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France’s lost and found ideals

Patrice de Beer
13 May 2009

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.... For more than two centuries, since the revolution of 1789, this motto has been carved on the nation's coat of arms and on the façade of public buildings all over France. Amid the revolution's rich cultural and imagistic repertoire, it is still considered the symbol of the motherland of human rights. Many French people believe it to be one of the most honourable legacies of an intermittently glorious past. But what remains of these noble ideals in the France of today?

A glance at current political realities suggests the answer is "not much".

Liberty? A cluster of fears - of immigration, of globalisation, of crime - has fuelled successive governments' efforts to centralise power, and trade an increasing number of long-taken-for-granted civic rights for a law-and-order strategy. The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy - who on 6 May 2009 celebrated the second anniversary of his election - has gone further than any previous one in this respect.

The grand ideal looks equally fragile abroad. Realpolitik leads France to trade with and indulge unsavoury leaders and authoritarian states. Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)

"Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem" (12 November 2008)

"France's socialist crack-up" (17 December 2008)

"France's politics of regicide" (6 February 2009)

"Esther Duflo: the new French intellectual" (9 April 2009)

Equality? This is a period of economic crisis where much of the population lives in insecurity and near-despair. There is high unemployment; half of France's households live on less than €1,470 a month ($2,010); 13% of the population lives below the poverty-line. Millions of French people believe, for the first time in decades, that their children will be worse off than they are. The immigrant population and its children are ghettoised, more prone to unemployment, and victims of job discrimination.

There is a chasm between rich and poor. The notion of equality of opportunity and a "social elevator" based on merit shows its limits in an education system of which France was once proud. Today the university sector is starved of funds and packed with students who have meagre chances of finding a good job, while the successful business schools and grandes ecoles for the crème de la crème guarantee career-track progress for a favoured elite.

Fraternity? Nicolas Sarkozy describes the scions of two of France's wealthiest families - Arnaud Lagardère and Martin Bouygues, each of whom controls a media empire - as his "brothers". The French president, living symbol of the nation to the world, seeks his friends in the bling-bling world of opulence, greed and power. Another crony, the advertising tycoon Jacques Séguéla, captured the spirit of the age in the comment: "If you don't sport a Rolex watch at 50, you've wasted your life"! Too bad for the legion of "losers". 

The response to an appeal by Ségolène Royal - the socialist candidate who challenged Sarkozy in the presidential election of 2007 - for her audience to echo her chant of Fra-ter-ni-té was revealing; she was vilified on all sides, called mad by some and silly by others for embracing such passé mantras.

After the fall

The social corrosion and political manipulation of the principles that underpin modern France make it hard for the French to reclaim them. Yet in face of these depredations, there are signs of a struggle both to invigorate them and to reorder their priorities.

A survey recently published by two researchers of the Association pour la recherche sur les systèmes de valeurs (Arval) suggests that over the 2000s the French public's commitment to equality has for the first time become more important than that to freedom (see Pierre Bréchon & Jean-François Tchernia, La France à travers ses valeurs [France through her values], Armand Colin, 2009). The notion that social competition is itself valuable has retreated, while the idea that the state has a key role in guaranteeing welfare and regulating or directing business has advanced.

At the same time, the idea of fraternity has in some areas returned to prominence. In everyday life, for example, where local solidarities - nurtured at grassroots level by community groups and occasionally helped by municipal authorities - are helping some to survive the crisis. Indeed, when the economy is failing, life is getting harder, social distances widening and an ethic of individualism spreading, "solidarity" might look like an appropriately updated version of the classical "fraternity".

Such a modernisation of the founding ideals of modern France is reflected in another recent publication by one of the country's best known intellectuals, Régis Debray. In the latest episode of a colourful career - Debray followed the trail of Che Guevara to Bolivia in 1967, advised Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s, rallied to Jacques Chirac in the mid-1990s, all the way pouring out books on the media and political or religious affairs - the author breathes new life into the debate on "fraternity" and veers back to the left in the process.

Régis Debray's book - Le Moment fraternité (Gallimard, 2009) - wants France's embarrassed silence on this value to be lifted. He advocates a fraternité with a fighting spirit - a concept where the collective "we" overcomes narrow egoism, and a society disfigured by fragmentation and crazy numbers (shares, price indexes, polls, profits, debts) and is returned to human scale and sanity. 

For Debray, fraternité today involves not bland sermonising, far-left sloganising, nor nostalgic reminiscing. It means going beyond the intellectual comfort of social and intellectual bubbles, creating networks to build a new and better society. At a time when the increasingly unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed his loathing for "egalitarianism", Debray offers a way ahead on another flank for a left divided by personal rivalries and seeking a convincing substitute to the presidential regime. When each of the three "pillars" are in their own way under assault, and the painful economic recession threatens greater social violence, a coherent model of change is desperately needed. Régis Debray offers one way forward.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la mort...in their own way the French may, after all, be seeking neither to live in the past nor abandon it, but to infuse its ideals with new life.

Also in openDemocracy on French politics:

Johannes Willms, "France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?" (26 February 2004)

Patrick Weil, "A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf" (25 March 2004) 

Henri Astier, "We want to be French!" (22 November 2005)

Alan Lentin, "The intifada of the banlieues" (17 November 2005)

Henri Astier, "France's revolt against change" (23 March 2006)

Henri Astier "In praise of French direct democracy" (12 April 2006)

KA Dilday, "Zidane and France: the rules of the game" (18 July 2006)

Henri Astier, "France's banlieues: year of the locust" (8 November 2006)

Henri Astier, "Jurassic Left: the strange death of France's deuxième gauche" (25 March 2007)

KA Dilday, "France's two worlds" (7 May 2007)

Hector Andrieu, "A lost left: the soul of French socialism" (5 June 2007)

James McDougall, "Sarkozy: big white chief's bad memory" (7 December 2007)

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