The beginning of the year brings its share of uncertainties, but one thing remains, reassuring and unchanged: the ranking of the favorite personalities of the French. Far be it from me to criticize its number 1, Jean-Jacques Goldman. He was the soundtrack of my 20-40 years, the idol of my youth, undoubtedly one of the last lyricists of French song, with sound and meaning, rhymes and reason, truth and fair.
Also because he shares with Sharon Stone this extreme talent of having nothing more to do – neither play nor sing – to remain an undisputed star. This is the ultimate status of notoriety: becoming mute like an icon, invisible like a god. And always arouse as much adulation. All starlets, male and female, trapped in the escalation of scandal and provocation should think about it: sobriety to the point of silence, the weight of the presence that can afford the absence.
However, I can’t help wondering: is this really an exercise worthy of what is happening to us? Does France only have to offer, to inaugurate this new year, a pantheon of its favorite imposed figures? We are witnessing a return of history, with its threats and its fury, with the dangers and fears it arouses, and which seemed to belong to a distant past: war, cataclysms, epidemics, the perilous game of alliances, attacks on democracy, the collapse of institutions, the proliferation of superstitions and credulity, dictatorships and dictators.
And what do we do? We play at classifying football players and cooks, astronauts and singers, as if, on board the Titanic, between two icebergs, the urgent thing was to elect Mister Best Passenger and Miss Upper Deck. Am I exaggerating? Of course. But the discrepancy between the torments of an era that would demand men and women of conviction and this quiet inventory of favorites and favorites is worth pointing out.
Because history is back. But we don’t have the means to understand it. We have the confused feeling that something of importance is being played out, but since we no longer have principles to decipher it, visions to explain it or goals to guide it, we entertain ourselves at look elsewhere – in the best of cases, on the side of Ukraine, where there, a good man, Volodymyr Zelensky, turns out to be a president-hero.
Or else we feed a diffuse anxiety, unable to fix itself, to even say itself and to define its object: the expensive life? inflation? retirement age? the climate ? the world ? the planet ? No doubt it is the era itself that worries about what it is and worries about not knowing where it is going.
For a long time, the title of Francis Fukuyama’s book, The end of the story and the last man (1992): in a peaceful world, largely won over to the demands and functioning of liberal democracy, there was no longer any reason to fear the unforeseen events of history. It was enough to continue, to persevere in what we had acquired and established. It is not so. History is coming back strong. And with it the fear of the future, or even worse: the fear of the absence of a future.
Not because the end of the world would be announced, but because we no longer know how to envisage what is coming, how to make the world, build it and envisage it by finding ourselves around dynamics, ideas and wills. Purchasing power is important, but changing the dining room table has never led to changing the world.
Not knowing where we are or where to go, we turn in circles. There was a time when, for lack of being able to imagine anything else, people were indignant at what was going on: the streets were full of indignant people. In the name of what and for what, we did not know. But we were indignant. It was very conveniently a morality without morality, without imperative or priority, a call for justice without taking responsibility.
These days the streets are filled with angry men and women: at what? We know it vaguely; for what? We know it even more confusedly. Like indignation yesterday, anger today is pointless, intransitive. We are angry, and that’s it. In the name of everything and nothing. Of what we call “values” – recognition, purchasing power, benevolence, and why not resilience. Values so general, so vague that they seem deprived of real content, incapable of giving life and shape to precise demands, to the imagination of alternative solutions, to the proposal of other possibilities.
We are angry but we have preferences – Pesquet, Soprano, Jean Reno…, around fifty. The French are vague at heart. This disease, initially diagnosed by Chateaubriand, gnaws at a soul “without aim and without object”, running on empty, rehashing its passions without transforming them into action. And “the more the peoples advance in civilization, the more this state of the vagueness of the passions increases”: we still have desires, but no more illusions. Life seems “disenchanted”: “One lives with a full heart in an empty world, and without having used anything, one is disillusioned with everything.”
We don’t even have the strength to be cynical anymore, like in the 1980s – which J.-J. Goldman came to illuminate with his idealism again Jacques Brel. We don’t even have the snobbery to be skeptical anymore: we combine our anger all the time, “without purpose”. Not sure that in these soul-crushing times, we would have the guts to support a hero. Favorite personalities are enough for us.
As history returns, we French people give reason to this pitiless observation, formulated by the philosopher Hannah Arendt:
“Since the decline of their once glorious public domain, the French have become masters in the art of being happy amid the ‘little things’, between their four walls, between the bed and the cupboard, the armchair and the table, the dog, the cat and the flowerpot.”
History is knocking at our door, but we are content to cultivate tweeters and geraniums, anecdotes and futile polemics. Maybea sign will suffice one morning. A quiet and serene morning. But here it is: it’s written in our books, in Latin. And books, and Latin… It’s far, far away.