Nobody is controlling the collision of civilisations

Interview with Marcel Gauchet

Herald of Europe, 2004

The 20th Century was the century of organisation; the 21st will become the century of the individual. At present in the Western world an enormous number of people have attained, in the broadest sense of the term, a high standard of living. Whereas in 1900 only 5% of its population were living comfortably, now it is 60-70%, and in some countries even more. This levelling of wealth, or more precisely prosperity, is having extraordinary effects and is creating as many problems as it is solving.

France is known as the "land of philosophers". In the country of Descartes and Montesquieu, Sartre and Pascal, Rousseau and Camus, philosophy in all its manifestations has always been a kind of religion; not simply a mind game, but the occupation of those rare and refined intellectuals, who mould not only the state of the nation’s soul, but also the image of France, and above all her self-perception. However, following the revolutionary ferment of May 1968, to be counted among the ranks of the philosophers also became a matter of commercial prestige in Paris. Once discovered by the media, the long-haired subversives of the "old certainties" became, with incredible speed, permanent denizens of radio and television and, like film stars, began to be invited to social functions and celebrity events.

Marcel Gauchet is another matter entirely. According to an acute remark in Le Figaro, "he is in no way one of those thinkers more often appearing on television shows than lecturing in university faculties". Nonetheless, among those close to the spheres of philosophy, history and political theory, Gauchet, editor of the prestigious intellectual journal Débat and scientific director of the Higher School of Social Studies (EHESS), is regarded as an incontestable authority. "One of the most significant French thinkers of modern times" (Libération). "The paradoxical mind of this Norman thinker cannot fail to impress" (Expansion). "The entire intellectualism of French social life passes through him" (Le Figaro Magazine). These are just some of the comments about Gauchet’s books and his scientific work...

There are those in France who would agree with you. But what will the role of your country be in the coming century?

Marcel Gauchet – France is not in a healthy state and doesn’t feel happy with globalisation. Not only that, but the Fifth Republic is the European country which more than any other is disturbed by the way globalisation is proceeding. Present-day France is a small country, which still wants to appear as a world power. And the less notice is taken of her, the more loudly she tries to voice her protest against US policy. It is true that France has strength through her right of veto in the UN Security Council. Also, France has retained a sphere of influence in the countries of Black Africa. All this still gives us a feeling of importance. But nothing extraordinary should be expected of France this century. Our country is good for tourism: the paved walkways by the Seine, the flowering chestnut trees, the Côte d’Azur.

And what can be expected from Great Britain?

M.G : We should probably not expect much from Britain either. To me, Great Britain remains a paradox: the country that has been able to retain its apparent historic role, while at the same time remaining the next US state. For half a century the British, whose national character differs fundamentally from that of the Americans, have managed to retain their "special relationship" while at the same time not making enemies of the Yankees. I know of no precedent for this! Admittedly, at present the British, who increasingly have to take account of continental Europe, are in a period of profound disruption of their cultural traditions, and are rewriting their own history. In such a delicate undertaking, the essential thing is to stop in time.

Who then will set the tone in Europe? The Germans?

M.G : Most probably. The Germans are no longer so preoccupied with that constant self-reproach which has characterised them since 1945. The feeling of guilt of Bismarck’s descendents towards humanity is passing, evaporating. People born in Germany in the last half century cannot, and indeed do not want to feel guilty for the crimes of the Nazis. In the near future, the Germans’ self-image will undergo a decisive change. To me, Germany is the greatest enigma of the Europe of the future. In twenty years, that country will have undergone radical change... [...]