iOS app Android app More

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted: January 5, 2010 10:31 AM

Why We Must Put an End to the Debate Over National Identity

What's Your Reaction:

What, exactly, is wrong with the debate concerning national identity launched late last year? What can one reply to those who say in all sincerity that a debate is always a good thing, never to be feared or avoided, and that even the most absurd or poorly put question merits a real debate?

The first problem lies in the origin of this debate and the fact that the initiative for it comes from a President of the Republic. It's one thing when commissions of experts are invited to debate a matter, as is the case in the debate over secularism. When citizens' associations (freely) get hold of a set of themes and attempt to clarify them, they are expressing the spirit of democracy. And it is perfectly natural for a Party, any party, to provide a political forum for its sympathizers, to engage in discussion and to propose solutions (all the more so since rival parties are free to refuse to enter the game or, on the contrary, offer other solutions). But for the State as such to act as a substitute for all of them, for it to wake up one fine morning, with its networks, its officials, and all the means at hand, shouting from the rooftops to "the lifeblood" of the country, "Here's the imperative debate. Here's what I, the State, have decided is suitable to debate, from now on. And what's more, this debate should be conducted within these limits, and in this tone, and until such-and-such a time," -- this is not only very strange, but unique in recorded history. A State debate. A forced debate. A directed, supervised, controlled debate, with specific boundaries on every side. We love debating, and we believe there is no generally accepted idea, no certainty, and no opinion that does not deserve to be shaken by the positive stimulus of a free debate. That is why we are compelled to refuse this false debate, this caricature, this debate where sixty million infantilized citizens are ordered, on the announced date, to hand in their papers to the Grand Examiner who will blow the whistle marking the end, not of recess, but of the debate.

A second problem lies in the fact that this State debate comes from a State that -- aggravating circumstance -- is the first in our History to have invented this republican heresy of a "Ministry of National Identity and Immigration". Unlike Badiou, I do not believe that Sarkozyism is "transcendental Pétainism." And, contrary to Todd, I do not think it is a mark of a "social pathology." And as for comparing Eric Besson to Pierre Laval [head of the collaborationist Vichy government under Philippe Pétain from 1942 on] or Marcel Déat [notorious collaborationist of Vichy], it is, quite simply, inept. But at the same time, words have a history, and language, a subconscious. And the free associations they inspire are like grenades that explode in the brain -- even, and especially, when unintended or unplanned by the pyrotechnicians who planted them there. It starts with this apparently insignificant "and" of the "Ministry of National Identity and Immigration." We begin with a bang, with the co-presence, in one significant chain, of the idea that there may be a malaise of national civilization and a problem related to the way we deal with immigration. And voilà! The movement is on its way! One step further and we have Madame Morano, in unison with the nauseating comments that have now become commonplace in every Prefecture, describing young Muslims as bad Frenchmen who are reluctant to integrate into our society. Is this a slip? An unexpected blunder? No, it is the structural effect of a scene that was set nearly three years ago, the workings of a discourse that cannot function without excluding, stigmatizing, kindling tension and hatred. It constitutes the liberation of the expression of xenophobia, even racism, that Republicans of both Left and Right have agreed to restrain, upon which all the authorities of the apparatus of a democratic State that has lost its mind have suddenly bestowed their blessing.

And finally, there is a third problem that concerns the use made of the very notion of identity. From the outset, I have suggested that, all identities considered, if there is one that is a problem for a Frenchman, an identity that isn't in working order, it is the European one. But, clearly, the very concept of identity is a philosophical trap. This past year has marked the disappearance of a great thinker, a Frenchman named Claude Levi-Strauss. Yet if those who paid him the moving and proper homage of a grateful nation had been even vaguely familiar with his thought, they would have known that one of the great combats of his lifetime was his fight against this passion, this poison, this prison of identity. In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Prix Catalunya, on May 13th, 2005, he cautioned, "I have known an era where national identity was the only conceivable principle for relations between States; we know the disastrous results." In 1978, I co-edited, with Jean-Marie Benoist, a book entitled The Identity. Already, it warned of the temptation to reduce a social system expanding in its richness and complexity to its supposed identity. In this regard, if Levi-Strauss left us a lesson, it was simply that the word "identity" applies to subjects, not to communities; it can be used in the plural, never in the singular. To forget that, to reduce a nation either to this collection of things in common or to this ossified catalogue of traits that are the two possible names of its supposed identity is to impoverish it, to kill it, all the while pretending to give it faith in its future.

For these three reasons at the very least, it would be wise to put an end to this debate. The President of the Republic has opened Pandora's box. It is up to him to close it again.