And Upon This Ruin . . .
Why didn’t I vote for Sarkozy?
Why was I so profoundly convinced, then, that it was literally impossible for me to vote for that man?
First of all, some of the reasons concerned things I knew about him, things that many voters would soon discover.
A kind of feverishness that seemed incompatible with the job.
An indifference to ideas, a cynicism, that has led to incredibly brutal flip-flops on certain important matters (Russia, for example).
An ability to live in denial, which we would see during his grotesque and devastating reception of Colonel Gadhafi in Paris.
The pragmatism—a better word is opportunism—we saw soon after his victory, when, like a kid set loose in a candy store and told: “Here you go! It’s all yours! It’s free! Take what you want!,” he literally took it all, working his way through every bin, snatching up all the most desirable items. The icon Kouchner. The wise Védrine. The knights of Mitterrand’s Holy Grail, whom, when Sarkozy was a young minister, he confessed to admiring. Totems of the Left. Literary and show business legends. Who’s the patron saint of the Socialists? Blum? Then bring me Blum! The Christ of the Communists? Guy Môquet? Then bring him to me—not, of course, Guy Môquet himself, the seventeen-year-old Resistance hero killed by the Nazis, but his last, beautiful, heartbreaking letter to his parents! And the queen of today’s victims? Who wears the dark crown of contemporary suffering and martyrdom? Ingrid Betancourt, you say? Then go fetch them right away, the Betancourt family, and bring them to my palace!
I didn’t deny that all this could have its good sides. Nor that, precisely because of his appetite, Nicolas Sarkozy might have some surprises up his sleeve. All I knew was that he had a strange and worrying way of operating. I also knew that he had an almost deformed memory. People usually have a memory. It can be complex, contradictory, paradoxical. But it’s their own. It is, in large part, the foundation of their identity. Sarkozy, however, is a hijacker of other people’s memories. He lays claim to everyone’s memory, which finally means he has no memory of his own. Our first memory-free president. The first of our presi?dents to wish all ideas well, because he really is indifferent to them. And that is why, if one man in France today incarnates—or claims to incarnate—that famous “post-ideological age” in which I cannot bring myself to believe, then it is Nicolas Sarkozy, sixth president of the Fifth Republic.
None of that subtracts, I repeat, from the charm of his character. Nor, once again, from my personal liking of him. But that was the first group of reasons that prevented me from supporting him.
a second group was more essential.
Because it had to do with my very being, with my fundamental political identity—something in me bolted at the double idea: first, of rushing to the rescue of someone who I guessed was going to win anyway (Ah! The defectors already rushing in! All the flatterers, the followers, of whom you could say, as of Juvenal’s courtesan, that no cheese can make them retch!); and second, equally, of not voting, as I have for my entire life, for what is known as the Left.
A reflexive vote?
Had my thinking really become so Pavlovian that, as I’d just said to him, the Left was my family and you don’t betray your family?
There was probably some of that.
And that’s exactly what I say when, a few days later, questioned by a French weekly embarking on its umpteenth report on the “rightward drift” of French intellectuals,1 I remarked that “I belong to the Left out of orientation and almost genetically; the Left is my family and you can’t change families the way you change shirts.”
Except that, put that way, this argument is frankly pathetic—and even goes against some of my most basic convictions.
I’m not crazy about the word family, first of all.
I don’t like the ugly mafia whiff it acquires when applied to politics.
I hate the idea that goes with it, that you always have to choose the “family” in the event of conflict—over, for example, the truth: ah! the holy horror of “families” one finds in all the writers I admire . . . the even greater horror, Louis Aragon thunders, in his Defense of the Infinite, of those “chosen” families, spiritual families and therefore political families . . . the family one subjects oneself to out of free will—he explains as one who knows—the family of the spirit and the heart! It’s “as if you had chosen your own tomb” . . . as if you’d renounced any “morality,” any “human greatness.” . . . Nothing but tuberculosis spreads quicker through families than this kind of lie . . . and when the lie has won the day, when the family of spirit is irremediably corrupted, when the party of the heart no longer fulfills the hopes we’ve invested in it, doesn’t the right thing to do become to betray it exactly as much as—Aragon, again—it has betrayed itself?
And I know better than anyone that everything in the movement of the world and of ideas has broken down, cracked, and sometimes nullified the famous split between Left and Right that has structured French politics for a century—a split that has become harder and harder to believe in.
Let’s go over it again.
The words “Right” and “Left” have long been used to denote the most recent form of the struggle between the old and the modern: though it no longer makes much sense to say, with a straight face, that the Right is condemned to be the “old” and that the Left necessarily represents the “modern,” as it’s been a while since, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, I’ve been “indifferent about being modern.”
“Right” and “Left” have been seen as two opposing attitudes toward this old belief, no longer exactly in “modernity,” but in Progress, which was the catechism of former centuries: here again, the criteria have shifted; the main issues have been overturned by an increasingly conservative Left and a Right that no longer flinches at the sacred word of progress; and for the author of Barbarism with a Human Face—for one who stepped into the public debate more than thirty years ago by denouncing and deconstructing the “reactionary idea of Progress”—that’s not really the question either.
We’ve believed, or wanted to believe, that the Left stood out for the distance it put between itself and powerful interests in general, and moneyed interests in particular—while the Right was in bed with them; that the Left was free whereas the Right was bought and paid for; that the Left was for average people while the cruel Right was dedicated, under a more or less transparent disguise, to its awful “class poli?tics” which were “making the poor poorer”! As if the Right was completely undemocratic. . . . As if this new age of democracy, under the reign of Opinion, wasn’t precisely the age that made disguises impossible, that tore off masks . . . As if, in this age of all-powerful visibility and transparency at every level, any political force could crudely, clearly, cynically present itself as being on “the side” of money and power and in so doing abandon the people and its votes to the other side . . . As if, with the joint triumph of the desire for vengeance, truth, and purity (these three forms, always leading to the worst, of what Nietzsche called the will to power), anyone could present a platform that was not, from top to bottom, from Right to Left, an appeal to what Nietzsche, again, called the greatest number . . . As if the structure and regime of the Benthamite Panopticon had been overturned ages ago: no longer slaves under the master’s eye but the master himself, every master, under the intractable eye of a people who holds all the cards . . . Or as if, in the new planetary celebritocracy that has taken the place of oligarchy, the rules of the game had not changed entirely: the celebrities under the eye of the people, of its implacable demands and desires, beginning with the desire to cut off the heads of the powerful or, in any case, to appear to—the rule applies to Europe, but almost even more to the United States, as we saw during the misadventures of Bill Clinton, the personal attacks against Hillary, then Obama, and, in general, by the rise of the “political junkie.”
There was, finally, the question of the revolution. Since the French Revolution, the word “revolution,” the pure signifier, was, in France at least, the most serious political dividing line. The Left wanted it; the Right feared it. The Left, even and especially if they hated its provisionary guises, kept alive the dream of society in a happier incarnation and thought that this was exactly what made one a Leftist—the Right was made up of those people whose political outlook meant methodically putting down each and every revolution. That time, too, is past. And, for reasons I’ll come back to, we have entered a period in which, as Michel Foucault once told me,2 the question “Is the revolution possible?” has given way to a more troubling and much more radical question: “Is the revolution desirable?” And now, especially, the answer has become “No,” a clear “No,” not desirable at all, or, in any case, only for very few people. Who in the contemporary political landscape still openly dreams of wiping the slate clean? of a radical new beginning? of history split in two? of society as a blank page upon which the poem of the New Man will be inscribed? Europe has ended up aligning itself, in this matter, with realism, pragmatism, and, finally, American humility—and that is excellent news.
Anyway, that’s all behind us now. All those benchmarks, all those parameters, have finally come crashing down. As have references to that “socialism” of which I wrote, thirty years ago, at the end of Barbarism with a Human Face, that I dreamed that in a dictionary of the year 2000 we could finally read the definition: “Socialism, n., cultural genre, born in Paris in 1848, died in Paris in 1968.” May ’68 is far off. And now 2000 as well. And even if the dictionary doesn’t exist, even if so many socialists keep clinging to their socialism as an old actor clings to a repertory role, the most clear-sighted among them know that nothing good can come for the Left without breaking with much of their history, and even with their name.
Yet despite all this—despite that weighty tendency that Nicolas Sarkozy would exhibit by inviting, as he’d told me, leftist personalities to join him once he was elected, not only in the government, but in a whole range of commissions and positions of power and influence; despite the fact that, contrary to every expectation, the personalities thus invited would all, or almost all, answer his call; despite a stampede unprecedented in the history of the Republic, which is hard to attribute either to opportunism, impatience, to the desire to serve no matter what, or even to an epidemic, which fits so well with the current mood of political skepticism and unbelief—despite all that, I believed—and I still do—that there are still reasons to remain on the Left.
What’s left of the Left?, as Nick Cohen would say.3
What am I thinking, clinging to a political identity which everything seems to indicate is being reshuffled and is even wasting away? Why am I turning my back on a man who nevertheless has real merits—first, of being a real living creature in a political universe so often populated by “the living dead” (Tolstoy) or by ghosts; second, of having the ambition, which is after all worthy, to get rid of this bubble, this microclimate, this state of psycho-political exception in which France has lived for decades and which was suffocating the country; third, to have weakened the National Front by embracing it and thereby accomplished something—we can agree on this—that so many men and women, including this author, have considered urgently necessary for the last twenty years; fourth, and finally, to plan (and, in the first months of his reign, he mostly kept the promise) to break with the leprosy that was, under all the Gaullist and Socialist governments for the last fifty years, France’s “Arab Policy,” and to move closer to the United States and Israel—all things I can only, once again, be thrilled to see?
I’ll skip the hackneyed answers.
I’ll skip—once again—the too-easy “defense of the oppressed.”
I’ll skip—I think it was the novelist Françoise Sagan who came up with the notion—the idea that “In the case of any given injustice, the man, or woman, of the Right will say it’s inevitable; the man or woman of the Left will say that it’s intolerable.”
I’ll skip the so-often-rebutted notion: “Only people on the Right wonder if there is a difference between Right and Left, and what it is.”
I’ll even skip—since it seems so obvious to me—the decisive role of what we once called “the social question”: the scandal of extreme poverty . . . and the even greater scandal that is our consent to this misery . . . and the fact that, one day, I am sure, this consent will seem as mysterious and as odious as the consent of the Athenian democrats to slavery. . . .
rather, in retrospect, I realize that I was thinking about three certainties on that day.
To be “on the Left”—or, as an American would say, “liberal” or “progressive”—means three main things to me.
Excerpted from Left in Dark Times by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Copyright © 2008 by Bernard-Henri Levy. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.