Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Moving Targets: An Interview by Danny Postel (Winter 2008)

Translated by Gila Walker

Danny Postel: Among the twentieth‐century thinkers you most admire is Raymond Aron. One of Aron’s defining traits was his penchant for intellectual combat and political debate. One thinks, for example, of The Opium of the Intellectuals, his frontal assault on the romance of the French intelligentsia with the Communist Party. But this is not at all your style. Not only have you never written a book like The Opium of the Intellectuals, you rarely even mention those of your contemporaries whose philosophical or political views are at odds with your own. There is no direct engagement with the likes of Badiou, Balibar, Rancière, or Baudrillard. I wonder why not. As a passionate advocate of liberal democracy, why have you not penned a critique, say, of antiliberalism in French thought today? As a critical humanist, why have you not published an essay, say, on antihumanism in contemporary European theory? I’m not suggesting that you should have done any of these things. I’m merely curious, particularly given your affinity for someone like Aron, why you haven’t taken up this sort of intellectual‐political engagement. Is it purely a matter of temperament, or is there a question of principle involved?

Tzvetan Todorov: The question you are raising about the absence of a polemical thrust to my intellectual work takes my mind in two different directions, which are not necessarily independent: I can ask myself about the reasons I may give to justify this choice or about the causes that may have led me to it, sometimes without realizing it.

Insofar as the first aspect is concerned, I see my attitude to begin with as resulting from a choice of priorities and an economy of means. I oppose adversaries in my books, but they are movements of ideas and types of conduct rather than individuals. In The Conquest of America or in On Human Diversity, I analyze and, at the same time, I fight against racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, nationalism, and a few other perversions in our relationships to “others.” In Facing the Extreme and in Hope and Memory, I do the same with regard to totalitarian ideology. In comparison with these fundamental debates, quarrels with my contemporaries seem somewhat trivial to me. I’m not trying to systematically ignore opinions held by others, but I’d rather generalize them because I think that other people may share them too. The important thing is to confront the argument, not the person. Encountering different interpretations has often been a source of stimulation in my work, but my feeling is that priority must be given in the final result to the whole rather than to particular cases, which are unlimited by definition.

I also think that the most interesting work you can produce is work that represents the greatest challenge to you. Ease of execution has always seemed to me to be a sign of not getting to the bottom of things; conversely, the confrontation with a new difficulty has a stimulating effect on me. This is how I explain to myself my own reluctance to concentrate for a long time on the same subject and my desire, after having worked in one area for a few years, to venture into a new related field. I sometimes find it mind‐boggling, in retrospect, to consider the variety of disciplines that I’ve tackled: poetics and rhetoric, semiotics and hermeneutics, the history of literature and painting, the history of ideas and doctrines, moral and political philosophy.… Positive construction, I think, is much more difficult than criticism of an adversary. This is particularly true in written confrontations (even though this is the only form in which argumentation can prevail over oratorical effects) when the object of your criticism is not there to contradict you and you can ridicule the person to your heart’s delight. Asserting your conception of the world without worrying too much about other people’s conceptions seems to me at once more difficult and more interesting.

Added to this is my conviction that the most fruitful intellectual encounters are not those in which you are in total disagreement with the other person. A dialogue, to pick up a hackneyed term, is situated somewhere between war and perfect harmony; if different voices merge into one or if they fight each other tooth and nail, their plurality brings no enrichment. I’ve learned the most from authors with whom I could peacefully travel a certain distance before they lead me off in an unknown direction. When you’re three‐quarters in agreement and a quarter in disagreement, the latter becomes the starting point of keener, more nuanced thinking. And when you have that many things in common, you have no desire to engage in a head‐on confrontation anymore.

One last consideration: I have gradually come to the conclusion that it is harmful to separate human beings from their ideas. I don’t mean this in the sense in which it was formerly understood in literary history when attempts were made to explain the work by the person; but it seems to me that an author’s biography is as eloquent an expression of his thought as his works are. For this reason, when I’ve written about thinkers and authors, I’ve tried to leave room for both their personal lives and their ideas. I followed this approach as much in my book on Benjamin Constant (Benjamin Constant: A Passion for Democracy) as in my shorter portraits of Raymond Aron and Edward Said and more recently in my portrayals of Wilde, Rilke, and Tsvetaeva, characters in one of my latest books, Les Aventuriers de l’absolu. Now, if it is possible to oppose the theses of an author in a polemical way, it makes no sense to do so when dealing with a life. How can you be “against” a life?

I might add that I myself aspire less today than in the past to produce a text reducible to its theses; I try to enrich it with stories, other people’s or my own, and, as we know, stories give rise to interpretations, not refutations. Books like A French Tragedy, The Fragility of Goodness, or my intellectual autobiography Devoirs et délices: Une Vie de passeur belong to a genre that has no polemical side to it; they cannot be reduced to theses subject to debate.

So you see I can find all sorts of arguments to justify my choice of not engaging in polemics with my contemporaries. But I’m not sure that they suffice to explain an existential choice. It seems to me that decisions of this kind are caused by events that occur in the past, particularly in the formative years of childhood and adolescence. I can only feel my way uncertainly in this direction; there isn’t much I can be sure of. Obviously, the twenty years from 1944 to 1963, when I was living under the Bulgarian Communist regime, are of major importance in my biography. Today I believe, for instance, that my initial interest in questions of form and structure in literature, which led me to translate the Russian formalists into French (in 1965) and then to write such books as The Fantastic or The Poetics of Prose, was closely linked to the fact that debating ideas was impossible in a totalitarian country. Anyone who wanted to say something about literature had a choice between serving the purposes of official propaganda and focusing on the formal aspects of the texts alone.

It is quite possible, although I cannot be sure, that my avoidance of polemics, my refusal to engage in direct confrontations, may also be related to this totalitarian past. The regime taught us that whoever contested the official position risked losing their social status, their work, their right to live in a particular city or study in a particular university, and sometimes even their freedom if not their life. The consequences of expressing an antagonistic thought were so serious that the great majority of people felt it was preferable not even to try. To put it more bluntly, we were systematically inculcated with the fear of saying what we thought, and this bred attitudes of adaptation, concession, and compromise rather than a spirit of contestation and confrontation. Who knows, maybe this is one of the sources of my lack of enthusiasm for engaging in the kind of verbal sparring matches at which many intellectuals, especially French intellectuals, are so adept.

These two ways of answering the same question are not mutually exclusive. Conscious opinions can have unconscious sources; this doesn’t mean they can be reduced to them.

Postel: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the November [2005] riots in France. There has been such a range of explanations and interpretations put forward—that the key factor is Islam, racism, class oppression, ethno‐religious strife, a clash of civilizations, the return of the colonial repressed, the manifestation of a global underclass culture… to name a few. There is controversy over the statements of Alain Finkielkraut that the issue is one of republicanism and its discontents. What was your own reaction to the riots? What is your sense of the phenomenon and its repercussions?

Todorov: First I must say that I have no direct knowledge of the events. The acts of violence did not reach the city centers, and so they did not penetrate into Paris, the center of an extensive region. The violence was geographically limited to housing projects in the banlieues. What I know, then, comes from television and newspapers. My opinions were shaped by contact with intermediaries, with journalists, social workers, local teachers, legal professionals, and the police. My firsthand knowledge is of the discourses on the violence in November, not of the violence itself. This is to set the boundaries of my comments.

From these discourses, I’d like to single out two extreme views, two marginal interpretations, which are given all the more credence the farther we get from the actual scene of the violence. So what if they don’t correspond to observable facts? They meet the expectations of the people to whom they are addressed. One of these explanations, which I first heard on a visit to New York’s Columbia University in December 2005, was that the violence was the legitimate revolt of a population oppressed and persecuted by a colonialist, racist state that is Islamophobic to boot. The other, which I read in the American press, regarded the events as an attack on France and its values, an antirepublican pogrom of sorts, to be seen in the context of terrorist Islam’s threat to the West. There are people who subscribe to these explanations in France, too, mainly those who have never had any contact with the banlieues in question. These two standpoints imply opposing judgments, but they share the idea that we are dealing with a political conflict, the basis of which is ethnic and religious. Personally, I’m afraid that both explanations tell us more about the fantasies of their authors and about their conscious or unconscious anxieties and hopes than about the reality of the facts.

But what exactly was this reality? Let us start with some essentially indisputable facts. In January 2006, the procureur général [the state prosecutor] of Paris announced that 63 percent of those arrested for acts of violence were minors, 87 percent had French nationality, 50 percent had no previous arrest records, and 50 percent were not in the school system. As to their motivation, he declared that there was “no trace of identity claims and no sign of political or religious instigation and appropriation.” Indeed, during the events, the only Islamic voices to be heard belonged to religious figures imploring the youngsters to go home. Even Jean‐Marie Le Pen, head of the far‐right National Front, ever ready to fuel cultural or racial conflict, was forced to admit to this; he declared that he was “in complete disagreement” with those who saw “religious and ethnic” reasons for the violence, which he described as a “game that was not revolutionary at all.” It seems that the clash of civilizations only took place in the minds of those who believed in it in the first place.

How then can we describe what happened in France in November? And what can we learn from the events? First I think it’s important to distinguish between the immediate factors involved in the violence and the indirect factors that have had an impact over the long term. Both are present, but they do not lead to the same consequences, nor do they call for the same reactions.

The crisis was sparked by the death of two teenagers, electrocuted while running away from the police (whether or not the police were actually chasing them is secondary from this standpoint). The interior minister then proceeded to add fuel to the fire by announcing that he was going to “clean up” the housing projects of this “lowlife.” The reaction of those who felt targeted by the minister’s comment was instantaneous. In a show of force aimed at both the minister and the public at large, they clashed with the police for several weeks but without, however, exceeding certain boundaries, as in a game; no one died on either side (although one person was killed outside the clashes). The show of power quickly turned into a contest of one‐upmanship, the question being who could start more fires, torch more cars, and defy the police better and longer. This contest was both followed and fueled by TV (“140 cars burned here. Who can raise the stakes?”). One cannot help but be struck by the macho‐confrontation side of these acts—groups of youngsters were trying to gain recognition and respect from their peers by strutting their stuff (but then so was the minister). Significantly, girls did not take part in the clashes. As for the boys, two‐thirds of whom were between twelve and eighteen, they were performing a kind of rite of passage to masculine adulthood.

The particular forms of violence displayed are also worthy of note. At no point were political, ethnic, or religious demands expressed. The gangs of youngsters did not come to Paris where the rich live, and they didn’t attack city halls or other institutional buildings. They hardly stepped out of the housing projects where they live. Instead of taking their anger out on symbols of the French Republic, they did so on their neighbors who resemble them in every respect but age and on structures of social order that are there for their benefit. They burned cars on their streets and their parking lots, cars that belonged to their uncles or neighbors. They tried to destroy sports facilities and other meeting places intended for their use. They set fire to day‐care centers and schools where their younger siblings went and to state employment services that were meant to help them. All these acts have an evident self‐destructive character (even if their agents do not always realize it). When they burn buses that connect (however poorly) their housing projects to the outside world, they and their families are the ones to suffer, not the people residing in the upscale districts.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen such self‐destructive behavior, and we know today the mechanisms at work in terms of the individual and the group. Children who have been given a negative image of themselves end up adopting this self‐image and taking it a step further, in an “I’ll show them that I’m even meaner than they think” attitude. They feel that they owe nothing to a society that has rejected them and that they reject in turn, and so they rejoice over its destruction. One hundred thirty years ago, Dostoyevsky had a few people in this situation say, “If I can’t succeed, let the whole world perish!” These are nihilistic, not religious, words. The identity that the youngsters are asserting is not ethnic. Their focus is restricted to their district and the only value they are defending is its control in face of the threat of police incursions. The only law that prevails is the law of the strongest; the only goal that subsists is the immediate satisfaction of a few simple desires. This hatred of the outside world and its norms—the rules inherent in any organized social group—reflects a repressed self‐hatred and a state of profound dejection.

I’d like to quote a few remarks by the great French novelist Romain Gary about a similar outbreak of violence that took place some thirty years ago in 1975: “The adolescent feels insignificant in face of the overwhelming and all‐powerful giantism of the surrounding foreign community. He feels crushed and imprisoned by it. His self, which is at once stricken with insignificance and continuously challenged in every respect, is transferred onto the group’s ‘self’: the group becomes the individual and seals its unity, its pact of union, by a criminal initiation from which there is no turning back, and which is a manifestation of belonging.”

We can see from such behavior how important it is for children to be structured at an early age if they are to lead fully human lives. Contrary to what has been all too thoughtlessly suggested by some theorists of postmodernity, nomadism, flexibility, and nonaffiliation are not necessarily good things. Families, communities of origin, and traditions can be oppressive, but their total absence produces even more negative consequences. These youngsters have sorely missed out on the early childhood integration necessary to the construction of their personality. Many have grown up in families without fathers or with fathers who were humiliated and depreciated. Because their mothers were either at work all day or suffering themselves from an absence of social integration, the children had no framework for internalizing the rules of communal life. From day one at school, they felt excluded; they had trouble with the language and could not find the conditions they needed to work quietly at home. Their families had immigrated to France, but they themselves are one, two, or more generations away from the distant land of origin, and so they have no other identity to put in the place of the one they are having difficulty constructing in France. And, when they reach the age to work, they can’t find anyone willing to hire them; they have no particular skills, and their conduct is not considered trustworthy. With unemployment in the housing projects often hovering at around 50 percent, they end up turning to small‐time drug dealing and petty crime to survive.

The impact of the images that our society disseminates in profusion is not to be underestimated either. Children left alone from early infancy in front of the television—the babysitter of the poor—watch and absorb scenes of physical and sexual violence. The foreigners whom they imitate are not so much imams from Cairo as rappers from Los Angeles. The models that inspire them inhabit their TV sets, and they themselves have absorbed so many television images that they readily confuse fiction and reality. In many respects, these youngsters are acting like caricatures, but they are caricatures of our own society. Everywhere there is advertising constantly inviting them to buy new things, and they don’t have the means to do so. The wealth is there on display, but they live in low‐income high‐rises that are falling to pieces, in projects lacking in everything, stuck between highways and railways, without nice streets, without stores, without commodities. Might as well set fire to them. In a comment about our “baiting” or “provoking” society Gary argued that, “constantly subject to advertising that calls on them to consume, they are refused the means to do so. Whence the explosion.” (It is true that he was referring at the time to the riots in the African‐American inner city districts in the United States.)

Macho aggressiveness, self‐destructive nihilism, and exasperation at being outcasts are immediate factors responsible for the recent outbreak of violence. But how can they be explained in turn? Here we have to step back from the November 2005 events. To try to bring some elements of an answer to this question, we could start from the following observation: youngsters whose parents or grandparents migrated from Asia (China, Vietnam, or India) have managed their social integration in France more successfully than those whose ancestors come from North Africa or Black Africa. There may be several reasons for this. One is that, aside from the Indochinese peninsula, French colonial conquests were situated in Africa. This experience, which lasted nearly a century, sometimes more, has left wounds that are still unhealed. The formerly colonized first internalized an image of inferiority and then violently rejected it; the former colonizers retained a sense of superiority and an attitude of condescension and contempt toward the colonized. Whence the racist or hostile behavior on the part of government representatives (that is police officers) and private individuals (for example property owners or business managers). Whence also the self‐destructive or aggressive acts on the part of the children or grandchildren of the formerly colonized.

Another characteristic of this population has to do with family structure and the place of women in Moslem families. Contrary to popular belief, there is no necessary relationship between Islam and the subordination of women. In a pioneering work on Mediterranean kinship systems, Le Harem et les cousins, anthropologist Germaine Tillion demonstrates that we are dealing with structures that predate Islam and extend beyond its geographical reach since they are found in the pagan world of ancient Greece and the Christian culture of modern Sicily and Corsica. Nonetheless, the part of the immigrant population that practices the Moslem religion has proven to be particularly vulnerable to the shock of the encounter with Western lifestyles. Women are exploited in all traditions, but Moslem women are often confined to their homes by their husbands. Young men who have ties with this tradition tend to divide women into two categories, the virgins and the whores, and to cling to their privilege as older brothers to keep an eye on their sisters. This situation generates new types of frustration.

There has been a disastrous junction between images of women from two entirely different origins. Firstly, there is the image typical of young men in the ghettos of the banlieues where social relationships are often reduced to an escalation in shows of physical strength and violence. This image is very much the same in socially underprivileged areas everywhere, from Los Angeles to the greater Paris area, and has nothing to do with a particular religion. It results from the lack of a norm to which all subscribe: the law of force replaces the force of law. Secondly, there is the image that comes from a Moslem tradition linked to the lifestyle of a former rural society and now confronted with new living conditions as much in Europe as in Africa and Asia. It is this overdetermination—women as the “repos du guerrier”[“relaxation of the warrior”], on the one hand, and veiled, imprisoned women, on the other—that makes the image particularly powerful. This is also what has compelled women from this background to declare that they are “ni putes ni soumises” [“neither whores nor submissive”], as formulated in the slogan of a movement very active in the banlieues.

Since the roots of these difficulties run deep, remedies for them will not be easy to find. Our world is no longer made up of self‐contained homogenous societies living apart from one another. Men and women from a wide variety of traditions have been torn from their original homes and have settled in foreign, even hostile, environments where they have to live side by side and adapt to one another. Friction between them is inevitable. France is a country that is not accustomed to gradual change; it alternates long conservative periods with radical upheavals. Yet we know in which direction we have to go to deal with these difficulties; everything must be done to re‐create the social fabric and allow the people living in this country to gain confidence and recognition through peaceful activities. For this purpose, it is indispensable to speak truthfully. This means not giving into fantasies but not shying away from looking the facts in the face. Politically correct discourse is responsible for a great deal of hypocrisy and ignorance. Having said this, one also must be careful not to attack the wrong target and mistake the awkward defense of outcasts and the poor for the enemy. On the pretext of avoiding the politically correct there is a danger of lapsing into the politically abject. And we have nothing to gain from this.

Postel: While Islam may not have been a factor in France’s November riots, it most clearly is one in the global protests and outrage over the Danish cartoons. Again, as with the French unrest, we have seen quite a plethora of perspectives and debate about these events. What is your own sense—firstly of the events themselves but also of the debate about them?

Todorov: This time we are indeed dealing with a conflict whose roots are cultural, one in which Islam plays an undeniable role. The cartoon affair raises a number of questions that need to be examined one by one. My answers are not intended to be exhaustive.

Let us start with a reminder of what actually happened. The Muhammad cartoons were published at the end of September 2005 by a conservative Danish daily with the stated intention of proving that there are no limits to freedom of the press in Denmark. We should also keep in mind something of the context: the Danish coalition government needed the support in parliament of the populist Danish People’s Party (DF), whose program can be summed up more or less by its anti‐immigrant stance, particularly toward immigrants from Moslem countries. Moslem community leaders, who felt offended by the cartoons, collected 17,000 signatures and delivered the petition to the prime minister, to no effect. They then turned to the ambassadors of Moslem countries in Denmark and asked them to speak to the prime minister on their behalf, but he refused to see them too, explaining that he could not interfere with the laws protecting the freedom of the press in Denmark. Community leaders then turned to a slew of religious authorities in Moslem countries who organized or ignited violent demonstrations. During the demonstrations, flags as well as buildings belonging to several European countries were set on fire and destroyed, and death threats were issued. Police crackdowns resulted in turn in the death of several dozen protesters in various countries in Asia and Africa.

The first observation I’d like to make about this unpredictable sequence of events is that it shows the extent to which we are all living in the same space—I’d be tempted to say, the same village—today. Who could have imagined that something published in some obscure newspaper in Copenhagen could provoke a riot in Nigeria! The instantaneous transmission of news, in particular of live TV images, which lends itself to immediate perception, is radically changing our relationship to the world and deeply impacting everyone’s behavior. Our acts have many more consequences than we imagine, and it is high time we internalized this new state of affairs.

Let’s examine the affair from the Danish and more broadly the European side. The principle of freedom of expression, with the consequent lack of governmental control over what newspapers publish, is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. It is not, however, the only one. Indeed, freedom is always restricted by other equally fundamental principles. For instance, depending on the legislation in different countries, stating publicly that all Jews are bankers who grow fat on other people’s backs, that all Arabs are thieves, or that all blacks are rapists may be against the law just as it may be forbidden to glorify terrorism, Nazism, or rape. In February 2006, the revisionist historian David Irving was sentenced in Austria to three years in prison without parole for contesting the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz. And French bishops have just managed to get an advertisement deemed offensive to the feelings of Christians banned.

Such restrictions on freedom of speech are grounded, like all restrictions on the freedom of the individual to do what he or she likes, in the need to safeguard public welfare, and hence social stability, and to protect the dignity of other citizens—a requirement legitimated by the principle of equality. Between the right to act and the deed, there is a distance that one should traverse only after taking into account the eventual consequences of the act in a given context. When Europeans denounce the Iranian president’s declaration that Iran has the right to develop nuclear plants, it is because they are looking beyond the “right” to do what one likes or to do the same thing that others do to the effect on world peace and are worried that the development of nuclear devices by Iran is particularly dangerous in this regard. This is why, as some said on the occasion of the cartoons, one should not throw a lighted match when there’s a barrel of gunpowder nearby, even if there’s no law against it.

It seems to me that what the Danish newspaper did was either stupid (not realizing that running the cartoons in today’s context could have harmful effects) or provocative (setting a trap for the Moslem community to prove its obscurantism and intolerance and thus reinforce its exclusion from Danish society). As for the reaction of the Danish government, it was basically tactless. Without resorting to legal measures (such as banning blasphemy as some Islamists were demanding), the government could have put to use whatever political latitude it had at its disposal. Since a sizeable number of individuals said they felt offended by the publication, the government should have met with them, shown them due respect and concern, and explained to them what legal form their protest could take. A distinction should be drawn here between the different reasons for protest: protesting against any representation of the Prophet Muhammad is a purely theological (iconoclastic) demand that the European media cannot take into consideration; on the other hand, the representation of Mohammad with a bomb‐shaped turban is not an offense to theology but to Moslems themselves because the insinuation is that they are all terrorists. Such a reaction on the part of the government, without compromising on principles, would have calmed intercommunity tensions in Denmark and saved a number of lives elsewhere.

This is by no means a matter of instituting censorship or renouncing freedom of criticism but simply of realizing that our public acts take place not in some abstract space but in a specific context that must be taken into account. There’s a difference between criticizing a triumphant ideology and criticizing a marginalized, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred. There’s a difference between making fun of oneself and making fun of others, and doing so in pictures or in writing. Moreover the latter two categories are too broad and need to be subdivided in turn: newspaper headlines do not have the same status as specialized publications, nor novels as political discourse, nor paintings as TV reports. The media today wield enormous power and, unlike other forms of power, it does not originate with the will of the people. To gain legitimacy it must, as Montesquieu said, impose limits upon itself. Or, to put it in the terms of Max Weber, it is not enough to act in the name of an ethics of conviction; it is an ethics of responsibility that is needed, one that considers the probable consequences of acts.

So European societies have not come out of this affair with increased stature, but the image that Moslem societies have given of themselves is even more worrisome. Such worrying signs did not, of course, appear out of the blue with the cartoon affair; no other religion serves today to justify terrorist attacks, murders, and persecutions. Demonstrators against Denmark trampled on several distinctions that seem essential to Europeans: between religious principles and civil laws, between the laws of one country and those of another, between the will of the government and the will of individuals. The death threats voiced during the demonstrations in London, for example, came under the heading of a crime, and British authorities were right to take legal action against them. If Western societies needed a reminder that their values are not universally admired and that they have many enemies in the world, well, now they’ve got it.

The ease with which religious or political agitators were able to incite such enormous crowds to join them also reveals the degree of frustration and the state of abandonment in which masses of people are living in these countries. This dissatisfaction is due, to begin with, to appalling economic conditions, massive unemployment, and a lack of education and of widespread transmission of knowledge. It is aggravated by a feeling of humiliation inflicted by the West, a feeling that becomes a powerful motive for violent acts. It is fueled by the Western occupation of Moslem countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, by the injustice inflicted on Palestine, and by the images of prison torture from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, among others. I’m not saying that all the ills of Moslem countries are due to outside causes, that they are imported from the West, or that these countries are merely victims of neocolonialism. I believe, to the contrary, that they mainly have their own leaders to blame for their underdevelopment. Nonetheless, the injustices of which Western countries can be accused have become emblematic in Moslem countries and have made it possible to find an easy scapegoat, obscuring in this way the other causes of distress.

This contrast between Moslem countries and liberal democracies has led some people to conclude that the problem has been there from the outset, that it comes from the Islamic religion itself and from Islam’s holy book, the Koran. I have a hard time accepting the essentialization of more than a billion people from all walks of life, all of whom are supposed to behave in the same way. The immense majority of Moslems, like all other populations, would like to live in peace; they are looking for personal happiness, not jihad and the victory of one religion over another. Religious determinism is never sufficient and the doctrines themselves authorize multiple interpretations. In my opinion, the source of current tensions is more political than theological; it is situated more on earth than in heaven. This does not mean that a new war between religions, called civilizations for the occasion, is inconceivable. All it would take is a fanatic, influential minority since the masses—that is, you and I—will follow passively.

What lessons can be drawn from the distressing Danish cartoon affair? They are twofold, both on the outside and on the inside. Vis‐à‐vis the Moslem countries, European countries should avoid lapsing into angelism and pacifism; we have enemies who will not hesitate to use force to make us renounce the values that we hold dear. To defend ourselves, we too must be ready to use force. At this point in time, when Iran seems on the verge of having nuclear weapons at its disposal, this affair is a warning that is not to be taken lightly. But we must simultaneously ensure that our democratic principles do not look like a deceptive mask hiding selfish interests related to land or energy. We must immediately close prisons where people are being tortured with impunity and even legally, and we must put an end to our military occupations as quickly as possible. Setting an example of freedom and justice—which is not happening right now—could well be more to our advantage than current military operations. If we do not do so (and it does not look like the American government is heading in this direction), we will have significantly contributed to our own misfortunes.

The same twofold approach is to be applied at home. No compromising on principles: theology must not interfere with politics, the freedom and plurality of the media must be safeguarded, and the right of women to free choice and dignity must be defended. At the same time, we’ve got to avoid pitting communities against one another, stigmatizing them unduly and preferring one to the others. Tolerance towards others is all the easier to put into practice when it is underpinned by intransigence in the face of the intolerable.

Postel: Do you agree that the French no vote on the EU constitution, as several observers have claimed, is connected to the demonstrations/riots that convulsed France in the spring of 2006? What are your impressions of and thoughts about these events? And what is your view of the French vote on the EU constitution and of France’s relationship with the EU?

Todorov: In March and April 2006, the major cities in France went through a new period of agitation after that of November 2005, this time over a government bill to introduce a new work contract. The Contrat Première Embauche, or First Employment Contract, was intended to make it easier for employers to lay off employees but promised to make hiring easier, too. After extensive demonstrations, the government withdrew the bill. What conclusions can someone like me draw from these events, keeping in mind that I’m not an economist and that I’m not looking for a job anymore? I’m afraid that my thoughts on the subject will include no revelations.

From day to day, as events were unfolding, I found myself attentive to some of the excessive aspects of the protests. The first reason for my lack of sympathy was strictly formal. I am attached to representative democracy and I don’t like to see the government giving in to street pressure; it reminds me of the fascist demonstrations of strength in the interwar period that eventually brought about the collapse of democracy. A million protesters in the streets is obviously very impressive, but I haven’t forgotten that there were many more people than that who voted this parliament and this government into office along with their program. The rules of democratic life require that we accept election results even when we’re not happy about them. Representative democracy today is subject to the ongoing pressure of what Jacques Julliard terms “permanent democracy” in nonelectoral periods, such as opinion polls, which often have a strong impact on strictly political decisions.

My second reservation had to do with the turn that the debate took. France’s unemployment rate has been hovering around 10 percent for many years, up to 25 percent among the young, and even 50 percent in the poorer areas. Unemployment is not merely an economic disaster; it’s a cancer that eats away at the social fabric. We must do everything we can to fight it, so why not a new type of contract? I don’t know whether it was an economically viable solution but I thought it was a bit excessive to reject it on principle. It should have been a practical question, something to be tried for a year, let’s say, kept if it helped and dropped if it did damage. All of the different political parties want to lower unemployment; the struggle against it should not be the object of partisan fighting.

Next, large numbers of students got involved in the protesting, but whether or not it was a demonstration of their political maturity is another question. What I observed around me (I live near the Latin Quarter) was more the need to participate in a ritual that has come to be regarded as nearly mandatory by each new generation: meetings, sit‐ins, student “strikes,” demonstrations, clashes with the police. I got the sense that they were demonstrating how little they cared about their studies more than a real enthusiasm for a political struggle. Admittedly, entire sections of the French university system are in a sorry state—unlike the highly selective grandes écoles—which doesn’t motivate students to pursue their studies.

I also felt that the students’ reaction revealed a fairly shallow understanding of economic issues; to be sure, the teaching of economics in French schools is notoriously inadequate. Critics of the proposed measures seemed to forget that a less‐than‐perfect contract is better than no contract at all and that, before wealth can be redistributed, it must be produced. This lack of realism has been manifest in other social conflicts as well, as if people did not understand that the increased life expectancies we’ve been experiencing for half a century necessitate a lengthening of lifetime working hours, not a reduction thereof (with the thirty‐five‐hour work week or retirement at sixty).

Lastly, I couldn’t get rid of the impression that the people we were hearing in the course of this conflict were not those for whom the measures were intended but rather other sectors of society that were not concerned by them. The First Employment Contract was meant to help young people with no qualifications—the very youngsters who were involved in the November demonstrations. But most of the protesters in the spring demonstrations were students, mainly from the middle class, and members of trade unions, entrenched almost exclusively in the public service sector where there is full job security. The youngsters from the impoverished areas were not (from what we heard) systematically hostile to the government’s proposals.

But I cannot restrict my analysis solely to these reservations. Beyond the motives actually voiced by the protesters, one could hear other, deeper reasons for concern. The questions raised were not merely economic. What triggered the initial protests was the prime minister’s decision to impose his reform without consulting either the unions or parliament. He acted like an enlightened despot from the eighteenth century, knowing, or thinking he knows, what’s best for his subjects and imposing it upon them without asking what they have to say. In so doing, he was apparently regarding (anticipated) economic effects as all‐important and the social debate as meaningless. The intensity of the hostile reactions showed that he was mistaken—people behaved as if dignity mattered more than economic benefits. What politicians today seem to forget all too often is that, however desirable material wealth may be, it is but a means to a more fulfilling, more worthy, more meaningful life. Pure economic criteria, as we all know today, do not suffice to assess the well‐being of a population and must be subordinated to social criteria.

Which brings me to the usual reactions in Europe against free‐market capitalism (often said to be running wild). For someone like me who has lived part of his life in Communist Bulgaria in a “planned” and not a “market” economy, the choice seems cut‐and‐dry: between penury and opulence, you don’t hesitate for long. But you cannot be satisfied with an observation such as this when you know that human well‐being is not a matter of company growth rates and turnovers, nor does it derive automatically from the latter. While maintaining the advantages of a competitive economy, political action must work to offset its harmful effects by implementing social measures for the common good.

On what level must such policies be implemented to be efficient? European nations are not big enough for each to alter its own economic situation. On the other hand, the size of the European Union, between a small nation and the world, offers precisely the right context for such action. The problem is that the EU is not yet a sufficiently united entity to adopt common measures. In fact, as a unified entity it has even regressed since the negative vote on the constitution in France and in the Netherlands in 2005.

The no vote in France came from the conjunction of two extremes: the majority obtained by adding together the votes from the extreme Right and the extreme Left. There was something very odd, to say the least, about seeing such unlikely bedfellows as a Trotskyist leader, a secretary of the Communist Party, the leader of the nationalist Right, and the head of the extreme Right standing side by side—physically—in their campaign for the no. Nationalist and xenophobic representatives of the Right will probably never change their minds, lest they lose the sole thrust of their political agenda. But the left of the mainstream Left is not automatically anti‐European. If it voted no, it was because the writers of the constitution wanted to include principles that already figured in previously signed treaties, in particular regarding the free market economy. In this sense, there was a connection between the ‘no’ to the constitution and the demonstrations in March and April 2006. All it would take to reverse this vote is to drop the articles in question, and this could be done all the more easily as economic policies do not belong to the category of fundamental rights; they are of a conjunctural nature and have no business figuring in the constitution.

France today gives me the impression, and I am not alone in this respect, of a country mired in stagnation, dominated by a conservative outlook and a political class that lacks daring and inventiveness. The European framework may just be the one that will provide it with a new lease on life.

Postel: Why is it advisable for a political Europe to exist?

Todorov: Because everybody stands to benefit from it. With its 450 million citizens, the European Union can implement an economic policy that no single European nation would be able to conduct alone; it can deal with energy resource problems that are common to all, adopt a common stance toward immigration, and develop advanced research centers that no isolated state could afford. European countries also need to unite in order to resist common adversaries more efficiently. Until now, terrorists have been able to move from country to country with greater ease than examining judges. Environmental dangers cross borders with equal ease—the cloud of radioactivity from Chernobyl was unwilling to stop at the Rhine, and the impact of global warming is as strong in Italy as in Denmark—and yet protection policies still remain in the hands of each nation.

In a world that is so much more unified than ever before, Europe can play a role that none of its individual member nations could hope to fulfill, defending its interests vis‐à‐vis other world powers and embodying a set of principles that can serve as a model for all. Because of the painful experiences that have marked its history over the last few centuries (colonialism, totalitarianism, the world wars), Europeans aspire today to become a “quiet power,” willing to defend itself yet seeking to make its presence felt in the rest of the world through its values, not its armies. The peoples of Europe are no longer dreaming of a radiant future, but they cannot confine themselves to dealing with routine affairs. To gather momentum again, they need a project, a “grand design,” such as embodying and defending European values. Such momentum was stopped in its tracks by the French and Dutch no vote to the European constitution.

If, as I am arguing, a stronger Europe is advisable, how can we get out of the current impasse? In theory, we have three options: we can drop the constitutional treaty, propose another one, or adapt the existing text to make it acceptable to everyone. The first solution is unworkable, and it is not the Hampton Court Agenda (called l’Europe des projets in French), with its shift in focus away from a constitution toward a series of concrete projects, that will prove the contrary. It is unworkable for psychological reasons (the loss of momentum takes us back in time, and this tide needs to be reversed), but also for technical ones. The EU is paralyzed by the existing treaties, which are unsuitable for an enlarged union of twenty‐five member states. The draft treaty for the constitution dealt with this problem in a number of clauses about qualified majority voting, enhanced cooperation, and greater stability for the presidency of the council. Drafting a new text is an equally impractical solution. Not because the existing text is perfect (it isn’t), but because sixteen countries have already voted in favor of it, and nothing justifies asking them to start all over again. What’s more, everyone knows that this text was reached through compromise and that we are highly unlikely to see another one suddenly winning unanimous support. As it stands, it is an imperfect but perfectible text that would allow us to take one step forward right away.

So there is only one solution left and that is to adapt the text. To do so requires starting from the principle that nothing should be submitted to a vote that was not already in the initial draft but also that he who can do more can do less. Otherwise put, the nine countries that did not ratify the treaty should be given the possibility of adopting an abridged version, limited to parts I (the institutions), II (fundamental rights) and IV (general provisions), and excluding part III (policies and functioning) and the annexes. This reduction, which would shorten the text from 183 to 23 pages, is justified not only because French and Dutch reservations were essentially motivated by the third part but also because the latter has more to do with political choices that change with changing majorities than with a legal framework that has to be stable over time. This condensed text could be given a new name, such as the Fundamental Treaty, and every country that wants to continue to be part of the European Union would be required to adopt it. For this reason, and because it is a decision that engages each country’s political future, it should be made by those who are responsible for the country’s political destiny, namely, its parliament or its two chambers.

To implement this solution, all it would take is for the next European Council to adopt it and at the same time postpone the deadline for ratification to 1 November 2007, leaving the choice of the most opportune moment for this vote to each government. Acting now, rather than at some uncertain future date, would allow us to benefit from a favorable pro‐European atmosphere in several countries. We should take advantage of the fact that such staunch pro‐Europeanists as José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Spain, Angela Merkel in Germany, and Romano Prodi in Italy are now in power. Add France to these three countries, and you already have more than half the population of Europe.1

It is interesting to note that some of these governments are center‐Left, others center‐Right, so clearly when it comes to building Europe, the dividing line is not so much between Left and Right as between pro‐European centrists and anti‐European extremists (as was illustrated in France by the unlikely coalition of Left and Right extremists advocating the no).

Once this ratification has been obtained and European momentum restored, the EU can get moving again by making use of the provisions concerning enhanced cooperation in particular. In a Europe with twenty‐five or twenty‐seven member states, this is the only way to move forward. The European Union will have, not a hard‐core group of the same countries, but a multi‐purpose functioning (“L’Europe à géométrie variable”) according to the sectors in which enhanced cooperation seems useful. This is, incidentally, already the case: the Schengen zone includes fourteen countries, the Eurozone twelve, Eurocorps six countries directly and five others indirectly—but they are never exactly the same ones. The same model could be applied to other agreements concerning, for example, social protection, legal cooperation, or fiscal coordination.

France has a particular interest in the development of a strong political Europe. The only chance it has of making its voice heard on the global stage is through the European Union. France can be strong in Europe; Europe will be strong in the world. But for this purpose other Europeans will have to see France working for the common good and not for its own particular interests. France could evidence this stance by eloquent gestures, such as letting the European parliament move to Brussels instead of keeping it in Strasbourg, where it adds unnecessary expenses to the EU budget without enhancing the grandeur of France. It could get the EU more involved in the positions it defends as a permanent member on the Security Council; it could commit to using the military means at its disposal to safeguard the integrity of European territory rather than speaking in this context of defending undefined “allied countries” (as Jacques Chirac did in his speech on defense on 19 January 2006).

The reinforcement of a European identity is not, as some fear, detrimental to national identities. Europe is not a nation and never will be. The two identities are not incompatible; after all, each and every one of us already has several affiliations, whether we know it or not. Firstly, we all have a cultural identity, in the wide sense of the term, of which we are the passive recipients in childhood. This includes our mother tongue, above all, and the worldview embedded in it, a religion (or its absence), memories of landscapes, culinary and physical habits, but also elements of culture in the narrower sense, such as books, pictures, and melodies. Then we all have a national and civic identity, cemented by solidarity rather than shared feelings—this identity is founded on our economic and social interdependence, as expressed in the state budget and taxes and translated through our systems of retirement, health coverage, education, and transport, among others. In addition, we all have an identity based on our moral and political choices, since we subscribe to certain universal principles, including the democratic system, the rule of law, and human rights.

It is to this set of collective identities that the European identity is being added. It proceeds from the acknowledgement of the undeniable plurality of nations within a single entity: Europe. It consists in turning a lack of unity into a unity on a higher level, of converting difference into an identity. We can accomplish this by an active commitment to coexistence, comparison, and confrontation with those who do not always think and feel as we do; by practicing tolerance and not giving in to the temptation to do good by force; by encouraging emulation and, at the same time, a critical spirit; and by learning, as Kant said, “to think from the standpoint of everyone else.”

Postel: A central theme of your book Le Nouveau Désordre mondial is the Europe/U.S. split. A great deal has been made of this topic since the run‐up to the 2003 Iraq War. Many observers regard it as a pivotal geopolitical development. Some even bestow world‐historic significance upon it. Perry Anderson, among others, has articulated a rather different view: 

European hostility to the [Iraq] war is broad but not deep. The invasion was widely opposed, but once consummated has not given rise to much further protest. Demonstrations against the occupation have been few and far between, in stark contrast with the global wave of protest sparked by the war in Vietnam. The British government that joined in the American attack has not been punished at the polls. The German government that opposed the invasion was soon helping out behind the scenes, providing information on targets in Baghdad and assistance with CIA renditions. The French government, taxed by Fukuyama with double‐crossing the United States in the Security Council, in fact told the White House to go ahead without a new resolution, and has worked closely with Washington to install suitable regimes in Haiti and Lebanon. All stand united on Iran. European hostility to the current presidency is more pique than conniption. What has grated is indifference to diplomatic niceties, and insufficient homage of acceptable vice to ostensible virtue. Elites and masses alike are attached to the veils that have traditionally draped compliance with American will and resent a government that has discarded them. Grievances of this kind, a matter of style rather than substance, will pass with a return to decorum. A Clinton restoration would no doubt see a swift and rapt reunion of the Old World with the New.2

What do you make of this? How consequential, in your view, is the Atlantic divide (or, as Anderson would have it, lack thereof), in practical, geopolitical terms as well as in larger geohistorical ones? There is another quotation I would like to include along with the one from Anderson, from the Indian historian Vinay Lal: 

From the point of view of those who come from the formerly colonised states of the global south, there is absolutely nothing to choose between the Europeans and the Americans.3

This in no way changes the essential thrust of my question. It simply fills out the picture, adding a postcolonial element to the Marxist one found in Anderson’s argument. This is something on which the Marxist and postcolonial perspectives converge: the feeling that Europe and America are of a piece, that the talk of a Euro‐American rift is misplaced, a distraction from the underlying harmony of the imperial‐capitalist worldsystem. It is against this intellectual backdrop that my question is framed.

Todorov: Observe the Earth from Mars and I’m sure you won’t see any difference between Americans and Europeans (or Asians and Africans, for that matter): they’re all earthlings! Apparently there are people in India who see the West (or should I say the “global north”?) as a monolithic block. I must say that I do not find such generalizations convincing or helpful. I think formerly colonized countries should be attentive to differences; for example, old colonialist countries, such as Great Britain and France, suffer from a bad conscience that is missing in the United States, a former colony itself. Underlining these differences can be a convenient way of ensuring the support of one against the other. I’m also not convinced that the ex‐colonized (the “global south”) form a coherent block. Is there really no difference between South Korea and Angola or between India and Kenya?

If we broaden the basis of comparison, the United States and the European Union clearly share many interests and values; there is no reason to pass over them in silence. Besides, they are sometimes joined by others, such as Japan, the Latin American countries, or Russia. All states have an interest in preventing nonstate acts of terrorism. Nuclear proliferation is a real danger for humanity; the fewer the states that have the bomb, the better off we are. Peace and independence in Lebanon are unquestionably preferable to civil war and occupation by a foreign army.

But similar reactions such as these and others cannot mask the existence of significant differences. To confine ourselves to questions of foreign policy, all these states are out to defend their own interests (and not only principles of justice and democratic values, as they sometimes claim), but only the United States systematically adopts an imperial policy. What I mean by this is that they declare that their interests are at stake all over the planet and consider it legitimate to employ force to defend them. The Europeans were clearly tempted by the same posture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they have abandoned it since (Great Britain’s unconditional support for the United States is a sign of submission, not domination). The explanation for the European stance is to be sought not so much in a greater attachment to virtue as in the active presence in Europe of the past and its aftereffects, and also in a concern for efficiency; the Europeans were convinced that the occupation of Iraq would only intensify terrorism rather than diminish it (and they were right).

To be sure, the “Europe” label also masks divergences, firstly between the people and their governments and then between the different governments. Whereas the vast majority of the people in Europe were against the war, some of the governments—notably in Spain, Italy, Great Britain, and Poland—supported the American intervention. In democratic countries where government officials are periodically subject to elections, this rift is a source of danger, and we have seen that prowar governments lost subsequent elections to those who had opposed the war; this was the case in Italy and Spain. More recently in Great Britain, Tony Blair resigned under pressure from his own party; the main criticism against him was his blind allegiance to U.S. foreign policy. Poland’s case is somewhat different; loyalty to America is a means for the Polish to buy insurance against any eventual intrusive attempt on the part of their big Russian neighbor, for the memory of past incursions is still painfully alive. But the Polish people themselves were as hostile to the war as the Italians and the Spanish. Maybe the reason why the French did not organize massive demonstrations against the war was that they identified with the position of their government and were dubious about the effect of mass protests at the Bastille or the White House.

What Europeans reproach the Americans for, in this context, is that they seem to believe in brute military force as the only means of reaching a goal. Take terrorism, for example. Fighting against terrorism is a legitimate goal. I consider bombing al‐Qaeda bases in Afghanistan an act of legitimate defense for the United States. But the U.S. intervention in Iraq under the pretext of fighting terrorism was outrageous, and I’m still perplexed by the fact that the majority of the American people did not realize it. Firstly, deliberate lying became a commonplace means of action like any other (as used to be the case in totalitarian states); and, secondly, the administration achieved the opposite of what it said it were going to. Post‐9/11 American policies illustrate the danger of thinking that one’s position as a victim in the past (in this case, as the target of terrorist attacks) gives one the right to disregard rules, norms, and principles of justice. Just as Auschwitz serves in Israel to justify actions against its Arab neighbors, so 9/11 serves to dispense the U.S. government from observing international conventions and legitimates torture in the Abu Ghraib prison and in Guantánamo. A reaction of this kind is dangerous; one mustn’t forget that humiliation can become the source of great violence. This is true of people in big and small countries alike.

The Europeans are not expecting everybody to knuckle under; after all they’ve been victims of terrorist attacks more often than the Americans, recently in Madrid and in London and before that in Paris and in Berlin. But they think that the bombing in Afghanistan ought to have been the exception, not the rule; rarely does a government officially protect terrorists the way the Kabul government did. What is needed the rest of the time is police work—infiltrating, phone tapping, tailing, and freezing assets—and it would hardly be appropriate to call this war. What is needed more especially, aside from dealing with the symptom, is addressing what legitimates it psychologically: the long‐term occupation of Palestine and the more recent occupation of other Moslem countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terrorism is to be taken seriously, and not only because the acts of violence are really dangerous in a world where technological progress has made them easy. We have to worry as much if not more about the dangerous effects on our own thinking. We are beginning to conceive of the world exclusively in terms of good and bad, friends and enemies, and to see every Moslem as a threat. Dangers exist, but this does not justify anything and everything. Let’s not act like the Fascists who, between the two world wars, gained power over people’s minds by waving the Bolshevik threat, or like Senator McCarthy who did likewise in the fifties (even if Soviet spies were a reality). It is precisely because the risks are real that we must show discernment and resist movements of sheer panic. This is the duty of intellectuals and academics, in particular, whose profession consists in trying to get as close to the exact truth as possible: shouting fire whenever someone lights a cigarette will not help put out actual fires.

The war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 illustrated again the difference in approach between the Europeans (minus Great Britain) and the United States. The latter gave unconditional support to the Israeli intervention, which was another attempt to resolve a political problem by brutal force, in this case by bombing. This intervention was not, as we know, crowned with success. Israel has the right to demand that its villages not be attacked and its citizens not kidnapped. But aren’t there other means of achieving this goal? Wouldn’t it be helpful, in particular, to put an end to the occupation of foreign territories, military interventions, and the imprisonment of enemies? The European Union, on the other hand, asked insistently for the bombings to cease. After the armistice, it sent a peace force to the region. Its representatives seem to think that a political conflict cannot be settled in a permanent way using weapons alone.

Whether the Atlantic divide widens or narrows will depend as much on American foreign policy in the future as on the construction of a more coherent political Europe. The European Union needs to acquire military autonomy, and the United States must be willing to take into account other nations’ interests. I would rather have a plural world than a unified one, and this is not just a matter of personal preference; this is, I believe, in the common interest. A power acquires genuine legitimacy not from its origin but from the way it is exercised, and this means setting itself limits.

[Paris–Chicago 2006–2007]


1. July 2007: the direction suggested here is more or less the one actually adopted by the last European summit in June 2007.

2. Perry Anderson, “Inside Man,” The Nation,

3. Vinay Lal, “The Beginning of a History,”‐fukuyama/beginning_3585.jsp