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

NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED, in 1968, that François Ewald would one day receive the French state’s highest order for civil merit. At the time he was a young, ambitious, and radical philosophy student. He became a Maoist, demonstrated in the streets of Paris, and witnessed the violence that followed. In the early 1970s he went to the countryside. 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. Soon Ewald would become Foucault’s assistant at the Collège de France and one of his closest associates. 

Ewald wrote a masterful 600-page dissertation, supervised by Foucault, on the history of the French welfare state. Foucault, who died in June 1984, never got to read the final version. After Foucault’s death, Ewald became the de facto executor of his estate. He edited most of his unfinished manuscripts and lectures. He also took a job in an unlikely field for a Foucauldian: the insurance industry. 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. In 2006 he received the Légion d’honneur.

And during the early 2000s his views seemed to change as well. He became a vocal advocate for liberal reforms of the French welfare state. He opposed the introduction of the 35-hour workweek and argued for the privatization of the pension-system.

Former colleagues and friends have vilified him for his liberal leanings ever since. Many on the French left took his public advocacy for liberalization as a form of treason against Foucault’s legacy. 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. 

Ewald is now 71 and spends most of his time in a house in Normandie, away from Paris. 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.


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. It’s an intriguing story, but my engagement with it was without hate or love.

Your most important book — L’état providence — is a 600-page defense of the French welfare state. 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.

No, that is a misreading. The book didn’t have a normative view at all. It is the history of a new form of consciousness, the birth of a new notion of solidarity out of techniques that managed risks. Of course you could say that this was progress. 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. The emergence of the welfare state was a fortunate invention, arising from a great failure. It is in fact a rather sad story.

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. What was your impression of the movement?

I didn’t go. It was a new form of direct democracy, a bit like Occupy Wall Street. But to me it didn’t seem to go anywhere.

And May 1968 in Paris was different?

Yes, it was. Before May 1968 the atmosphere in France was very depressing. The structuralists were claiming that we were all governed by configurations that went far beyond any individual human being. They claimed that an individual could hardly make a difference. Political activism seemed devoid of meaning. You can imagine how stifling that felt for me, as a young man. The Marxists and psychoanalysts were there to describe these structures. And then May 1968 came and something changed. History was set in motion again. 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.

And you became a Maoist. Why?

We didn’t know much about Mao then. It just seemed to be the most dynamic, open, lively, radical, and joyful movement that there was after the May 1968. And it was our way of remaining faithful to the French Revolution, without joining the Communist Party, which was absolutely awful at the time. Back then I lived at my parents’ place in Sceaux, a small suburb of Paris. During the day I would protest in the streets of Paris and at night I would take the train home to my parents’ place. I very vividly remember the evening when the police surrounded the Sorbonne. The air was dense with tension, but nothing really happened that night. It was a demonstration of governmental power, in full strength.

You went to a small mining town in the north of France, Bruay-en-Artois, to work as a teacher. Why did you go there?

Oh, I didn’t make that choice. The computer in the Ministry of Education decided that for me. I actually considered myself lucky. I would get to know the proletariat, the real one: the miners. Never before or after have I found such a deep sense of community — very violent, very focused on family life, very reserved. Interestingly, the myth of the heroic miner was created by the mining companies and not by the Communist Party, as one might have suspected. In the beginning nobody wanted to get killed in the mines only to extract coal. And so the myth of the miner was created as an incentive. It was Napoleon who began to decorate miners with the Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration of the French state. I spent five years there, helping the community.

In what way?

A lot of the miners had Silicosis, a lung disease that they had gotten from the dust in the coal mines. But in many cases it wouldn’t be recognized as a professional disease. They didn’t get any compensation. So I went to doctors with them and organized consultations with hospitals in Paris.

Did the miners accept you — a Parisian intellectual?

Why wouldn’t they? The miners were happy to have intellectuals as friends. I had a lot of friends among the miners. The miners felt that they were forced to remain silent, because they were lacking knowledge. Relationships with intellectuals were actually very important to them. Only the unions didn’t like me at all, because they were afraid that we, as Maoists, might be competition for them. 

Shortly after you arrived, Bruay-en-Artois became the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in modern France. In April 1972 a miner’s daughter was killed. The prime suspect was a lawyer. And for a while it looked like a crime of social class: a wealthy lawyer kills a poor miner’s daughter. There were big demonstrations. And a Maoist newspaper fantasized about lynching the lawyer. What was your role?

I was the one on the ground — and not in Paris where that newspaper was edited. They had found the girl on a piece of fallow land. There was a lot of anger. A lot of agitation. The friends of the lawyer tried to replace the presiding judge in the case. And we desperately wanted to stop that. Our slogan was: “Truth and Justice,” which resonated far beyond the “Affaire Bruay.” That’s also how I met Michel Foucault. It was the high point of French Maoism. It went downhill from there very quickly.

Because the lawyer was innocent after all?

The Bruay Affair has never been solved. The lawyer was acquitted. 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. That was in blatant contradiction with human rights. The intellectuals separated from the more militant protesters. In many respects we were quite naïve. It was all well intentioned, but in the end I had the feeling that we had been fighting shadows on a screen. Our ideas were completely cut off from reality.

And that was when you turned toward Michel Foucault?

Yes, I met Michel Foucault during those days in Bruay-en-Artois. He came from Paris and wanted to know what was happening. I had read his books before. They were very important to me. It was a big thing for me to meet him. He was very important for quite a few of us, as French Maoism was unraveling. He liked me and made an effort to get me to go to Paris. He created a post especially for me, as his assistant at the Collège de France. And from my first day there I tried to help him carry his burden as well as I could.

What drew you to Foucault?

I was desperately looking for something new. I had read a lot of Sartre. The heroism of freedom that he proclaimed shaped me deeply. But I also felt dissatisfied with him, with his ideas. Foucault felt right. The question of power had always been extremely important to my generation. I have never tried to verbalize my affection for Foucault’s philosophy. To me, its attraction was self-evident from the start.

Was the philosophy of Michel Foucault an extension of your political activism by other means?

No, not at all. I encountered his philosophy well before my time as a political activist.

But it was a different form of revolt.

It was a form of intelligence! An intellectual sensibility! Not a revolt.

There has been a lot of debate about Michel Foucault’s political orientation. He himself seemed quite content that readers found it hard to place him on a conventional left-right spectrum. But where did he stand, in the end?

I have been thinking a lot about this question. Foucault always subscribed to a number of social projects. And in his texts he was talking to readers in an ongoing transformative process. 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. In the stale climate of the 1960s we thought the transformation could occur only through literature and art. 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. 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. The great movements weren’t social. He didn’t give up on his project of social change. But it had gotten more complicated.

Where did his interest in liberalism come from?

His interest wasn’t ideological. It was a way to criticize traditional political philosophy. 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. He was drawn to it, because it was so relevant to understand the contemporary situation. But he was much more interested in its epistemology than its politics. To read his lectures on liberalism as a statement of approval makes absolutely no sense. But on the other hand, there is a complication. Foucault didn’t believe in socialism. He wanted to criticize government practices. And liberalism at the time was one avenue of government-critique in France. But only one among many.

Recently there has been a heated debate about Michel Foucault’s attitude toward neoliberalism. The sociologist Daniel Zamora accused Foucault of adhering to neoliberal ideas. Do you agree?

Let me tell you two things. First of all, I am completely fed up with this entire discussion. Secondly, in terms of actual evidence, the claim that Michel Foucault held neoliberal views is just so far-fetched. 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. The Iranian Revolution happened shortly afterward and Foucault was particularly interested in the events in Tehran. He was fascinated by the fact that people were willing to die for a religious idea in the streets of Tehran! But nobody would say that he became a militant supporter of the Iranian Revolution. Based on the evidence it doesn’t make more sense to say that Foucault was a closet neoliberal, either.

You’ve mentioned Foucault’s final lectures at the Collège de France. What do they mean to you?

These lectures are like an autobiography.

You will have to explain that.

He is talking about himself! 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. 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. And in these lectures he is, for the very first time, a philosopher.

Did he know, while he was giving the lectures, that he would die very soon?

No, nobody knew that at the time. Including himself.

Had you heard of AIDS before?

Yes, I had. We knew about it. And we were all very worried. For a long time he’d had a bad cough, that we only later found out was characteristic for the illness. It made him very irritable. And even though we didn’t know for sure that he had AIDS, we knew that there was something. He must have suspected it.

Was Michel Foucault your friend?

My relationship with him was based on mutual affection, certainly a bit parental on his part. We had a very strong connection. He protected me. We had a very happy relationship with each other. But I have never tried to define it. He knew that he could rely on me. I don’t think I have disappointed him. And yet, he was very lonesome in the last phase of his life.

When did you talk to him for the last time?

A week before his death, in the hospital La Salpêtrière in Paris. It was June, very hot. I hardly remember anything at all from our conversation. And for some reason he absolutely didn’t want to publish the last volume of his History of Sexuality with Gallimard. He was very adamant about that. That was the last wish he expressed to me, that I would make sure that it didn’t get published with Gallimard. The TV was on. That I remember. They were showing tennis — the French Open, I believe.

Your mentor died on June 25, 1984. What were the consequences for you?

It was the beginning of a dark phase for me. My relationship with Foucault had been very happy, easy-going. Foucault could be difficult with people. He was often enthusiastic in the beginning, when he had just met someone. And then he would sour very quickly. For those who went through this roller-coaster, it wasn’t fun at all. And I never had that experience with him. I was close with someone that the entire world knows. I was spoiled in that regard. And all of a sudden that was over.

How did you escape depression after Foucault’s death?

After Foucault’s death there was a conservative turn in France. I felt very isolated. I went to Berlin on a scholarship. 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.

Why did Furet intervene in this way?

We got into a dispute over the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. 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. 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. So what was I supposed to do? I didn’t impose myself any further. You know, there are a lot of very unhappy people in French universities. So, I looked elsewhere.

You joined the French Federation of Insurance Companies. Many of your former colleagues on the left have taken this as a form of treason.

But it saved me! I could continue my work there. The industry might have a bad reputation, but it was a deeply fascinating place to be. 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. Everything that could be known about the mediation of risk arrived there, huge databases. What else could you want, as a researcher? And the people that worked there were well meaning, they were working hard to minimize the penalties they inflicted. But insurance companies have very tight rules and it was very hard to change them.

Why did they hire you, a philosopher deeply influenced by Michel Foucault? 

At the time, the insurance industry had a bad reputation. And Claude Bébéar, the founder and former CEO of AXA, and others around him, wanted to intellectualize the profession, to make it more appealing. This is where I came in. I participated in the editing of an academic journal devoted to the theme of risk. And that’s also where I met Denis Kessler. 

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. How could you, a disciple of Foucault, defend a program of the political right?

You’re wrong. The “refondation sociale” wasn’t a political program at all. 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. We didn’t want to abolish the welfare state. We wanted to reform it, to rationalize the way it worked. And of course it was a vision of the employers. But the conservatives were actually against it. Well, I might be exaggerating a bit. Of course we fought against the notion of the 35-hour workweek, introduced by Lionel Jospin. But ultimately the plan wasn’t put into practice, even under a conservative government. The day that Chirac won the presidential elections in 2002 against Jospin, we were told to do something else. They didn’t need us anymore. 

Denis Kessler was vice chairman of Medef at the time, and you started publishing together. What brought you, a disciple of Foucault, together with Kessler, a neoliberal economist and multimillionaire?

That’s a bit of a caricature. We had a common vision. 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. 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. We both believe that human beings are capable of governing themselves — the project of the French Revolution, if you like. 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. You need to foster a certain ethos, moral power, integrity, which make it possible to live like that. This is far from easy. To this day, we are searching for a mode to make it possible.

Had this search for individual autonomy in your view also been the project of Michel Foucault?

The core of Michel Foucault’s philosophy was the changing self. It was an ethical program. Our ideas had a different emphasis, though. They were more straightforwardly political. We wanted to change the way the welfare state operates. The welfare state has been a very intelligent project. But, from an ethical perspective, it’s a failure. The citizens continue to depend on one another. We have liberated ourselves from extreme poverty. We have liberated ourselves from the fear of tomorrow, but at the price of subjugation. The welfare state is merely a fortunate invention in this failure.

But is this really subordination? I do not find myself enslaved just because I pay taxes.

Our vision was that of a particular time. The welfare state had ceased to be an instrument for everybody to act as a responsible person, all the while sharing risks with others. Instead it had turned into a machine that fabricated rights without demanding any responsibility.

Of course you are not chained to a factory anymore, at the mercy of your boss. This type of subordination is over. But are we really free, independent citizens? I doubt it.

Have you ever regretted your work for Medef?

Absolutely not. What do you want me to regret specifically?

You have been attacked personally. Antonio Negri has called you a Right-Foucauldian. Other intellectuals and journalists have called you a traitor, a hypocrite, a capitalist stooge. It was very intense.

I am used to it. And I really don’t regret it. What I do regret, sometimes, is that I’ve written so little. 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. For a long time I had the feeling that I didn’t have anything decisive to contribute.

Do you find it difficult to write?

Yes, I do. But I like it very much. I am still writing, even though I don’t really have to anymore. But public debates I find tiring these days.

The times of public engagement are over for you?

It’s time to leave that to younger people. 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. For 70 years we have commented and critiqued the order established after World War II. But this page is about to be turned, and a new world is opening up that we don’t yet understand. We are confronted with the social question anew. 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.


Johannes Boehme is a journalist based in Hamburg, Germany.