“What Do You Want Me to Regret?”: An Interview with François Ewald

He also took a job in an unlikely field for a Foucauldian: the insurance industry. It was the beginning of a dark phase for me. I went to Berlin on a scholarship. But the conservatives were actually against it. It went downhill from there very quickly. Let me tell you two things. And I never had that experience with him. I participated in the editing of an academic journal devoted to the theme of risk. It made him very irritable. Was Michel Foucault your friend? In what way? And that was when you turned toward Michel Foucault? What do they mean to you? Our vision was that of a particular time. At the time, the insurance industry had a bad reputation. There has been a lot of debate about Michel Foucault’s political orientation. The book didn’t have a normative view at all. What do you want me to regret specifically? I encountered his philosophy well before my time as a political activist. First of all, I am completely fed up with this entire discussion. And you became a Maoist. I am still writing, even though I don’t really have to anymore. We both thought that human life defines itself in its relationship to risk, to the way it is confronted by it and the way it deals with it. Ever since I’ve lived side-by-side with Michel Foucault, I’ve had a nagging feeling that everything that I had to say really wasn’t that important. It was a program originating in civil society, most notably from the world of corporate enterprises, to think about risk in a vastly changed context. You need to foster a certain ethos, moral power, integrity, which make it possible to live like that. It was all well intentioned, but in the end I had the feeling that we had been fighting shadows on a screen. We have liberated ourselves from extreme poverty. Other intellectuals and journalists have called you a traitor, a hypocrite, a capitalist stooge. A lot of agitation. I actually considered myself lucky. Our ideas had a different emphasis, though. Many of your former colleagues on the left have taken this as a form of treason. His interest wasn’t ideological. Absolutely not. History was set in motion again. We knew about it. Foucault could be difficult with people. He was drawn to it, because it was so relevant to understand the contemporary situation. But this page is about to be turned, and a new world is opening up that we don’t yet understand. And of course it was a vision of the employers. ¤
JOHANNES BOEHME: Monsieur Ewald, you have a long, love-hate relationship with the French welfare state …
FRANÇOIS EWALD: I have studied it for 50 years. Relationships with intellectuals were actually very important to them. That’s a bit of a caricature. What was your impression of the movement? I doubt it. It is the history of a new form of consciousness, the birth of a new notion of solidarity out of techniques that managed risks. Our ideas were completely cut off from reality. No, nobody knew that at the time. It was a form of intelligence! I don’t think I have disappointed him. Yes, I do. And yet, he was very lonesome in the last phase of his life. He himself seemed quite content that readers found it hard to place him on a conventional left-right spectrum. It details how the state extended its powers in an effort to shelter citizens from new risks — work accidents in mines, steelworks, and factories, the new risks of industrialized work. And Claude Bébéar, the founder and former CEO of AXA, and others around him, wanted to intellectualize the profession, to make it more appealing. They claimed that an individual could hardly make a difference. He edited most of his unfinished manuscripts and lectures. The structuralists were claiming that we were all governed by configurations that went far beyond any individual human being. I had a lot of friends among the miners. Not a revolt. He opposed the introduction of the 35-hour workweek and argued for the privatization of the pension-system. But insurance companies have very tight rules and it was very hard to change them. And in these lectures he is, for the very first time, a philosopher. Of course you could say that this was progress. You’re wrong. He must have suspected it. And that’s also where I met Denis Kessler. Where did his interest in liberalism come from? The intellectuals separated from the more militant protesters. The core of Michel Foucault’s philosophy was the changing self. It is in fact a rather sad story. The question of power had always been extremely important to my generation. Back then I lived at my parents’ place in Sceaux, a small suburb of Paris. We wanted to change the way the welfare state operates. He liked me and made an effort to get me to go to Paris. An intellectual sensibility! Why did they hire you, a philosopher deeply influenced by Michel Foucault? How did you escape depression after Foucault’s death? Before these lectures I had always heard him say, “I am no historian, I am no philosopher, I am no psychologist.” He always defined himself negatively. But I like it very much. But, from an ethical perspective, it’s a failure. Recently there has been a heated debate about Michel Foucault’s attitude toward neoliberalism. And during the early 2000s his views seemed to change as well. He didn’t study liberalism out of personal conviction, but as a way of passage — to get a clearer sense of what government actually meant. But I have never tried to define it. No, that is a misreading. In many respects we were quite naïve. It’s time to leave that to younger people. Before May 1968 the atmosphere in France was very depressing. And it was our way of remaining faithful to the French Revolution, without joining the Communist Party, which was absolutely awful at the time. Had this search for individual autonomy in your view also been the project of Michel Foucault? So, I looked elsewhere. What I do regret, sometimes, is that I’ve written so little. I was close with someone that the entire world knows. It was a new form of direct democracy, a bit like Occupy Wall Street. And we were all very worried. The heroism of freedom that he proclaimed shaped me deeply. Do you agree? Foucault didn’t believe in socialism. The question of responsibility will be negotiated once more, and in a way that will be as important as the transformation that I described in L’état providence. What else could you want, as a researcher? I have the feeling that we are living through a much more radical transformation at the moment than in May 1968 or even after the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wrote a letter under the pseudonym of Condorcet detailing why I — as Condorcet — didn’t attend the celebrations on the 14th of July, and that didn’t go down well. Many on the French left took his public advocacy for liberalization as a form of treason against Foucault’s legacy. But public debates I find tiring these days. You will have to explain that. Only the unions didn’t like me at all, because they were afraid that we, as Maoists, might be competition for them. Including himself. We got into a dispute over the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The prime suspect was a lawyer. You went to a small mining town in the north of France, Bruay-en-Artois, to work as a teacher. He created a post especially for me, as his assistant at the Collège de France. He didn’t give up on his project of social change. The Bruay Affair has never been solved. There he found himself swept up in one of France’s most notorious criminal scandals, the “Affaire Bruay-en-Artois.” A young miners’ daughter was killed, a lawyer was arrested (and later released), and the radical left staged mass demonstrations against “class violence.” It was then, in the small town of Bruay-en-Artois, that he first met Michel Foucault. Was the philosophy of Michel Foucault an extension of your political activism by other means? It was June, very hot. It was an ethical program. And liberalism at the time was one avenue of government-critique in France. You have been attacked personally. Well, I might be exaggerating a bit. We didn’t want to abolish the welfare state. Of course we fought against the notion of the 35-hour workweek, introduced by Lionel Jospin. He became a vocal advocate for liberal reforms of the French welfare state. They were showing tennis — the French Open, I believe. Instead it had turned into a machine that fabricated rights without demanding any responsibility. In the beginning nobody wanted to get killed in the mines only to extract coal. And May 1968 in Paris was different? In 2006 he received the Légion d’honneur. We are confronted with the social question anew. You can imagine how stifling that felt for me, as a young man. The industry might have a bad reputation, but it was a deeply fascinating place to be. My relationship with Foucault had been very happy, easy-going. At the time there was a great debate between those that emphasized the capacity to take risks, on the one hand, and those that wanted this burden to be carried by somebody else. What brought you, a disciple of Foucault, together with Kessler, a neoliberal economist and multimillionaire? But it saved me! After Foucault’s death there was a conservative turn in France. I felt very isolated. It was very intense. In April 1972 a miner’s daughter was killed. At the time he was a young, ambitious, and radical philosophy student. And we desperately wanted to stop that. The great movements weren’t social. And for a while it looked like a crime of social class: a wealthy lawyer kills a poor miner’s daughter. NOVEMBER 3, 2017

NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED, in 1968, that François Ewald would one day receive the French state’s highest order for civil merit. The sociologist Daniel Zamora accused Foucault of adhering to neoliberal ideas. And the people that worked there were well meaning, they were working hard to minimize the penalties they inflicted. I could continue my work there. He is retired from his position as philosophy professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers and says that he “doesn’t give a damn” about the attacks anymore. You’ve mentioned Foucault’s final lectures at the Collège de France. I didn’t impose myself any further. It was a demonstration of governmental power, in full strength. That I remember. You know, there are a lot of very unhappy people in French universities. Look, during those weeks in which Foucault was lecturing about liberalism at the Collège de France, he also visited Ayatollah Khomeini at Neauphle-le-Château. Why did Furet intervene in this way? Ewald wrote a masterful 600-page dissertation, supervised by Foucault, on the history of the French welfare state. In the early 1970s he went to the countryside. But on the other hand, there is a complication. I was spoiled in that regard. The Marxists and psychoanalysts were there to describe these structures. Everything that could be known about the mediation of risk arrived there, huge databases. There was a lot of anger. He was often enthusiastic in the beginning, when he had just met someone. It was Napoleon who began to decorate miners with the Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration of the French state. And so the myth of the miner was created as an incentive. We had a very strong connection. They were more straightforwardly political. Based on the evidence it doesn’t make more sense to say that Foucault was a closet neoliberal, either. But he was much more interested in its epistemology than its politics. ¤
Johannes Boehme is a journalist based in Hamburg, Germany. They didn’t get any compensation. I hardly remember anything at all from our conversation. What was decisive for the end of Maoism in France was that the Maoists had suggested that the culpability of a man could depend on his class. Never before or after have I found such a deep sense of community — very violent, very focused on family life, very reserved. Have you ever regretted your work for Medef? We didn’t know much about Mao then. I have never tried to verbalize my affection for Foucault’s philosophy. We wanted to reform it, to rationalize the way it worked. And then he would sour very quickly. It’s an intriguing story, but my engagement with it was without hate or love. Secondly, in terms of actual evidence, the claim that Michel Foucault held neoliberal views is just so far-fetched. And all of a sudden that was over. No, not at all. And for some reason he absolutely didn’t want to publish the last volume of his History of Sexuality with Gallimard. Yes, I met Michel Foucault during those days in Bruay-en-Artois. My relationship with him was based on mutual affection, certainly a bit parental on his part. This is far from easy. And in the early 1970s, when things were opening up, Foucault thought that social change was possible merely by changing a small number of very important relations of power — for example, the prison system. Ewald is now 71 and spends most of his time in a house in Normandie, away from Paris. They were very important to me. I have been thinking a lot about this question. There were big demonstrations. But from a liberal perspective it was actually the history of a defeat: the ideal that citizens could govern themselves, that they could live without being dependent on each other, all these aspirations had failed. We both believe that human beings are capable of governing themselves — the project of the French Revolution, if you like. And even though we didn’t know for sure that he had AIDS, we knew that there was something. The welfare state is merely a fortunate invention in this failure. And then May 1968 came and something changed. Before his death Foucault became reconciled to himself through the notion of parrhesia, Greek for “speaking candidly.” There he found what he had been looking for: a notion to articulate his role, his identity, his relationship to collectives and power. He was very important for quite a few of us, as French Maoism was unraveling. Somebody said to Lacan at the time: “The structures had taken to the street.” And I suddenly had the feeling that political activism made sense. The welfare state has been a very intelligent project. He struck up relationships with captains of industry like Claude Bébéar, the founder of AXA, and Denis Kessler, the CEO of SCOR, a French financial services company. Had you heard of AIDS before? The computer in the Ministry of Education decided that for me. And in his texts he was talking to readers in an ongoing transformative process. To read his lectures on liberalism as a statement of approval makes absolutely no sense. He came from Paris and wanted to know what was happening. I had read a lot of Sartre. The emergence of the welfare state was a fortunate invention, arising from a great failure. What were the consequences for you? The friends of the lawyer tried to replace the presiding judge in the case. Foucault always subscribed to a number of social projects. Do you find it difficult to write? He was very adamant about that. Did the miners accept you — a Parisian intellectual? Yes, I had. But already in 1976 he realized that this project of social change was a failure, and that people are much more easily mobilized by religious motives or nationalistic ones. A lot of the miners had Silicosis, a lung disease that they had gotten from the dust in the coal mines. After Foucault’s death, Ewald became the de facto executor of his estate. Antonio Negri has called you a Right-Foucauldian. It was the high point of French Maoism. To this day, we are searching for a mode to make it possible. It was a big thing for me to meet him. The Iranian Revolution happened shortly afterward and Foucault was particularly interested in the events in Tehran. It just seemed to be the most dynamic, open, lively, radical, and joyful movement that there was after the May 1968. Former colleagues and friends have vilified him for his liberal leanings ever since. He knew that he could rely on me. For a long time I had the feeling that I didn’t have anything decisive to contribute. The “refondation sociale” wasn’t a political program at all. I was desperately looking for something new. Shortly after you arrived, Bruay-en-Artois became the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in modern France. But nobody would say that he became a militant supporter of the Iranian Revolution. They had found the girl on a piece of fallow land. I didn’t go. For a long time he’d had a bad cough, that we only later found out was characteristic for the illness. We believe in a society in which the shackles of the old order are left behind, a society in which no one is dependent on anybody else. In the stale climate of the 1960s we thought the transformation could occur only through literature and art. But it was a different form of revolt. Denis Kessler was vice chairman of Medef at the time, and you started publishing together. But I also felt dissatisfied with him, with his ideas. He protected me. Foucault felt right. But in many cases it wouldn’t be recognized as a professional disease. I was the one on the ground — and not in Paris where that newspaper was edited. I spent five years there, helping the community. Soon Ewald would become Foucault’s assistant at the Collège de France and one of his closest associates. When did you talk to him for the last time? How could you, a disciple of Foucault, defend a program of the political right? I applied for a post at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, but the conservative historian François Furet didn’t support my nomination. A week before his death, in the hospital La Salpêtrière in Paris. They didn’t need us anymore. Did he know, while he was giving the lectures, that he would die very soon? Foucault, who died in June 1984, never got to read the final version. I had read his books before. I didn’t like the way that the Revolution was celebrated, how the Revolution was made to disappear, how politics was transformed into mere management questions. Why did you go there? The citizens continue to depend on one another. What was your role? He was fascinated by the fact that people were willing to die for a religious idea in the streets of Tehran! The times of public engagement are over for you? Last summer France witnessed a new social movement, called “Nuit debout,” which protested against plans by the French government to liberalize the nation’s notoriously strict labor laws. I very vividly remember the evening when the police surrounded the Sorbonne. You have, among other things, been one of the main public defenders of the “refondation sociale,” an initiative undertaken by the French employer’s federation Medef in the early 2000s to radically cut back the welfare state. Why wouldn’t they? It was a way to criticize traditional political philosophy. I do not find myself enslaved just because I pay taxes. But ultimately the plan wasn’t put into practice, even under a conservative government. Your most important book — L’état providence — is a 600-page defense of the French welfare state. That was the last wish he expressed to me, that I would make sure that it didn’t get published with Gallimard. The welfare state had ceased to be an instrument for everybody to act as a responsible person, all the while sharing risks with others. The air was dense with tension, but nothing really happened that night. And from my first day there I tried to help him carry his burden as well as I could. But are we really free, independent citizens? So I went to doctors with them and organized consultations with hospitals in Paris. For 70 years we have commented and critiqued the order established after World War II. The miners felt that they were forced to remain silent, because they were lacking knowledge. But to me it didn’t seem to go anywhere. He became a Maoist, demonstrated in the streets of Paris, and witnessed the violence that followed. I was interested in the way that governments and insurance companies deal with risk, and suddenly I found myself in a place where all that information came together. During the day I would protest in the streets of Paris and at night I would take the train home to my parents’ place. For those who went through this roller-coaster, it wasn’t fun at all. The TV was on. You joined the French Federation of Insurance Companies. So what was I supposed to do? Of course you are not chained to a factory anymore, at the mercy of your boss. He wanted to criticize government practices. These lectures are like an autobiography. Others yet pointed to Ewald’s turn as evidence for a long-held suspicion: that Michel Foucault’s relationship with neoliberalism had been a bit too cozy all along. I would get to know the proletariat, the real one: the miners. And I really don’t regret it. Oh, I didn’t make that choice. This is where I came in. We had a very happy relationship with each other. Your mentor died on June 25, 1984. Our slogan was: “Truth and Justice,” which resonated far beyond the “Affaire Bruay.” That’s also how I met Michel Foucault. Over the past year I edited his 1971–1972 lectures at the Collège de France, together with Bernard Harcourt, and it became clear to me that his thinking revolved around the idea of change, of transformation, of individuals and collectives. But it had gotten more complicated. The lawyer was acquitted. We had a common vision. Because the lawyer was innocent after all? To me, its attraction was self-evident from the start. We have liberated ourselves from the fear of tomorrow, but at the price of subjugation. The day that Chirac won the presidential elections in 2002 against Jospin, we were told to do something else. But is this really subordination? Political activism seemed devoid of meaning. He is talking about himself! But where did he stand, in the end? This type of subordination is over. The miners were happy to have intellectuals as friends. Yes, it was. What drew you to Foucault? I am used to it. But only one among many. And a Maoist newspaper fantasized about lynching the lawyer. Interestingly, the myth of the heroic miner was created by the mining companies and not by the Communist Party, as one might have suspected. Why? That was in blatant contradiction with human rights.