Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing

Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing

Pascal Bruckner
Pascal Bruckner
24 min read

Terrible is the temptation to be good.
~Bertolt Brecht

We often forget that contemporary Europe was not born, as the United States was, in the euphoria of new beginnings, but in a sinking sense of its own abjection. The crimes of the Nazis affected the entire Old World, like a cancer that had long been growing inside it. Thus, the European victors over the Third Reich were contaminated by the enemy they had helped defeat, in contrast to the Americans and Soviets, who emerged from the conflict crowned in glory. Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow. It has left us sullied to the very depths of our culture. Isn’t this what the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire contends when he de-Germanizes Hitler and makes him the very metaphor of the white man in general? In 1955, in his Discours sur le Colonialisme, Césaire points to:

[The] very distinguished, very humanist, very Christian bourgeois twentieth century man, who without realizing it carries within himself a little Hitler; Hitler haunts him, Hitler is his demon, and if he rails against him he is not being consistent; basically what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not his crime against man, it’s his crime against the white man, it’s the white man’s humiliation at Europe having been subjected to the colonialist practices that previously applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the negroes of Africa.1

Let us disregard for a moment the gross comparison that equates colonialism with genocide, and the racializing of white people who thereby become the universal symbol of infamy, as witnessed today in the growing “anti-racism” movement. Not only did history provide Hitler with centuries of precedents, but he has never been anything but the true face of Europe—the Europe that confronted him even as it acquiesced in his rise to power.

The amazing thing is not that such masochistic theories should flourish, but that they are applauded by so many elites. For a few decades, the Cold War delayed the West’s self-examination, but since 1989 and the inclusion of ex-Soviet bloc countries into a widening European Union, the crisis of conscience has only deepened, and has partially, if not completely, guided political thought. Having scaled unprecedented peaks of barbarity, the Europe of Brussels has decided to redeem itself by privileging moral values over realpolitik. Henceforth, we were enjoined to adopt what Auguste Comte and Victor Hugo, each for his own reasons, called “the religion of humanity,” grounded in altruism and devotion. Western Europeans dislike themselves. They are unable to overcome their self-disgust and feel the pride in their heritage and the self-respect that is so strikingly evident in the United States. Modern Europe is instead mired in shame shrouded in moralizing discourse. It has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience.

What better example of this proclivity exists than Angela Merkel’s embrace of about a million refugees fleeing war-torn Syria in 2015? Even though this gesture that would help replenish a shrinking labor force was not strictly disinterested, for this pastor’s daughter it was also a spectacular way to repudiate Nazism and escape its shadow. After the catastrophe of the Second World War, the Federal Republic would now offer itself as an ostentatious example to the world. Germany would practice open-heartedness in a single country, just as Stalin in the USSR had once practiced socialism in a single country. Already pre-eminent in Europe, Berlin would call the shots, whether exercising toughness or kindness. Merciless with the Greeks in July, when the Chancellery wanted to eject them from the eurozone, but beneficent with the Syrians in September, it could demonstrate severity or an ever so imperial charity.

Thomas Aquinas, an heir to Aristotle, was the first to turn the ethics of virtue into a theory. Montesquieu deplored the despotism and corruption of the French monarchy, which he compared to the virtue of the ancient Romans. But he also realised that, for fragile and flawed humanity, his ideal of virtue was impossible.2 Rousseau would point out the difference between the good man who is the natural man, and the virtuous man, a citizen who cares about the well-being of his compatriots. The good man is self-sufficient, the benevolent man lives in society. But both Rousseau and, later, Kant also admitted that only a god-like people could govern democratically, since man is by nature imperfect and corruptible.

And so, after 1945, and particularly after 1989, Europe decided to interrogate its history and its geography, its past and its borders, and to construct its future on “radical tolerance.” Ulrich Beck’s idea of vacuité substantielle, or lack of substance, has more or less evolved from the universal patriotism of Jürgen Habermas, who prefers to draw a purely formal link among citizens. Without altogether dismissing collective identities, the German philosopher only recognizes them within a framework of constitutional principles founded on the universal rights of man. Particularly with regard to Germany, he calls for a critical look at the past. A nation, he argues, is founded less on a shared lived tradition than on a set of indisputable values. Murderous chauvinism must therefore be replaced by a postmodern national affiliation.

Habermas attempts a delicate balancing act: rehabilitate sovereignty without harnessing it to a rhetoric of identity. Habermas and his contemporaries urge us to be suspicious of those traditions that led Europe into disaster. One should therefore adopt “a problematized conscience regarding History” that is nourished by a new interpretation of past centuries. In whatever scenario, universalism—even Hegel’s “concrete universalism”—must win out over any local particularities. Broadly speaking, this universal patriotism has become the philosophy adopted by the Brussels Commission. It’s paradoxical that, notwithstanding its massaging of public opinion, the Federal Republic of Germany, in the guise of a “modest nation,” became the leader of the European Union, upon which it has ceaselessly imposed its will for nearly three decades now. It renounced military adventures and conquered through economic pre-eminence. The problem with virtuous theories, however, is that they often mask a desire for power, or produce unintended consequences.

Many people are wondering why it is only Europe that feels guilty, not only for its own past crimes, but also for the faults of others?3 The answer is simple: we dominated the world for four centuries. The empires have collapsed but their memory remains, and this has given rise to an ever-expanding discipline: post-colonial studies. We have become the continent of the uneasy conscience and we wish to show the rest of the world the face of moral law in all its purity. Europe sees itself as a sacrificial offering, through which the entire world can expiate its sins. It offers to assume the shame for every misfortune that befalls the planet: famine in Africa, drowning in the Mediterranean, terrorism, natural disasters, they are all directly or indirectly our handiwork. And when we are attacked—by terrorists, for example—it’s still our fault; we had it coming and are undeserving of compassion. Since we are overcome by such a torrent of sins, all we can do is bear up and attempt to correct and atone for them all, one by one. An unctuous discourse intended to edify is replacing what was once political and historical analysis; an ideal society must replace the existing one of ordinary men, and be cleansed of its impurities. Two areas in particular reveal this delusion of sanctity—immigration and ecology.

The Sanctification of the Foreigner

When it comes to mass migrations, no one seems surprised that “migrants”—a vague all-purpose term—choose to journey exclusively to Western Europe rather than to the Maghreb, the Mashriq, the Gulf States, or Russia. That is because, like everyone else, they know that only in Europe will they find a sense of exacerbated culpability; it’s pretty much assured that they will be able to arrive on its shores, preferably under the gaze of the media, confident of being taken in, or at least listened to. Pope Francis set the tone on July 8, 2013, when he visited the island of Lampedusa and castigated the “globalization of indifference.” For the sovereign Pontiff, the only acceptable immigration policy is unconditional hospitality. “To welcome the Other is to welcome God Himself,” he declared in December, 2017. It was Pope Francis who advocated the opening of migrant corridors, and who demanded, in January, 2018, that keeping the family intact be given priority “by helping to reunite families, including grandparents, brothers and sisters and grandchildren, without ever requiring them to prove economic viability.”

It is hardly surprising that the head of the Catholic Church should see the face of Christ in each and every refugee. He was just reaffirming the principles of the gospels, even if he did belatedly seem to spare a thought for the state of affairs in the host countries. But in the conflict between conscience and reality, the only solution can be compromise, which is in the hands of politicians. At a practical level, hospitality cannot be granted as a simple offering to the detriment of national sovereignty. The fear, not of the foreigner, but of the stranger in one’s home, of not being protected by the state, the fear of cultural insecurity and expropriation—these are not reactionary fantasies. How can the welfare state, already overstretched, cope with the costs of retirement benefits and medical care if it must also cater to the needs of new arrivals? In former times, such an influx would have been called an invasion, an occupation, colonization. Today, such pejoratives are forbidden. From now on, it is simply a matter of love and listening and radiant outwardness instead of ugly inwardness. But we are forgetting a simple truism: were it a matter of just a few thousand people, one’s duty to help would be clear. But when we talk about tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, priorities necessarily shift—where there are overwhelming numbers, morale collapses.

Who is this Other that it is our unique moral duty, as equal parts savior and judge, to welcome? Numerous legal experts speak in his name. In Le Monde on February 15, 2018, for example, professor Didier Fassin exclaimed: “France will be judged by History on its attitude to the migrants.” The Africanist Jean François Bayart speaks of our “abject State” for having sought the assistance of the Libyans and Turks to help stem migrant flows. “We demand that our African allies do our dirty work of sending back migrants… The Republic, its administration, its police and its political class, is losing its soul and its honor.”4

Council of State member Thierry Tuot’s February 11, 2013 report to the Prime Minister on integration policy in an inclusive society, opens with a quote from Novalis: “And more than any of them, the superb Foreigner with his deep gaze, his light step, his half-closed lips all aquiver with song.” This remarkable quote can be read as a benign declaration of love, but anyone who fails to share these sentiments about this magnificent figure can now expect to be shunned for his inhumanity.

In June, 2019, two human rights lawyers, Omer Shatz and Juan Branco, lodged a complaint in the International Criminal Court that accused the European Union of committing “crimes against humanity” as a result of its policy aimed “at keeping down the migratory flux towards Europe at all costs, including by the murder of thousands of civilians fleeing from an area of armed conflict.” Nobel laureate Jean Marie le Clézio denounced the French Republic’s president’s “unbearable lack of human decency” for wanting to distinguish between economic migrants and political refugees. When we know that a majority of those seeking asylum come from Georgia and Albania, however, this is hardly a trivial distinction.5 Economic migrants should, after all, only be admitted according to the needs of the host country. In a similar vein, the Collège de France’s professor of medieval history, Patrick Boucheron, assailed the government for disdaining human rights when it refused to provide aid, even as he assailed the aid givers, the NGOs, and the rescue ships for the insufficiency of their efforts.6 Immigration, he writes, strengthens us and enriches us.7 But this trope of enrichment is peculiar. It more closely resembles a decorative claim than a financial argument, analogous to topping cupcakes with sprinkles or icing to entice the customer. It suggests that, if left to our own devices, we would be poor indeed, lacking the necessary ingredients for prosperity.

Let us remember that, since 2015, Europe has rescued 730,000 migrants from the Mediterranean. But this fact meets the immediate objection that thousands of others drowned there.8 In this way, our generosity is turned against us. For having accepted the challenge of migration we have become accountable for every individual who has died at sea. In a strange twist, those who rescue people from the waves have become the executioners. The European of virtue is thereby ensnared in his own trap: he has confused attention to a problem with a duty to fix it.

The Face of the Martyr

Today, the migrant has replaced the proletarian and the guerrilla warrior as the new hero of contemporary victimology. He is both the epitome of oppression and the source of our salvation. Every other consideration must fall before him. One isn’t allowed to have one’s own thoughts or entertain any doubts about him, because his wretched condition demands only charity. In the same way that a “racialized” person can never be a racist, the idea that someone wanting to leave his own country to come to Europe could be duplicitous, or lie about his identity or intentions, amounts to a thought crime. Deprecating the European goes hand in hand with idealizing the foreigner, who embodies all virtue. He is at once the persecuted and the redeemer who’s come to shock us out of our comfort and complacency.

Our only duty toward the refugee is to play the solicitous host, the zealous concierge, so that he may save us from ourselves and our shrinking demographics. Without him we’d be vegetating in a retirement home, or like the paralyzed old man pushed about in his wheelchair by a congenial black man in the 2011 hit movie Les Intouchables.9 Thus, the great nations of Europe have no other purpose than to serve as welcome centers and public lobbies for the world’s unfortunate. Take a look at the 10, 20, and 50 euro bank notes; they all feature arches, bridges, and empty public spaces waiting to be populated by citizens of the world. As Paul Yonnet pointed out in 2006, we want to make immigration the vector of our regeneration; France must become a collaborator in its own transformation.10

This movement, we are told, is irreversible. Migrations cannot be stopped. They are written into humanity’s DNA, as stipulated in the Marrakesh Pact, a worldwide agreement on safe migrations signed by 160 countries on December 10, 2018. This document considers migration to be inevitable and beneficial. It is a “soft-law” pact that establishes a framework for non-binding legal cooperation, but also calls for managing the replacement of the work force and putting an end to media reports that “systematically propagate intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination against migrants while respecting the freedom of the press.” This Orwellian statement calls for prohibition in the name of freedom—an injunction that amounts to a call for censorship.

Another UN document from March, 2000, had already foreseen “replacement migration” as a solution to the problem of aging and declining populations. Faced with this irrepressible thrust, we are informed, no wall and no border will hold up. Walls are intrinsically bad because they prevent us from seeing the Other. As political scientist Dr. Allesandra Novosellof put it, “no wall will stop the migrations to Europe.”11 According to Novosellof, walls only exist in our imagination, and the states that want to protect themselves behind them will be left more isolated than the people kept outside. What an odd idea: closing the door to one’s home means incarcerating oneself in it!

This is Otherness taken to an extreme. In this way, newcomers are able to dictate European behavior. When it comes to migration, we must consider both our honor12 and the notion that our salvation lies entirely in the hands of others. Curiously, in Europe, unlike in the United States, this kind of sentimental Christianity goes hand in hand with a loss of faith. The more religious practice recedes, the more we abandon ourselves to a kind of goodwill that is as ardent as it is wrong-headed. Chesterton was right: “This modern world is full of old Christian ideas gone mad.” And here we are, since 2013, having adopted the notion of the migrant as Christ figure. We might call this strange mix of passivity and piety altruistic fatalism. Since we can’t stop the influx of migrants, we must enthusiastically embrace them. The Other is not like me; he shines, due to his very destitution, in a remote and inalterable splendor—an innocent figure untainted by modernity and capitalism. We venerate in him the mirror image of ourselves, the very opposite of our shortcomings and sins and of the world we inhabit. What better illustration of this than the spectacle two years ago of African immigrants dashing off their ship onto a Spanish beach amidst startled holiday makers lounging on their towels. On the one hand, the spoiled inhumanity of the affluent, on the other, the energy of the oppressed.

To welcome foreigners must we become foreigners in our own home? According to the novelist Marie Darieussecq, yes, we must:

We need a worldwide citizenry, planetary passports… those who dwell in uninhabitable parts of the world are moving as automatically as the tides, and we have to facilitate this displacement or risk a global catastrophe. The only real threat is the fear of dissolving, of being swallowed up, of the white being diluted by the black… The white Europeans who have been left behind by the system are terrified of already being black.

As Le Monde put it in 2013, “the people of the future will all be dark beige with brown hair. France and the world will get more mixed.” That prophesy aside, let us understand this: one’s home no longer exists, my home is your home. Just like during the colonial period, the new global individual belongs on no particular soil. We have to dismantle and rebuild our society as if it were a Lego set. The old white European’s hegemony must give way to the richness of diversity. Migrant and minority identity is always positive, and that of the old nations always regressive. It’s not surprising that the people of Europe are unenthused by the reformers’ plans and fairy tales. They have forgotten the basic fact that an offer creates demand. The porousness of our borders, the constant stream of people traffickers, the haste of some rescuers to become service providers and create, via phone signals bouncing off satellites, an “uber-migration” (Stephen Smith)—all of these factors incentivize migration more than poverty or war. Yes, we must pull people from the oceans, but it’s also not a bad idea to dissuade them from leaving their own countries in the first place. It’s one thing to rescue drowning people in our territorial waters, quite another to want to end Michel Fouchet’s “geopolitics of borders” altogether. Here, as everywhere else, we need to find the right balance between bridges and walls; that is, the right level of permeability that allows for exchange without surrendering to the false choice of totally open or totally closed nations. Is our only choice between irresponsible charity and inhuman responsibility?

In its received wisdom, the humanitarian media dwells at length on the rescues, those touching moments when we come to the aid of people in peril. We saw it again during the summer of 2019 when the Pope applauded actor Richard Gere who came aboard the Open Arms to bring pressure to bear on Salvini’s Italy to open its ports to 121 migrants. Pulling on heart strings before the cameras is the celebrity’s favorite pastime. What happens to those saved from the sea receives less attention as they grapple with the substantial challenges of assimilating into strange societies, vulnerable to the predatory attention of smugglers, organized crime, and the exploiters of cheap labour. The zenith of goodness risks being transformed into a nadir of indifference when no thought is given to what will become of the survivors.

Let’s not confuse hospitality with world weariness, even when it is dressed up in cheap lyricism.13 The immigrant, the refugee, is now merely a stick with which we beat ourselves. Recall Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” (1714), that Hegel would later turn into the idea of the ruse of reason: despite themselves, men contribute to the common good by acting in their own interests, and in this way, individual vices contribute to collective improvement. Progress does not depend on human altruism but on nature’s hidden design (Kant)—a sort of blind mechanism that goes beyond the will of the individual. Already for Saint Augustine, sin had its role to play in the outcome of providence; evil at the service of the good, the felix culpa, the happy error, is part and parcel of redemption. Conversely, when men decide to reign exclusively by seeking the good, do they not risk producing the opposite effect, sinking instead into violence and chaos? If history proceeds toward a better world as a result of man’s selfish impulses, does that mean that it proceeds toward a worse one as a result of man’s altruistic impulses? Don’t the worst excesses of populism not grow from a fanatical virtue that throws a part of the population into the arms of demagogues and encourages, at the very heart of the European Union, hostility to its mission?14 What populations fear is simply dispossession. Things happen that are beyond our control and yet we are asked to embrace them. This explains the fascination for despots like Erdogan and Putin, who still enjoy the privilege of effectiveness. For them to state something is to accomplish it, for us it means dithering and whistling in the wind.

In 2018, for example, the human rights defender Jacques Toubon vituperated in Le Monde against the desire of the government to “control migratory movements.” According to him, we’d do better to “create pathways for migrants,” even though there are already legal procedures in place that grant French citizenship to between 100,000 and 200,000 people a year. What we celebrate in the Foreigner is not a future solidarity but our own undoing. With this way of thinking, we are served notice that we must lose on all sides: the fear of being submerged by Africa and Asia persists, but the refugees already in our native lands, in France especially, and above all in Paris, are treated badly.

Change the Climate Immediately

To every problem we encounter, we feel a need to offer the most unyielding solution, and then we torment ourselves when we don’t succeed. Another example of this moral maximalism is what we now call the climate emergency. The reception given to a speech by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg at the National Assembly on July 23, 2019, is a case in point. Hailed like a Delphian oracle, Greta scolded the assembled deputies as if they were errant children. The episode will be remembered as among the most risible in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Global warming places Europeans on the horns of a dilemma: either we change our way of life or we face imminent collapse within 10 to 20 years. Ecology, in the sense of legitimate concern about animal suffering and the waste products of progress, has mutated into a doctrine of the Apocalypse. In concrete terms this means that the generations to come have only two options: either widespread death in the near future or the halting of economic growth through some outbreak of unforeseen frugality. This cataclysmic discourse is, however, based on a paradox: the claim that enterprise is in vain, only helps to discourage it. What good does it do to mobilize, to clean our rivers and oceans and lakes, to plant trees and decarbonize the economy, if we are doomed? This doctrine of despair does less to mobilize our conscience than to thoroughly demoralize us.

Those who speak in the name of the planet seek to oppress. As a terrifying catastrophe looms in the future, the human species must rely on experts and break the bad habits that have brought them to disaster. If we want to prevent temperatures from rising more than two degrees, per the Paris Accord, we must achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible. No one, we are reminded, must shirk this imperative, especially not Europeans, who were responsible for the capitalist revolution and for pillaging the globe. Hans Jonas, the spiritual father of German ecologists, explained in his 1979 book, The Imperative of Responsibility, that for industry the party was now over. He called for a hermeneutics of fear, as the only means of jolting us into an acknowledgement of the dangers involved. His advice has been widely heeded. There isn’t a single green movement leader today who isn’t noisily beating the panic drum. We must doubt everything but the worst; we must sweep away all our immediate concerns and face the abominable future ahead of us.

We know the solutions proposed by these prophets of doom: forego cars and planes and eliminate the meat-based diet, which adds methane emissions to animal cruelty. With a straight face, the former green deputy Yves Cochet even proposed bringing back the horse-drawn coaches & ploughs of yesteryear, reducing travel distances, and putting an immediate stop to procreating so as to reduce humanity’s interference with the natural environment. And it goes without saying that we must abandon all fossil fuels—gas, coal, petrol—as well as nuclear energy in favor of renewables. We must voluntarily become poorer, divide our standard of living by 10, and choose a life-saving asceticism over the comfortable indecency of our present lifestyles. Cleverly, the doomsayers locate the end of the world between 2020 and 2030. It’s close enough to terrify us but still far enough away to escape verification. The high priests of disaster don’t want to save the human race as much as they want to punish it. They are calling for the destruction they pretend to fear: humankind—and the European, in particular—is guilty and must pay.

We must be permanently mobilized in the manner of a totalitarian regime to resist this scourge. We must not rest for a moment; the calamities that are threatening us forbid any let-up. The idea that decarbonizing economies will be a long and tortuous process, and that an incremental ecological policy therefore makes more sense than thundering declarations, is totally unacceptable to the prophets of the coming Apocalypse. Whereas ecology demands policies that actually work, that take into account the human costs of transition, and that do nothing to harm the poorest among us, they prefer aggressive fanaticism. For the adherents of this way of doing things, there are no actual material stumbling blocks, only enemies and the malevolence of shadowy lobbyists. This blackmail by countdown is furiously topsy-turvy: no achievement is ever enough, the only important thing is what remains undone because time is running out before the punishment of cataclysm befalls us all. We must change our way of life overnight and tolerate no exceptions.

Conscience and Power

Colonel Louis Rivet was the head of French military intelligence, who tried in vain to alert the military brass to the Germans’ plan to launch a springtime attack in the Ardennes. In a June 1940 letter to his wife, he wrote: “We weren’t defeated, we commit suicide.”15 This sentence has a strange resonance today. What threatens us is not a return to fascism, as some lazy thinkers would have it, but rather the decay of democracy.

The European elites, bunkered down in their visions of utopia, have convinced themselves that we must abandon our history. We must remove ourselves from the tragedy of involvement and the chaos of passions to enter into a new period of peace where Goodness and Right will prevail. They have sought refuge in the beauties of a theoretical world to escape the horrors of the past. But by choosing conscience over power, the Old World risks losing both. It will not only suffer denunciation, it will also succumb to fragility. It will continue to fall short of its moral ideals, but it will be too weak to achieve its lofty ambitions.

Elites wanted to strip Europe’s nations of their particularity and transform the continent into a merely legal entity. But a nation is more than just a contract that haphazardly brings together interchangeable entities. Peoples have strong memories, solid traditions, and they are rising up against Europe in the name of their flouted sovereignty. Yes, democracy is the orderly management of disagreements and the curbing of special interests and passions, but it must also allow for the fact that these passions persist even when they are contained. Civilization is the continual transformation of violence and ignorance into education and culture. But the very European desire to do away with violence forever by abolishing borders, by disparaging one’s sense of identity and the nation’s sense of history, also risks abolishing civilization itself. Tolerance is not policy. It is a guardrail, not a governing principle. The law by itself does not bind a society together—on the contrary, it breaks it up into the various claims of all its different categories and minorities.

It is an inviolable rule that moralists don’t practice what they preach. Open-handed promises are broken as soon as they are made. Tartuffe reigns supreme in this domain. Chaste believers trample on their faith, the friends of the indigent cry crocodile tears, the court disobeys the law it enforces. History is full of preachers and zealots who are caught redhanded after they’ve sworn to live according to their pure principles. As for the celebrities, those paragons of virtue who call upon the people to tighten their ecological belt—they jet themselves around the globe increasing carbon emissions thousands of times more than the average citizen. But, of course, they make up for this by their posturing of living the simple life, like Prince Harry delivering a climate-change speech barefoot, or Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic on a luxury sailboat, a journey that will produce four times the emissions of an ordinary flight.

In the same way, the theatrical confrontation between Matteo Salvini and Emmanuel Macron showed that, except for perhaps a slight difference in tone, there is very little to distinguish between the former’s migration policy and the latter’s, for which Macron was vigorously criticized by the NGOs. When a moral imperative takes precedence over any political solution it is even more difficult for a nation or a continent to deal with than for an individual. Without compromise, virtue quickly becomes a nasty behavioral tick, a self-abnegating exhibitionism. The more a democratic entity shows itself to be open and tolerant, the more its enemies refer to it as fascistic and dictatorial. If Europe refuses to countenance the use of force in any of its forms—the military, a common foreign policy—it renounces its own existence. Unless it wants to sink into insignificance, it must stop extending itself ad infinitum; it must live with clear borders. It must become a credible “sheriff,” that can inspire fear when it needs to.

It should be pointed out that since Europe was rebuilt in 1945, it has been the receptacle of all the chimeras of modernity: the late Roman Catholic priest Raymond Pannikar called upon Europe to do its part, for example, to de-occidentalize the world. George Steiner demanded it rediscover the poverty and austerity from which its culture was created. For Jeremy Rifkin, it must favor being over having, unlike the United States. It must create the reign of the spirit (Gianni Vatimo) and become the world’s hostage (Pope Francis). But this bombast and misty-eyed lyricism, as generalized as it is generous, requires us to sacrifice political practicality. We float in an ether of marvels when we lose a sense of the possible. We prefer to dwell in that paradise instead of admitting that democracy is made up of cacophony and tension, as Raymond Aron observed. Democratic governance is conducted in prose, not in poetry. Europe cannot turn itself into a charity. Unless it wants to disappear once and for all, it cannot, like the Catholic Church, seek political guidance from the gospels (which not even Rome itself can manage to follow). Either it becomes a convincing world player alongside the others (USA, China, India, Russia, Brazil), and forges a new balance between power and human rights, or it will be dismembered by hungry predators waiting to devour it piece by piece.

It is therefore imperative that we retain our self-confidence as combative occidentals, convinced of the uniqueness of our contributions to civilization, and who make no excuses for our existence. Europe needn’t make any pledges. In and of itself, it is a guarantor of democracy that knows better than anyone how to blend freedom and prosperity. America may one day succumb to its vices of violence, inequality, and segregation. But it is sustained by religion and patriotism, which bolster it despite its divisions. Unless Europe changes course, it will die of its virtues. Its discourse of guilt has metastasized into one of self-annihilation. When a section of the ruling class abandons its responsibilities, the commonweal itself is attacked, and moral perfectionism becomes another name for abdication. Only mortally wounded civilizations can be destroyed. How can the Old World be resuscitated if it wants to disappear? Perhaps we must await a new generation to emerge to staunch our desire for self-destruction and save us from sleepwalking into oblivion as mystical penitents.

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. His 26 books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been translated in 30 countries.

Translation by Mary Hudson. Mary is a former teacher and the translator of Fable for Another Time and The Indomitable Marie-Antoinette. You can follow her on Twitter @merrycheeked1


1 Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme, Présence Africaine, 2004, pgs 13-14.
2 Léo Strauss, L’intention de Rousseau, Seuil, Pensée de Rousseau, 1984, pgs 70-71.
3 I dealt with this subject in Le Sanglot de l’homme blanc, Seuil, 1983, and in La tyrannie de la pénitence, Grasset, 2006.
4 Jean François Bayart, Le Monde, 19 April 2018.
5 La vie.  France registers an average of 1,000 visa requests a month from Georgia. 10/07/2019.
6 In this regard, it is worth noting the appearance of a Mandarin-stye new-leftism within the Collège de France. The demographer Phillipe Héran vehemently takes issue with Stephen Smith, author of La ruée vers l’Europe (Grasset, 2018), who is concerned with the possible submersion of Europe by sub-Saharan populations, accusing him of stirring up “the specter of the black peril.” The medievalist Alain de Libera includes within the extreme Right and considers “Islamophobic,” anyone who contests the fundamental role of Avicenna and Averroes in the spread of Greek culture. The sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon calls for the reconstruction of the French people in light of the newcomers (cited in Matthieu Bock Cote’s Le multiculturalisme comme religion politique, Le Cerf, pg 204). Not to mention the already cited Patrick Boucheron.
7 “The migrants will continue to increase in number, we must welcome them, it’s our duty and our good fortune… The country would be stronger if it were freer and more open, if it dumped the old world’s moorings, if it ceased to take pleasure in its warmed-over resentments.”  (Patrick Boucheron, L’Obs, 11 January 2018).
8 France Culture, Audrey Tison, May 2019, Insta d’Europe.
9 On this film and on Des Hommes et des Dieux, see the excellent article by Jean François Braunstein, “Des Hommes et des Vieux,” in 8 semaines avant, 07/03/2012.
10 Paul Yonnet, Voyage au coeur du malaise français, Gallimard, le Débat, 2006.
11 Cited by Rémy Ourdan, Le Monde, (4/5/02/2018)
12 For example, this text by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, ex-Minister of National Education (2014-2017): “So that we answer the courage of the refugees with the strength of our honor… When reason alone can’t change people’s minds why not call upon… the power of feelings and emotions in invoking as well the pride in acting as human beings, guided above all by our values, our sense of morality and the will to build a better society, a future with more solidarity and justice for everyone?”  Le Monde, 21 June 2019, in honor of International Refugees Day.
13 Cf Tuot’s report: “Everyone who crosses our borders is welcome, be they visiting or staying.  Everyone who crosses our borders is under France’s protection. We do not in any way discount the fact that the poorest people in their infinite dreams believe that France is the only place where they can make them come true.
14 To stem to tide of deep mistrust, Hubert Védrine, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs under François Mitterand, proposed an immediate moratorium on immigration for from three to five years, the most important issue in the Union for him being that of radical Islam.
15 Quoted in 1939, film by Antoine Vitkine for FR3, 2019.

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Pascal Bruckner

Pascal Bruckner is a French writer and philosopher. His 26 books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been translated in 30 countries.