Can Europe survive the new wave of populism? – Bernard Henri-Lévy with Douglas Murray (2017) – Full Transcript

Bernard-Henri Levy and Douglas Murray debate 'populism' in 2017

Zeinab Badawi: Gentlemen, you’re going to each have eight minutes to set your case for, “Can Europe survive the new wave of populism?” And then I’ll come back on the stage. And, BHL, you first. Your time starts now. Thank you.

Bernard Henri-Lévy: So the question is, can Europe survive the way of populism. First remark. If the wave of populism wins, absolutely not, because the real target of populism, in whichever sense you take it, is Europe. You can define populism as the hate of enlightenment, as the hate of democracy. The common point of all populism, the core of the populist combat, is probably the spirit of Europe. And for one very simple reason, which is that if you define populism as a certain definition of the people, what the ancient Greeks called the whole class of people of demagogy against the people of citizenship, the embodiment today of the idea of people considered as a citizen, the embodiment of the idea of people considered in a sort of abstract way is Europe. So there is a fight to death, to last blood, between populism and Europe. It is their main target, all the people we just saw in this short video. So if they triumph, if they win victory, Europe will not survive.

Number two, there is, certainly, a risk for that. If you look at the Europe of today; if you look at Greece, where demagogy is winning over democracy; if you look at Italy, where entertainment is winning against politics; if you look at Hungary, where you have a democracy without democrats, if you look at this country, where Great Britain might turn into “Little England.” [Laughter] If you turn to ‑‑ [Laughter] Come on, yeah. If you look at France, where half of the voters yesterday gave their votes to two different but equally populist parties, embodied by Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Melenchon, not quoting the blank votes, there is clearly a sort of new wind blowing on Europe. I said to a friend just before, in my youth, there was a very famous film at the end of the ’60s of Chris Marker, called The Bottom Air is Red (Le fond de l’air est rouge). At the end of the ’60s, the bottom air was red. Today, in the Europe of these years, the bottom air is brown.

And there is a sort of wave, a tendency, very strong, to illiberate democracy, which is a tendency of the day. Number three, this tendency, this wave of illiberal democracy are strongly sustained by foreign forces, forces coming from outside. If you take ‑‑ I was ‑‑ If you take the definite ‑‑ the least of the empires which Dante, the Italian writer, author of La Divine Comedy, had in mind when he wanted to build Europe ‑‑ Dante was one of the founding fathers of Europe. And he wanted to build Europe against or at the side of the six possible empires. The six possible empires against which Europe had to be built, according to Dante, were the Persian Empire, the Turkish Empire, the Arab Empire, China, Russia, and America. If you take these six powers today, they are on the trend of illiberal democracy and they are working at the defeat of Europe in different ways, but each one in his way. The awakening of the Ottoman spirit in turkey is clearly anti‑Europe. China is not very much pro Europe. And, of course, Putin and Trump form a sort of strange and ill willing couple, having as one of their aim the weakening of Europe. We saw that in the last days, in the last hours. A few minutes before the presidential campaign in France stopped, we had a huge hijacking, a huge kidnapping, a huge robbery of the accounts of the candidate Macron, as we had in America against John Podesta and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. And the first investigations about this huge and colossal hacking, bring ‑‑ if you follow the thread, it goes to American, Donald Trumpist not whistle blowers, but extreme rightist activists, and to an organization linked to the Russian Secret Services. So there is for sure today at least these two, not quoting Daesh, not quoting Ottoman Empire reviving, not quoting all of that. Between Trump and Putin, there is a sort of attempt to weaken, to strangle, to defeat Europe and to help the populist movement. This is the third remark.

Fourth remark, yesterday night, something happened in France, as you know. Something happened, which is the defeat of these guys, defeat of John‑Luc Melenchon, defeat of Marine Le Pen. Two weeks ago, there was the risk and even the prospective of seeing a second round of the election between them, too. They, too, are equally defeated since last night. One can say that Emmanuel Macron had some chance, which is sure. But according to all the good pol‑ ‑‑ authors of political science, according to Machiavel, politics is maybe nothing else than mastering chance, than riding properly on the saddle of chance, which Mr. Macron apparently did. And for the first time in France and in Europe yesterday night ‑‑ I don’t know how long it will last ‑‑ there is a sort of stop, there is a sort of ‑‑ not a full stop, but a comma, at least, to this populist wave. The populist wave was stopped yesterday. And you had to see ‑‑ I don’t know if you so accept of them ‑‑ the videos of Marine Le Pen and John‑Luc Melenchon, reduced at the state of their own marionettes yesterday, there was something of their previous grace which escaped. Now, will that last or not? France has a long history of relationship with populism. We had in France to defeat the first populism at the end of the ’80s of the 19th century, General Boulanger. We did it. He arrived very close to power, as Marine Le Pen. He was defeated by a Republican front. We had another one in the ’50s of the 20th century, Robert Poujade. They were very close to the power. They were stopped. We had another populist rise in 19‑ ‑‑ in the ’30s which was stopped, but not definitely, as you know about the following. So France, therefore, in Europe is at the crossroads. Will the victory of Mr. Macron mean a real stop of the populist wave, therefore, a real saving, a real ‑‑ of the spirit of Europe? This has to be seen. This is the main question of the following months and years. [Applause]

Badawi: So, Douglas.

Douglas Murray: Thank you, Zeinab. Thank you to Google. Thank you, Bernard. I’m not going to get stuck on this, but there is a definitional term about this word “populism.” And as I say, I’m not going to get stuck on definitions. But the problem with every word that is effectively used as a cordon sanitaire is that there is always a political temptation to extend it slightly further than it should be extended for your own personal short‑term political gain. There is a possibility that in some of the cases we’re talking about at the moment, that is one of the things that is going on, that it’s a useful term to decry anything that is what you don’t like or, indeed, sometimes anything that is just popular, as we used to call it.

The first ‑‑ The second thing I wanted to mention was the issue of bullet‑dodging. When I was starting off my career, somebody once said to me, there are two types of journalists who get killed as war reporters, people who have never done it before and people who have done it all their lives, people who have done it for such a long time that they become slightly blase about it. And Europe is slightly at risk of that second thing at the moment in relation to this thing, if we agree to call it populism. I mean, last December, everyone celebrates the Austrian Freedom Party loses 46 to 54. And there was this, “Hooray. We’ve killed the populists.” After the Dutch elections in March, they say, “Thank goodness, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party only came second.” And then they say after last night, “Thank goodness, a member of the Le Pen family has only got a third of the French vote.”

I think we don’t keep dodging these bullets. And if there’s a reason, by the way, that I think this will get a lot worse and why if you really want a very, very gloomy prognosis, but nevertheless a page turner, I refer to all of this in my book ‑‑ [Applause] ‑‑ doom‑mongering has never been such fun, as I say. But if there’s a reason for that, it is in part because at gatherings like this one ‑‑ not that there are very many ‑‑ but gatherings of this nature, absolutely everything that the public is concerned about in these areas is totally off limits. Everything that you would say publicly, everything that can be discussed publicly pretty much is off limits from the general ‑‑ in comparison to what the general public think. And let me just give you a couple of very quick examples of that. I was so glad that Zeinab and Tony Blair earlier got on to some of this. But just consider the following. These are three polls from 2013 in Europe. A poll in 2013 in Germany found that 7% of the German public said they associate Islam at all with tolerance or respect for human rights. A poll that same year in France said that ‑‑ found that 67% of the French public think that Islam is, quote, “incompatible with the French state.” And 73% of French in 2013 said that they viewed the religion very negatively. That was, of course, two years before the major attacks in Paris and elsewhere. That same year, 68% of the Dutch public said that there is, quote, “enough Islam in The Netherlands.” And you can agree or disagree with Mr. Orban, but he has the Hungarian populists on his side for the views he takes. And this poses a very serious question for gatherings like this one and political elites and political mainstreams across Europe, because there is a tendency ‑‑ and I don’t wish to abuse the hospitality of my hosts or the previous speaker, but there is a tendency to do what Mr. Blair did earlier, which is to say, this is a perception problem. We need to correct the perception, effectively, of the public. The public think the wrong thing. We need to correct that. You hear this ‑‑ I don’t want to name the publications, but there are publications in this country and elsewhere that have the same view. The public got it wrong on Brexit. We will keep writing sparkling editorials and brilliant monographs until they get it. And it may just be ‑‑ and it’s certainly, in my view, the case ‑‑ that the public are not necessarily wrong. What Mr. Blair said about perceptions and immigration and so on is very telling, to my mind.

Let me give you one other pertinent set of figures. British Social Attitudes Survey, which is a pretty good marker of these things in Britain, has asked for a number of years the British public their views on immigration. And the views of the British public who want immigration to be reduced by, quote, “a lot,” in 2011, 51% of the British public said that. In 2013, 56% of the British public said that. And by 2014, 77% of the British public were saying that. Now, it’s possible for a political class to keep saying, you, the people, just don’t see the real world. We, the political elites, live in it. Get with it. Get with the program. Join us. The problem is that the public may not be thinking that and joining that because of some fantasy populist thing, it may not be saying that because of a press magnate or a political leader who they disagree with. They it may be saying that because the facts have changed in their countries and that they see the facts changing every day, and like the publics in France and elsewhere, they see a lot of bad results of this. And it’s not that their perception is the problem. The problem is that the facts have changed and the political class keeps on trying to tell them, “You’re wrong on your facts.” Now, there are some people who are trying to catch up with this, obviously, in France. And I would give you a couple of quotes of people. And if I didn’t tell you who said these things, you would tell me, this must be a populist, this must be a Le Pen or someone like this. Just as he was running for the French presidency and, of course, failed, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, quote, “In France, the only community that matters is the French community. If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French.” Who would you think said before a recent election, “Act normal or go away”? And, “If you live in a country where you get so annoyed with how we deal with each other, you have a choice. Get out. You don’t have to be here.” Mark Rutte, the head of the Dutch Liberal Party and president of Holland.

So there is a change in rhetoric. I don’t particularly think that’s for the better. Because the problem is that the change in rhetoric doesn’t add up to a change in actions. And, indeed, it’s possible that you can lead the public along with a change in your rhetoric for a while, but unless the realities change, it’s unlikely that the public and the political class are going to meet again. I don’t want to go on too much with figures, but let me give you just one other thing which strikes me as being pertinent speaking to this divide. Earlier this year, in his first days in office, when President Trump introduced a temporary moratorium on travel from a number of countries, Muslim‑majority countries, there was outrage across the world, there was outrage in the media class, outrage across the political class, and, of course, in Europe and gatherings like this one, absolute outrage that a man could be so appalling and base and low as to institute a temporary travel ban on people from several countries.

The interesting thing to me was that a few days after that, Chatham House, a think tank in London, released a poll of European opinion on a much harder question than the one Mr. Trump was suggesting. Chatham House asked the populations in ten European countries if they agreed or disagreed with the sentence, “All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” Much harder than what Mr. Trump was suggesting. Of that question, eight out of ten European countries, their public said in a majority that they agreed with that decision. And that included Germany, and it included France. And one of only two countries, the other being Spain, where most people didn’t agree with that sentiment was this one, Britain, where, again, a mere 47% of the public agreed with it.

So it would seem to me that we’ve had a problem, and one of them is that, as the public ‑‑ not to be too gross if our left/right divisions ‑‑ as the public turns to the right, the political class rush to the left. I would argue, and finally, that in this country, there has been some mending with this. You may agree with Brexit or disagree with it. What is one of the results? Local council elections the other day, and UKIP were wiped out. The right, as it were, of the political spectrum, which has been on maneuvers for 25 years now since the Maastricht Treaty, has united. The populists, as it were, did their job. And now the conservative party has reached out, got them, and it turns out that this is mainstream opinion after all. Thank you. [Applause]

Badawi: You have two minutes’ right to reply.

Henri-Lévy: Two minutes to reply ‑‑

Badawi: Yes.

Henri-Lévy: ‑‑ to all these questions?

Badawi: Yes.

Henri-Lévy: Okay. First remark. I don’t think that populism is just a way to name what we don’t like. There is a real notion of populism, a concept of populism, which could be unfolded a lot, but to make it shortly, I said ancient Latin writers, when they distinguished, when they separated the populace and the trobar (phonetic), the distinction is between people and mob. Populism is when the people is reduced to the mob, with all that it implies, with all that you can unfold from that, number one. Number two, about Islam. You say it’s a question of perception. I don’t think so. It’s the question of political activity. It is clear that there is, in Europe, a real uneasiness, not to say more, among the minorities from Muslim origin. But it is true also that you have among them some very brave women and men who fight for secularism, for equality between men and women, and so on. The real question is not to perceive, is to help, to extend a hand, to encourage, to give hope and courage to those who, at the expense of their own living or life, battle inside Islam against Islamism. The real battle of our days is inside Islam, between Islam and Islamism. In this battle, we have a role to play, which is not to perceive, but which is to help. Number three, there is no ‑‑ you say that some people act as if there was them and the real world. No. There is two real worlds. There is the real world of the mobs, fighting against each other, and there is the real world of Europe, citizenship, and so on. The real risk today is not to see the world of nations just replace the world of E.U. The real risk is to see our peoples going back not only to wars at the first and the second world war, but war in general, like guerre de tous contre tous, wars about borders, wars between communities, and so on. There is two worlds, two conceptions of people of Europe, of us, fighting today. And my last remark. When Sarkozy said that ‑‑ that to be French is to embrace, okay. But the real problem of populism is to say that when you are born abroad, you have no possibility, no right, no chance to embrace French language, French culture, and French identity. This is a real dividing line.

Badawi: Thank you. I let you go on a little bit longer, because you did have a little bit more than your eight minutes. But, please, your right of replay, do stick within the two minutes. Thank you.

Murray: I’ll try to go under and make up. Good. Just quickly, there does remain a definitional problem with this. And as I say, the tendency to use it as a pejorative term of anything one doesn’t like politically does stand, I think. If you were to read out some of the things Hillary Clinton said on the campaign trail, for instance, when she boasts about being the only candidate being attacked by Wall Street, if you didn’t know it was Hillary Clinton saying that, this would fit a lot of the definitions we might come up with Wall Street, them and us, banker class against us common people, and so on. So as I say, I don’t deny that such a thing can exist. I simply think that it has been extended further than it should have been extended and that that extension takes in, unfortunately, for many people, the majority of the publics of Europe. The second point, if I may, just very quickly about this point, it’s a very important point you made about reformers and so on. Of course, before ‑‑ before Europe had the wars of nation states, we had the wars of religion. And the people who think that the abolition of the nation state or the unification of the nations in the E.U. will get rid of war, of course, always have this problem before them that this continent tore itself apart over religion. And some of us can see that happening again at some stage. And if there’s a downside to this, it is, Bernard, as you know better than anyone, the fact that the very reformers you and I speak about and the very reformers you and I know are the immigrants who are most under threat. It is the reformers who go around in bulletproof jackets. It is my reformist friends who live in fear for their lives, in London. It is not the brotherhood people or the people who are wanting to do Dawah. It is the reformers every single time. When people say, for non‑Muslim communities, why don’t more people stand up, that’s the reason, because the assassin’s veto is amazingly strong. And we ignore it at our peril. Thank you

Badawi: Very much, indeed, Douglas and BHL, Bernard Henri. I mean, I think for the pub‑ ‑‑ I mean, we don’t want to go into definitions, but it is worth noting that when we talk about populism, it’s also on the left, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and a Five Star Movement in Italy, who have also mounted quite an assault on the mainstream party, so both on the right and the left. But as you say, the voice of the people, some people think, is the way of ruin. I’m going to go to the floor in a minute. But just to ask you first, Douglas, really, you’ve boiled the arguments down to anti‑immigration, really, and almost anti‑Muslim integration is the essence of your argument. Do you think if there were no more Muslim immigrants coming into the United Kingdom, for instance, or other E.U. countries, that that would be the panacea to everybody’s–

Murray: ‑‑ No.

Badawi: ‑‑ worries?

Murray: No, I don’t. And it’s not a policy, by the way, I agree with. What I do think is happening consistently is that the publics in Europe are saying, “Slow it down. Just slow it down.” It takes such a long time for a society to feel the effects of immigration of the scale we have had recently in Europe. It takes a very long time. We’re still talking in Britain about the Huguenots. [Laughter] And the Huguenots were French Protestants. If anyone honestly thinks that it’s going to be easier for the Eritrean community to go to Norway than it is for a French Protestant to move Britain in the 18th century, then we’re really kidding ourselves.

Badawi: Well, having said that, the Eritreans have the badge of color. The French, the Huguenots, always had the possibility of assimilation, because once they’ve been there for a long time and speak the language and so on, nobody can differentiate. But when you are of a different color, you never have that real possibility of complete assimilation. You will always stand out. So there is a difference. But just very, very quickly again on this, you know, people often ‑‑ and I like to decouple them ‑‑ talk about Muslim immigration and also talk about the terror threat. But we’ve seen in both the United Kingdom and France that the terror threat from within has come from British born and bred Muslims, people who, you know, have a Yorkshire accent, as we saw in the London transport attacks on 7/7. So how does that fit into your arguments? How does stopping new people coming in from Muslim majority countries make people feel any safer here?

Murray: Yes, this is one of the fascinating things. Of course, after the attack, the murder of the policeman in Paris the other day, everyone waited. Marine Le Pen, of course, went off early and talked about immigration. And, of course, yet again, it turns out to be a home‑grown, French‑born citizen. So these things are not separate, of course. Again, it goes back to seeing if there is an overwhelming feeling, it is the European public saying, slow it down. It’s clearly not going brilliantly at the moment. So why would you speed the process up? And that seems to me not to be an illegitimate point.

Badawi: Mm. BHL, you kind of said also in your conversations that ‑‑ in a sense, are you saying that governments, politicians, should put the national interest of their own citizens before a kind of, you know, universal belief in the rights of refugees, people at peril, in other countries, a kind of ‑‑ more of an international code of ethics that your concerns, surely, about your own citizens must trump those of other countries?

Henri-Lévy: I think there is two ways to deal with that. One is to close. One is to open, to open not the borders, to open the spirit. The real question in France and in U.K. is not to blame the foreigners, it’s to praise ourselves, to praise the British culture, to praise the spirit of Churchill or the spirit of General de Gaulle. This is the real point. If ‑‑ The good reply to these people who come to kill us, terrorists, and so on, or to those people like the Putinist activist who tried to hijack our elections, is to praise our values. And the real problem of Europe is not to have been too much open to the others, is to have been too much shy about herself. This is my real point.

Badawi: But you have a problem in France, don’t you, because ‑‑ excuse my French, laicite, you know, the secularism is very much the bedrock of French culture and society, and it has been for, you know, decades and decades and decades. And here you have five million citizens of Muslim origin living in France. And they wish to assert themselves through their own religious identity. And, therefore, that presents a problem to French values.

Henri-Lévy: It is not a problem to French values if you read them properly. Number one, there is a French value, which is not to ‑‑ not to ‑‑ to show in the public space political emblems who mean violence, hatred, or fascism. The question of the burqa is not a religion question. It is a political question. Most of the women who put ‑‑ who want to put a burqa in France don’t do that by deep, pious, and worshiping belief, but they do that in the way ‑‑ for the reason of a political assertion. This is ‑‑ it is a political statement to bear a burqa. Number two, secularism is part of the French common sense. It is part of the republican spirit. This is clear. It is part of our culture. So you may ‑‑ you ‑‑ you may be a Jew, you may be a Christian, you may be a Muslim, but you have to embrace this ‑‑ this stock of values, which is secularism, for sure.

Badawi: Good.

Henri-Lévy: But there is no reason for a Muslim to do it ‑‑ to be less able to do it than for a Christian or by a Jew.




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!