On secular values six weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre

BELKACEM-articleLarge

Not sure what to think about secular values in France?  How about admiration?  Instead of suggesting that France should be more like other countries where religion has been allowed to creep into the public sphere (or is welcomed with open arms into the public sphere as in the USA), I suggest we celebrate the freedom allowed by la laïcité, especially in schools.

I’ve been following with interest the reporting on France by the New York Times since the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  It has been very careful.  An article on 1/19/15 entitled “An Inclusive French Republic” concluded that “France’s minister of education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who is French-Moroccan, is to announce new measures on Monday to better explain French ‘republican values’ in the schools.  For the lessons to work, the Hollande government must find ways to make those values a reality for the many French youths who feel marginalized from French society.” The profile of Vallaud-Belkacem in the 2/21/15 “Saturday Profile” of the New York Times stresses her outsider status, as one of seven children of a poor immigrant family where traditional gender roles were the norm, to her rise through the ranks of the Socialist Party and her current status as Minister of Education.  It gives ample coverage of the attacks she has been subjected to in the conservative media and among other Muslims.  What is missing is support for her plans.

Instead of scrutinizing Vallaud-Balkacem for potential weaknesses, we should support her efforts to continue the French republican heritage into the 21st century.  She is a transitional figure, building on the strength of her silent mother—and legions of other Muslim women—who seek a better life for themselves and their children through public education. The article notes that despite the rigid patriarchy of their home, “her mother nevertheless pushed the seven children to study and encouraged the girls to be financially independent.”  In the photo, we see that Vallaud-Belkacem wears no headscarf, and in the few remarks that quote her directly, she states a powerful and admirable goal, of making “a lifetime commitment against social injustices, against inequalities.”  The ultimate solution to the French identity, now as in 1905, lies in education.  Carefully avoiding criticism of the way she herself was raised, she nevertheless notes, “Endless political debates have stigmatized Muslim families.  School needs to teach people that everyone is part of one community and that we are all free and equal.”

Vallaud-Belkacem is a beacon of hope.  In honor of her strong spirit, we should continue the media attention in support of republican values.  We should cheer on her efforts to combat the creeping tentacles of private interests (religious or otherwise) from encroaching into the sphere of public education.  As citizens of the premier democracy of the world, we Americans should acclaim the power of public education to change people’s lives for the better.

Thoughts on reading Jonathan Israel: On the origins of the French Revolution

Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Jonathan Israel comes out swinging in his recent work, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the ‘Rights of Man’ to Robespierre (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).  As stated in the Introduction and restated frequently throughout, Israel’s goal is to prove that, contrary to the work of virtually every historian of the French Revolution, no one has yet understood its origins.  This situation leaves us in terrible straits, he claims, “with an uncommonly urgent need for some very sweeping and drastic revision” (p. 29).  The Revolution was not caused by social, economic, political, or cultural forces but rather by intellectual trends:  dangerous ideas foisted on the French by the most radical and anti-establishmentarian of the eighteenth-century philosophes. As he states: “Neither classical republicanism . . . nor Rousseau’s deism underpinned the democratic thrust behind the most comprehensively radical and revolutionary writings of the late eighteenth century.  The true underpinning was the confident secularism pronouncing philosophical reason the engine of universal human emancipation deriving from the encyclopédistes and, earlier still from the radical thinkers of the late seventeenth-century Enlightenment.” To prove this point, Israel enlists a massive array of evidence but it all winds down to a list of ten books, of “the major textual sources that shaped this democratic republican political culture after 1750″ (707).

Among the Top Ten are: 1. Diderot’s political articles and exposition of the volonté générale in the Encyclopédie; 2) Rousseau’s Discourses and Social Contract; 3) the Histoire philosophique (1770); 4) D’Holbach’s La Politique naturelle (1773); 5) D’Holbach’s Système social (1773); 6) Helvétius’s De L’homme (1773), and 7-8) Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Age of Reason (1793) along with 9) Condorcet’s political writings, and 10) Volney’s Les Ruines (1791) (707).

Although there is much to admire in Revolutionary Ideas, this central argument grates.  I wondered at first if it was only me.  But since reviewing the book a couple months ago, I have had the interesting experience of finding yet more scholars whose claims on the “origins of the French Revolution” Israel should have consulted before throwing his opinions into the world.

In my review, I point out that despite the vehemence of his argumentation, Israel’s  claims on the readability and powerful impact of philosophical texts such as Rousseau’s Social Contract are erroneous.*  There is a well-documented, deeply  thoughtful body of scholarship on the whole “history of audience reactions to The Social Contract” issue; one need only think of the findings that great historian-critics such as Robert Darnton and Daniel Mornet showed us years ago, on the reading tastes of eighteenth-century Frenchmen.  It all discounts Israel’s claims.

And just last week I found more evidence that runs counter to Israel’s claims, in the fascinating work on economics in the eighteenth century.  It would have been good if Israel had thought to read Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), as well.  Ferguson claims that, instead of Rousseau or D’Holbach, it was the early eighteenth-century financier and one-time Controller General of France, John Law, who caused the French Revolution.   As he writes, “John Law was not only responsible for the first true boom and bust in asset prices, he also may be said to have caused, indirectly, the French Revolution by comprehensively blowing the best chance that the ancien régime monarchy had to reform its finances” (126).

Hmmm…   what to think?

* Review of Politics, forthcoming, Spring 2015 Volume 77 Issue 2

On money, assignats, Benjamin … and a Valentine’s day suggestion

Assignat-20--LivresAssignat-50

I’ve started thinking and reading a lot about economics in the 1700s, and the meaning of money, credit, work, in the eighteenth century and revolutionary era.  A friend in South Bend, Jeff Schneider, is actually a member of the Bank Note Society and has been generously giving me assignats for a few years now, knowing that I show them around in my classes.  Students love seeing this old money.. They are so interesting!  (And apparently not terribly expensive, if you are looking for a Valentine’s gift for your favorite revolutionary.)

For the aficionados of assignats, here is a link Jeff S. passed along; it is extremely detailed and impressive,   http://assignat.fr/

Now, if I could just get my hands on some billets de banque from the Law Scheme…

Work in progress:  “Did the ‘Ill Wind’ Blow No Good?  The Law Scheme in French Economics, Linterature, and Art, 1721-31,” for the special no. of L’Esprit créateur issue on “Paris’s Imagined Capital: Early Capitalism and Modernity in France (17th-19th centuries).”  Thinking about money changes everything.  Hmmm.

Here is a less-quoted epigram by Walter Benjamin:

“A descriptive analysis of bank notes is needed.  The unlimited satirical force of such a book would be equaled only by its objectivity.  For nowhere more naively than in these documents does capitalism display itself in solemn earnest.”

Benjamin, “Tax Advice”

(Thanks to Marc Shell’s fabulous book Art and Money, for that must-quote.)

More to come!  Anybody else out there inspired by Thomas Piketty and the Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, Rosenthal team?–Capital in the 21st Century and Priceless Markets are well worth the sometime technical language for the parts about French literature, art, culture.  Piketty does a better job on César Birotteau.   But Priceless Markets was so surprising to read; I feel like I learned a ton from watching the way they think.  Their attitude on the Revolution was very unlike most of what I’ve read to date!

A French commentary on la laïcité and Alexander Stille, by Laurent Loty

Dear Julia,

Merci d’avoir posté l’article d’Alexander Stille*, qui permet d’expliquer les différences entre la laïcité en France et la laïcité aux États-Unis.

L’article est passionnant. Mais après avoir bien expliqué les différences (par exemple, en France, entre critique d’une religion et incitation à la haine contre les personnes), il prend toutefois des positions inspirées par le système américain, qui ne correspond pas à l’histoire et à la sociologie françaises.

Une phrase est franchement erronée : “The French state was, in fact, forcing those students to pay homage to a publication that had, in their view, mocked their religion”. Non : la minute de silence dans les établissements scolaires était une manifestation de deuil envers les morts, tués comme journalistes, comme policiers, ou comme Juifs. À propos des journalistes, ce n’était pas un éloge de Charlie hebdo mais une défense de la liberté d’expression telle qu’elle est permise par la loi. On peut comprendre que des élèves aient pu croire qu’il s’agissait d’une défense de la critique de l’Islam, mais ce que des millions de personnes ont défendu en manifestant et ce que le gouvernement a défendu, c’est seulement la liberté d’expression.

Enfin, les millions de personnes d’origine musulmane en France sont relativement mal intégrées parce qu’elles sont les populations immigrées les plus récentes et les plus pauvres, en une période de fort chômage, et leur proportion en France est sans comparaison avec les Etats-Unis.

L’intégration en France ne peut se faire sur le modèle américain. A chacun son histoire, même s’il est toujours important de chercher des principes universels. En France, cela passera par la réduction du chômage, et par l’acceptation par la religion musulmane des règles de la laïcité française déjà acceptées par le passé par les autres religions.

J’ai peur de mal traduire en anglais sur des questions si graves. J’espère pouvoir être lu par une partie des habitués de ce Blog que je salue.

Laurent Loty (Paris)

*Alexander Stille, “Why French Law Treats Dieudonné and Charlie Hebdo Differently,” The New Yorker (January 15, 2015).

More American responses to French problems and French response to Fox “No Go Zones”

Screen-Shot-2015-01-20-at-10.58.17-AM French comedians dress up as Fox newsSince we’re on the topic of French-American misunderstanding, I thought I’d send along another interesting article on the topic of freedom of speech and the concept of laïcité, by Alexander Stille, from The New Yorker, here.

And if you have not yet heard about the Fox News fiasco about the so-called “No Go zones,” you must watch this satire by Le Petit Journal!  http://www.mediaite.com/tv/french-comedians-dress-up-as-fox-news-journalists-enter-paris-no-go-zones/

Secular Values to the Rescue

In the wake of the horrible tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have been waiting with baited breath to see which way the French government was going to try to deal with religious extremism.  Would they opt for a free-floating multiculturalism and slide ever closer to the American model where religious leaders hold a dangerous sway over politics?  Or would they reassert the specificity of what it means to be French, and protect their citizens with a newly invigorated republicanism?  As a French teacher in the USA, I frequently encounter students who, in the arrogance of their ignorance, feel entitled to express indignation about the laws banning head scarves and other public signs of religious belief in the public sphere in France, and decry the “inflexibility” of the French.  “They should be more like us,” students say.  Each time I hear this, I wince, because it means that we have not done our job well enough.  Those who believe the French lack “flexibility” have never learned what the French Republic really stands for.  They ignore how long and hard people had to work and struggle and fight, from 1789 to 1905, until France achieved a definitive break between the Catholic Church (or any church) and the State.  They are oblivious to what it means to live in a State where the public sphere is a protected place, where believers and non-believers are equally free from coercion.  So it is with joy that I read the article in the New York Times today entitled, “Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values,” which I invite you to read here.

For those who may not understand why secular values are so crucial to the French, you need to keep studying.  As with many facets of French culture, the origins lie in the past, in this case, the struggles of the French Revolution.

Vive la laïcité!

Will 2015 be the new 1789?

2015-trends-1728x800_c

Happy New Year, readers!  The most interesting new trend afoot in French politics for 2015 is the increasing prominence of the Association for a Constituent Assembly.  Founded in 2004, this group’s impact is now being felt on policy debates across the Hexagon.  The APUC proposes a peaceful, time-honored means to bring the government of the French Republic back in line with the its founding principles.  Although APUC leaders include a former deputy of the National Assembly, writers for the high-profile Le Monde diplomatique, and academics employed by France’s elite universities, its members hail from all walks of life.  Constitutional “circles” have formed in 19 French cities and their numbers are steadily growing.  Will they succeed in creating enough momentum to prompt a national election?  In order to help Anglophone readers understand the gravity of the French situation, and the relevance this group’s efforts to the inspiring principles of 1789, we’re posting below the English translation of the Association’s call to action.  Click here for the French original, on the APUC website.  This may be a rare chance for us to witness deliberative democracy in action!

Association for a New French Constituent Assembly

This is a call for a grassroots vote of no confidence in our governing institutions. This is a call for the creation of new Constituent Assembly (originally established 1789-1791, but also 1848, 1871-1875, 1945, and 1946).

Fellow citizens of France,

The time has come to make known to the professional politicians that they cannot legitimately represent the people’s interests anymore.

During the last few years, the leaders of France have adopted a technocratic mode of governing that has made matters less and less transparent to those who do not walk the halls of power. They have abandoned the country’s political and financial sovereignty, claiming that the welfare state cannot be sustained, given the need to compete in world markets.  Instead of heeding the people’s legitimate demand for representation and justice, they have thrown their efforts behind an anti-democratic effort to build up Europe. The technocrats currently leading the “political class” are overlooking massive sectors of the population and dismissing calls for greater representation and democracy.

Furthermore, the executive branch has evolved into an autocracy led by a president whose decisions are dictated solely by his own views.  Forgetting his campaign promises, the president has led with an antidemocratic, antisocial iron hand.

The government’s indifference to popular opinion has reached the breaking point.  Who can forget the government’s reaction to the French vote of NO against the European Constitution in 2005?  Despite a resounding majority of negative votes, the referendum’s result was ignored. Organizers of the vote willfully overlooked article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that “national sovereignty belongs to the people.”

Over the last ten years, the founders of the Association for a New French Constituent Assembly (Association pour une Constituante) have striven to put policy decisions back in the hands of the electorate.  Instead of waiting for the system to fix itself, or watching in vain for the lame-duck Parliament to regain its role in the balance of powers, we call for a grassroots movement to demand that the people’s voice be heard.

Our goal is the creation of a new Constituent Assembly: a corps of elected deputies entrusted with the creation of a new Constitution that would reform governmental institutions to serve the people of France.  We encourage citizens across the country to create local groups of deliberative democracy, in the hopes of organizing a national vote on a new Constituent Assembly.

Citizens, pass along this call to action!  Organize!  To reform the current institutions and redefine the rules governing the political system, we must demand the election of a new Constituent Assembly!

Contact: The Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr

13 rue du Pré Saint Gervais, 75019 Paris

pouruneconstituante@yahoo.fr

Bonnet1 2mo pour Assoc pour une Constituante

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