A Response to “Where are the French People?” (Libération October 22, 2015): They are under your eyes!

819744-spcl-doc-fanny Liberation article sur la Revolution francaise 22 octobre 2015

A caveat: if you read this blog primarily for the fun stuff—the stylish echoes of things revolutionary, the toys or antiquarian trivia—you can skip this.

I just felt the need to interrupt the programming for a minute to remind myself (and all of us) why the Revolution still matters today on a political level. If I do so, it is because I want to express my dissatisfaction with other trends afoot and make readers alert to the way that the past can be used to avoid talking about today’s problems.

No manner of revolutionary kitsch will solve the problems facing the 5th Republic, as was on full display in a recent article in Libération by Grégoire Biseau, Didier Péron and Anne Diatkine, entitled, “Where are the French People?” (Or where did they go?)

It begins and ends with Greece, symbol of a tyrannical hypocritical government, and shows President François Hollande offering a copy of a history of the French Revolution by Socialist leader Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) to the Prime Minister of Greece, Aléxis Tsípras. That itself is a sort of insulting gesture: as if the Greek problems could be solved by a 19th-century theorist of the working classes?

What bothered me more is how the people interviewed—four directors/film-makers who are cashing in on the nostalgia for the French Revolution—all of them totally avoid engaging with the political meaning of 1789-94, and how it could be relevant to the most obvious problem in France today.

There is only one remark, by Nicolas Klotz, that comes close, by evoking his incomprehension of the Arab Spring: “Il s’est passé quelque chose là-bas [Le Printemps arabe] qui nous déborde parce que nous ne supportons plus des événements qui nous sortent du formatage généralisé.” The main contribution of Pierre Schoeller and others is to point their finger at the Big State (a traditional French target): “On est dans une grave crise de la puissance politique.”

This article, with its many clever asides on the clever ways that politicians and artists are spinning the revolutionary past as a symbolic tool, made me uncomfortable.  It is presented as a lively and upbeat discussion among the avant-garde, but the flippant tone reduces politics to a dusty incrimination of a Big Government that doesn’t listen to the People. Such reporting skirts the huge elephant sitting in the salon these days, that is, the many French people of non-Gallic ancestry who owe nothing to the Revolution, as far as they can see, because its universalism reaches just a little too short to touch them.

*****

I started this blog in 2009 partly to share discoveries among researchers, teachers, and students of the French Revolution, and partly as a site of debate over what a “republic” could mean and should mean, if we assume that a democratic republic is the one best, legitimate way people can live together. If we assume that the Revolution of 1789-94 was worth it for France, we must also explain why. The Third Republic has been my standard reply: the revolutions of 1789-94, and 1830, and 1832, and 1848, and 1870 were worth it, I thought, because of the Third Republic that finally resulted and its policies (most notably the policies related to laïcité, general suffrage, workers’ protections, the welfare state, and free, compulsory schooling). I thought those kinds of policies were the best a country could offer its people for quality of life and civic harmony.

Six years later, I am no longer convinced that that answer is enough, and the trivia on display in Libération is a symptom.

Most importantly, I have been struck by the startling rise of racism and Islamophobia in France, and the equally powerful reluctance to talk about it, except among the young.

I think educated people agree that the most important product of the First Republic is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But we do not agree about how Muslims or other non-secularists might fit into that equation.

It is time to build ideas on how to adjust republican principles—of equality before the law, due process, and universalism—so that they will apply equally well to everybody who has the right to call himself or herself French. I have no right to say so, except that I feel a philosophical allegiance to the Declaration of Man and its ideals, and I cringe to see a country that I love and admire delude itself that a way out exists without involving Muslim citizens directly. I hate to see the French indulge in the racism and bigotry which have depressed my country for so long, and not strike out for some kind of resolution worthy of their revolutionary heritage.

Things have changed. Can the republic see fit to grow and adapt to the changing populations who live in France today? Or will it maintain the tensions and hatred that were once legitimate resentments inherited from past injustices, but which now look more like vestiges of past pain, dredged up to maintain the status quo?  Or worse yet, will erstwhile critics of France’s malaise continue to point fingers at The Man, when actually Everybody is incriminated?

Where are the French people?  Right in front of your eyes. Even if you don’t like the color of their …………….. (fill in here), or the way they ……………………….. (fill in here), they are your brothers and sisters now and you might as well get used to it.

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