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France: Power, Statehood and Ideas

The Palais de Justice in Paris, with gates of ...

The Palais de Justice in Paris, with gates of the cour d’honneur in front. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Riyadh: Monday 14th May 2012

 A stroll through the streets of l’Ile de Cite in Paris, is an extremely pleasant thing to do on a May morning; the bright reflectivity of the sun on the Seine, coupled with the dappled shade of the spring trees, with their bright green foliage not yet fully developed, is just enough to allow the mild sunshine to warm your face.  Meanwhile dancing patterns are cast across the walls of the Paris Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and the Prefecture de Police.

 This is not just the geographic and spiritual Centre of Paris, but also its judicial heart. The first Celtic settlements were here and everything we see of modern Paris, spread ultimately from this island in the middle of the river. Its importance is unmistakable. Flanked by roaring traffic on either bank of the Seine, La Ile is instantly connected to the city and yet is also protected from its rush and throng. At least on the morning I was there, it exuded calm solidity and timeless self-assurance. And, as with the heart of all great capitals, it self-consciously exudes power.

The wrought iron gates guarding the entrance to the Palais de Justice are spotlessly clean and painted (no mean feat when they have clearly been designed to make a marauding giant think twice about entering). The doors too, are improbably large and heavy-looking. And then there are the Flags. It is not enough to have one flag. Rather these great built symbols of French Statehood are festooned with tricolors’ and the blue and gold of the EU, tastefully adorning the facades of the buildings in a decorative fan arrangement.

The facades themselves exude not merely power but wealth and sophistication. It is not enough that these buildings exude raw power. They must also say something about France, the French style and the complexity of the decisions that are taken within their walls. The result is an intricate style with a finely observed balance between fussy detail and blank faced power projection. It is also, unmistakably, emphatically, quintessentially French in design intent, instantly recognizable as such by anyone with even the haziest notions Parisian Architecture.

Of course, similarly impressive examples of architectural power projection can be found in almost any capital city of note. From London, to Washington DC to Moscow to Pyong Yang, to the Acropolis from Ancient Athens to the Mayan Temples of Central America, powerful elites have always sought to project their power through architecture. Doubtless cave men occupying hillside caves will have ceded the uppermost cave to the leader of the tribe. Meanwhile brothers and sisters the world over will play out the same game of statecraft in miniature by placing great store on who bets the top bunk or access to the front passenger seat.

Yet, while the civic layout of  l’Ile de Cite is, in reality, no different from the projection politics of the playground, it retains specific reminders of a sophisticated, and specifically French idea of the State’s relationship to its citizenry. On every government building, are carved the mission statement of the French State: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

And ultimately when the symbolic power of the French State is considered in cold reality it is this message which becomes the  true example of French exceptionalism.

The Palais de Justice does not merely carry the EU flag alongside that of France, out of courtesy. It does so because it is no longer the highest Judicial body in the land. Like all European governments, France has effectively outsourced much of its legislature and judiciary to a Pan-European Bureaucracy and the presence of the EU flag is in reality a tacit acknowledgement that for all the power of projection inherent in the architecture, a person who does not like the findings of the French High Court can appeal to a higher authority. France is not alone in this. Britain might be more chippy about allowing the EU flag equal billing on its civic buildings, but it is no more empowered than France to resist the constitutional reach of the EU.

None of which ignores the importance of the symbolism associated with individual power projection. The presence of the Judiciary and the police headquarters in the historic heart of the city, within touching distance of Notre Dam Cathedral pays eloquent testament to the centrality to French life, of the rule of law. Note that the other branches of the French state, The Legislature (based at l’Assemblee National building on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Place de la Concord), and The Executive (Based at The Presidents Residence, The Elysee Palace, on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honour, just north of the Champs Eleysee), do not sit at the geographic centre of Paris, occupying respectively positions on either side of the Seine.

Note too that this is France’s 5th Republic since the revolution. Constitutions, Presidents and Parliaments come and go. But the Ile de Cite retains its central place at the heart of French society, embodying the idea that neither the spiritual power embodied by the Cathedral, nor the secular rule of law enacted through the judiciary and enforced through the police force can be usurped by the transitory nature of political and constitutional governments. Politicians and soldiers might be celebrated or in some cases revered in France, but the real guardianship of the French State and the French exceptionalism embodied by the ideas of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, lies in Ile de Cite.

Which all sounds like so much semantics. What difference, we might ask, does this make to a France whose independence is subsumed within the EU, whose fiscal autonomy is tied to the fortunes of the Euro, whose military fortunes are tied once more to NATO?

Yet, perhaps this is a particularly British way of seeing matters. With our simultaneous proximity to Europe and ultimate detachment from it, both the source of our wealth and principal threat to our autonomy, it is little surprise that Britain is accustomed to hedging her bets when it comes to the continent. Moreover, ours is a constitution based on pragmatic evolution between nations. The Red White and Blue of the French tricolor symbolizes a peaceful union between the competing class forces unleashed by the revolution. Our Red, White and Blue is symbolic of a practical political union between two countries which did not bother ultimately to resolve the differences between the two in terms of their spiritual or judicial integrity. In stark contrast to France, where the judiciary presides at the geographical and symbolic heart of French Society, Britain does not even possess a single unified judiciary, retaining separate legal systems within its component countries.

Little wonder then, that a Briton might be suspicious of a systematic political union encompassing Judiciary, Legislature and Executive power under a single framework. We have never seen the need for such a union at home. But for the French, the union need not be so scary a concept. In a State where, in less time than there has been a United States of America, what it means to be French has encompassed Autocratic Monarchy, Constitutional Monarchy, Empire, Occupation by the Prussians, Russians & British, Occupation by Germany and the ‘benign’ dictatorship of Marshal Petain, as well as fully four different forms of republic, there is perhaps a realization that the real meaning of French exceptionalism, in effect the true essence of France, lies not in the Legislative structure of a constitutional settlement, or in the physical embodiment of a head of state, but in the civilization embodied by adherence to the rule of law and the behavior of individuals under it.

L’Ile de cite has seen it all, from Swastikas hanging from the Departure de Police to the collapse of the Rule of Kings under God amid the bloody foundation of a Secular State.

But Frenchmen remain Frenchmen; France remains wedded to its overriding mission statement, unchanged despite its repeated constitutional tinkering. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Like all ideas, these are fluid and easily appropriated, but they are also eternal because their essence is aspirational rather than prescriptive as a constitution seeks to be. The French State might lose its sovereignty, but the French nation remains wedded to its civilization, its way of life and its guiding principles.

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