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Republic and Ideas: France and America

Riyadh: Monday 14th May 2012

In my last post, France: Power, Statehood and Ideas, I suggested that the essence of French notions of nationhood lay in its self perception that it embodies a form of western civilization and that this is characterised by its adherence to the concepts of liberte, egalite & fraternite as well as the ongoing centrality of The Rule of Law to French Life. Yet, while this idea is certainly appealing and neatly explains some of la difference between the French and Anglo-Saxon Models towards European integration, it is clearly far to simple and tidy an idea to be the whole story.

For this reason, I wish to return to these concepts and examine them in the context of recent French history, particularly in relation to French attitudes toward their “Frenchness” and in particular to the dichotomy which juxtaposes the idea of French exeptionalism with the idea of greater economic and political homogenization with the rest of the EU. In particular, France’s, history as a revolutionary republic has informed its self image and for this reason, inevitable comparisons require to be drawn with that other great 18th Century Revolutionary Republican experiment, the United States of America.

As I suggested previously, the problem inherent in forming an identity around ideas or base concepts is that the understanding of these ideas changes with time. All identities have this problem eventually but the republics of France and the United States, in particular, have struggled to adapt to the changing perceptions of their founding ideals.

On the face of it, there should be no real problem. Not only are the guiding principals of the two nations really quite inspirational (for the French, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, read the American, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness) but they are also deeply human and secular in scope, making them simultaneously aspirations for the common man and eminently achievable goals in their own right.

Moreover, Both the French and the Americans have then bolstered these concepts with further powerful ideas which in turn guide the citizenry towards a way of achieving these goals in a patriotic context. This clever trick helps to moderate interpretation of the meaning of the society’s goals by placing them firmly within an overtly “National” context. It would not do to found a society merely on the concept of individual liberty as that liberty will ultimately trump the implamentation of effective governance. The concept of liberty therefore needs to be managed within a contect of overtly National symbols and ideals, encouraging individuals to pursue their liberty within the context of the need for national sacrifice.

In America, therefore, as in France, you have The Constitution, which sets out the governing principals along which the nation will operate. This in turn is supported by the Bill of Rights and is embodied in the personage of an elected President, behind whome the American people are able to rally (in theory at least), in times of national crisis.

Then you have the Flag. All States have flags and their enduring power in a modern society, in which their practical purpose on the battlefield or as a means of communication is essentially redundant, is an interesting subject in its own right. But for non-monarchical states, (IE, those where the person of the Head of State derives legitimacy from the populous rather than inheritance, through mechanisms as diverse as democratic election, to enforced acquiescence to the will of a vested interest such as the army) the flag appears to have a power in its own right.

While the Union Flag in Britain is essentially a flag of convenience derived to identify a pragmatic and imperfect political union, and has often been neglected as a national symbol in consequence, allowing it periodically to be appropriated by specific interest groups, fashions and minorities before being reclaimed when necessary by the majority, the American and French Flags occupy essential and prominent places within the constitutions of these respective countries.

Thus when Americans sing their National Anthem, it is not a person or even a country that they celebrate, but the embodiment of their independence symbolized by the image of the flag, still fluttering at day break, inspiring the citizenry to defend the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Thus, while the British sing God Save the Queen, Americans not only sing about a peace of cloth (The Star Spangled Banner), but swear allegiance to it, effectively requiring its citizens to invest this symbol of secular statehood with complex meanings such as Freedom, Democracy, Republic, Liberty, etc.

And it is here that many of the problems encountered by the French and American republics start. Because these concepts are deceptively simple and human understanding of them, complex. Like a Flag, an idea such as liberty, can mean many things to many people and it is this, essentially ethereal, quality which leads to constant attempts to check the power of one vested interest and interpretation over another through constitutional tinkering.

In America, the obvious examples of this come in the travails endured to this day over the interpretation and scope of the ideas of Liberty and Freedom. If all men have the right to be free, shouldn’t this mean literally ALL MEN? Well not when the States won their independence, it didn’t. Slaves won the right to freedom and then citizenry only in the 13th and 14th amendments to the constitution and only after a bloody conflagration had engulfed the nation. Subsequently many of these new citizens lost their newly won right to vote owing to racist state legislatures enforcing segregation and property qualifications on who could and could not vote. This was overturned only a Century after the Civil War.

And what of Liberty? Should this not include the rights of individual States to Legislate according to their Democratic Mandate? Well this issue was fudged by the founding fathers and an imperfect system of checks and balances has evolved to place some sort of pragmatic control over the differing needs and rights of Nation and individual States. This sheered catastrophically in the mid 19th Century leading to Civil War (or as Confederates called it, The 2nd War of Independence). But while that war was settled in favour of the Federal Government, subsuming the power of individual States within the Union, there remain unanswered questions today.

Can North Carolina legislate to ban civil partnership and Gay Marriage for example? And what if a State like Texas or Alaska were to vote to secede from the Union. Legally the answer appears to be that this vote would be overruled. Only a Federal Government has the right to vote to allow a State to leave the Union. Yet if the overwhelming majority of a State wished to secede could this realistically happen? The growing Hispanification of the South Western States of Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico might one day make this hypothetical question, a necessary one.

And this is in a country in which few outside influences have been able to penetrate.

In France by contrast, powerful neighbours and competing economic, religious and political ideologies have combined to effect instability and disruption to successive political models.

  • To be French in 1788, was to be a subject to a Monarch whose legitimacy was derived from God.
  • To be French in 1790 was to be theoretically empowered as part of a true democracy (unless you were a woman or subject to the summary nature of revolutionary justice).
  • To be French in 1805 was to be a subject again, this time to an Emperor whose legitimacy came, in reality, from his military power.
  • To be French in 1816 was to be a subject again, to a monarch, whose legitimacy now theoretically, rested with you through a constitution,
  • while to be French in 1935 was to be theoretically a component of sovereignty over the 2nd Republic, although in practice such was the unstable nature of the constitutional settlement and the increasing polarization of politics that whoever you voted for was likely to land you with the same set of politicians in a succession of short lived and messy coalitions.
  • To be French in 1943 was to be a subject, either to the Foreign power of Germany, whose legitimacy rested in a cult of personality centered around the demonic figure of Adolf Hitler or possibly to be a subject  to the collusion and conservative rhuralism of Petain, or possibly to be an exile, loyal to a military council headed from London by General Charles De Gaulle.

The concepts of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite have therefore been seriously tested by events. And how have the French responded? Well, they have, as you might expect, responded in a variety of pragmatic and complicated ways. Faced with the chaos unleashed by revolution, many came to see real liberte and egalite being protected and emboldened by the fraternite of Napoleon’s Army’s. Still others would long for the apparent liberte, egalite, and fraternite of a conservative, rural idyll where class bound society through rigorous hierarchy, where peasants toiled in the fields and where people understood their place in Society. It was ideas such as this which informed the paternalist Phillipe Petain’s image of France.

Then there are those Frenchmen and women who have sought Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite through politics, economics or philosophy. Famously Jean-Paul Sartre quipped that The French were never so free as when under the [Nazi] occupation. This counterintuitive, and provocative statement actually has a robust philosophical underpinning, centred around the idea that when real autonomy and decision making power are removed from individuals and when those individuals realize that freedom of expression carries with it a death sentence, those same individuals become free to examine the important essence of individual freedom. Sartre also experimented in unconventional notions of Liberte and Egalite (if not exactly Fraternite) by engaging in an open relationship with his partner Celine de Bouviour. Arguably this experiment revealed nothing more substantial than that there is substantial power to be weilded in the power to inflict cruelty on a loved one.

In the 1920’s many Frenchmen, tired from the privations of war and sacrifice sought the liberte to escape the memories of lost comrades and families through hedonism, while simultaneously a generation of women who would not hope to meet husbands owing to the cruel demographic imbalance left by the war, saw them engage actively in the church, seeking egalite through Christianity. Women, despite their prominent role in the 1789 revolution, did not finally win the right to vote until 1945.

For the most part, however, the French have undertaken to embody the Revolutionary Values in a decidedly banal and un-revolutionary way. They have simply got on with being French. They have maintained local cuisines, customs and identities, sustained a long campaign of normalism in the face of the repeated political schisms to infect their country, and they have in the process, inadvertently promoted and exported an idea of the Eternal France. That is the France we travel to see that is somehow different, simpler, better than our own homes and homelands. In Eternal France, we expect to see the France of Jaques Tati, bumbling his way through a rural Eden, and hear the voice of Charles Trenet over a scratchy gramophone. In Eternal France cafes entertain smoking intellectuals at home examining their attitudes to complex philosophical treatises. While elsewhere in Eternal France, cafes entertain a different clientele, indefatigable laborers or artisans drink pastis or Vin de Table or play boule. Moreover, in Eternal France, the impact of Big Government is somehow benign or irrelevant.

In the rest ofEurope, we imagine, the EU regulates from where be by our bananas, the maturity of our cheeses or continuation of our fishing industries. It is a world of backroom deals, messy compromises and a gradual, systematic, erosion of sovereignty. But in Eternal France, this does not happen. Cheeses, fishing fleets and fruits are protected and like the plucky Asterix, somehow, the canny French effortlessly manage to protect their interests.

Eternal Franceis a myth. Charles Trenet, a homosexual living in Nazi occupied Paris, had little choice but to collaborate with the Germans and was forced into the same messy compromises as the rest of the occupied Europe faced. Jaques Tati’s world probably never existed (though it is easy to wish that it did) and French agriculture has been forced to modernize, its inefficient farms with their ancient tiny fields are no more. A trip across northern France on the Eurostar reveals the same homogenized large fields witnessed in the Netherlands, Germany or Britain.

Even French wine has long since embraced the modern era. As long ago as the late 1980’s French Vinyards were beginning to adapt to methods of production pioneered in the New World.

Yet, while Eternal France is a myth, it is a National One, believed in by the French themselves, as much as by foreigners and it protects the French as much as it beguiles us. It gives them something constant and delightful much as a Scot looks back on a mythologized Bannockburn or and Englishman recreates a world of Upstairs, Downstairs intrigue such as that imagined in Downton Abbey.

Just as many a Southerner in America has imagined standing in the woods immediately prior to Pickett’s Charge, a world where, just for a moment, the future seems possible from the perspective of the past, so the World of Eternal France offers a conservative redoubt from which to rebuff the onset of reality, modernity and decline.

One comment on “Republic and Ideas: France and America

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