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

On Eric Hazan, French turmoil, and doing something to keep the spirit of 1789 alive

Check out the latest interview with Eric Hazan on the Verso website, then read on.

What can you say of a man whose work is sometimes inspiring, and whom you’d like to admire for his long and principled life, but …  I have to admit I have a problem with people like Hazan who don’t vote and claim it is some sort of civic act.  Or incite people to think of making others “vanish.”  Revolution did happen so you could vote! And so we could avoid violence in public affairs.   Democracy demands that we believe it matters, remain informed, and make elections count. France does have deliberative processes by which change can happen without violence. When Hazan speaks of “thinking about the means of insurrection,” and dismisses the ‘intermediate stages’ such as “election of a constituent assembly etc.,” what exactly is he encouraging?   The ambiguity is irresponsible.

After reading the Verso interview, I think it only fair to give a “tip of the hat” to a group in France which is trying to bring about change from within the system, using the tools inherited from the revolutionary past, for the better.  They are called Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr .

A personal note:  My admiration for the ideals of the Fr Rev (plus having kids come of age) has led me to start teaching a weekly class of writing for children, which I’ve been doing since 2012. It seems so puny and insignificant next to the “revolutionaries” calling for “insurrection” or “vanishing” of institutions.  But equality is my personal dream, and giving underprivileged kids a way to speak and be somebody is my chosen method.  My wish for all of us is peace, and to have a chance.   What is yours, readers?

How Does it Feel to be a Revolutionary? Hari Kunzru seizes the day.

Hari Kunzru my-revolutions

No book captures so passionately the effervescent anxiety of revolutionary action better than Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions,* a book I just discovered by chance.  Should be required reading for any student of revolution of any period.  It is one of those books you have to put down now and then, simply to make the experience last longer.

Consider the passage below, which relates the thoughts of an underground group of young activists during the build-up to their most radical phase.  It begins with a reproach against violence, and ends with … well, you’ll see.

Q:  Your gesture is infantile.  The revolution will be led by the working class.  A terrorist is just a liberal with a bomb, arrogantly presuming to lead the way.

Rubbish.  You’re covering up your cowardice with quotations.  Change is imminent.  It’s happening around the world.  The slightest pressure will tip the balance in our favor.

One spark, a thousand fires burning.

We were so impatient.  We wanted the time to be now.  Of the core group, only Matthias and Helen remained seriously troubled by what we’d done.  We were supposed to be protesting against war.  Surely a peaceful gesture would have been better?  I accused them of fetishizing nonviolence, telling them they’d just internalized the state’s distinction between legitimate protest and criminality.  Leo and I were censured for our individualism, but the logic of confrontation did its work.  By the end of the meeting, everyone was in agreement.  We would go further.

*Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions (New York: Plume / Penguin, 2009), 173-74.

A whirlwind week for revolution watchers

This has been a whirlwind week for revolution watchers world-wide. Ukraine remains unstable, Syria is flashing into red-hot crisis-mode, and now there is the Hong Kong situation or the “Umbrella Revolution” unfolding before our eyes!
Not to mention the mock demonstration mounted by Chanel during Fashion Week in Paris….

Karl Lagerfeld leads a demonstration Paris Oct 2014

As seen in the photo, from the October 1 New York Times, Karl Lagerfeld led a group including Gisele Bünchen holding a bullhorn through a fake city street set up in the Grand Palais. The placards announce, “Boys Should Get Pregnant Too!” “Tweed is better than Tweet,” and “Be Your own Stylist.” (A couple in the back are in French but illegible in the photo.)
Perhaps the most obnoxious is the one announcing, “Be Different!”

Really, Chanel?

Is that the most politics you can muster?
Whatever happened to the feisty French spirit of engagement or solidarité?

The mock demonstration of Lagerfeld et al. is tasteless, weird, and one might even say crudely irresponsible, given the many injustices encountered daily in France, and the legitimate revolutions trying to stay afloat these days, and whose freedom-fighters could use some support. Check out the photo of the protesters in Hong Kong, from the same day’s paper.

Hong Kong Protesters October 1 2014
Consider the words of Martin Lee, whose article in today’s New York Times provides riveting reading. He begins, “At the age of 76, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the prodemocracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear…”
And especially read this part: “What would be worse, of course, is if the mandarins in Beijing conclude that global censure is meaningless, that over-reacting with tear gas and violence against peaceful protesters will cost them nothing but a few weak protestations from the world community.”

Hey, readers from the world community, that means you! that means us.

Christmas in Kyiv, by Alexandra Fedynsky

Tires in Kyiv summer 2014

EuromaidanThis article, about recent events in Ukraine, is one in a series by a young friend and student of French at Notre Dame, Alexa Fedynsky

I first visited Maidan in December 2012, just in time for New Year’s Eve. Snow covered everything. My brother and I struggled against the cold each time we ventured outside. Despite the bone-chilling weather, people were preparing for the upcoming holidays as they do year after year. We had to push our way through the throngs of people on the metro, bicker with shop owners for various goods, and wait in line with fellow tourists to visit monuments. On one of our excursions, we saw an advertisement for a Maidan concert to ring in the New Year, which was to feature many famous Ukrainian bands, most notably the singer Ruslana. We arrived just in time to hear her sing, and after her show she counted down from ten kicking off the New Year. At the stroke of midnight I was surprised to see, after a brief moment of hugging and cheering, everyone standing straight and singing the national anthem of Ukraine. Despite the social atmosphere of the evening, people displayed the pride they had for their country, forgetting the festivities for a moment. The concert then proceeded as normal: more rock songs, dancing, and champagne drinking. The next day I flew back to America feeling the pride of Ukraine. Staring out the window onto the green Ukrainian countryside, I knew I wanted to go back.
One year later, the Ukrainian government was getting ready for Christmas again. Government employees began to set up the giant Christmas tree in the middle of Maidan, along with tinsel and ornaments. However this year’s “celebration” was to differ greatly. By setting up this tree, the government strove to disperse the massive crowd which had gathered to protest against President Yanukovych and his failure to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Instead of government workers setting up holiday decorations, protesters took charge, throwing flags and banners across the scaffolding. Around this time began the whispers of nightly attacks by the Berkut, the special police force of Ukraine. In response, people set up barricades around Maidan and Khreshchatyk, using tinsel and decorations as part of the foundation. These barricades withheld most attacks, even withstanding the bloody weekend of February 21, where the Berkut murdered over 100 protesters. After this bloodshed, the president fled, and Euromaidan seemed to be a success. In a symbolic, as well as fearful gesture, the tents and barricades stood until well past the inauguration of the new president–a remembrance not only of the lives lost but also the common struggle the Ukrainian people have shared for centuries.
I arrive this summer, with barricades all around. The smell of ash engulfs people walking up the stairs from the metro. Pedestrians watch where they step, the sidewalk missing large sections of cobblestone. During the revolution, protesters had picked up the stones to throw at the Berkut. The giant Christmas tree scaffolding, strewn with flags and banners of support, imposingly stands in the center of Maidan, surrounded by large green army tents. These tents maze through the entire Maidan, as well as a good portion of Khreshchatyk, the stakes hammered into the concrete of the street. Narrow pathways wind around the tents, mostly empty except for the occasional “protester.” The people there now represent various demographics, from the stranded Eastern Ukrainian unable to return home, to the overly-emphatic Western Ukrainian student, to those who leech off the self-sufficient city. Few cars drive down the once busy street, the tents taking up almost all of the road. Despite all of this, I still sit for a nice lunch right on Maidan–ironically a Crimean restaurant–where service is completely normal only a few months after the tragic events of both Maidan and the Crimean takeover. Tourist sites remain open, allowing me to see the inside of the grand St. Sophia for the first time. In the midst of important events, be this New Years celebrations or a life-changing revolution, daily life continues. In spite of this tragic event the hope of freedom and happiness remains, clear in the conversations and interactions among people. And one day soon, the crowds around Maidan will gather, singing the national anthem of Ukraine, both as a sign of unity and once again, celebration.
Christmas in Kyiv Summer 2014

The difference a review can make

Book reviews are not necessarily an author’s favorite choice for late-night reading. But last night, caught in the grips of pre-back-to-school insomnia, I happened to stumble upon the review of The Frankenstein of 1790 by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, in Modern Philology (2014): E001-E004. I have never met Katarzyna Bartoszyńska nor set foot on the campus of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, where she works. But as I pondered, weak and weary, if I still have the stamina to meet the expectations of college teaching again this fall, her words were a wonderful boost. She clearly had taken the time to read the whole book, and she accepted the invitation I extended to readers, to seek out other traces of the revolutionary legacy today, wherever they may be found. A note on recent events in Ukraine (see related interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot) accomplished my hopes–that the book would incite readers to take my findings and plumb the stories for what they may teach tomorrow’s readers, about the power of words to keep revolutionary hopes alive.

So I’d like to say thank you, young colleague, for giving me back the energy I thought I might have lost.

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