For a nation to be reinvented or reunited, given hope or infused with a new creative spirit, you have to look back to its finest hours and understand what went wrong.
In historical terms, France’s greatness arose somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries. There is, at some point between Descartes and the French revolution, an event of planetary importance: the invention of universal, secular humanity.
Thinking for ourselves
In the west, humanity did exist as a Christian concept: the mystic body of Christ joining believers in a single spiritual body. But it wasn’t sufficiently universal, for two reasons. First because other religions, atheists or other random deists were basically excluded from Humanity. And second, as has often been noted by the moralists (including Nietzsche), because faith in a transcendent God, in a distant paradise, is usually a cover for repressed misanthropy: it plays down the value of the here below; humans in the absence of God are conceived as feeble and spineless; they are too minor to stand on their own feet.
Descartes introduced the thinking individual who tears himself away from unquestioning belief. That’s a first victory against despotism and a first step towards the naturalisation of humanity: the discovery of natural Reason, inspired by the ancient Greeks and foremost amongst them Socrates. Each of us has the power of reason - we just have to think for ourselves; we must doubt our everyday beliefs enough to avoid being blinded by passion.
The group that both liberates and alienates
Is the reason of the thinking subject enough to relieve our alienation? No, and the Enlightenment philosophers - be they Voltaire or d’Alembert, Diderot or Kant - were never naive individualists. The solitary individual is too vulnerable and prey to passions too strong: she needs enlightened intercourse, a community of practice infused with a social spirit that is open enough to avoid the descent into superstition.
The 18th century can be thought of as a reflection on our way of being together. The group both liberates and alienates. The Encyclopedistes warn us that ‘esprit de corps’ - the ancestor of solidarity - cuts both ways: inside religious groupings, it becomes a spirit of obscurantism in the service of despots who take advantage of the faithful using false idols and the consolations of ever-present false hope. But still, groups have an identity that is their own - they have their own spirit; there is something that unites humans who come together for a purpose. D’Alembert and Diderot are the first to hint at the notion of a nation with a unifying character that is both a protection and a liberation; an identity that is more than the sum of individual parts - as Aristotle had suggested at the level of the mere city. Later, that spirit became Marianne guiding the French nation or Robespierre’s Supreme Being.
Robespierre understood that only faith can overcome faith. You cannot fight religion with reason or doubt alone. Humanity needs to believe in something. Rousseau, Robespierre’s intellectual father, offered us the General Will, which reaches beyond Descartes’ private reasoner without destroying it. Here was a collective 'me' fit for the Republic.
Humanity as a living political body
A political body has a personality and an identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. The notion of overcoming individualism is present already in the social contract. The nation is a person. From that point onwards, the democratic vote becomes a spiritual exercise, a seance, in which the summed collection of votes constituting a majority calls forth the spirit of the general will.
The final step in the invention of universal, secular humanity came for the French 18th century in the form of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In 1789, Liberty is naturalised and Equality at birth is posited - at least formally. Humanity is given a political body, becomes a being with a spirit of its own. Today, some call that body Gaïa and include non-human life, long ignored by the descendants of Descartes.
Since then, the project of the universal citizen has marched forward. It has been eager to overcome fundamentalisms and special interests; obscurantism; individualism and bad faith; the occasionally smiling, occasionally sad cynicism of hyper-capitalism that thrives today like a collective depression. But we find it difficult to make our ideals real because they are so hard to lay out clearly.
Reason alone will not unite
In order to create the indivisible union of humanity and Republic, France thought it had to free the individual from the esprit de corps of intermediary groups, especially religious groups that were powerful at the time like the Society of Jesus. France had to create an individual citizen free of any belonging except to the Nation and the Republic.
But this, as noted by Durkheim or Tocqueville, created a distance between the individual and the Republic which became a chasm that many could not bridge. And when the Nation loses its unity, when the Republic is no longer ideologically attractive nor able any longer to engender faith in its ideals, then we are left only with apparently 'free' individuals, each either lost in a quest for private self-realisation or simply surviving.
No appeal to reason today will succeed in returning to France its open and elegant unity. Humans want to believe in something bigger and more beautiful than generalised competition and its inequalities. We love individual liberty, all the while aspiring to a sense of unity in a juster world.
Equality and Fraternity - under construction
If the Republic is no longer admired; if the Nation has given up on progress towards equality; if a hijacking of Marianne or Gaïa no longer allows humanity to toy with the heady joys of fraternity, that gentle sense of being above narrowly private interests; if citizens are marginalised in any attempts to create reality ... then 'citizens' will turn increasingly to religious groups and their rituals, to communities of interest and practice where they will seek the warm glow of an esprit de corps and pride that the Republic no longer provides - or only does so sporadically, during reactive and belated outpourings.
The economists who believe that capitalism and liberalism are all that human progress requires are the very same people who see us as rationally self-interested agents. Nothing socially substantial is produced without a grand vision; derision, irony or status competition will never fill the gap left by a unifying project.
The French Revolution - that gift to the ideal of an indivisible humanity - has only delivered on one third of its program: a certain kind of freedom. Perhaps the hardest part is done: by creating the idea of a universal, secular humanity, France has given us the keys to a historical mission that is yet to be completed: to make equality concrete and fraternity factual. ‘France’ used to rime with ‘elegance’. It will again.