NOVEMBER saw the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in 1918. While the British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition remained in the UK to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, sixty heads of state or heads of government gathered in Paris for the commemoration. In attendance were Trump, Putin, Merkel and Trudeau. The focal point of the event was an address by the French President, Emmanuel Macron.
Based on much of the mainstream media coverage of Macron’s speech, one could be forgiven for thinking that Macron’s main purpose in inviting the leaders of Russia and the United States to France had been to reprimand them. The Independent ran the headline, “Emmanuel Macron warns of ‘dangers’ of nationalism in Armistice speech aimed at Trump and Putin”, while the Washington Post claimed, “Macron denounces nationalism as a ‘betrayal of patriotism’ in rebuke to Trump at WWI remembrance”. A report on the CNN website observed that “it was impossible to view his remarks as anything less than a rebuke of Trump, who has proudly espoused an ‘America First’ foreign policy”.
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Had this been the case, it would have been an instance of appalling manners on the part of the French President (this fact was apparently lost on the media). The President of the USA was present in his role as head of state, not as Make America Great Again demagogue. Thousands of Americans lie buried in French soil, having fallen fighting for, among other things, the cause of France. To directly rebuke their representative on this occasion would have represented an extraordinary lapse of both manners and judgment.
As it happens, the media’s reporting was misleading, indicative of the pet political projects of the commentariat rather than what Macron actually had in mind. The primary intention of Macron’s comments was not to directly rebuke Trump or Putin. The fact that his views contradict theirs does not mean he specifically sought to rebuke them, and nothing he said implied that his comments were directly addressed to them. In fact, his speech encompassed wider objectives, and was primarily an attempt to position the project for a trans-national political order (especially the EU) as the fitting fulfilment of the aspirations of the war dead.
In pursuit of this goal, Macron made a highly revealing if cryptic reference to a 1927 book by the French political philosopher Julien Benda, the significance of which was almost wholly missed by the English-speaking media, and little reported in the French. And yet a closer look at Benda’s philosophy of politics provides considerable insight into the nature of Macron’s political vision.
Macron began his speech with a vision of French exceptionalism, asking his audience to visualise, in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, a vast congregation of exhausted combatants; soldiers from France and from its empire, Legionnaires and “Garibaldiens” (volunteers from Italy), together with volunteers from the whole world, because: “France represented, for them, everything that was beautiful in the world.” As he made clear later, this exceptionalism rests in the fact that France is, in Macron’s view, the repository of universal values.
He painted a sombre picture of the suffering and destruction that the war had wrought, observing how, although a hundred years ago, in some ways it was as if these events had happened yesterday, for the traces of the war never had been and never should be exorcised from our memories, from our lands:
I have seen listed on our monuments the litany of French names side by side with the names of dead foreigners—all under the sun of France; I have seen the bodies of our soldiers buried beneath a land that is, once more, innocent; as I have seen, in mass graves, the mingled bones of German soldiers and French soldiers who, in an icy winter, had killed each other over a few metres of land.
The reference to the commingling of French and German bones is a laudable metaphor for the fundamental underlying comradeship of the dead of both sides, a comradeship that transcends the transitory and shocking division of the war. But in the context of Macron’s speech, it plays a greater role—for he goes on to suggest that the developing political unity of Europe emerges out of this primary unity of the two great continental powers; presumably the flower of the final exorcism of the ghosts of 1870, 1914 and 1939.
There followed the most quoted part of Macron’s speech. Talking of the spirit that had animated the combatants in the Great War, he said:
Let us remember, let us never take away from what was pure and ideal, from the lofty principles that animated the patriotism of our ancestors. They had a vision of France as a generous nation, of France as an ideal, of France as the bearer of universal values, a vision which, in those dark hours, was the exact opposite of the selfishness of a people who have regard only for their own interests.
Because patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is the betrayal of patriotism. By saying “Our interests first and no matter those of others!” we destroy that which is most precious to a nation, that which gives it life and leads it to greatness, that which is most important—its moral values.
In truth, what animated the defenders of France was very much a regard for their own interests, and understandably so. They were defending their homeland from an invader. But Macron’s conception of a patriotism that is above self-interest is important to his broader goal in making his speech.
Macron described how the generation after 1918 tried to build a lasting peace, how they attempted to create a just and stable international order, leading to dismantled empires, the birth of new nations, and the re-drawing of international borders. The reference to “dismantled empires” is historically dubious. The Ottoman and German empires were dismantled, but the British and French were expanded as a direct result of the war. In any event, fact is always subordinate to the higher purpose, particularly in speeches that yearn for a meaning to the madness of men.
In an important addition to the above, which hints at his true didactic purpose, Macron also said of the inter-war generation that they had “even dreamed of a political Europe” (ils ont même rêvé alors d’une Europe politique). In English this is an awkward phrase. The meaning seems to be that they dreamed of Europe as a political project, as having a common destiny, shared values and institutions—in other words (as will become clear in what follows), they started to conceive of a pan-European destiny with corresponding institutional forms. Macron is locating the roots of the contemporary EU federalist project in the idealism of the immediate post-Great War era, positing it as the natural fulfilment of the “patriotism of universal values” that he referred to as animating the international defenders of France.
But this idealism had been foiled, Macron explained, by the spirit of revenge, and the rise of forms of nationalism and totalitarianism that were sustained by economic and moral crisis, leading to a new war just twenty years later. This is all he said about the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Perhaps he sought to spare Merkel the embarrassment that, according to CNN et al, he was happy to pile on to Trump.
Moving to the present, Macron reasserted the duty of the leaders assembled before him, both towards those who had given their lives, as well as to those whom they represent today, to renew the process of building world peace and international friendship. He then made very explicit how he saw this happening, referring to this process as embodied in specific institutional and political forms. This process, he said:
Is called, on our continent, the friendship forged between Germany and France, and the desire to build on common ambitions. It is called the European Union, a union freely agreed, never before seen in history, which has delivered us from our civil wars. It is called the United Nations, the guarantor of a spirit of co-operation in defence of the common good for a world whose common destiny is indissolubly connected, and which has learned from the painful failures of the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles.
This process is endangered, however. There are chaotic forces afoot:
I know—the old demons are resurfacing, ready to accomplish their work of chaos and death. New ideologies manipulate religions, spreading reactionary beliefs (prônent un obscurantisme contagieux). At times history seems poised to resume its tragic course, to compromise the legacy of a peace which we believed sealed with the blood of our ancestors.
The reference to a legacy “sealed with the blood of our ancestors” is a powerful example of how Macron’s speech envisions the war dead as martyrs to the cause he is outlining—because in his view their deaths had made it both possible and necessary.
Macron called for a renewed determination in tackling climate warming, poverty, sickness, inequality and ignorance, and called on those present to break the back of the forces aligned against progress. This is when he referred to Julien Benda’s book The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs):
Together, we can break with the new “Betrayal of the Intellectuals” that is in progress—a betrayal that feeds falsehoods, accepts injustices that weaken our people, and encourages extremism and new forms of reactionary ideology (l’obscurantisme contemporain).
He finished by proposing a grand vision of the world at the dawn of a new order, of a new civilisation that promises to fulfil the highest ambitions and capabilities of mankind.
Tertullian, the first Church Father to write in Latin, observed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). Secularised and writ large, a not dissimilar phenomenon underpins much of our memorialising on the millions of lives cut short by war. By counting them as a sacrifice, as martyrdoms for a greater destiny, we endow them with a transformative power in the here and now. Their sacrifice becomes the seed of a better future, and the source of redemptive power.
In this vein, Macron’s speech sought transformative praxis in the sacrifices of the war dead. His intention was to connect their sacrifice with a political vision for our own times, and to depict this vision as the manifest fulfilment of their martyrdom. And his vision is one in which the EU project is conceived as central.
The dichotomy Macron proposed between nationalism and patriotism was the target of much superficial press comment. The distinction is not new. Macron will be well aware that the French author Romain Gary, who served with the Free French forces, famously declared, “Patriotism is love for one’s own. Nationalism is hatred of others. (Le patriotism, c’est l’amour des siens. Le nationalisme, c’est la haine des autres.)” There is much truth in Gary’s aphorism, but in Macron’s case the distinction is politicised and subordinated to his ultimate vision of a realised eschatology in the form of a united Europe.
To recall, looking back on the Great War, Macron spoke of “France as a generous nation, of France as an ideal, of France as the bearer of universal values”. He contrasted this with “the selfishness of a people who have regard only for their own interests”. For Macron, the former is patriotism, the latter is nationalism, for “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is the betrayal of patriotism”. But isn’t Macron’s “patriotism” really a kind of universalistic civic nationalism, redolent of the Napoleonic European project? And isn’t what he calls “nationalism” really any kind of territorial, creedal or ethnic “egoism” that obstructs his grand vision of a pan-European polity?
In May 1945, George Orwell distinguished the two concepts as follows:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.
Orwell’s patriotism is particularistic—it makes no bold claims to universal value or virtue, and has no evangelical mission to civilise or redeem its neighbours. Macron’s patriotism, on the other hand, is universalistic and self-consciously imbued with a missionary zeal. In fact, Macron’s “patriotism” is in some ways more akin to Orwell’s “nationalism”.
One suspects Nietzsche would have abhorred both, but in Macron’s he would certainly have recognised a kindred will-to-power, albeit in the service of “slave morality”, whereas in Orwell’s he would have seen little more than contemptible English self-satisfaction. Orwell’s patriotism is akin to that of a Burke, whereas Macron’s is more akin to a Tom Paine or Robespierre, a “patriotism” that has, in the past, brought glad tidings pinned to the end of a baïonnette.
As Orwell goes on to explain, there is no conflict between his “nationalism” and a theatre of action that is global or international, because this is the opposite of the “selfish” nationalism of narrow self-interest. It’s a “generous” nationalism that reaches out to share its norms and values for the benefit of others. Or so the claim goes.
So who has the definitions right? For Macron’s purposes, terminological precision is secondary to didactic purpose. His conceptualisation is fundamentally moralistic. What he calls “patriotism” is generous, what he calls “nationalism” is selfish. Patriotism embraces the universal, Enlightenment values of rationalism and humanism. Nationalism is relativistic, self-regarding and obscurantist. Nationalism looks within, patriotism looks without. A case of, with patriots like these, who needs nationalists?
Who, in Macron’s view, are the “selfish nationalists”? Given his vision of the EU as the political fulfilment of the “patriotism” of the trenches, and his paean to Franco-German unity, one suspects that he primarily has the Euro-sceptics and European populists in mind, with Trump bringing up the rear in the US.
It’s noticeable that Macron failed to mention any British or American soldiers, living or dead, in his speech (the Germans get a mention: their bones “mingle” with the French, as do those of the Italian volunteers). And yet there are tens of thousands of British and American soldiers buried in France, where they died fighting side by side with the French. In fact, when it comes to “generous patriotism”, the role played by the US in both world wars, and the reconstructions that followed, is arguably unparalleled in history (those who point to the Red Army and the 20 million Russian dead as the ultimate example of sacrifice have a tendency to elide the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, the fact that Russians died defending their own land, and the fact that they helped themselves to half of Europe in the process). So why no mention of the British and the Americans? Perhaps because, notwithstanding the overwhelmingly bourgeois-metropolitan rearguard campaign in Britain for a “People’s Vote” (apparently the initial referendum failed in this regard), neither the British nor the Americans are currently on-message with the project for a morally transformative European imperium.
Macron also has religion in his sights. “Vertu Republicaine” is aggressively secular, reflecting its anti-clerical and Masonic origins in the First and Third Republics. Most British and American media missed (probably by design) Macron’s comment that “New ideologies manipulate religions, spreading reactionary beliefs”. Presumably, in the grand Europe of tomorrow, “obscurantist” religious symbols of identity, like crosses, niqabs and turbans, will have been legislated out of the public space altogether, as they currently are in French schools by the (Orwellian sounding) “French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools”.
In many ways the most interesting reference in Macron’s speech was his subtle allusion to Julien Benda’s book The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, written in 1927. Macron implies that a similar “betrayal” is in progress now—one that “encourages extremism and new forms of reactionary ideology”.
Nowadays largely ignored outside of France (and pretty much ignored inside it), Benda’s book was an impassioned plea for the intelligentsia to fulfil their vocation as a kind of Platonic caste, unsullied by the contingency of mere nations, classes and vested interests. Its historical context was the France of the “leagues”; various rightist and nationalist groups that sprang up in the 1920s.
Perhaps immodestly, Benda regarded himself as the inheritor of Plato and the Rationalist tradition in European Philosophy—Descartes, Spinoza and Kant—a mantle he assumed in order to do battle with what he saw as the products of a German Romanticism that he detested. He posited a strict dichotomy between the temporal, emotional and particular on the one hand, and the universal, unitary and rational on the other. He believed that the intellectual should be a kind of philosopher-king, staunchly rationalist and ascetically inured to the passions of class and nation. His ire was aimed at those he saw as betraying this sacred calling—especially the French nationalist intellectuals Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès.
Macron seems to be implying that there is a similar “intellectual betrayal” in progress now. But this is a little puzzling. Many if not most of the contemporary Western intelligentsia are, if anything, labouring under the influence of a synthesis of postmodernism and Gramscian Marxism. The “populist revolt” that Macron seems to be targeting is not obviously the product of an antecedent intellectual movement, notwithstanding the mainstream media’s obsession with the “dark web”, and a supposed “alt-right” counter-intelligentsia (fistfuls of salt are in order when writers like Jordan Peterson or Douglas Murray are described as “far right”). There is a small but prolific anti-liberal intellectual tradition still active in France, but surely Macron is not referring to relatively obscure writers like Alain de Benoist, Éric Zemmour or Guillaume Faye?
In fact, today, Benda’s work is more commonly associated with those who are critical not of a supposed “dark web” counter-intelligentsia, but of the mainstream postmodernist intelligentsia. To name two examples, Christopher Lasch and Alain Finkielkraut both took some inspiration from Benda in attacking the abandonment of Enlightenment values by those modern intellectuals who have deconstructed the very notion of truth and enlightenment, leaving us with nothing but a Darwinian struggle between competing narratives serving a proliferation of “identities”. But Macron’s traitorous intellectuals are surely not the followers of Derrida, for most of those are only too happy to extend their work of “deconstruction” to the nation-state, and all the other shibboleths of “reaction” so dear to the uninitiated plebeian.
So Macron’s reference seems to function primarily as an analogy. Benda attacked the intellectuals of his day for their abandonment of what he saw as universal categorical values. He predicted that war would follow. Macron refers this critique to the contemporary detractors of the emerging global order.
There are other interesting parallels between Macron’s vision and the work of Julien Benda. In 1933, Benda wrote a pamphlet called An Address to the European Nation. In what amounted to a manual for the construction of a pan-European polity, Benda argued that the real motivation for a European nation was not so much economic or political as it was moral-redemptive. The task of building a new Europe was primarily a spiritual one, aimed at divesting European man of the chthonic chains of nationality, class and creed, and creating a new civilisation based on universal categorical ideals accessible to all. In his pamphlet Benda addressed the intellectual’s proper attitude to the nation: “Intellectuals of all countries, you must be the ones to tell your nations that they are always in the wrong by the single fact that they are nations.” Perhaps not entirely free of earthly attachments, Benda proposed that the language of this new civilisation would be French.
Is Benda’s vision so different from Macron’s, with its disdain for mere “selfish” national self-interest and all forms of particularism, its “patriotism” of the universal and the ideal, and its vision of these ideals as incarnate in and dependent on supra-national political organisations like the UN and the EU?
As far as Orwell was concerned, nationalism really referred to a class of ideologies that all shared a common typology. This included (writing from the vantage point of 1944) political Catholicism (he had a special disdain for ChesterBelloc), political Zionism, communism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and pacifism. He explicitly stated that nationalism had more in common with these ideologies than with patriotism (as he defined it). Why?
Orwell’s explanation is psychological and anecdotal, but drawing on his observations, the commonalities can equally be described in sociological terms. The systems of thought Orwell enumerated all function as the ideological pretext for hegemonic aspiration, and they all have a certain structural isomorphism. They have in common a tendency to reductionist explanations, teleological historical grand-narratives, an elitist model of socio-political change, and a Manichean moral certitude.
In terms of this typology, who is the real “nationalist”, the real “threat” to peace and order? An Italian, Hungarian or Briton who simply asserts their nation’s right to self-government, or the idealist who envisions a trans-national European polity, purged of the gross sub-rational accretions of locality, custom and national sentiment? And what of “isolationism”? Were the world wars caused by countries minding their own business, or by countries minding the business of others? Is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism fuelled by American isolationism, or by American globalism? Is the immigration “crisis” in Europe the product of a Europe of nations, or a trans-national Europe?
Patriotism of the Orwellian variety is Burkean good sense, but Macron’s misnamed “patriotism” is really Napoleonic nationalism to the core, with all the attendant dangers and pitfalls.
As for Macron’s exemplar intellectual, Julien Benda, his visionary disdain for the mundane eventually led him into Stalinism (he called it “anti-fascism”), from which perspective the erstwhile nemesis of “traitor intellectuals” churned out articles in support of the Stalinist coups in post-war Czechoslovakia and Hungary, even to the point of supporting the death penalty for political “crimes”. In 1949, Benda wrote in support of the execution of the former Hungarian Interior Minister, the communist László Rajk, for the heinous crime of “Titoism”. Caveat emptor.
Lionel Reynolds has degrees in politics, philosophy and computer science and works as a software engineer in Sydney.