Umberto Eco in his Milan apartment
Nicolas Truong

Medievalist, novelist, and renown public intellectual, Umberto Eco’s most recent novel Numero Zero will be published in English this November. A regular contributor to Italy's L’Espresso magazine and La Repubblica newspaper, his new work of fiction delves into the truth and lies of the mass media. He spoke with Le Monde.

LE MONDE: Do you still read a lot of newspapers?

UMBERTO ECO: I read at least two papers every morning and I scan a much larger chunk of the press each day. I can’t take my coffee or start a day without diving in. I still ascribe to Hegel’s idea that reading the newspapers is the “daily prayer of modern man.” I am also a contributor â€" I write for a daily newspaper and a weekly magazine. But I don’t often venture far past the headlines, because the press is trying desperately to repeat every morning all the information that was revealed the day before.

Repeating information without adding depth, is this what’s threatening the daily press?

The press is still breaking its back to reclaim, without adding any great value, the same news being broadcast in a loop on radio and TV news stations. It’s a major crisis that dates almost to the birth of television.

Should the press do more to keep critical thinking alive?

We are witnessing the extinction of militant criticism. Yes, we have to rehabilitate criticism in journalism, and widen its scope, notably to include the Internet. The newspaper should be dedicating one or two pages to criticizing websites â€" signaling both the imposters and the blogs you can trust. We shouldn’t renounce the role of forging the public’s taste. The newspaper can be a critical filter and remain democratic.

Is the concentrated ownership of the press by a few big groups also dangerous?

This concentration of the press is a true problem. In Italy, all the papers depend on multiple industrial enterprises or powerful banks. France finds itself in a similar situation. As such, we need to install strong leadership at the head of newspapers to resist certain pressures.

“You have to speak the language of the reader, not that of intellectuals,” says the newspaper boss in your novel. But shouldn’t we also be a critic of our own readers?

Either you try to construct your reader, or you follow his assumed taste based on opinion studies. Eugene Sue would give his readers what they wanted; Balzac forged their taste by offering them stories with situations and styles they hadn’t imagined. Some books say, “I’m like you.” Some say “I am other.” We need to avoid the homogenization of style that we are witnessing, which is even required by the new industry of medias.

And what about clichés?

In my book, I had a good time making a list of all the clichés that rule the press. And even journalists at the “good” papers admit that these clichés dominate their papers as well. It’s a form of laziness. Literature is said to serve the purpose of keeping a language in use. The press should have the same goal. Clichés paralyze the language.

You are fascinated by the conspiracy theories that are always circulating on social networks. Why is that?

I belong to an association that tries to fight occultism and conspiracy theories. That being said, falsehoods fascinate me. This is why I collect books that were wrong. I don’t have Galileo in my library, but rather Ptolemy â€" because he was wrong! I also like alchemists and magicians. What characterizes semiotics â€" our capacity to produce signs and symbols â€" is not so much how we tell the truth as our ability to lie. A letter of the preacher John, circulated in the 12th century, described a fabulous kingdom ruled by a Christian king somewhere in the middle of the Muslim world. Marco Polo was looking for this kingdom on his journey to China. Huge lies are what produce history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion â€" the anti-Semitic hoax that claimed to expose the Jewish plot for world domination â€" is unfortunately one of the most familiar examples. For better or worse, lies have had a great influence in history.

What’s unique about conspiracy theories today?

Today there are better channels of communication, so we see a larger and more immediate proliferation of falsehoods. Before, fabricators had to find a certain kind of editor. Today, any crazy anti-Muslim fibber, any anti-Semitic imbecile can publish their conspiracy on the web. The philosopher Karl Popper wrote that the conspiracy syndrome was a constant across civilizations: the war of Troy begins with a conspiracy by the gods (according to Homer). Conspiracy theories permit us to shed responsibility. The sociologist Georg Simmel said that the strength of a big secret comes from its emptiness â€" the best conspiracies are the ones that no one can disprove.

Does the journalist have a part to play in shutting down conspiracies?

Journalists have to contribute to foiling the reign of lies and manipulation. This must be one of their battles, along with keeping the critical spirit alive, and staying away of the standardization of thought.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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