FIGAROVOX : In an extended interview, Brice Couturier, who was host of France Culture’s morning programme for five years, deconstructs the world of the media-intellectual, where pluralism and real debate are in danger of disappearing.
The Party of the Media and the Intelligentsia scorn reality
First published in French 19th August 2016, in Le Figaro
Journalist and radio producer, Brice Couturier, rejoined France Culture in 2002, where he hosted a weekly programme dedicated to Europe, Common Cause, before becoming producer of the programme Food for Thought. From 2011 until 2016, he was commentator and co-host of France Culture’s morning programme.
FIGAROVOX : From September 2011 to June 2016, you were commentator and co-host of Les Matins de France Culture. What have you learnt from this five-year stretch [quinquennat] on the intellectual and political front?
Brice Couturier : A five-year stretch, yes, the expression is well chosen. [The quinquennat is the five-year term of the French presidency. – Ed.] In another sense, it’s also a guide to life: I change my activity every five years. Every day over the last five years I’ve written an editorial that I’ve then read out the following day on air at France Culture, with a view to launching a debate during the second half of the programme. When the director at that time, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, threw me this challenge, I remarked to him that the editorialist of a journal is someone who reflects the editorial line of the masthead, and that what was of concern to me was that I regarded myself as somewhat out of step with the line taken by France Culture. But it was precisely this difference that interested him. He wanted me to provoke the programme’s guests by pitching ideas designed to make them react. What stalled the exercise, was that I was not always allowed to reply to the guest – especially when he’d demolished my arguments. Without doubt, it was the holder of the politically correct opinion who had to have the last word… So I appeared like a troublemaker who’d been taken out of his box to ginger up the discussion a bit, but who was told to keep quiet after he’d played his part, so that things could then fall back into order. A pity, because I worked hard on every subject in a way that allowed me to focus the discussion on the facts.
❝ I appeared like a troublemaker who’d been taken out of his box to ginger up the discussion a bit, but who was told to keep quiet after he’d played his part.❞
What has struck me in the debates of recent years is the fact that they have emerged at all. Because the most important of them address precisely those issues whose airing the ‘Party of the Media’ – to borrow Marcel Gauchet’s expression – tries to stifle…. There are vital issues in every era that huddle in the blind spot of public debate. They are precisely those that are going to decide the future. In 1936, after Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, in the greater part of the French media it was almost impossible to mention the possibility of war with Germany. Everyone of goodwill adhered furiously to pacifism…. It would be easy to find common ground with the German chancellor, they said. But in the cafés and the salons, they talked about nothing else.
Today, history is again in a phase of brutal acceleration, and the challenge that political islamism hurls at us, that of world conquest, is to be dreaded. But the Party of the Media, blinded by their fine sentiments, prefers to shower us with titbits, on the one hand, and inflated indignation on the other.
Do you believe in a “media conspiracy” ?
I wouldn’t go that far. But how to avoid the impression that a few thousand bourgeois-bohèmes rallying in the Place de la République, pretending to offer a radical alternative reality [on labour laws – Ed.], has been deliberately hyped-up to overshadow the four million French citizens who spontaneously descended onto the streets in protest against the islamist attacks of January 2015? To take only one example. In the same way, every time the balmy narrative on “living together” is contradicted by reality, the facts are simply reassembled. How many islamist attacks have been reclassified as “acts committed by lunatics”? Or else a diversion is hastily organized.
But that’s not the central point. The worst thing is that there are too few intellectuals capable of identifying the powerful undertow of events beneath the shimmering surface. Ending the year on France Culture with a summer series dedicated to Raymond Aron, I wanted to illustrate what had been my ambition over the course of these five years. He is my model. Aron was also an editorialist. At Combat, during Camus’ time, then at Le Figaro, above all, and finally at L’Express. Whereas mere journalists were content to report day-to-day events, he knew how to discern as an historian the deep vectors, those tending to modify force relations, redraw the map, decide the course of history. Today, our dear confrères pass their time watching the Agence France Presse feed, in order to be “the first with the story”. They’re in competition with the internet, which puts the whole hodge-podge of pseudo-news at the disposal of everyone. They rely on precedence to legitimize their profession; or again, on their personal acquaintanceships with political actors, to report on their individual strategies in the conquest of power. In so doing, they lower politics and contribute to an environment of populism.
❝ Every time the balmy narrative on “living together” is contradicted by reality, the facts are simply reassembled.❞
They had to take a chance on their ability to act as specialists, to interpret events, to discern the way in which the world is in process of reorganizing itself. My problem was that I was expected to be a universal specialist: talking economics with Attali one day, history with Pierre Nora the next, international politics with Védrine the day after, and ending the week with Richard Ford on American literature… Not to forget being treated as a cretin by Montebourg, as a partisan journalist by Copé, or as a German agent by Marine Le Pen! But the worst of all was to have lent support to these light-weight ideologues, coopted by their comrades in the universities, who pass for an intelligentsia in the eyes of politically correct journalists. What dialogue can you have with these types, arrogant yet uneducated and all the more voluble in their contempt for the facts, for the numbers, for reality? They claim to analyse what they have never ceased to ignore.
Has the world of ideas changed much in five years? Have new ideas appeared? Which are the great debates that have most struck you?
On all fronts, the truth is approached by walking sideways. You don’t master problems that way. Take the economy. Five years ago, we were talking about dislocation: our problems came from foreigners who didn’t respect our rules, who claimed to have succeeded by not doing as we do. China, even Germany, offered us a tricky kind of competition. From a certain moment, we began to worry about de-industrialization. That was a real problem, that of the lack of competitiveness of our productive capacity. A few more months, and we began to realize that our enterprises were burdened with disproportionate imposts, in comparison with those levied on our competitors, and that we were therefore going to have to ease them up after having increased them. But that’s just one of the subjects that the Party of the Media doesn’t want to hear talked about, like budget deficit and debt.
For the blind, the absence of growth in France and the extravagant level of unemployment have only one cause, “austerity”. But if by austerity we simply mean an unprecedented level of public expenditure, which absorbs 57.5% of everything the country produces, the highest rate of taxation in Europe, and a public debt riding at 100% of GDP, then I ask how one would describe the German economy… A state whose budget is in balance and that, curiously, has half our unemployment rate. To take yet another example. But in every domain, it’s the same old belly-dance: approaching the truth by circling around it, rather than looking our problems in the eye.
The economy is not the only question. The world of ideas in our country suffers from the lack of people who are both sufficiently qualified and sufficiently honest to deal with it. Our dear colleagues, in the round, prefer to assimilate all novelty within their familiar schemas. This has the effect of clotting the debate, bringing it back to the lines of cleavage that have become ruts: sovereignty buffs versus Euro-enthusiasts, republicans versus democrats, liberals against statists, communitarians against republicans, and of course, Right against Left. But the new issues transcend these categories and blow them apart. In the field of ethics, in particular. And there are attempts to intimidate whoever asks awkward questions by treating them as reactionaries, or as ultra-liberals….
The turning point of these last five years was the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the litany of massacres that followed it. The day after the attacks of 13th November , your open letter to the jihadists who had declared war on us rocked your editors… You had identified yourself with the Jacques Attali type of hyperconnected nomad, and then everything changed. Why?
Yes, that was a shock for me, a personal discontinuity. Having lived a part of my adolescence in Lebanon, recommenced my studies at Oxford at 42, taught three years in Poland, swanned around Europe from North to South, East to West, I had made Attali’s idea my own, according to which nations were on their way to becoming like hotels where you provisionally dumped your bags while assessing the quality-price ratio. By attacking Jews – as did Merah and Coulibaly – as symbols of the spirit of my generation, like Charlie, the jihadist infiltrators, that islamist fifth column, “restored France to me”, to quote Aragon. A poet and communist, he became a patriot during the Occupation, having for a long time decried both the flag and the Marseillaise. I felt personally targeted by the Fools of God. As Orwell said in The Lion and the Unicorn, that hymn to British patriotism, “For we are fighting men of keen and evil intelligence, and time is short…”. My father, at 18 a resistance fighter with the French Forces of the Interior, finished the war in a battalion of shock-troops. When I saw the huge spontaneous reaction of the population, facing down the killers with four million chests and seeming to say, “we are far too numerous, you can’t kill us all”, I felt comforted by the idea that we needed to defend the old, threatened homeland.
❝ I had made Attali’s idea my own, according to which nations were on their way to becoming like hotels where you provisionally dumped your bags.❞
But we have to be aware: it is going to become more and more dangerous to live in a country that stonewalls the blackmail of islamists: submit or be killed. That’s another reason to remain: to help strengthen the party of the resistance. And not to abandon the territory to them. Not to acquiesce like cowards, as last time….
To some observers, the “neo-reactionaries”, to borrow Daniel Lindenberg’s expression, have won the battle of ideas. Do you share that analysis?
I was the first journalist to interview Lindenberg when he publish The Call to Order in 2002. The book wasn’t yet in the libraries when I invited him to the programme I was then hosting as part of France Culture’s summer schedule, Counter-Expertise. To explain my interest in the book. Certainly, it made the mistake of lumping together under the same cloud of disapproval, everything in the intellectual world that displeased its author – from Pierre Manent to Alain Badiou, from Michel Houellebecq to Jean-Claude Milner. But it also had the merit of sensing a change in the Zeitgeist. The era when a band of “vigilantes” could arrive to forbid the discussion of certain questions – regarding the compatibility of Islam and democracy, for example, and the time when they could pack-hunt an intellectual of the calibre of Pierre-Alain Taguieff, was on its way out. The water had begun to boil. The long-simmering pot was about to erupt onto their heads.
I had invited Lindenberg because my own conception of a broadcast debate on a public service network was one of pluralism, ideological diversity, intellectual curiosity. And not militancy in the service of a cause or a belief. Not something that might advance one’s career…
❝ They constantly replay the original scene of ’68, when the epoch changed hands.❞
Of course, the diverse group of intellectuals dubbed “neo-reactionaries” by the master-thinkers, were unable to conquer the intellectual heights. Intellectual hegemony is always held by the “press that thinks”, even if it has fewer and fewer readers: Télérama, Les Inrocks, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération, etc. It is they who set the tone, award the patents, and censure what they call “slippage”. These professional scolds are astonished and furious when they themselves are questioned. It’s this type of intellectual baby-formula, this elementary neo-marxism based on hollow slogans that pass for thought, that has collided with social reality. Often living still in the 1960s and 70s (Derrida, Foucault etc.), they try desperately to “transgress”, to “knock over the taboos”, when there is nothing before them but the void. They constantly replay the original scene of ’68, when the epoch changed hands. That’s why fair-minded people, since the beginning of our 21st century, have brought about this return to Camus, Arendt, Orwell: they were certainly not “reactionary” thinkers. “Stopping the world unravel”, as Camus said. And not pushing tolerance to absurd lengths, claiming to tolerate barbarism. Not justifying the unacceptable in the name of relativistic values.
Do you recognize yourself in the ideas of some of them? Which?
Yes, without doubt. Thanks to the job that I have, cultural journalist, I meet the whole world and I’m paid to read. What luxury! Well, in the francophone intellectual landscape, I would say I appreciated very much Marcel Gauchet, Pascal Bruckner, Nicolas Baverez, Dominique Schnapper, Jean-Marc Daniel, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, Kamel Daoud, Philippe d’Iribarne, Boualem Sansal, Malika Sorel-Sutter, Mathieu Bock-Côté…. I have also a great admiration for Jacques Julliard, a model species for me since my beginnings as a journalist. Not only is he an immensely cultivated historian, but an intellectual without ‘reduced rates’: with him, everyone has the right to equal treatment. He is without particular indulgence towards his followers, without particular aggression towards the others. Sine ira et studio [Without anger or fondness]. But when I find myself in front of my computer with an article to write, I think: how would Christopher Hitchens approach it? An Orwellian himself, “Hitch” always knew how to give the finger to hypocrisy, bad faith, and double standards. And he was an absolutely free spirit. A veritable Voltaire of the end of the 20th century. He has no equivalent in French, but some heirs in England, like Nick Cohen.
During a debate on “Nuit debout” [the Paris demonstrations against the new labour laws – Ed.], you left the platform with these words: “I don’t feel obliged to represent single-handedly the complete range of ideological diversity here, so I’ll leave you to yourselves”. Has debate become impossible in France?
Listen, we heard three guests and a journalist, having reported live from [Place de la] République, going into raptures, saying how all this was new, promising, deeply moving…. To listen to them, you’d have thought it was the eve of a new storming of the Bastille, of a reinvention of democracy. These pathetic “general assemblies” were there to install an alternative reality… You could see what was happening: a lot of empty noise. The media hyping of these rallies contrasted miserably with the pathetic propositions that emanated from them. But the Party of the Media dreams of the arrival in power of a “true Left of the Left”. And not for the first time: witness Die Linke in Germany, then Chavez in Venezuela, who ruined the world’s biggest oil-producing nation… Afterwards, there was Podemos, Occupy Wall Street, Jeremy Corbyn… Me, I believe we can change things to some extent when it’s desirable. But not exchange them for a different reality on the grounds that it would conform better with someone’s utopian ideals. I would have taken a minute to say that I was not in tune with this collective enthusiasm, before resuming my place as a “reactionary”. But yes, I refused: not to debate, but to play the whipping-boy. I paused only to listen to them congratulating themselves. I didn’t “slam the door on leaving”, contrary to what was written in the Leftist media at the time. Too many “debates” in our media are “set up” in this way to interfere with the flow, impede the free opposition of ideas. There are experts…
Do you still define yourself as a liberal of the Left?
At the time that I was politically engaged, I supported Rocard in the bosom of the Parti Socialiste. In 1985, I had formed a discussion club, Rouleau de Printemps, which defined itself as a gathering of Left-liberal youth. I reckoned to stay faithful to that ideal. “Socialism is when liberty arrives in the life of the poorest”, wrote Carlo Rosselli, one of the theorists of Left-liberalism, assassinated in France by Mussolini’s henchmen. I think that the real class struggle is not so much between wage-earners and entrepreneurs, as between system-insiders and the excluded, the rentiers against those who have to climb the stairs when the social elevator is kaput. The “defence of acquired advantage” is a watchword best kept silent. Tony Blair said, “What is social, is what creates employment”. He was right. Our system has implicitly chosen mass unemployment. It is a calamity. Not only does unemployment destroy lives, but it renders millions dependent on the state for their survival. It frustrates all ambition, it snuffs out that “vital spark” that men carry within them and which, according to Goethe, “rises from the cinders of daily necessity ever duller if it ceases to be fed.”
You are also a committed European. During these last five years, the European Union has run into multiple crises: the Greek crisis, but also that of the migrants, and latterly, Brexit. What’s your view on the evolution of the European project?
I returned to France Culture in January 2002 with a weekly programme dedicated to Europe, Common Cause, which I hosted for five years. At that time, I believed that Europe could become a power capable, in alliance with the United States and other democracies, of rivalling the great emerging powers. That we could contribute to creating a new world order based on international law, the sovereignty of peoples, democracy, human rights… Again, it would have been necessary for European leaders to carry on our legacy. That they would not be ashamed of being Europeans.
But they acted as though it was necessary to erase our culture. As though our formidable heritage embarrassed them. The continent that gave the world Leonardo da Vinci, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Racine, Mozart, Goethe, Hugo, Proust, Pessoa, Chaplin, Milosz… Illustrates its banknotes with bridges and windows. Without ruffling anyone’s feathers, it appears. Between arrogance and self-hatred, there ought to exist a middle position. When I returned to Poland, I went to see the editor-in-chief of a magazine dedicated to Europe with drafts of articles on the contribution of Central European culture to European identity. “What interests me about Europe is “The Other”, she told me. Go and ask the Chinese, the Indians, or the Turks whether it is “The Other” that interests them first and foremost!
❝ What interests me about Europe is ❛The Other❜, she told me.❞
So yes, it’s failed. What has quit, has failed. This European Union, which refuses to become a political power, is in a squeeze. It is stuck between Islamism, which comes to us via Turkey and risks embroiling us in Middle Eastern chaos, and the cultural counter-revolution attempted by Putin, with his post-Soviet imperial dream. This EU, governed by the law and the markets, purely procedural and avoiding all political decisions, this same Europe is condemned. Its architects believed in the possibility of an aeroplane on automatic pilot. That could fly in calm weather, but as soon as a zone of turbulence appeared, in 2008, it got jammed. When a decision had to be made, it was the European Central Bank, a technocratic organism, that had to assume the political decision-making function. The leaders of the EU denied Europe all identity, all substance, any geographical limits: they created an empty shell, a fuzzy grouping in which the citizens didn’t recognize themselves. No surprise that they took refuge in their own nation-states. At least, they thought, we can control some of our leaders by replacing them when they take bad decisions. And we can defend our borders, something that the EU refuses to do, faced with a migration crisis that is only going to get worse. I deplore that, because our little nations in common decline don’t have the weight to stand up to the emerging giants. We shall have to try something else, once this tent is taken down.
The rise of “populism”: does that worry you?
In his Essay on the Spirit of Orthodoxy, Jean Grenier, Camus’ professor of philosophy, writes: “The expansion of education does not always go hand in hand with cultural progress. The masses are more and more enlightened, but the lights are more and more dimmed. Abbreviated and simplistic ideas have more success than others”. Faced with the complexity of the world, its difficult-to-grasp metamorphoses, people take refuge in simple explanations. That has nourished the grand ideologies of the 20th century. Fascism and Marxism offered simple-minded answers to complicated questions. But there is also something positive in what the elites have baptised, “populism”: simple folk sometimes have a vision that is more just than that of their leaders, who live apart from the people, and in ignorance of their true problems.
Still, it’s undeniable that an ill wind is wafting over the planet. We must realize that it is not democracy that now has the wind in its sales, as it did during the last three decades of the 20th century. The Chinese one-party system, the pseudo-democracies of Russia and Turkey, have already long appeared to many people in the South to be better able to control their affairs. At the present time, this is also the case in our North. Look at Donald Trump. We are dealing with serious competition. The victory of the democracies in 1945 and 1989 could well turn out to be only a happy detour. But for me, democracy is an impassable horizon, and I feel a spontaneous solidarity with every instance of it – from the United States to Israel, inclusive.
You have belonged to the editorial committee of the review, The Best of Worlds, since its inception. You have been in favour of the right of intervention, and of different Western military interventions since the Iraq war in 2003. How do you rate the performance of this “neoconservative” foreign policy?
Who can deny that the peoples of the Middle East aspire to democracy? Racists keep repeating to us that the Arabs are “not mature”, that their civil society is not sufficiently emancipated, that Islam is an insurmountable obstacle. The “Arab revolutions” resonate with me because they powerfully recall the European Spring of 1848. I’m not ignoring their failure, more or less across the board, with the exception of Tunisia. It’s clear that islamism, which is always on the look-out for opportunities to advance its pawns and control societies, has taken advantage of our hard-won liberties. Wherever it believed its hour had arrived, as in Egypt, it has provoked a military reaction. But the people have not given their final word. After 1848, we in Europe also had a severe reaction. Liberty is not achieved in a day.
But you can’t tell me that with the despots – Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Mubarak – we were living in a “more secure” world. The opposite is true. Those political systems, completely corrupt and tyrannical, were all at the end of their run. In the contest between cynical Realpolitik and human rights activism in solidarity with people struggling against their tyrants, I shall always choose the latter. Regarding Iraq and Syria, it was Obama who committed the political error: by prematurely withdrawing his forces from Iraq, at a time when Daech had only 200 combatants; and by refusing to support the democratic rebellion against al-Assad, which left the field open to the jihadists, encouraged by the regime… §