Europe and America after COVID: An Interview with Pierre Manent

I would venture to say that Europeans and Americans are confronting a spiritual conundrum. How does an immense civilization examine its conscience? How do nations and societies confess and atone for their sins?

The COVID -19 pandemic has further exacerbated long-standing conflicts over national and international sovereignty, the elite governing class and its posture toward the governed, and the nature and importance of national identity. Few have written on these topics with such insight as Pierre Manent, the former director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and one of the most widely respected political philosophers in Europe. Our contributing editor Nathaniel Peters interviewed Manent to help us understand better the response to COVID-19, the pandemic’s effects on our society, and the controversies surrounding identity politics in the US and France.


Nathaniel Peters: Over the years, you have offered repeated critiques of the idea of collective European identity and governance, and of its superiority to and replacement of national identity and national governance. You have argued that particular peoples are tied to land and culture, and that sovereignty can be effectively held only by nations of peoples, not by an international unity of nations such as the European Union. You have also analyzed the discrepancy between the views on these questions of governing elites and the people they govern. In a way, your work is prophetic of the populist movements we have seen around the globe since 2016.

How have the responses of European governments to COVID challenged or affirmed your understanding of national sovereignty, nations, and elite governance? Has COVID strengthened or weakened European identity compared to national identity? And do you see significant differences between the COVID response of the American government and those of European governments?

Pierre Manent: My work has nothing prophetic about it! The populist movements are reactions to the political developments that have affected European countries in the last decades—no more than reactions, most of the time deprived of a real understanding of the situation and unable to lead to an effective political reorientation. What we have been witnessing is the gradual but continuous weakening of the modern regime, which was the invention of Europe and America. Which regime? Representative government. This regime is the fragile masterpiece of modern politics. It took a long time to be safely installed in most European countries, and not long thereafter it began to wane. It is the sad old tale of progress and decline.

The mainspring of this regime is the exchange between the trust and loyalty of the people (the governed) and the responsibility and loyalty of the rulers: trust and responsibility, and reciprocal loyalty. It is a long, complex, and delicate operation in which the governed and the governing body educate one another. The hypothesis, or principle, of the regime is that the people will willingly obey rulers who take care of their interests and wishes—and of the common good—and that rulers will keenly feel their duty toward this trusting citizenry.

Well, this political regime has been subjected to a process of de-politicization, a process made explicit and systematic in the name of “Europe.” The European project tends to replace representative governments in a national frame by a governance of rules in a post-national frame. Political governments are said to rest on risky processes and dangerous affects. The theory is that rule-based governance will produce a safe collective order by rigorously protecting individual rights and interests through impersonal rules administered by competent jurisdictions, public or private, whose impartiality is guaranteed by their apolitical and non-representative character.

Thus, we Europeans are living in two contradictory systems: the old one made of our old nations with their representative governments and the new one made of administrations and jurisdictions in charge of the impersonal rules. The new system progressively deprives the old one of its legitimacy and vigor so that European life as a whole is fast losing its vitality and ability to meet the current and future challenges.

To my mind, COVID has only entrenched our national and European discontents. European decision-making was slow and cumbersome, its effectiveness was dubious, and the EU felt humiliated by the boldness and alacrity of the vaccine policy of the United Kingdom, which had just said goodbye to it. France—the country of Pasteur!—beats her chest because she was the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council not to have succeeded in producing a vaccine. In most countries, people resented the extent and meticulousness of restrictions, the loss of elementary freedoms, and the government’s gleeful exercise of its authority. The French were flabbergasted by their own docility: how could they so willingly obey a government that a large majority of them did not trust? At least in my country, for the time being, the net result of the pandemic is a deepening of the French lack of self-confidence. As for the comparison with America, it is impossible for me to opine, although it is clear that the vaccine policy of the United States was much more resolute and efficient than the European one.


NP: One relic of the Enlightenment is a popular epistemology that gives the empirical sciences, including medicine, great authority. It sees science as being objective—above the irresolvable, subjective questions of philosophy and religion—and apolitical. Have the ever-changing rules, guidelines, and politics of COVID knocked science off its pedestal and offered a corrective to this epistemology? Or do we see a greater worship of empirical science as the ultimate arbiter of truth and protector of human well-being?

PM: Certainly scientists suffered a loss of credibility and public trust and esteem. Some seemed intent to dictate policy, others to enjoy the limelight or discredit their colleagues. In other words, they appeared all too human. There is no reason to be surprised or especially shocked by this. The authority of science was already declining in the general population for many reasons. What seems probable and dispiriting is that the pre-existing obsession with health will become even more tyrannical.

NP: In your 2015 book Beyond Radical Secularism, you wrote about the question of Muslim integration in France and whether or not there should be laws forbidding women from wearing the hijab, which covers the head but not the face, or burka, which also covers the face. You concluded that there should not be laws against the hijab, but that the burka should be illegal. As you wrote, the problem at hand is not women’s equality, but the fact that our faces show our humanity and our particularity: “The visibility of the face is one of the basic conditions of sociability, of that recognition that is prior to and conditions every declaration of rights. To refuse to be seen is a permanent aggression to human coexistence.”

How does this apply to the face mask mandates of the past year—necessary as they may have been—and their effect on the political life of our nations? Has COVID changed your view of what can reasonably be required of French Muslims who wish to be veiled in public? What are the demands of “human coexistence” after the pandemic?

PM: I do not think that the face mask and the hijab relate to the same set of problems. The purpose of the first is clearly and strictly limited. You can argue about its efficacy but not about its purpose: to avoid contamination. After COVID has disappeared, most people will stop wearing the mask. The hijab is a much more complex and interesting piece of fabric. It concerns the whole of life, the place and meaning of religion, the equality of women, female modesty, etc. Some Muslims tried to take advantage of the face mask for promoting the hijab, but it only made for stale jokes and strained arguments, which I think did not have any impact upon opinion, Muslim or otherwise. I think that the pandemic did not change the demands of human coexistence. Perhaps it will change some physical expressions of it, like kisses (of which the French are very fond) or handshakes, which we will avoid.

As for the Muslim veil, it will be a matter of debate and dispute for a long time to come. For many non-Muslims, it concentrates and symbolizes what is unacceptable and unassimilable in Muslim life, and of course for many Muslims such a judgment is proof that Islam itself is rejected. As for the burka, I maintain that the visibility of the face goes beyond or deeper than even the question of human rights. It is a matter of elementary trust and also a condition of reciprocal understanding. During the pandemic, we have noticed that conducting a conversation with everybody wearing a mask is very tiresome and an obstacle to the fluid and confident circulation of arguments. Facial expression is part of what your mouth is saying! It is clear to me that the burka is the negation of human common nature’s attribute of reason and speech. It must be forbidden, as it is in some countries. I regret that in France the interdiction is not strictly enforced.


NP: 2020 saw the most widespread violent protests in the United States since the late 1960s. While some were tied to partisan political conflicts, most erupted because of questions of racial injustice, especially systemic injustice as understood by a movement whose thinking goes by many names: critical race theory, intersectionality theory, identity politics, and wokeness. What is this movement and how should we best understand it?

PM: I will not venture an interpretation of such a vast and complex movement. What is most confounding is how such a radical and extreme movement succeeded in imposing a strict code of behavior and speech on great American institutions (universities, media, corporations) formerly very jealous of their independence. We now find that public—and I suppose often private—speech and writing are as carefully, even punctiliously, regulated in the country of the First Amendment as in a totalitarian country, but without need of a secret police! To speak of totalitarian traits is all the more apt, since a habit of self-incrimination seems to have taken root in American public life. It is distressing to see American citizens apologizing abjectly for peccadilloes or no fault at all. Penance—which is less and less exacted in Christian churches—has found a very hospitable home in the political realm, except in the latter there is no absolution. Sin with neither responsibility—you are just born with the wrong color—nor redemption is the most perverse trait of wokeism.

Now what is the cause of such a phenomenon, as powerful as it is bizarre? I can only suggest an argument derived from what we can already see in Europe. In a country like France, the governing class no longer believes in the capacity and legitimacy of the national body politic. Heir to centuries of wars and crimes, it has no mandate to act. Such a morally tainted association cannot justify itself by the pursuit of any common good. As far as the nation is concerned, nothing, strictly speaking, nothing is to be done. Now, if you feel not authorized to act in and for the future, your only domain of action is . . . the past! And what can you do with the past? You can only try to undo it.

NP: One of the claims of identity politics and efforts such as Black Lives Matter or the 1619 Project is that racism is not an evil exception to America’s good founding principles, which are gradually working to eradicate it. Rather, racism is America’s founding principle, and its defining principles of human equality are a mask hiding the oppression and power of elite whites. How do these claims affect the American people’s identity as a people and the sovereignty of their democratic state?

PM: Again, I will not pretend to answer this question. I have been much impressed by Christopher Caldwell’s argument in his Age of Entitlement. According to him, you are now living under two constitutions: the founding one, the Founders’ one, and the one which evolved from the Civil Rights movement and its attendant legislation. What was at first conceived as a corrective that would strengthen—indeed, accomplish—the promises of the American founding became, through the unrelenting expansion of actionable claims of discrimination, a new constitution issuing into a permanent revolution.

Recall what Tocqueville said about the superiority of American tranquil democracy as opposed to French revolutionary democracy: the Americans were born equal instead of having to become so, unlike the French, who had centuries of Old Regime on their backs.

Now Tocqueville’s description must be reversed. It is as if, after two centuries of democratic pride, Americans discovered that they were not born equal but had to become so—that they were in for a long, permanent revolution without end in sight, condemned to plow the sea, as Tocqueville said about the French. There is something futile and demoralizing about the project of seeking a visible and verifiable equality of outcomes in all aspects of human life. There is no way to succeed at this. You cannot do what is impossible.


NP: Americans reflexively think of Europeans as more progressive than themselves, and as the intellectual and political leaders that our elites want to follow. Many were surprised, therefore, when President Macron and other European leaders began to identify American identity politics as a threat to their own nations’ universities, politics, and public discourse. Indeed, the popular Catholic bishop Robert Barron wrote that “what we call ‘woke’ thinking in our American context was almost totally imported from French intellectuals who flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. . . . In the measure that it is threatening French society—as indeed I think it is—the phrase ‘the chickens have come home to roost’ springs rather readily to mind.”

Do you agree with Bishop Barron’s assessment? What effect do you think American identity politics will have on France and other European nations, their political and academic discourse, and their own sense of identity?

PM: As usual, we each accuse the other side of the pond. Bishop Barron says: it comes from France. We say: it comes from the American campuses that were naïve enough to take seriously highfalutin ratiocinations of cocky French philosophes.

These developments speak to a predicament that is common to all Western countries, especially those that prided themselves on being at the forefront of human progress. To put it very grossly, we no longer feel able to sustain and prolong the arc of progress. With respect to the relief of man’s estate or the bettering of our condition, we have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of Bacon and Descartes, and well beyond the hopes of Smith. We have built mighty and well-organized national states, with representative regimes, able to meet the needs of an immense and diverse citizenry. We all have reasons to be proud, and yet we are despondent and angry, morose and spiteful. What went wrong?

The material, economic, and political progress that I mentioned was accomplished while we were pursuing some other thing—a bigger, greater, nobler thing with capital letters: Democracy, Socialism, a New Man, etc. These hubristic projects and ambitions collapsed in the wars and revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century.

After 1945, we had pride and energy enough to reconstruct and improve the material constituents of our lives, but soon we began to reconsider the whole story. The conclusion slowly crept in that the whole majestic pageant of Western progress was radically tainted, since it resulted in the shoah. This secret—not so secret—feeling is constantly gnawing at our self-confidence. The idea of acting for our good, of defending our own, has become impossible to entertain in Europe, as if from acting for our good or defending our own, there was a direct and short line to enslaving and exterminating others.

The United States seemed to have escaped this palsy. Now it is coming to your shores, perhaps with a vengeance. In short, I would venture to say that Europeans and Americans are confronting a spiritual conundrum. How does an immense civilization examine its conscience? How do nations and societies confess and atone for their sins? Perhaps we could begin with our own personal sins. . . . In any case, a collective examination of conscience that means to be serious cannot be done in an exacerbated spirit of political partisanship. The more virulent the political partisanship, the more closed the road to moral truth, spiritual recovery, political soundness, and prudence.

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