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Interview : Jean Daniel, The state of the nation

The French writer and journalist Jean Daniel is founder-director of the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. He has been an ardent champion of the cause of human dignity and a lucid and critical observer of the events of the last half century. The author of many novels and essays, he was recently awarded the Albert Camus prize for a collection of short stories entitled L’ami anglais (Paris, Grasset, 1994). Here he talks to Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat about the current evolution of the nation-state, the theme of his latest book, Voyage au centre de la nation (Seuil publishers, Paris, 1995)

At a time when nations seem increasingly threatened by the process of globalization, the idea of the nation-state-the subject of your latest book-is giving rise to a good deal of thought and comment.

After a long period of neglect the nation has again become a highly topical subject, especially in the United States and Germany. Each month dozens of books are published on this theme in different parts of the world. I trace the origins of the idea of the nation to Johann Fichte's1 famous Addresses to the German Nation, a book which is outstanding both for its depth and objectivity and for its impact on European thought.

No-one else has ever made a more subtle and penetrating eulogy of what is called"the right of blood"[jus sanguinis]. Fichte maintains that without the nation-real or imaginary-a people has no future, and that the Germans are fortunate because they have had a national experience made possible by the existence of a language and racial purity. He expounds this in such philosophically sophisticated terms and in such noble language that few people have seen any connection between his views and the racist theories that were set forth later by Joseph de Gobineau2 and Houston Chamberlain3 and were to lead to Alfred Rosenberg4 and Hitler.

In my opinion, Fichte remains topical because in some places there is a persistent feeling of nostalgia for"the right of blood", unpopular though the concept may be among Western elites.

Could you give some examples ?

Examples of this nostalgia can be found in ethnic and religious groups in the Baltic states, in Ukraine, in Georgia, in Armenia, Azerbaijan and of course in the former Yugoslavia, even though in some cases the heritage of the right of blood seems doubtful.

The example of Israel is very interesting. On the one hand Israel welcomes people from all over the world who are often (especially the Russians) the product of ethnic mixing. On the other hand, marriages between Jews and non-Jews are forbidden in the diaspora5. And since proselytism is out of the question and conversion is a difficult enterprise, marriage between Jews continues to be the ideal. Sometimes this consanguinity is given a dangerous theological significance : that of a holy alliance with a distinctive people which must remain pure, the people to whom God speaks.

And the Arab countries ?

In theory, Islam is a universal religion which is hospitable to all peoples and cultures. But in reality it respects the right of blood.

Is Islam more progressive in this respect, since anyone is a potential convert ?

Don't forget that St. Paul, who lived in pre-Islamic times, abolished the need to be circumcised before becoming a Christian. That did not prevent certain inquisitors from considering that converted Jews were not proper Christians.

For Muslims it is inter-ethnic marriages rather than inter-religious marriages that pose a problem. But it comes down to the same thing-we are dealing with prohibitions which show that in the final analysis what counts is the right of blood.

What's more, the right of blood is making a strong come-back all over the world, directly and indirectly, and is being justified in various ways-by the idea that intermingling does not succeeed, or that it leads to bastardization or to the dissolution of identity.... To some extent, many people who aspire to universality tell themselves that in the end it is better to achieve it via the community.

This debate was inaugurated by the French Revolution, which formulated two conflicting ideas of the nation. On the one hand there is the abstract nation that springs from "free contract" between autonomous, aware, responsible individuals, and on the other the real, physical nation that is a product of history and imposes itself on individuals, whether they like it or not. Or is this a simplification of what actually happened ?

Enthralling debates about this took place between the revolutionaries, especially concerning the emancipation of the Jews, the Protestants and the blacks. When Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre6 said "Everything to the Jews as individuals, nothing as a nation", he had enthusiastic supporters who did not believe in communities. But he also had detractors. His proposal was rejected. Someone came to see him and said : "I don't know any ‘individual' Jews. I only know a community." Then his visitor explained how individuals detached from their community structures did not exist.

As for the Protestants, the Revolution gave them equality. It emancipated them and gave them access to positions from which they had been excluded. But they continued to define themselves in a way that was simultaneously religious and individual. And so at this period when God was deprived of his sovereignty, when the temporal was separated from the spiritual, when the individual was dazzled and overwhelmed by his freedom, French Protestants found a thoroughly gratifying form of integration : they had their cake and ate it too.

Things were more complicated for the blacks. Slavery was abolished, then reinstated. Economic questions complicated relations with the black community even further. The heirs of the Revolution behaved very badly and finally came out in support of slavery. All this is magnificently described by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in his novel Explosion in the Cathedral.

To conclude, it is true that an abstract idea of the individual exists. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 makes no allusion to the duties of the individual (in other words there is no bond with the community and no responsibility towards it). The only limitation on freedom is that one should not trespass on one's neighbour's freedom. Two counter-revolutionaries, Edmund Burke in England and Joseph de Maistre in France, later pointed out correctly that the men of 1789 were to some extent talking nonsense, that they had invented a creature which turns its back on human nature.

Of course, the need for a sense of community exists in all societies. It has been seen, for example, in the strength of tradition in Britain or in the heritage of the feudal monarchy in France, not to mention societies where the patriarchal principle is so strong that the individual is not only an abstraction but an absurdity. The community impinges constantly on the members of these societies from the cradle to the grave, notably through rites of initiation, marriage and sexuality. The individual derives his balance from the community, and when he is alone he feels protected by remembering his community.

So is it possible to strike a balance between individual freedom and solidarity with the community ? One place where this balance has been found is the nation-state, which was constructed in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe to meet this very need.

Widely different ideas of the community have been proposed....

In France, for example, there is a big difference between the ideas of Maurice Barrès7 and Charles Maurras8. Barres is a kind of aesthete of the French nation. For him the nation means having the same dead, and remembering them in the same way.

Maurras had a more vigorous idea of the nation. He said to Barres : "Your dead interest me, but it's not mourning them that makes a nation. It's the fact that they are dead. The blood that has been shed."

De Gaulle had a similar idea. For him the nation is primarily an idea. Seen in this light, his thinking was much more progressive than that of François Mitterrand or of many African heads of state today. For De Gaulle the French nation is a certain idea of France and the hardships shared in serving this idea-but hardships shared with others, remember. France was made with foreigners.

The idea of shared hardship is essential here. Before there can be a nation there has to be a certain number of common memories, projects and hardships. The universal must be associated with what Simone Weil9 calls enracinement-taking root. Here we have come a long way from the free individual of 1789, who asks himself every day"do I want to be French or not ?"

Between the wars, in the societies of the South, the notion of the individual, abstract though it may have been, was nevertheless a spearhead that helped to dislocate religious and patriarchal structures. There was never any danger of being too abstract. On the contrary, patriarchal despotism was so deeply rooted that it took all the virulence of the abstract ideal of 1789 to overthrow it.

Indeed. But in the West, the modern individual eventually went too far and severed all connection with the sacred. The problems he or she encountered in Europe were not the same as those experienced by modernist intellectuals on the other side of the Mediterranean.

In some ways the preoccupations of intellectuals in the South today recall those of the 19th-century European intelligentsia. And the crisis of the 19thcentury European intelligentsia gives the 20th-century South a foretaste of what to expect....

This reminds me of a very telling anecdote. At the end of his life, Tolstoy-who had fought against serfdom in Russia and was largely responsible for its abolition-used to say when he saw the rather arrogant and vulgar behaviour of the former muzhiks :"How fine was the struggle in the days of serfdom !"

In just the same way, in the struggle for the freedom of the individual, the struggle itelf is a source of fulfilment. An ideal exists in its most open, most balanced form during the struggle waged on its behalf. When the battle is won, one sees that its goal has been betrayed or else that it was vain. Revolutions soon betray themselves.

As for the revolutions in the South during the first half of the twentieth century, the individual began to fulfil himself in the struggle. He found true fulfilment at the time when he was most committed and responsive to the call of his community at a time of danger. As soon as the struggle was over, his freedom was either confiscated by a dictatorship or, at best, impoverished.

There is a cyclical phenomenon, here. After the great age of triumphant nationalism, the idea of individual freedom-as defined by French humanism-was reaffi rmed with new vigour. It is true that its fundamentalist negation has been quicker to occupy the ground....

Perhaps the expansion of French humanism complicated matters rather than simplified them. It made almost everyone schizophrenic. People experienced it on two levels-as a source of greater inner wealth but also of more conflicts and uneasiness. Eventually they became so unbalanced that they wanted to go back to the old-style community because it was simpler and more reassuring. Instead of seeing a particular richness in these two levels, as Senghor did, they saw them as a betrayal of the myth of a return to the past, of the myth of authenticity, of a golden age. This golden age never really existed but nostalgia for it made it possible to resist schizophrenia.

The five or six fundamentalists I have met during my life are former schizophrenics who have wanted to free themselves from their failure to discover a synthesis between the two civilizations and ideals that divided them. They said to themselves : "I only take one of them and I back it to the hilt so that I have a firm sense of reality on which I can rely." This perverse effect of the contagion of humanism is worth thinking about.

As far as perversity is concerned, we prefer to think about the perversity of states where the individual exists but lacks the protective garment of citizenship.

It is true that citizenship was the vocation of the individual in the West. Many remedies for the failings we have been discussing can be found in citizenship, because the citizen is a responsible person. Pierre Mendes France10 thought that freedom conferred more duties than rights and that national solidarity made non-stop claims on citizens. In the duties of the free citizen the individual finds a balance equivalent to that which in traditional societies is provided by dependence on the community.

But things have changed, even in the West, in recent decades. There have been two big changes-the coming of the affluent society, which has transformed the individual into a consumer, and the development of the audiovisual media, which has transformed the individual into a televiewer. The ideal of the market economy, which has turned the individual into a competitive consumer, is at odds with humanist culture. Furthermore, as a televiewer, the individual has less and less need of elections and parliaments, reacting with increasing passivity to a procession of images, instead of making active judgments in the privacy of his conscience. The combination of the consumer and the televiewer is annihilating the citizen. It does not deprive him of freedom by imposing constraints but by the extent of the new needs it implants in him. The nation is threatened with dissolution by the market economy and by television.

Is it possible that the dissolution of the nation under the pressure of an increasingly globalized market will lead to larger supranational groupings, just as the 19th-century nation-states were formed out of statelets ? This question is relevant not only for Europe and North America but also for the Arab world and subSaharan Africa. How else will survival in the 21st century be possible ?

What you describe may come about but it is not inevitable. I have noticed that major social phenomena are the product of reactions rather than actions. Social phenomena obey the law of the swinging pendulum. When the pendulum has swung too far one way, it swings back just as far in the other. This observation is perhaps less commonplace than it seems because it can lead to extremely tense situations.

To take one example, the idea of the swing of the pendulum has led scientists such as Claude Levi-Strauss to talk of a "race tolerance threshold", which is a very dangerous notion. If you have too many foreigners in a given area, a rejection mechanism takes place. Levi Strauss has spent his life studying tribes that he admired so much that he wanted to protect their purity (in a sense he was in favour of the right of blood) and since he saw that intermingling led to acculturation, he came to believe that cultures have the right to protect themselves against each other. It is true that inputs from outside are sometimes necessary, but the dosage must be carefully watched. Ultimately, Levi-Strauss sees the world as a set of cultures that have the right to defend themselves but must not seek to dominate each other.

What do you think of the idea that our attitudes to the nation have taken us back into the 19th century ?

Unlike the French thinker Régis Debray, I don't believe that we have returned to the nineteenth century, because in the nineteenth century you had none of the phenomena-international exchanges, demographic factors, technology, planet-wide interdependence, the interpenetration of cultures, the abolition of distance, the babelization of languages-that you have today and which lead many people to feel that they are losing their identity.

To return to the example of France, since European citizenship does not exist and French citizenship is becoming diluted, many people will either fall back on nationalism or become spineless individuals. Elsewhere, retreat into religion and expressions of fundamentalism are more or less violent reactions to the radically new idea that we all inhabit a single planet. Where will all this lead to in the end ? Since the trend towards globalization is irreversible, I think it is possible that nations may disappear under the combined effects of a sense of loss of identity, of consumption, of television and the absence of wars.

Think of the ideas put forward about the identity of France by the French historian Fernand Braudel. Braudel says, more or less, that France is a kind of miracle, a product of chance, and lists all the reasons why it should not have become a nation. There was no complementarity between the scattered pieces of France. There was no need for France to become France.

Nor is there any need today for Europe or the Arab world to form a federal unit. Millions of French and German people had to die before it was decided to give priority to economic interests and the construction of Europe began. First of all people felt the need to stop exterminating each other, then came the discovery of economic complementarity. Supranational groupings may or may not be made-it will all depend on human determination, not on some kind of historical inevitability.


1. German philosopher (1762-1814). His Reden an die deutsche Nation, 14 addresses given at the university of Berlin in 1807 and1808, set forth his ideas on the foundations of national recovery after the collapse ofPrussia.-Ed.

2. French writer (1816-1882), author of an "Essay on the inequality of the human races" (1853-1855 ; Eng. trans. 1915).-Ed.

3. British-born German writer (1855-1927),author of a pan-German racist theory expounded in his book The Foundations ofthe l9th Century (1899, Eng. trans. 1911) which influenced Hitler.-Ed.

4. German politician (1893-1946). A leadingtheorist of national socialism.-Ed.

5. The Jewish communities dispersed throughout the world.-Ed.

6. A representative of the nobility in the Estates General at the beginning of theFrench Revolution.-Ed.

7. French writer (1862-1923) and nationalist.-Ed.

8. French writer (1868-1952) and monarchist.-Ed.

9. French writer and philosopher(1909-1943).-Ed.

10. French politician (1907-1982).-Ed.

Read also The embrace of the community, by Jean Daniel, UNESCO Courier, December 1994


Jean Daniel

The French writer and journalist Jean Daniel is founder-director of the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. He has been an ardent champion of the cause of human dignity and a lucid and critical observer of the events of the last half century. The author of many novels and essays, he was recently awarded the Albert Camus prize for a collection of short stories entitled L'ami anglais (Paris, Grasset, 1994).