On this eve of Bastille Day 2009, I am torn. I want to believe in the possibility of a democracy based on Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité. As daughter of a three-term legislator in the state of Washington, I saw first-hand growing up the power of effecting political change at the local level, and I’m proud of the gains made by people like my parents who gave so much to the Civil Rights movements, in particular. And yet I wonder if we have done all that we should and could. Obviously not, given the violent and polarized state of our world….
Attitudes toward violence and insurrection form a telling cultural difference between France and the United States. On the one hand, French friends hesitate to send their kids to spend holidays with us, wondering: “Is it safe there?” They are terrified by the news of gun violence, which in their eyes seems to be prevalent, unpredictable, and encroaching ever closer to people’s homes through the recent shootings in shopping malls, high schools, and even churches and day care centers. On the other hand, my extended American family sometimes fears for my safety on trips to France, asking: “Is it safe there?” They are amazed by imagery of angry crowds thronging through urban centers, rock-throwing youths, cars in flames, violent-looking banners demanding change, even revolution. (Steve Greenhouse presented a wry comparison of our two countries’ attitudes towards workers’ rights in “In America, Labor Has an Unusually Long Fuse,” The New York Times, April 5, 2009, from which I’ve drawn the two photos above.)
My first impulse is to ask, “Is anywhere safe?” Recent travels have taken me to Cairo, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Beijing: all cities where safety was a real concern. The risks of getting hit by a car in Cairo and Beijing are startling, but the risk of incurring an injury by a stray rock or bullet in Jerusalem or the West Bank is rather impressive too. No place is inherently safe. Avoiding violence is a question of cultural knowledge, and luck. All of us try to avoid those parts of our cities where violence is most prone to break out, or we keep a low profile if we happen to live there, and we steer clear of demonstrations or groups that turn violent. But no place should be considered inherently unsafe either. I do not think our present strategies are the best we can do.
On this eve of Bastille Day, I would like to ask two questions to help find a way out.
1. To the French: how can the spirit of insurrection realize useful change for all parts of the population? According to Claude Fouquet (former Ambassador and Fulbright scholar at the University of Chicago), the violence and bloodshed of July 1789 emerged out of the traditional parliaments and their refusal to reform, and the powerful political parties and unions in France continue the same resistance to change today. The people are their pawns, suffering the violence, unemployment, and frustration that result from the polarization. This opposition at all cost is profoundly counterproductive, argues Fouquet. “ Il faut réformer pour sauver les retraites et redresser l’Education nationale, en décentralisant et en introduisant la concurrence» (Fouquet, Histoire critique de la modernité [Paris : L’Harmattan, 2007], 141.)
2. To the Americans: how to curb the gun violence in our streets? According to a New York Times editorial, “Price of Lax Gun Laws” (12/23/08), there exists “a strong correlation between weak state gun laws and higher rates of in-state murders, police slayings, and sales of guns used in other crimes.” Here too it is the people who end up being pawns to powerful gun lobbies who sow a politics of fear that works against our well-being. As the article pointed out, “Weak gun laws put a state’s own citizens at risk. There were nearly 60% more gun murders in the 10 states where exports were highest” (including Georgia, Florida, Texas, Virginia).
What can be done? In France, as in the USA, we the people need to use our constitutional rights to communicate to elected leaders—through letters, the free press and media, in peaceful demonstrations, and targeted strike actions–the message that the current state of affairs is unacceptable. Whether it is a question of gun laws, retirement savings, access to employment, or educational reform, we have safe and effective ways to make change now and we need to use them. Think of all the blood shed in 1789-99, 1776, and all the other revolutionary moments which brought us our freedoms. We owe our forefathers and foremothers an educated and active citizenry.
The new media are helping galvanize populations in the Middle East and China, giving a voice where none was possible before. We should do our part as well, and speak up, demand the changes that we need in our own countries. The pen, the voice, and the presence of informed citizens asking peacefully for change, can and must be heard. Marchons, citoyens.