While blogging the most mundane details of my daily existence, there has been a plethora of more serious topics I have been wanting to discuss for many weeks now. Just never found the time or the motivation to dig up all the data and roll it into something coherent and mildly interesting. At long last, and in no small part thanks to the wonders of modern urban warfare on academic grounds, I am about to fill up my quota for heady controversial postings on France, for the whole year at once.
Hang on to your baguette and pop a few aspirins, because today we are not going to focus on recent anti-government demonstrations, nor on the ongoing work-law reform that prompted them, or the already fading debate over France’s antisemitism, its suspected racism, the fuss over the Danish cartoons or the ever recurrent theme of freedom of speech and limits thereof in the birth country of Mr. Arouet.
No. Instead, we are going to talk about all these issues at once, and even attempt to weave some sort of grand theory throughout.
We are about to set some new record for lengthy pomposity on this blog and you will soon be longing for my endless digressions on weather and French flu medication, but you must realize I currently live in France: over here, it is uncouth not to have a strong opinion on every matter political and shout it as loud as your understanding of the material is thin. Besides, I see no reason to leave the business of spouting inane drivel on foreign countries, solely to the local pros.
So let’s begin:
1. Anti-semitism and racism in France
On average once a month, a controversy involving racism or anti-semitism crops up and make the news: institutionalized discrimination against foreigners (obviously illegal, but nonetheless present), police brutalities, hate crimes… No more than your average industrialized country, in fact probably less than deep South Carolina or some suburbs of London, but noticeable in that it tends to always follow the same pattern: relative media silence followed by general outbursts of indignation when and if the affair’s notoriety passes a certain threshold.
This is particularly true for the (rare) cases of antisemitic crimes: in the latest widely publicized case of the torturing and slaying of a jewish Frenchman, the media originally made a point not to mention the denominational aspects of the case, purposely downplaying his belonging to a particular religious minority, until the question of antisemitism came to be raised insistently enough, first as a possibility, then suddenly as an unquestionable assertion. At this point, and never before, every single media and politician in the country went off with their standard speech of righteous indignation and stern warning to the nation.
One could easily debate on the hasty relabeling of a shocking item of news as an act of religious hatred: while the kidnappers most certainly had a strong bias against the Jewish community, they were first and foremost driven by pure, simple, despicable greed, not much else.
But it is more interesting to focus on the palpable malaise around Jewish affairs in this country. A discomfort obvious in the successive two-phase treatment of antisemitism: denial first, followed by excess zeal.
But fighting antisemitism is not done by protesting any claim that people of Jewish denomination might be well represented in positions of financial, political or academic power. It is admitting this for a simple, albeit overblown, statistical reality and be fine with it. Be convinced that “all Jews have money” is not, as French Secretary of State recently declared, “anti-semitism”, it is just dumb uninformed stereotyping. And if asinine stereotyping is a crime, then we’d better shoot the whole country right now, unless all the Frenchmen I have met so far can back-up their recurrent claim that Japanese are mindless, cold-hearted, working robots, and Americans, fat, gun-toting, Dubya-loving rednecks.
The truth is: as a whole, the French are fairly antisemitic. As is the whole world at large. They just have a much harder time dealing with the fact that a consequent subpart of their population still thinks Jewish bankers meet up once a month to plot world domination and drink the blood of Christian infants. Whereas in the United States, people generally accept the right of southern hicks to demonstrate in 3rd Reich outfits and radio commentators shaming Goebbels on the rhetorical side, while a few states away, Jon Stewart quips good-naturedly about his ethnicity at least twice a week.
When I point out the obvious and note that this isn’t anything new and there is roughly as much antisemitism and bigotry in small rural areas of France as there ever was, I do not mean for one second to imply that France is some sort of Weimar Republic waiting to blow up: this sort of criminally inaccurate caricature is best left to right-wing government officials desperate to fight their impending demographic doom. France hardly counts more hate-crimes than its neighbours, and certainly nowhere near as much police brutalities as the States, it just has a Freudian complex involving its past and present and its general attitude to matters of freedom of speech. Which incidentally takes us to the next part:
2. Freedom of speech in France
In the late-seventies, a spiteful little sub-human of a Holocaust-denier named Robert Faurisson sent in two letters that were published in the (left-leaning) le Monde newspaper, in essence denying the reality of gas chambers. Understandably, he was immediately singled out of intellectual and academic circles for his views. Additionally, judiciary proceedings were launched against him, since, under French law, holocaust-denying in speech or writing is a punishable offense (nowadays: all form of antisemitism as well as other forms of discrimination are similarly covered by the law).
Called in by another French left-leaning libertarian, Noam Chomsky came and famously took the defense of Faurisson, on the principle that no matter how distasteful his views, he should benefit from the same right to express them as any other. While the arguments employed by Chomsky could be criticized (including by himself) for an overall lack of judgment and dexterity in presenting them, even the most rabid anti-Chomsky fans in the US would likely agree with the gist of it: that is, freedom of expression cannot be restricted based on the State’s or the People’s appreciation of what is “acceptable”. In France, however, it had little to no impact on the case, except for a few comically misguided attempts by a few French intellectuals at labelling Chomsky an “antisemite”. Overall, both public opinion and legislation in France have veered toward even more control on public speech, ever since this incident.
Now I am sure the irony of such a situation won’t escape the literary-minded present here: even if Voltaire did not in fact ever write that famous “I do not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” quote, it still sums up very accurately his position and that of his contemporaries.
But it takes only a cursory look to realize that the spirit of the French Enlightenment is infinitely more present in Anglo-saxon Law where it follows a longer and more consistent tradition of thinkers spanning from Hobbes and Locke all the way to the Framers of the US Constitution. People tend to forget that, after Voltaire, the French had Napoleon, and he left a much bigger imprint (felt to this day) on the legal system. Sure there was a somewhat libertarian Revolution at the end of the 18th century, but it very quickly transitioned into another authoritarian regime, even before the monarchic backlash. To say nothing of the current French constitution, penned by Mr. de Gaulle, interesting character, but authoritarian if there ever was one.
But my goal is not to paint France’s restriction on Freedom of Speech as a symptom of light totalitarianism even if it could be interpreted as such from the anglo-saxon point of view. While I may personally disagree with its principle, it has a logic of its own, motivated by historical and sociological factors that have their relevance in French culture.
Much of the emphasis, it seems, is put on the enforcement of social rules protecting the commons, over the rights of the individual. The upside of this slightly scary formulation, is the paired notion that there is obligation (moral or otherwise) for the individual to contribute to the well-being of the commons, i.e. social justice: seen as an ethical requirement and not a form of “charity”, as it is broadly perceived in US culture. While the push for social justice, and economical theories to achieve it, exist in both countries, I have always been struck by how even the more progressive elements of US politics were reluctant to assert that redistribution of riches is more than just a nice gesture to be asked kindly of the well-off: it is an ethical obligation necessary for the good-functioning of a normal democracy. Yes, it does sound like pinko-commie propaganda: now stop yapping, go read a sufficiently wide selection of government theory books and stop clutching that Ayn Rand volume already.
Something you can do right now, since you will have to wait until tomorrow for the dramatic denouement to this poignant tale of socio-economic woes: we will talk about the CPE and finally wrap-up things nicely. If you don’t know what the CPE is, or if you are convinced there cannot possibly be a coherent conclusion to this whole mess, then come back tomorrow.