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a poodle of the Security Council to express concern about the Tribunal’s independence. The indictment of Slobodan Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity at the height of the Kosovo conflict is disturbing: one may support NATO and the Tribunal, but any suggestion that they may be working hand in hand undermines the authority of both. The most worrying thing in all this is the position of those who, in France and elsewhere, traditionally stand for impartial justice. The press, human rights advocates, and intellectuals are squarely behind the Chief Prosecutor in The Hague and assume that defendants are guilty. The prevailing attitude among them seems to be: “We are the good guys, so we cannot be suspected of abuse of power.”

If current conflicts can be staged as morality plays, so can past ones. Slaying the beast once the danger has passed is a safe way of being right, and one that is particularly prevalent in France. Todorov notes that the French are obsessed by the German occupation: they go over the same ground, not to analyse events dispassionately but to pass judgement. In the late 1980s and 1990s a proclaimed devoir de mémoire (“duty to remember”) was exercised through the trials of dying men called upon to answer for the crimes of the Gestapo and the Vichy regime. As Todorov observes, trials are based on the clash of sharply opposing points of view, and are therefore not the best way to shed light on a complex past. Anyone wishing to have an idea of the moral maze experienced by collaborationists and resistance fighters will learn more from reading, say, the novels of Patrick Modiano than the transcripts of any trial.

Mémoire du Mal, Tentation du Bien contains a number of short essays on writers, such as Primo Levi and Vasily Grossman, who rejected moral posturing despite their first-hand experience of the century’s worst systems. What is striking in Todorov’s selection is how obscure the French authors are: who, in France or elsewhere, remembers David Rousset or Germaine Tillon? Even in their time these Nazi camp survivors who became critics of the totalitarian system that survived the war had no intellectual influence. Despite Todorov’s best efforts, they will remain footnotes in what Bernard-Henri Lévy has called “le Siècle de Sartre”. Culturally, France is stuck in the darkest twentieth century.

This is also the conclusion reached by Jean-François Revel in Les Plats de Saison. This book is not a full-blown political essay, but a diary for the year 2000 where Revel, a philosopher, and best-selling political writer, jots down his daily gripes and reflections on everything from tasteless radishes to France’s awkward constitution. Anyone who enjoys Revel’s acerbic style and lucid thought will feast on such a diverse menu (the title, meaning “seasonal dishes”, reflects both this variety and the author’s gastronomic interests).

Despite the necessarily broken structure of the book, bit-by-bit Revel paints a vivid picture of France’s intellectual landscape. In his previous book, La Grande parade, he had shown how, perversely, the death of the Soviet Union had led to a revival of anti-capitalism in the West. It was now possible to dream of an alternative to economic liberalism without being made to face the fact of life under “real socialism”. As capitalism became universally practised it was increasingly reviled. But while in most western countries this condemnation merely brought together vocal minorities — the hard Left, the far Right, and trade unions– in France it is the majority view.

Les Plats de saison provides many weird and wonderful illustrations of this. At a leaving party thrown last year for the outgoing Employment Minister, Martine Aubry, her staff broke into the Internationale, the original Soviet anthem – a song, Revel notes, that is as relevant to modern France as Maréchal, nous voilà, the hymn to the leader of Vichy France, Marshall Pétain. This incident is more than a drunken outburst by pseudo-revolutionaries: it is indicative of a deep hostility to market forces shared by French people of all persuasions. President Chirac, a conservative, said last year that globalisation was a cause of world poverty. Prime Minister Jospin, a socialist, has been fighting a rearguard battle with his European counterparts against the Blairite Third Way.

The most popular public figure in France last year was undoubtedly José Bové, peasant leader, globaphobe extraordinaire, and enemy of junk food. The nation was shocked when a court gave him a light prison sentence for trashing a McDonald’s restaurant. Union leaders and politicians rushed to condemn the verdict, explaining that farmers, truck-drivers and other groups often express their grievances through “direct action” without getting punished for it — so why should Bové? As Revel observes, those leaders make no distinction between legal and illegal protest: destroying property and blocking roads are regarded as legitimate forms of political action in France. Violent protest can even be encouraged: when anti-capitalists in December demanded free train rides to Nice, where they were planning to disrupt a European summit, the Transport Minister met them half-way and offered a 50% reduction. “It’s the Revolution subsidised by those against whom it is directed,” Revel comments.

Intellectuals on the whole reflect rather than combat popular feelings against to “ultra-liberalism”, as faith in markets is known in France. This is partly because in the twentieth century, the intellectual has defined himself as an opponent to the “system”, and nowadays the only system to oppose is a capitalist one. To be sure, there is no shortage of books analysing the ills of France’s bloated and unrestructured public sector or making the case for globalisation — but they are mostly written by sociologists and economists who have no meaningful impact. The intellectuals who matter, the talk-show commentators and leader writers, expand on the ravages of global capitalism as if no-one had ever make a serious case for free trade. As a result public discussion is divorced from facts and knowledge available to any first-year economics student.

Revel concludes that democratic capitalism may have triumphed over communist totalitarianism in the real world –something to be thankful for — but not in the minds of many people, and not in the minds of the French people. The idea that totalitarianism is not just a system of government but also a mindset that can flourish under a democracy has underpinned Revel’s whole work. Mental habits inherited from totalitarianism can therefore survive its destruction as a geo-political entity. “The victory of democracy will not be complete as long as lying continues to appear natural in the world of politics as in that of thought,” he writes. “As long as betraying truth, denying elementary facts (…) and attempting to destroy rather that refute those who contradict you continue to prevail in public debate, we cannot claim, whatever the calendar says, that we have left the twentieth century and entered the third millennium.”

Henri Astier