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The Debate over the Protection of the European Way of Life by Eszter Kovács

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The Debate over the Protection of the European Way of Life

Pierre Manent Interviewed by Eszter Kovács

Speaking about protection implies a pre- existing threat.

You are right, if we talk about protection, it logically entails the existence of a threat. The idea of the protection of the European way of life has generated a lot of negative reactions. Before we go any further, we have to make it clear that it is very novel for the Europeans to find themselves in a defensive position against the direction the world is moving in (le mouvement du monde), since over the past several centuries, I would say the past two centuries, but essentially since the discovery of the New World, that is, approximately since 1500, it was the Europeans who set the world in motion, and they were the ones against whom the others had to defend themselves, with varying degrees of effectiveness. In fact, for centuries, others were incapable of protecting themselves against the forces initiated, generated, and maintained by Europe, i.e. the European spirit, its science, military power, and technology, as well as its prestige, the splendour of the novel way in which they organized their social life and satisfied human needs.

The Europeans defined themselves for centuries as the ones who animated, directed, and guided the movement of the world.

What has happened in more recent times is a mysterious reversal in their eyes. And European opinion is divided as to how to react to this change, as, suddenly, Europeans are no longer the ones who orient the movement of the world. A section of European public opinion, but one which is not respectable, says: ‘Now we have to protect ourselves against this movement, against these threatening developments.’ The other view, the respectable one, that of the leading class, the opinion of those who dictate general opinion—if I may put it that way—says: ‘No, that would be a regression. Europe is characterized by its openness. Europe must stay in the forefront of the movement of humanity (le movement de l’humanité), although in other circumstances, no longer in the forefront by imposing its power but, firstly, by being a model of the respect of human rights and, secondly, by opening up as generously as possible to the movement of humanity.’ Thus, we have arrived from a Europe which holds the power and the rights, directing and imposing the movement of the world, to a Europe which does not direct or enforce its rule anymore, but still intends to stay in the forefront, and does so not by leadership but by its openness. And the result is that the opinion that is not considered respectable, which is nowadays called populist, urging the protection of the European identity, seems to be in the eyes of the respectable opinion a betrayal of the European spirit. At the same time, the respectable opinion seems, for those who do not share it, to involve a surrender of Europe and therefore to threaten Europe’s ruin. The two positions have difficulty expressing themselves.

And perhaps even more difficulty establishing a dialogue between them?

Of course. They are incapable of dialogue since each opinion exists in a sense because of the other, in opposition to each other, but each of them is also divided. The respectable opinion, which is leading nowadays, the opinion which stands for openness, is divided between a version that claims unlimited and unconditional openness, and another opinion, which, while also referring to human rights, does not accept unconditional openness, which would say, ‘Sure, the migrants can come, provided that they respect certain European principles’. For instance, ‘Of course, it is reasonable, necessary, and just to accept Muslim immigration, but it is necessary that the Muslims who settle down in Europe accept certain fundamental principles of our life, namely human rights, more specifically equality between men and women’. We can see that on the French left there is a very clear divide between those for whom progress means accepting a multicultural society and those for whom the idea of progress would be to impose certain values of the Republic, particularly on Muslim populations, for which equality between the sexes is not in evidence. We can see this tension, this divide within the progressist group. As for the populists, they are even more perplexed, because in essence there is no positive explanation on the populist side for what they aim to do, of what they want to achieve. Politically they are more or less flourishing, but they flourish simply because they voice the worries and the anxiety of a large part of the population about these developments, and particularly over the migratory movement, which makes people say, as everyone says nowadays: ‘We are not at home any more.’ But obviously this feeling and this recognition are not enough to constitute a political thought. The populists obtain good results at the elections, anyhow, in Western Europe, saying, ‘They are changing our country, no one asked us our opinion, the elite are not interested in our lives but impose uncontrolled immigration on us, it is unacceptable’. One can easily understand this reaction, but it does not comprise a real political reflection. It can be rendered by the slogan ‘This is our home’. This is a catchy slogan, but politically speaking it is very weak. To counter it, it is enough to point out that it is also the home of the large number of Muslim citizens in France. Therefore saying ‘This is our home’ does not move us forward. Basically, the problem is that those who protest against present-day globalization do not know how to express their feelings. That is one of the reasons why they often resort to polemical or aggressive posturing, perhaps because populist leaders in some way lack education, but also because it is very difficult to express such things. It is certain that if we say that the European way of life must be protected, and here I return to your original question, we also have to ask, what does the European way of life consist of?

Indeed. There are two recurrent notions in this discourse: liberty and norms, since to defend a way of life is only possible in the name of a norm. And later on, in the debate, we have to face the idea of the transgression of norms. Do you think that there is a real reflection about freedom and norms, or are these only discursive elements without a clear meaning?

I think that it is very hard to formulate in a politically relevant and meaningful way what this European way of life that we need to defend consists of. Why? Simply because Europe is the place on Earth where historical changes have been the most considerable. Let us consider the two major characteristics of European history, the Christian matrix and the Enlightenment. What is specific to Europe in comparison to other regions of the world? It is that Europe is a continent shaped by Christianity. What else is specific to Europe? The Enlightenment. Although the movement of the Enlightenment —and this is nothing you do not already know—was largely a criticism of the Christian religion. If we urge people to defend the European way of life, is it to defend Christian Europe or the Europe of the Enlightenment? Yet if we wish to protect the Europe of the Enlightenment, then the philosophy of human rights takes us back to the prevailing opinion, which considers that what is proper for Europe is the respect for human rights, and hence globalization is perfectly welcome. A great deal of effort is needed to work out what it is that must be preserved—and not only preserved, but also promoted. You have just said ‘liberty’ and ‘norm’, but we have to take a closer look at what I have just said when evoking Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Recent developments in Europe have consisted of the demolition of all social norms which nonetheless regulated social life for centuries, 

including the norms which were common to both Christians and secular people, namely family life. In as much as the recent movements in Europe have testified to the acceleration of the symbolical destruction of the European way of life, it becomes extremely awkward to defend the European way of life, since the European way of life has consisted in recent times of Europe’s true self-negation (la négation de soi par soi), which the progressivists regarded as progress, and even today regard as progress. It is for this reason that a strange phenomenon has emerged: the far left, which defends human rights without limits, is the most hospitable to Muslims, even if they have the most archaic mores. Therefore, islamogauchisme, which tries to square the circle and is a contradiction in terms, can be explained if we consider it in the light of the political and ideological views of our time. The far left links the future and progress to this self-negation, thus they think that the height of progress is to renounce one’s own true self; to remove and destroy everything that defined the old European life that we want to abandon, and in order to achieve this, we have to accept even the Muslims with the most archaic mores, because with them, between us, at least Europe will surely not resemble its past. We can see how the ideological disposition excludes the possibility of dialogue. There is no dialogue between the populists and the progressivists, while the dialogue between the unconditional progressivists and the republican progressivists, who advocate a kind of restricted openness, is very problematic. And those who are not progressivists, who are conservatives—who aim to preserve a certain way of life in Europe—have difficulties defining what still remains of this way of living, what can be preserved, and what, of that which remains, we intend to preserve. Personally, I advocate that the Christian mark on Europe (la marque chrétienne) be admitted in some way. Many oppose me, when they learn this, with the following argument: ‘But what are you talking about? You can see that this “Christian mark” is at this moment completely disappearing. Your wish is not politically relevant.’

This leads us to the question of secularization. We live in states and are citizens of states which define themselves as secular, more or less. Reintroducing a Christian element in politics is highly debatable. In the opinion of certain people, progress and secularism, progress and secularization go together. Others challenge this idea, linking progress and secularism. What do you think about this parallel which many people draw between the two?

The far left links the future and progress to this self-negation, thus they think that the height of progress is to renounce one’s own true self

That is a very complicated question because in truth, there is a lot of uncertainty about the meaning and the limits of the notion of secularism. Almost everyone can agree on the fact that the principle of secularism is the separation of commands. That is, churches and religion do not give commands to the state and the state does not give commands to the religions. It is quickly stated like this, and it is not difficult to organize from the institutional, juridical, and administrative points of view. But what happens in society? I say, as some others do, that a secular state does not mean a secular society, or to put it another way, the religious neutrality of the state does not imply the religious neutrality of society. We have to add that the previous experience of secularism in France, that of the 1905 law and the related laws, had consequences for society. One of the main aspects of the debate in France between the Church and the republican and progressivist side was the question of public education. One of the preoccupations of the secular group was to bring public education out from under the dominant influence of the Catholic Church. Naturally, this concerned all of the citizens, the whole of society. There was a religious and a secular component to this debate. The meaning of secularism in France, that of the 1905 law, was on the one hand, as I have said, institutional separation, where the political law commands and the Church has the freedom to organize itself. However, the state ensures that the members of society (les sociétaires)—the citizens—can have access to a full education independently of their religious affiliation. That means a state school, a school without a religious character. This solution worked out quite well, but in fact, it did not lead to separation but to a negotiated settlement afterwards between the state and the Church, because they had to organize the coexistence of public and secular education with an education of ‘a Christian mark’, and laws were needed to organize this collaboration. It is evident that secularism is compatible with a degree of collaboration between the institutions, on the understanding that the state remains the only one that governs. Still, there may be some compromises which are favourable to the other side. This was the classical concept of secularism in France, which today faces an unknown problem, which is the question of Muslims. The reason why I am sceptical about the idea that secularism could solve our problems is that in reality secularism does not concern the Muslims. What I am trying to make clear today to my readers and to my audience is that the problem of Islam has nothing to do with the former Catholic problem. Why not? The problem that secularism faced at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century was the presence and power of a Church that had been involved for centuries in national, political, social, and family life.

And it also determined the mores and habits.

Exactly. At least a part of the family was Catholic: the husband called himself a secular republican, while his wife was Catholic. For instance, it caused a scandal that Jaurès’s daughter had her first communion. In truth, there was an osmosis between the Church, the society, and France. It had to be torn apart, and it happened in a necessarily violent way in a society that was both republican and Catholic at the same time. With Islam, the problem is the opposite. The question is not about how to separate but how to unite. The challenge is to incorporate into the national life populations that have not been part of it equally. Of course, there were Muslims in the French colonies, but they were definitely not part of the Republic equally. They had a different status; they were not considered equal citizens. Therefore, something must be carried out which is unknown and has not been done before, and this is not to separate the government and Islam, since Islam has never comprised part of the government in France. The task is not to extract the members of society from an educational hegemony held by the Muslims in France. What I say is absolutely obvious and still everyone says ‘secularism’, ‘we will do with the Muslims the same thing that we did with the Catholics and that’s it’. This reasoning is anything but sound. We can see why secularism is only of very slight concern for Islam. There is no separation to carry out. They are separated. They come to participate in the national life, they are present in the country in large numbers, they are citizens and members of the society, but their way of life is clearly distinct from the other part of French society, and in some respects, namely the relation between the sexes, this form of life is very different from that which seems to us good and just. What kind of secular action would restore equality between men and women in Muslim life? It is obvious that the instrument and the object of its action are not compatible. It would not work out. The secular side has found, as a form of release, a way of manifesting its power by demanding the effacement of outer signs: ‘I do so wish we could forbid women, mothers from wearing headscarves (Hijab) when they wait for their children after school.’ It is permitted today, it may be prohibited tomorrow, but it would do nothing to resolve the problem, and merely manifest authority towards them. Secularism in the way it has been developed in the Christian world is not at all adapted to this situation. We can keep the general principle that the government is the master of the law, and religions organize themselves freely, but it is not pertinent, it does not concern the questions raised by the entry of Muslim ways of life into Europe, in a Europe that at this moment is reflecting upon its own way of life. Europe knows full well that integrating the Muslim lifestyle into European life is not easy, so public opinion is divided, and the opposition mentioned at the beginning is very tangible in the relationship towards Islam, as the challenges of globalization and of immigration are more acute in this regard. Thus, we come back to the three positions: unlimited progressivism, total openness or multiculturalism; conditional progressism, ‘They can come but they have to respect quite a few principles that the Republic can legitimately impose on them’; and finally, a conservative position, which says, although in various ways, that ‘Islam is antithetical to the European way of life’, so it is important to limit as much as possible its presence in European life.

And once again there can be no dialogue between these opinions.

That is right, it is very difficult to pursue a dialogue since the viewpoints are completely different. But it also leads to alliances. We can see that the conservatives can ally at times with the unconditional progressivists, saying that the headscarf, in the end, is not so important, it is secondary, it is part of their mores and that if we accept them, then we accept them with their mores. The conservatives may also say this, but they also imply that Muslims should not come in great numbers. By contrast, a conservative can ally with the conditional progressists and agree that we have to impose on Islam, during the time that it is present here, a respect for certain rules, namely the strict equality between men and women.

But to speak of imposing equality seems quite a paradoxical idea. Normally, equality must be present, prior, and not enforced. Here, it is not the case.

For the French, it was the revolutionary tradition. Equality in France was very vigorously enforced in 1789 and over the following years. The idea of imposing equality does not displease a part of the French spirit.

But even if the idea does not displease the French spirit, is it possible to impose equality? 

In our case, in 1789, feudal orders and privileges were abolished, so the principle of inequality which ruled social life was put to an end, but in the case of Islam, the equality that we want to see is equality within the family, which concerns inheritance, intimate relationships, etc. Exercising power in these private relationships is very problematic.

And the result is unpredictable.

The result is highly uncertain, indeed. The legitimacy of the intervention is debatable, all the more so since the notion of inequality is sometimes clear but sometimes vague. The state takes up a role, which in its execution is tyrannical and, at the same time, inefficient. That is the situation, a somewhat unpleasant one, that we are facing.

It seems to me that you have answered some of the questions which I have not asked yet but was about to do so. I will perhaps have one more. When we speak about European culture, in truth, we are speaking about different cultures, although we suppose some kind of a unity between them. Now, we are faced by the challenge of opening up and allowing the entry of other cultures. A culture which is unified, at least theoretically, will disintegrate or will become intangible to the future generation. These are also existing viewpoints in this debate.

I think that we are using words which are too abstract in their meaning. Both identity and, of course, culture are abstract notions. Is culture a coherent mechanism that one can describe? No, not at all. Europe has a historical, social, and spiritual narrative that can be recounted, but we cannot say: ‘This is what Europe is.’ We can make a geographical map of Europe, but we cannot make a map of European identity. We have to make it clear what we mean. What do we place at the heart of the reality of Europe? What makes Europe something well defined—different from other areas of civilization? In fact, the notion of civilization seems to be more appropriate here than that of culture. Either way, anyone can say, ‘We have to defend European civilization. We have to defend European identity. We have to defend European culture.’ It is not at all difficult to say, and while it does not necessarily make one popular, it is not difficult to say it either. But what would it mean in practice? Some fundamental questions need to be asked. What is the primary question if we want these notions to make sense? The first question is what place we afford to Christianity. And we will not answer this question simply by speaking of the Christian roots of Europe. 

Everyone can admit that Europe has Christian roots even though some do not like to admit it. But what are the consequences of this for us?

After all, the theory of secularization implies that Europe has religious roots. Secularism is in some sense the culmination of Christianity. That is the thesis of my friend and colleague, Marcel Gauchet: Christianity is the religion that becomes the release from religion, and consequently contemporary secularism has Christian roots. For Gauchet, we have already left religion behind. In this case, religion has no relevance either for the present or for the future. Religion as a whole is in the past. For me, the question is what role we can give to Christianity historically, presently, and in the future. What role does it play in European life, in European self-consciousness, and in Europe’s self-definition? This question must be answered, and there can be a great variety of responses, even among those who claim that Christianity continues to play an essential part in the formation and essence of Europe. The proponents of a Christian Europe can have divergent viewpoints about many things. What I think personally is that Christianity is a decisive factor in Europe’s past, present, and future; it is part of the definition of Europe, and in some way the fact that Europe has been Christian and has kept this Christian mark is its most distinctive feature. What do I retain from Christianity? Not the dogma. On what points does Christianity animate European life? The Europeans wanted two things at the same time, which were very difficult to reconcile, so difficult to reconcile that they had to separate them at a later stage. The first of these things was to govern themselves—and they had for this the model of Rome, and of the ancient Greek city. They wanted self-conscious self-government (le gouvernement de soi par soi) but at the same time they wanted to obey Jesus Christ, a God who was the friend of all men, which is also a considerable innovation, as before then, the gods were the divinities of the city, of the people. Thus, there is in the theological-political history of Europe something very specific. It was not simply a religion but this religion in particular, which we do not do justice to if we say that since the very beginning it held to the idea of ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. In fact, the Church wanted to command. We cannot view this as a pathology. The Europeans debated this double command: the intention to govern themselves by their own reason and the need and desire to obey a God who is the friend of all men. All of Europe’s history can be regarded as a consequence of this. As the actions were distinct, several compromises had to be found, some of them successful, some of them unsatisfactory, but in any case, this dual imperative has shaped Europeans. The history of Europe was shaped by the many answers to this question, whether that means the nation, the Catholic king, the Republic, or the nation defined by its confession as Catholic or Protestant. All of our history is a debate between, on the one hand, the Greek and Roman approach—how to form a good republic—and on the other hand the Christian proposal—how to construct the city of God. That is the substance of European history. The Europeans faced, from the beginning, two or three authorities which were essentially different and heterogenous: the authority of religion, the authority of reason (of philosophy), and political authority. Legitimacy in Europe has always been divided. Even at those times when the Church was most confident in itself and had the greatest prestige, the ancient authors, who represented reason in a philosophical sense, politics, and Roman (hence pagan) law, held significant authority. European life involves taking these authorities seriously. It would be a major loss if one of them were removed from the landscape. And recent developments in Europe have consisted in wishing to remove the Church, that is to say Christianity, from the landscape, which will reduce tremendously the intellectual vitality in Europe. It is because one of the main issues has been set aside as a particular question for some people but not having relevance for the society as a whole, while the question of religion and of God is a matter for every human being. And if this question cannot be present in the public space, the consequence will be a dilution, or a degradation of intellectual vigour. And the result of all this is that the only divinity present in the public space nowadays is the God of the Muslims, not that of the Christians.

Do you think that there is a balance that can be lost if one of these aspects is set aside? 

The stability has already been broken. The Church has been pushed to the margins of society, its legitimacy is weaker than it has ever been, the prevailing opinion looks at it as an institution attached to traditional mores which are opposed to human rights, and in some way, the less social authority the Church has, the more hostility it provokes. This phenomenon is psychologically comprehensible, since the Christian religion has been so far divorced from its spirit that its very traces seem strange and odd.


Right, obsolete. I can feel clearly this attitude in our society. One of the main questions is the place of Christianity in the public space. And this is not simply a question of numbers. The question is whether what I call the Christian proposal is a still existing theme in the debate or not. I think this is one of the main tasks of Christians who hold on to the visible presence of Christianity. The question is whether there will be enough Christians, and Christians vigorous enough to preserve the presence of Christian issues in public life, to preserve or to bring back into the public debate Christian language, Christian themes, reflections, propositions, and viewpoints inspired and sustained by Christianity. And at this moment no one knows the answer to this question.

Pierre Manent, political scientist and academic. He teaches political philosophy at the L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron. From 1974 to 1992, he was Aron’s assistant at the Collège de France. In 1978, Manent became a co- founder of the liberal anti-communist journal Commentaire. Author of more than ten books and dozens of articles, Manent is an active writer, lecturer, and commentator on political philosophy and the European political scene.

Eszter Kovács, assistant research fellow at the Research Institute of Politics and Government of the University of Public Service (NKE EJKK PÁK). She obtained her PhD in French literature in 2008 under joint supervision at the University of Szeged and at École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. She specializes in the history of early modern political thought. She is currently preparing a second Phd in ethics and political philosophy at Eötvös Loránd University.