The French Vision of Europe from Victor Hugo’s United States of Europe to the No to the Constitution

Michel Viegnes
Centre de Recherche sur l’Imaginaire
Grenoble III

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is one of the few nineteenth century European writers and intellectuals who, during this very nationalistic epoch, expressed a consistent theory of European political and economic unification. The idea of the « United States of Europe » is as far-reaching and, for most people, utopian today as it was in his time. Nonetheless, some of Hugo’s ideas have materialized, such as monetary union, and the disappearance of national borders within the Schengen heartland. This paper tries to evaluate the complex interplay, in European integration, between utopia and realpolitik.

Charles de Gaules said that he always had « a certain idea of France ». Similarly, we could say that the French always had « a certain idea of Europe », that is a French idea, to be more precise. Although it is somewhat caricatural to say this, it is not without reason. As a nation that has already knowns its hay-days and that has gained a strong mythology of identity, France finds it difficult to accept its decline or, better say, its realistic adjustment to the world we live in today. Its relationship with the European idea is complex for Europe brings about for her, alternatively, the reminescence of her decline and the hope for the recuperation of her former status. All those that were surprised by the French NO to the referendum on the the project of the constitutional treaty, written however under the supervision of a former French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – and comprising a certain number of already traditional preoccupations of France, could understand it in the view of this ambiguous and intricate relationship. If Victor Hugo had been alive, what would he have thought of this rejection ? It is, of course, absurd to want to make the dead speak, although Hugo himself had no problem doing it in his spiritual experiences at Guernesey. But we can, taking no significant risk, suppose that he would have been terribly disappointed as he never stopped promoting, for more than 30 years, an idea that might have passed as insane at that time, that of the United States of Europe.

This great idea of Europe, Hugo has publicly expressed it for the first time in the opening discourse at the first Peace Congress, held in Paris, 21st of August 1849. These Peace Congresses were a privileged context his reflection on Europe; he will have the occasion to came back to this theme in his speeches for the Peace Congress of Lausanne (1869) and that of Lugano (1872). Let us say that the initiative for this first peace congress, gathering Europeans and Americans, belongs to an English economist, Richard Cobden (1804-1865), as well as to Giuseppe Mazzini (1808-1872), Italian patriot and revolutionary, one of Garibaldi’s allies in his fight for the Italian unification, and also founder of a short-lived Roman Republic, that was dissolved by the intervention of French troupes. He will try, together with the French Ledru-Rollin and others, to found a universal republican Alliance.

This strange couple was thus the one that invited Hugo to sustain the opening conference of the first Peace Congress. Cobden, in the purest Anglo-Saxon tradition, thought that economic liberalism and free trade determined liberty and union of peoples. It is he the one to have convinced the British government, in 1846, to renounce to protectionism. He opposed colonialism and sought to promote the universal republic through commerce and the abolition of frontiers. Mazzini et Cobden, the Italian Jacobean and the British liberal, give a very good picture of the two poles of the European thinking of Hugo, poles that we could consider, at least at first sight, contradictory. Hugo, who, starting from 1850 will develop more and more towards the « left », believes however in the beneficial, liberating and civilizing power of free-exchange, without giving up, though, centralized and normative government, that had always been a part of the French historic tradition, since Louis XIV until the modern republic, passing through the Revolution in 1789, as Alexis de Toqueville has already remarked it. Internal contradiction, or, rather, dialectical tension? As one of his interpreters, Jean Gaudon, said « Hugo’s universe is not conceptual ». The author of the Miserables is a visionary and a poet. He thinks primarily in images, giving flesh to his hallucinations; the words and the concepts, even the most abstract, become in his discourse springboards for the imaginary and vectors for utopia.

Still, what we should call the European imaginary of Hugo develops in a gradual manner and is being built up on the foundation of a force-idea, that of Peace. He invokes the united Europe in 1849 in this particular sense, that of a guarantee for peace:

« Gentlemen, this religious thinking, the universal peace, all nations linked with each other through a common bond, the Gospel as the supreme law, the mediation replacing war, this religious thinking, is it a practical one? This saint idea, is it one that we could achieve? Many positive spirits, as we are used to say today, many political men, experienced in the field of business, say No. As for me, I say YES and I say it with you and without hesitation ».
Opening discourse at the first Peace Congress, Paris, 21st of August, 1849.

We can notice these days, following the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, that Hugo primarily justifies the idea of union of European states by the need to preserve peace, as the ONU Charter did in 1946; Europe should first be a space without war, its genius should imagine nonviolent solutions for unavoidable litigation. In 1876, he pronounces a discourse that could seem entirely prophetic if we think back to the tragic events that have made so much blood-stained the ex-Yugoslavia at the beginning of the nineties.

What is going on in Serbia shows the need for the United States of Europe. The need for peoples united to replace disunited governments. Let us put an end to the criminal empires. Let us silence fanatism and despotism.
Discourse on Serbia, 29th of August 1876.

But let us remember that, at that time, the Serbs were the object of a terrible repression from the part of the Ottoman Empire, from which they tried to liberate themselves, just like the Bulgarians. Nowadays, it is mostly against these internal conflicts that the EU tries to protect its member states. During those days, there was no question whether to consider Turkey a part of Europe, as Turkey was not even established as a nation; there was only an Ottoman Empire, that stood for the absolute expression of despotism in the eyes the European intellectuals of the 18th century, justly or not.

But Hugo dreams even further than this alliance of sovereign nation-states, managing their conflicts through dialogue. The visionary poet that he wants to be, in the manner of the Latin vates, and that he describes in « The Function of the Poet », envisages a union of states, that is a fusion of historic nations in a great European nation, whose destiny will be designed similarly to that of France. Moreover, he uses the history of the unification of the regions of France under the central authority as a metaphor for this future European unification:

« On that day you will feel like having a single thought, common interests, a common destiny : you will hug one another, you will recognize one each other as brothers of the same blood and race, on that day, you will no longer be some enemy populations, but a people ; you will no longer be Burgundy, Normandy, Brittany, Province, you will France. You will no longer bear the name of war, but the one of civilization! »
Peace Congress, Paris, 1849.

We ask ourselves if Ernest Renan had not found inspiration in these formulations of Hugo dating back to 1849 when he wrote his famous conference « What is a nation? » in 1872. One can find here actually the elements that constitute the unity of a « nation »: cultural unity, unity of historic destiny, and, also, ethnic unity, an idea that will become extremely dangerous during the 20th century. At the time that Hugo was writing this « unity of blood and race » had no other meaning than the profound link between peoples that only the arbitrary decisions of the autocrats could stir them one against the other in fratricidal wars. However, what is ultimately obvious in this passage is that Hugo cannot avoid thinking of Europe through the historic schema of France. It is Mirabeau, at the beginning of the Revolution, that had defined the kingdom of Louis the XVI as « an undefined unit of disunited peoples » that the New Regime, founded on the idea of nation and of popular sovereignty, had to transform into a political body organically united. History thus flows naturally towards unification, and France, England, Spain etc. should follow the same path as Burgundy, Normandy, Brittany.

This is precisely what engenders much of Hugo’s ambiguity when it comes to his European vision, and this ambiguity can be found even today in the great project of the European construction: a Europe of Nations or a federal Europe? Hugo does not make the effort to describe the institutions that should manage this continental nation. He stays very artistic in his views, a thing that allows him to suggest, without saying it openly, that in the middle of this republican alliance of peoples of Europe, it is precisely France that has, given its history, the vocation to serve as a guide and a model. Hugo’s European dream, we can see, is closer to the 20th century vision of Charles de Gaulle, than that Jean Monnet or Robert Schumann.

But Hugo, again, does not fear to bring together two poles apparently contradictory. Great friend and admirer of the young American republic, he adds to his being a European Jacobean a conception that is typically Anglo-Saxon, that of the free circulation of goods and people, ideas that are still being promoted by the USA. Hugo predicts at the same time the triumph of the normative government a la francaise and the introduction of the single currency, as well as, eventually, the globalization of the economy:

Civilization tends invincibly towards the unity of idiom, unity of measure, unity of currency and towards the fusion of the Nations into the Humanity, the supreme unity. Understanding has as synonym: simplification. As well as richness has its own: circulation. The first servitude, that is the frontier.
Peace Congress, Lausanne, 1869.

For Hugo, the single guarantee of « inviolable peace » was « the normal state of work », that is « the exchange, the offer and the demand, the production and the consumption, the vast common effort, the attraction of industries, the circulation of ideas, the human flux and reflux ».

Indeed, this confidence in the rationality of the market, in what Adam Smith called « the invisible hand », this certainty that economic freedom engenders or consolidates civic freedoms are typically Anglo-Saxon. They are not part of the French tradition, although France had its own brilliant defenders, especially in the encyclopedic movement of the 18th century with Quesnay and Turgot. But we should remember that the Former Regime was extremely directive: today, each time the French state launches great initiatives in order to stimulate the economy, we speak of « colbertism ». Traditionally, the French right is itself only slightly liberal; we witness today, in the perspective of future presidential elections of 2007, an internal conflict within the right itself between the « liberals », admirers of the Anglo-Saxon model, and the neo-gaulliens, supporters of a French « social model », in which the State preserves the role of judge of the economic field, even though it is a small one in comparison to the past. By tradition, the French spirit has no trust in the economic freedom: the left sees in it the enemy of the class, while a part of the right sees it as a danger of a type of internationalism that would eventually come to menace the sovereignty and even the identity of France. And it is precisely this coalition of these two mistrusts, of the right and of the left, that has caused the failure of the Referendum on the « Constitutional Treaty » in May, this year.

Hugo will borrow happily the fundamental optimism of the Anglo-Saxon, that is American, liberalism. The devise E Pluribus Unum, marked on the one-dollar banknote, was quite convenient for his United States of Europe, but with the sub-textual idea that this Unum would be more or less French. The metric system, one of the most lasting contributions of the French Revolution, for all the member states; as far as the unique idiom to be used for the federalization of the European family is concerned, one can easily imagine that it would be more likely to be that of Moliere and not of Shakespeare. Moreover, the idea was not that pretentious in 1849, as it would be now. At the middle of the 19th century, the French language still enjoyed considerable international prestige, and English had not yet been imposed as lingua franca.

Hugo’s thought on Europe does not develop in isolation, of course: it is organically linked to his general philosophy of history and human existence, that he developed in The Legend of the Centuries, this great epic in verse the first part of which had initially been published in 1859. We can summarize Hugo’s philosophy of history as it follows: the universal Progress is wanted by God, the latter had been betrayed by the institutional religions and all the diverse Churches, that have petrified the truth in dogmas serving as a pretext for despots to maintain people in a state of servitude. The sense of the history, in accordance with the divine providence, is the progressive self-liberation of the human being from the chains of Fatality, this ANANKE engraved, according to the prologue of Notre-Dame de Paris, in the stone of the cathedral. In another prologue, that of Travailleurs de la mer, a novel published in 1866, Hugo attributes to the human being the task to liberate oneself from three Ananké: that of dogmas (the institutional religion that has falsified the idea of God), the Ananké of laws, that is the political oppression and the rule of tyrants, and, finally the Ananké of nature. Hugo confides in the progress of sciences and technology for the realization of the liberation of all humans, and the surpassing of material miseries. For him, the United States of Europe would be the ideal historical instrument for the accomplishment of this triple liberation. The united Europe is at the same time daughter and mother for the progress of technologies, and especially those of transport:

How the matter lets itself be tamed more and more by humans! (…) How the distances become shorter! And closeness, this is the beginning of fraternity! Due to its railways, Europe will soon become no larger than France was during the Middle Ages!
It is also the best hope for the disappearance of two other great historic fatalities that burden the human being. At the Peace Congress of Lugano in 1872, on addressing those that he called ”My European compatriots”, Hugo prophesized a bright future:
We will have these great United States of Europe, that are the crown of the old world just as the United States of America are the crown of the new one. We will have (…) a country without frontiers, a budget without parasitism, a commerce without duties (…) youth without barracks (…) justice without scaffold (…) truth without dogma
Peace Congress, Lugano, 1872

In other words: a united Europe will put an end to nationalism, corruption, barriers to prosperity, militarism, clericalism, and finally, a new element, the abolition of the death penalty. We know that since the publication in 1829 of Le Dernier jour d’un condamné, Hugo had always been fighting for this cause, a minority phenomenon during the 19th century.

End to the nationalism, stopper of war. Indeed, Hugo does not want a European nationalism to replace the one of the nations. This is why, far from opposing the United States of Europe to those of America, even in the form of a peaceful competition, as many of today’s French intellectuals would like it to be, he thinks of the two continents in terms of partners whose task is to disseminate in the world the benefits of civilization:

One day, these two enormous groups, the United States of Europe and the United States of America, placed one in front of the other, will stretch out their arms above the seas, exchanging goods, their commerce, their industry, their arts, their geniuses enlightening the world, colonizing the deserts, bettering the creation under the eyes of the Creator, and combining together, for the well-being of all, these two infinite forces, fraternity of humans and power of God!” (1849)

This Atlantic “optimism” avant la lettre will be confirmed 27 years later, in a message towards the French workers delegates to the universal exposition in Philadelphia, in 1876. The poet, fallen in love with words and symbols, insists on the signification of the name of the town that had been the federal capital of the USA for 10 years and whose name in Greek stands for “fraternal love”.

It is startling to see that Hugo has a rather singular view on the European issue when compared with great authors and intellectuals of the 19th century. It is not until the next century and primarily not until the great catastrophe in 14-18, that one could hear in France important figures giving their opinion on the European idea. Whether we should regret it or not, the perspectives on this are very dissimilar: for Romain Rolland, a pacifist traumatized by the First World War that he considered « a crime to Europe » – that was, indeed, a veritable collective suicide of the continent – Europe should first of all be an «intellectual and moral homeland », founded on the reconciliation between France and Germany. At the other extreme of the political spectrum, some one like Drieu la Rochelle, who had been hesitating for a long time between communism and fascism, sees the national-socialism and the « new European order », promoted by the invader, the one and only hope for the continent. We know, however, that he lost this illusion and sank in cold despair before killing himself in 1943, thus escaping the execution that would have awaited him, just alike Robert Brasillach, on the day of his liberation. Georges Bernanos considers that Europe existed already in the Middle Ages, through Christianity, and that it had been forged in the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of universities such as those of Bologny, Paris, Tubingen, Krakow, Salamanca, and others. For the great French catholic writer, Europe had nothing more to do than to regain its soul, that could only be a Christian one. For Paul Valéry, whose Mediterranean lucidity almost clarifies all issues that he deals with, Europe can be defined as a land that has received three combined heritages og History : the political and judicial heritage coming from the Romans, the moral one coming from the Christians, and the intellectual one – due to the Greeks. This is still one of the most frequently used criteria for defining the frontiers of what we call Europe.

However, these authors have reflected on a Europe that they had not dreamt of, unlike the romantic « magus ». What has remained in the French consciousness now, 120 years after the death of Hugo, of his European dream? We could be amazed that certain predictions of the poet, totally utopic at that time, have become real, such as the single currency or the almost complete disappearance of borders within the Schengen space. It is also remarkable to notice that he was a visionary when it comes to the historical reconciliation of France and Germany, that has been, grace to Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, the engine of the European construction for a very long time. On the other hand, we have to admit that Hugo’s European vision bears in it the contradiction that is about to re-enliven, at least for some time, the debate over the possibility of an authentic political unification of the continent. Indeed, even if it is sometimes pretentious for the French to want to be the one and only model of civilization for Europe, is is quite just to say that we have nowadays two models of Europe confronting each other, that is the French and the Anglo-Saxon one. It is precisely this fracture, that Hugo pretended to escape through an utopian synthesis, that endangers the dream of Schumann and Monnet. The French want a Europe that would be sufficiently enough integrated on a political level that it would allow its existence in the world of the 21 century as a monolith or a block, facing other giants of the planet, such as the USA or China. There are, of course, nuances, between those French who embrace the united Europe, starting from the convinced federalists, who are ready to give up an important part of their sovereignty to a European government based on democratically reinforced institutions, and those who think, along with De Gaulle, that nations are the only historical realities, the only vectors of identity, and that we need a Europe of reinforced cooperation between member states, that is a Europe with a variable geometry. The former category is represented by the forces of the center of the political spectrum : Christian-democrat centrists and the right wing of the socialist party ; the latter, by the neo-gaulliens that are more motivated by realpolitik than profound conviction in the European construction. But they are all convinced that this one has no meaning and no use if it doesn’t allow the continent to maintain its civilization model in front of the world, and especially in front of the American model.

On the other side, we have countries, and especially governments, that admire the power and energy of the USA so much that they want to make Europe a simple space of economic free exchange and free circulation of people, a space open for all the winds of the globalized economy, accepting as natural the laws of the global market, and supporting, more or less, the external policy of the USA. This is the English model, reproduced by a certain model of new member states from South-East Europe. We remember that this division has been caricatured by the American defense secretary as the one between the « Old Europe » and the « New Europe ». obviously, in this neo-conservative language, one can distinguish the pejorative meaning of « old ». This Old Europe, paradoxically, is more ambitious and more courageous than the New one, as, from the beginning, it all came down to recognizing the basis of what had made its past strength, that it had lost after the First World War. As some historians have already underlined it, it is not by chance that the original nucleus of Europe, which is still at its core, that is the Europe of 6 (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) covers almost exactly the territory of the former empire of Charles the Great. Moreover, the reconciliation and the close alliance between France and Germany was maybe also, in the historical unconscious of its craftsmen, a reminder of the time when the two countries formed a single one, Francia orientalis in the East and Francia occidentalis in the West. Charles the Great had almost managed to remake the unity of the Western Roman Empire that was the first historical incarnation of Europe. In their historical imaginary, the French saw themselves happily as the distant inheritors of the Latin world, that had ensured the unity of the continent by the means of centralized administration and written law.
The other great historical incarnation of Europe is the medieval Christianity, united by a common faith, but fractured by the schism in 1054. With the recent enlargement of the EU that accepted 10 more members in 2004, and plans to accept two more in 2007 (Romania and Bulgaria), the European Union has amazingly succeeded in dressing this open wound caused by the recent Cold War, but also by the former polarity between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine one. If we were to use Fernand Braudel’s concepts, the former division dates back to our « recent history », but the latter has its roots in the « old history » of the continent. The reunification of the continent raises two major problems that are linked one to the other: that of borders and that of secularity. For the former one, there are two countries that seem to do the land marking : Russia and Turkey. The first does not want to enter the EU, and the idea of a Great Europe, that would spread, as De Gaulle said, « from the Atlantic to the Urals », is for the moment totally neglected in the European debate. Russia, too specific, too large, forming an Euro-Asian block by itself, still too haunted by its imperial past, is unanimously saw as foreign to Europe, if not culturally, at least to a politically and economically. As for Turkey, that wanted for the first time to be accepted by Europe 40 years ago, raises again issues of territory and secularity. The opposition to Turkey’s entering the EU is holding a majority in France. Indeed, France is so attached to the idea of secularity, constitutive for its modern identity, that it comes to oppose the introduction, in the prologue of the constitutional treaty, of a single mention of the Christian heritage of Europe, thus frustrating not only the Vatican, but also many member states such as Italy, Spain, Poland, and others. It is this argument of secularity that it is used by those who oppose Turkey’s accession, playing on the fear the Islam has been causing for some years until now. But we know that secularity is also fundamental for the modern Turkey, forged by Ataturk, as it is for the republican France. In reality, all those that, in France, fear Turkey’s accession – and the forces of the NO at the referendum massively exploited this fear, towards the right – implicitly admit that even if Europe is not a « Christian club », humanism and all the values linked to it, making the basis for the common European identity, it is itself an heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And from here stems the difficulty to admit in their « house » a culture with other historical and religious roots, may it be secular or not.

Finally, the French NO at the referendum, that was a serious drawback for the construction of a real political Europe, if not a lethal strike, has brought together distinct political forces, and even conflicting ones, as they suffered from a common fear : seeing the identity off Europe dissolving in world that is always growing more and more globalized. For those who said NO, whether they came from the right or the left, the counter-model is America, simultaneously fascinating and detested, religious and mercantile, the engine of this mondialism where historical identities seem to be brought into a planetary culture, consumerist and technological, where former powers of the old continent can no longer play, by themselves, a major role. England has found a solution in the « special relation » with the USA, that is giving it at least the illusion that it contributes to the American power. At the same time, the English imaginary has always been turned rather on the ocean than on the continent, as Churchill, one day, said it to de Gaulle. As for France, especially after the EU enlargement in the SEE, it finds itself in crisis although it is the one that created this Europe, simply because it has only now understood that it had to give up an old dream of de Gaulle, hypocritically covered but always present – that of using the construction of a united Europe, in which it would play a major part, as a means to preserve and to safeguard its former power. The supporters of the YES have not succeeded in convincing their compatriots that new constitutional treaty will allow France to preserve, in the framework of a 25-member EU or even of 27 or more, the engine role that it had been playing for many years.

After all, the difficulties of the European construction, in France and in other countries of the continent, England’s seemingly incurable Euro-skepticism, the rather widely spread disaffection for this political project, even within younger generations, despite its being one of the most ambitious political projects in history, one that could naturally exalt and inspire people, all this shows that the political Europe can not exist as long as the intellectuals, the artists, the creators, in one word – those who contribute the most in the making of the collective imaginary, do not succeed in forging a common dream, forceful and inspiring, able to be the basis of an authentic European identity and an authentic European culture, in which all peoples from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea are able to recognize themselves and to feel at home. As the example of Victor Hugo proves it, Europe should first live in the imaginary before becoming a political reality.