In 1784, Immanuel Kant published Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, a short essay that would become the cornerstone of a world-changing philosophical movement. For Kant, history was an inescapable odyssey from ignorance to reason, from prejudice to universality, from immaturity to liberation. While men thought of themselves as independent agents, they unknowingly followed a “guiding thread” that drove their common narrative. This guiding thread lay in the perfectibility of human reason, which nature had willed to be Man’s sole source of happiness.
Kant dedicated his entire political project to the expansion of Man’s intellectual boundaries, a subconscious act that he wanted to turn into a deliberate pursuit. The German philosopher wanted to get the men of his time to “Sapere Aude,” to dare and explore the limits of their understanding. A resolute optimist, he foresaw the fall of tyrants and the rise of republics. As national boundaries would inescapably vanish, cosmopolitan peace would emerge in a new age of progress. The process would be incremental, but the end result was inevitable: Man would become the rational animal that Nature designed.
The Enlightenment laid down the foundations of the modern world order. From transnational federations such as the EU to an economic system premised on the infallible rationality of homo economicus, we have come to adopt many of the 18th century’s central axioms. For centuries, the confidence of Kant’s teleological predictions appeared warranted. Globalization was indeed underway, and its ascent seemed unstoppable. The antiquated nation-state struggled to justify its legitimacy in the face of challenges such as climate change and terrorism, which exposed the insufficiencies of a political unit bound to be transcended.
For better or worse, however, the Kantian political project has now come to a halt. Just as the 18th century provided a battalion of reasons to embrace rationality, so our time issues a slew of warnings vis-à-vis its limitations. As mainstream politicians restrain their discourse to technocratic frameworks, demagogues steal the show with bombastic rhetoric, historical hyperbole, and ominous imagery. Politics has become a tragicomic pantomime in which emotional hemophilia, back-to-back scandals, and unexpected turns determine our shared future. Numbers no longer speak louder than words. From the daily columns of respected newspapers to the polished walls of elite universities, illiberal thought has infiltrated all the historical bastions of the Enlightenment.
The specter of populism lurks as modernity meets its hidden discontents: a mass of workers who repudiate the supposed prosperity of the era. Globalization accelerates almost as fast as its unpopularity grows, and the 1930s, once considered a contingent exception in the great advancement of humankind, now resurface as a palpable possibility for the future. Paradoxically, at a time when the dispossessed are pushed to the margins of real political power, careless politicians endow disorganized mobs with artificial but boundless legitimacy, just as the Jacobins did in 1789. In his renowned work The Psychology of Revolution, the 19th-century polymath Gustave Le Bon depicted the danger of this phenomenon with prophetic caution:
To the Jacobins of this epoch [the French Revolution], as well as to those of our times, this popular entity constitutes a superior personality possessing attributes peculiar to the gods of never having to answer for their actions and never making a mistake. Their wishes must be humbly acceded to. The people may kill, burn, ravage, commit the most frightening cruelties, glorify their hero today and throw him into the gutter tomorrow, it is all the same; the politicians will not cease to vaunt the people’s virtues and to bow to their every decision.
Yet the French Revolution was not merely an incommensurate bloodbath. In its aftermath, the ancien régime, in which lives were entirely circumscribed by inherited privileges, was replaced with the universal category of the citizen. From that point onwards, to paraphrase the poet Charles Baudelaire, France came to embody the ideas of Voltaire, the champion of universalism and Enlightenment ideals. Among such ideals was the conviction that race is — and should be — purely and simply irrelevant in a human being’s life. Skin color, religion, origins — all immutable characteristics would be of little interest to the burgeoning French Republic.
Naturally, after the rise of Napoleon and the eventual reestablishment of the monarchy in 1814, the Revolution’s universalist project waited in the shadow of centuries-old prejudices. Generations of French children learnt about egalitarian myths whose grand aspirations did not materialize. It took World War II to bring universalism back in full force. During the German occupation, the murderous Vichy regime relied on racialist policies to ostracize — and ultimately deport — Jews. In 1945, when France woke up to the magnitude of the Vichy regime’s crimes and cowardice, the very notion of race became instantly intolerable. Theodor Adorno once wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; for the French to believe in the concept of race after Vichy was just as monstrous.
In 1978, the French government officially banned the use of the word “race” in public documents; ethnic statistics were no longer allowed, and the study of race disappeared from school curricula. Teachers would still talk about colonialism, but they would approach the topic from the standpoint of “Frenchmen” invading “African” countries — in other words, the relevance of racial divisions would be minimized in order to promote a world in which young French citizens grew up without ever hearing about skin color.
To this day, successive French governments have upheld this universalist — at least in theory — status quo. For instance, while France’s elite grandes écoles have begun to implement affirmative-action policies, these reforms only take into account the socioeconomic background of applicants, not their race or ethnicity. Interestingly, the French Left has historically championed this color-blind mentality. Far from a pack of intersectional activists, French progressives focus almost exclusively on class-based inequalities. Where the French Left views the existing model as a bulwark against racialism, the Right sees it as a preservation of France’s Enlightenment values. For almost a century, this point of agreement stayed virtually untouched.
But as the U.S. cements its position at the center of Western cultural life, the debates raging in American streets are bound to make waves on European shores. Over the past few weeks, the upheavals over the killing of George Floyd have resonated in the old continent, and France is no exception. Growing protests have generated a series of discussions surrounding France’s colonial past and “white privilege,” a term previously unheard of on French public television. Sibeth Ndiaye, a former government spokesperson born in Senegal, wrote in Le Monde that it was “time to break the taboo” about collecting statistics on race; for her, voices of color have long been silenced in the name of pseudo-universalism.
Naturally, acknowledging the importance of race relations in one of the most multiethnic societies in the West need not represent an affront to French Republicanism. After all, while the French do not formally recognize the concept of race, debates about discrimination against Muslims and Arab immigrants have played a central role in France’s national conversation for decades.
But the philosophical ramifications of this potential change are more momentous than they may appear. Since its very inception, French Republicanism has refused to accept what we may call hyphenated identities. In France, introducing oneself as, say, “Asian-French” is purely and simply inacceptable. In the eyes of the Republic, Frenchness is either absolute or non-existent. This tradition carries progressive and conservative implications. On the progressive side, the notion of Frenchness has not historically been associated with racialism as much as Germanness, for instance. While France introduced the right to become French without having French parents in 1851, Germany waited until the 1990s to pass an equivalent law. But this all-absorbing conception of Frenchness also implies that to join France’s national body is to liberate oneself from all kinds of existing attachments; race, origin, and religion all find themselves relegated to secondary relevance. The historian Ernest Renan brilliantly captured the philosophical underpinnings of this tradition in his 1882 essay “What Is a Nation”:
Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this moral consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is legitimate and has the right to exist. . . . The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. In this sense, a nation’s existence is . . . a daily plebiscite.
Defending the “abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community,” Renan does not reject the classical-liberal conception of the sovereign individual. In fact, he championed natural-rights theory and defended civil liberties with tact and elocutionary force. But what he does point to is the necessity to establish a hierarchy of loyalties. For Thomas Aquinas, our duties begin with God and the family, and then extend outwards to reach the state or the nation. Renan presents an alternative paradigm. Real nations require the adoption of collective narratives, myths, and memories. And this shared heritage may well contradict other parts of individuals’ identities, which will have to yield for the national body to constitute itself. The Greek historian Herodotus, one of Renan’s beloved sources of inspiration, said it best: “Custom is king of all.” Among other controversial measures, this attitude towards the supremacy of nationhood explains, at least in part, why the French so vehemently oppose the burka and other Islamic veils. While Islamophobia — and all-around anti-religiosity — is undoubtedly present in the country, the French people’s reluctance also represents a logical continuation of a centuries-old vision of the nation as an all-subsuming entity.
If the French choose to reaffirm the central importance of race in politics, France will effectively do away with a substantial portion of its Republican tradition. This decision will be complicated for both the Right and the Left. In appearance at least, the country’s symbolic universalism has utterly failed to vanquish racism, and providing ethnic statistics may well represent a necessary step to address the issue with due seriousness.
But what will those statistics teach the French that they do not already know? Are the grandes écoles disproportionally white? A simple series of class photos could tell them as much. Do ethnically Arab Frenchmen represent a large proportion of inmates in French prisons? A short trip to any incarceration facility would suffice to answer that question in the affirmative. While justified in many ways, the argument in favor of racial statistics is partially circular. Because we know that there are structural problems with education / the justice system / . . . , we absolutely need to get statistics on the matter; once we have those statistics, we will have numerical evidence that what we were already convinced of is in fact true. But do precise percentages really change the behavior of policy-makers? After all, as French writer Didier Hallépée put it, “statistics are like people; if you torture them long enough, they will tell you exactly what you want to hear.”
How would the French government respond differently if, instead of knowing that the grandes écoles accept an infinitesimal proportion of black people who apply, they knew that the grandes écoles accept, say, 3 percent of black people? Would this new information generate a sea-change in policy-making? Proponents of racial statistics would respond that, in any case, quantifiable evidence carries more credibility than anecdotal speculation, as it certainly does. In fact, what makes this debate so multifaceted is that both sides defend legitimate and valid positions. French universalism has failed; but for better or for worse, it remains an integral pillar of France’s heritage, one that the French should not tear down without careful consideration.
Ultimately, the impotence of French universalism serves to illustrate the wider malfunctions of our age. As the legacy of the Enlightenment proves incapable of providing apt solutions to contemporary fears, its influence is bound to vanish. Far from being a linear progress towards absolute rationality, history parades its unpredictability, rejoicing in its unyielding refusal to follow grand narratives. Nevertheless, the philosophical vacuum left by the ruins of the 18th century need not become a source of cultural malaise. The chance and duty to reinvent ourselves while upholding the seal of our ancestors’ approval is a challenge that every era has to face. As Homer put it in the Iliad (Robert Fagles’s translation):
Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.