Interview with François Mitterrand
An exclusive interview with the President of the French Republic, François Mitterand
Before the institutional upheavals of 1789, France (along with the rest of Europe and North America) experienced an immense ferment of ideas, an intellectual, ethical, juridical and aesthetic revolution which paved the way for political change. Was this not a moment when secular culture came to play a crucially important role as the driving force of history? Would it not be correct to say that culture plays a role which is just as important, if not more so, than economics as a source of dynamism (or inertia) in the evolution of humanity?
You are right to point out that the French Revolution did not take place in a void. It was the prolongation, in political terms, of profound changes in ways of thinking, feeling and acting.
Throughout the eighteenth century there was all over Europe a vast ferment of men and ideas ‒ think of the travels and debates of the philosophers, scholars and artists of that timewhich slowly changed the way in which society regarded itself.
The social and political order was no longer perceived as an immutable effect of divine will but as a balance which was both relative (the discovery of the "new world", and other voyages had revealed the existence of other societies organized differently) and perfectible (as the victory of the American rebels had shown).
For many people there emerged a new line of demarcation between the religiousa matter of personal conviction, the field of freedom of conscienceand the secular, of which government was to be an emanation.
This emergence of a secular culture to which you refer was not in itself hostile to religionone of the great figures of the Revolution was the Abbé Grégoire, a priest faithful to his religion and his ministry, and a republican but the affirmation of man's rights and responsibilities on earth.
The evolution of the sciences played a part in this process. The progress of observation and experimentation made the worldfrom the secrets of nature to human relations increasingly accessible to understanding, to rational analysis. Was this not the moment to think of rebuilding in a different way, with more reason, more justice and more liberty?
The German philosopher Fichte, who regarded the Revolution sympathetically, saw in it a proof of the superiority of man over the beaver, which always rebuilds in an identical fashion, or over the bee, which invariably arranges the cells of its hive in the same way.
The new ideas which were spreading at that time, transmitted in the salons, gazettes, and cafés, thus had adecisive influence. They not only provided the weapons of criticism but, in a society blocked by hereditary privilege and absolutism, in a sense legitimized the transition to action.
Not that there was a ready-made theory of revolution waiting to be applied when the moment came. A great deal of improvisation went on under the pressure of events.
But people did have a kind of compass of which the Rights of Man were the armature.
However, during the same period, other movements were defeated, although the aspirations of the revolutionaries of Geneva, Batavia or Brabant, of the Italian Jacobins and the Hungarian patriots, the republicans of Mainz, the Irish rebels or the Polish resistance were not much different from those of the French.
For history is not made by ideas alone. There must be a conjunction of economic, social and political conditions favourable to change. And there must always be the determination individual and collective of men.
In the last analysis, they alone are the driving force of history.
There is a growing tendency to "localize" or "nationalize" in the sense that people speak, for example, of French, German, Chinese or Egyptian culuture. Is there not a twofold danger here of encouraing compartmentalization between cultures and of centring each cuture on it self, of inciting it to turn towards the past rather than the future? Of coures there are many cultural hosmelands, each linked to a specific language and hsitory and each bearing a specific combination of createive resources. Some are more dynamic and aggressive than otheres and they must all have the opportunity to express themselves fully and freeely. What can be done to protect them in such a way that they are no stifled?
I would not be inclined to agree with you that here is a general tendency for culture to be increasingly confined within local or national frontiers.
First of all, because the entire history of humanity is one, often violent, sometimes peaceful, of growing contact between human cultures.
In oure age, the mediabuild many bridges, multiply influences tenfold and make time contract.
The question is whether this will lead to an enrichment future and more fertile dialogue between them. Or to a to new dissensions, new inequalities,between those who will master the world media and the rest, between those who will have access to the perpetually changing field of knowledge and the rest.
This is a paradox of modern times; we know that the wealth of the world lies in the diversity of its cultures, in wealth of the world lies in the diversity of its cultures, in the variety of sensibilities and forms of expertise; we posess fantastic means for improving mutual understanding and communication. But if we are not careful, these instruments of co-operation will become instruments of domination. And under the economic or political impulsion ofthe most aggressive cultures, a pernicious uniformization may come to prevail.
Sowhat istheanswer? Neither self-renunciation nor self-absorption.
Next, we must be thoroughly convinced ofthe importance of what is at stake: there will be no lasting economic development, no social progress, no solid democracy, no world peace without the flowering of cultures which are sure of themselves and capable of mutual enrichment.
Lastly, we must search for forms of cultural solidarity which respect the identity of everyone, co-operate without arrogance orexcessive humility in the priority areas cation, science, and culture, the keys to a freely chosen destiny.
It is in this sense that France is working, with others, for a Europewith a livingculture, for the strengthening of links within the French-speaking community, and for recognition of the cultural dimension of development aid.
On a vaster scale, this is Unesco's raisond'être and the ambition of the decade of cultural development launched in 1988. For today even more than in 1945, the three objectives are indissociable: wemust educate, seek and following create together.
Is there an area where all these cultural homelands are in contact, an area of universal values? Could one go so far as to say that before the Enlightenment such an area was without intellectual landmarks, that it was latenting reat works of art and literature produced in many countries ‒ but that after 1789 it found philosphical expression in the concept of a universal man, cut loose from all ethnic, confessional and social moornings?
I am tempted to reply with ananecdote. In 1827, Goethe was delighted to discover in a Chinese novel themes close to those he had used in his epic Hermannund Dorothea. He noted enthusiastically that there are placesin this case bookswhere humanity can overcome its divisions. And as a consequence he defined a programme in the form of aconcept, Weltlitteratur [worldliterature], capable oftrantance scending historic frontiers and cultural particularisms. That was his answer to your question about a possible area of universal values,
The revolutionaries of 1789 felt nodoubt on this score: their message was addressed to the whole planet,the rights ofman and the citizen were proclaimed as universal. This was said with a force that still rings in our ears, and the essential thing was, for the first time, to say it in this way.
We know that in practice things turned out some what differently. That liberty, armed for war, ended by assuming in Europe the form and customs ofconquest, as Jaurès said. That equality for women, blacks, and the poor, was something less than true equality.
But if the French Revolution was not always faithful to its principles, it was an ideal in whose name people would fight in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in a context in which national and social questions came to assume greater and greater importance. Many people of Europe and Latin America, Asia and Africa, would make it their watchword against the domineering pretensions of the West.
And when in 1948, after a devastating world war, the need arose to reaffirm human rights, it was again the declaration of 1789 which inspired the universal declaration set forth at the UN. Later the universal declaration was completed by the declaration of economic and social rights which had been called for in over a century of workers' struggles, This was not aimed atthe universal mancut loose from his social moorings of whom you speak; on the contraryit was concerned with people in specific situations, at work and in society.
To return to your question,I think a distinction should be made between acts which bear political fruit ‒ 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the complex course which, especially in the history of ideas, leads to them.
First of all, the radical change of outlook which made the Revolution possible was a slow gestation which originated long before the eighteenth century, in the humanism of the Renaissance, in the coming ofthe spirit of comparíson which shook the authority of religious revelation, in Galilean physics which heralded the Encyclopaedists, in the Wars of Religion which gave rise to the right oftolerance in Montesquieu and LaBruyère who assertedthe relativism of beliefs and customs.
Secondly, throughout the eighteenth century different sensibilities coexisted, some more universalist, others more relativist, than others, the echoes of which are found in modern critical debates on the ideaofethnocentrism,which claims to erect into dominant universal values the specific contents of a culture, and on the limits of the right to be different.
In other words, it is not so easy to define the philosophical area you describe. The recognition of new forms of determinism ‒ economic, social and psychological ‒ has always raised the question of what is universal in man.
But, more specifically, is it possible to act if all values are relative (to aplace, a time, a given culture) and there by cancel each other out? If racism is only one idea among others, and apartheid is the problem of South Africans alone? Can one do anything but postulate a minimum of universal values in order to pass any kind of judgement outside one's own immediate sphere and provide a basis for human solidarity?
Liberty, equality and fraternity are values which have stood up well to the wearand tearoftime and have become sufficiently well acclimatized in all latitudes that people have continued to defend them. As nothing is ever definitively achieved in this field, there is a long way to go from the real to the ideal.
I will conclude with the wise definition given by Tzvetan Todorove in his lastes work : "the universal is the horizon of agreement between two particulars". This dialogue, he adds, is perhaps inaccessible but it is the only worthwhile postulate.
What about the relationship between politics and culture? Is it possible to expect from politicians, above all from world leaders, an aesthetic of community relations, ofrelations between man and nature, ofessential forms of solidarity between all humanity? Can such an aesthetic draw inspiration from the ideal whereby each person should act as if the meaning of his or her action could be erected into a universal principle?
I seem to remember that Kant formulated his categorical imperative in similar terms in his Ground work of the Metaphysic of Morals. He set forth three moral laws: act as if the maxim of your action were to be erected into a universal law of nature, act in such a way that you always treat humanity as an end and never as a means, act as if your maxim was to serve as a universal law for all reasonable beings.
To my mind it would be entirely beneficial if political leaders drew inspiration from these rules of conduct laid down by a philosopher who followed the events of 1789 very closely!
An aesthetic of relationships in the community?
It is not for statesmen to define what is beautiful. But they are responsible for encouraging all that forges a link between people and strengthens the feeling of a common destiny. Art also has a part to play since it makes use of dreams, that essential commodity.
Here a striking vista which makes the city more congenial to its users; there a new museum, revealing its treasures to all; elsewhere a restored monument reminding the nation of a moment in its history; somewhere else a modern public library, beautiful and useful.
To provide amenities, to adorn, to make a significant statementall this can be done together.
So many cities throughout the world bear the stigma of degrading forms of urbanization which display an ugly contempt for people. Other choices are possible which express a desire for a better community life for all and a rejection of laissez-faire, of the haphazard effects of exclusively private interests, of thoughtless conformity.
I would not claim that the link between man and nature is the same for everyone, for the inhabitant of Buenos Aires and the villager of Casamance, for the Parisian and the Baltic fisherman. Some grapple with earth or water day after day, others enjoy them as a form of recreation.
And yet the risks of exhaustion of certain natural resources are of concern to us all; the irremediable destruction of the atmosphere will spare no one; the community has to pay a price for rashly polluted seas.
Human development has been based on mastery of nature.If we forget what we owe to nature and despoil it, then we may be heading for perdition. Those who work close to nature know that an ill-treated piece of land does not yield its wealth for long.
And the city-dweller knows that by creating a garden or a park among the stones,we do more than embellish the city, we assert the continuity of a civilization, we indicate that human genius is rooted in respect for certain balances.
I have cited these examples to show that politicians, and allcitizens, must be more attentive to the essential solidarities between people and between people and their environment,to preserve the vital balances not only for their own societies but for the future of the world.
Remember that when Unesco acted to save Borobudur, Venice or Mont Saint-Michel,it did so because that heritage is part of the memory of all mankind,the common heritage. What was valid for the past is even more valid for the future.
In today's world, no one will find salvation by going against others. The increasing interdependence of economies and cultures makes solidarity an obligation.
Political institutions should encourage the flowering of cultures and the circulation of their products in the freest posible conditions. But isn't the creative artist always necessarily at odds with the politician, even when the later is full of good intentions towards thearts? Is it not true that the artist needs to explore pathways that are anti-institutional?
Asolutely. The freedom to create is to some extent the barometer of all liberties. A society which restricts this freedom of all liberties. Asociety which restricts this freedom usually attaches ittle importance to its members. Where people are free neither in their movements nor in their words, the force of creation is weakened even if courageous works appear, condemned to a restricted diffusion.
In relation to art, the political authorities bear the responsibility you describe: they should create conditions propitious for creation and circulation.
I would also add an educational dimension, a responsiblity towards young people or publics which are relatively unfamiliar with creative works. For loving also comes through learning.
And sometimes too there is an obligation to see that market forces do not reign entirely unchecked, to take,when necessary, protective measures simply to defend the freedom to create against over-encroaching cultures. The example of the audiovisual media, at atime whenthe number of channels and satellites is rapidly increasing, shows that it is impossible to pay too much attention to this.
The abuse of power begins with interferece in content. History has too many regrettable examples of attempts to promote an official art exalting the "positive" virtues of given régime.
One important feature of the Enlightenment was the holding of a public debate on aesthetics. Many viewpoints were expressed and some ofthem make us smile today ‒ as when Diderot recommended historical portraits as a particularly revolutionary art form since they drew the atttion of the public to the great defenders of its rights ... But fortunately no narrowly utilitarian conception of art prevailed.
Fickle and libertarian, such is the essence of creation. This only irritates those who fear liberty.
What cultural project do you personally dream of? What would you like to achieve with other worldl eaders between now and the end of the millennium? Is it possible to imagine a cultural programme on a world scale analagous to Eureka?
Must I really tell you about my dreams?
Very well. There is one project for my country which I holddearandthat isthe great library of France, thelaunching ofwhich I announced last summer, on the day of our national festival.
The book and the written heritage are at the heart of our civilization. During my first mandate, France greatly developed and modernized its library network. But our Bibliothèque Nationale is too cramped in its old buildings and cannot, in spite of all efforts, adequately present its prestigious heritage or receive all those who seek access to it, in some cases after travelling from distant countries.
Whence the idea of building a great library on another site, radically new in conception, covering a vast field of knowledge, using the latest technologies of data transmission, equally concerned with the audiovisual documents of today's culture, and eventually forming partwith other French and foreign librariesof a great network.
I intend to follow the project closely. The building must be beautiful and ‒ why not ? ‒ the site favourable to meditation, so that everything will combine to celebrate the pleasure of discovery and study, and encourage the acquisition of knowledge.
Secondly, what would like to achieve with other heads of state between now and the end of the millennium? There is so much to do if the world is to become less harsh to the needy, less given to destruction, more respectful of universal human rights....
One problem, however, seems to me of extreme and even frightening importance for the survival of humanity: the deterioration of the atmosphere.
Everyone must understand that this is not just another form of pollution; it may spell the end of all life on the planet. Hereeveryone mustjoin in the search for a solution.
The United Nations is devoting an interesting research programme to this problem. But the moment has come for decision and action.
This is why, on 11 March last, at The Hague, twenty fourcountries signedan appeal urgently calling for the creation of an international authority for the environment.
As always in such a case, dogmatisms and egoisms, draped in a refusal to abandon any fragment of national sovereignty to a collective authority, are slowingthe movement down. But twenty-four countries, for a start, are determined to go ahead. Others will follow as they come to realize what is really at stake.
I wish therefore ‒ long before the end of the millennium to see human reason, that virtue so dearto the hearts of the men of 1789, triumph over the destructive ravages of laxity and laissez faire.
You mention Eureka,the programme of European technological development which now has a sister programme in the field of the audio visual.
At the time we faced a choice. Should we wait for unanimous agreement among our partners, or should a few of us who were determined to act go ahead and leave the doors wide open for all those who might wish to join us later? We opted for the second course. Gradually the candidatures have flowed in, and not only from Europe.
Cultural co-operation at planetary level, which owes much to Unesco, can also proceed in this way: a project, aprogramme, the united determination of some, others who join in later.