Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

La Liberte - Seminal Work of Delacroix

Two days ago, in France we celebrated la fête nationale (called in the US "Bastille Day), which in truth came in to being as the national day of celebration in France during the Third Republic, not following the French Revolution, the date chosen as a sort of compromise between the radicals and the royalists.

Most are familiar with the French motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (freedom, equality, and brotherhood) which was informally adopted at the end of the ancienne régime (and, likewise formally was adopted during the Third Republic at the collapse of the Second Empire). It now adorns most public buildings in France.

Though a tripartite, the elements themselves are not really understood by most French to be of equal importance.  Though all are of course central, the French seem to place much greater emphasis on the middle ("equality") and third ("brotherhood") elements.  

This is important to understand when talking to or about the French, as it is not really, in fact, possible to balance the three.  When freedom is considered, of course it is naturally in conflict with the other two.  Recall, for example, the cynical quip about banning people rough sleeping: the laws were "equal," as both rich and poor were equally proscribed from sleeping under bridges.

Likewise for freedom and brotherhood - if I am perfectly free to say or do what I like, that may mean I offend.

It's a critical and important difference between American and French understanding of 'freedom.'  Americans are much more likely to ask if you can say something, whereas the French are more likely to ask if you should.

This difference from time to time will come into focus, as it indeed did yesterday, when the a local tribunal condemned a former political candidate to nine months on a prison farm, a 50,000 euro fine, and five years' ban from political life for making ostensibly racialist remarks about Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

Anne-sophie Leclere, a former candidate at the municipal elections in Rethel (a town in the Ardennes in the north eastern part of France) for the Front National had made news when her Facebook page put, side by side, Taubira and a monkey, implicitly comparing the minister, who is black.

Leclere later tried to defend her reprehensible act by explaining that of course, she did not mean that Taubira was a monkey, and of course she has black friends.  But most observers are smart enough to put two and two together.

The incident was not the first such incident; a local satirical magazine last summer posted a photo of Taubira, who at the time was in the middle of a couple of very nasty, high-profile fights to reform (in the view of many, relax) criminal penalties with the caption:

Maligne comme un singe, Taubira retrouve la banane.

The weekly "Minute" was forcibly pulled from kiosks and fined for violating laws against racial attack.

The decision of the courts to place Leclere in prison was quickly condemned by Marine Le Pen, the head of the Front National, as a sort of "ambush" by the powers-that-be, who are quite obviously un-nerved at the growing influence of the FN.  The FN, is a populist political party that began as a thinly-vieled racist, xenophobic, and openly anti-Semitic group, but has over time tried to purge itself of the most ostentatious racists (including founder Jean Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen) and to co-opt the anger and fear of middle and lower middle class voters who in the past have been supporters of the Socialists.  The FN, to the dismay of many opinion-makers in Europe, captured the most votes in the recent EU parliament elections, and are now seen as a legitimate threat in the 2017 national elections in France.  Le Pen asks the question of whether yesterday's ruling is not a pre-emptive move by the powers that be to try to restore a political order.

But for me as an outsider living in France, the more fundamental question is this: as reprehensible as the comments are, is it really best to make them illegal, and to put those who use them in prison?  To ban them from standing for election?  

As someone who admittedly brings the lens of an American understanding of freedom to the discussion, I would answer that the action is inappropriate at best, and stupid (and ultimately futile) at worst.  The whole point of free speech is that it protects ideas we find offensive.  It's incredibly easy to stand up for the rights of others with whom we agree.  Is it really, for example, a defence of liberty to say that we support the rights of people to declare that they like ice cream or sunshine?

A famous line attributed (wrongly) to Voltaire is that one may disapprove of the comments of another, but that one will defend to the death the right to make them (in fact, written by Voltaire's biographer).

Conservative icon William F Buckley once quipped that liberals are fond of saying that they defend the rights to have other opinions, but are then shocked and offended to discover that there are other opinions.

While I value brotherhood, pretending that ugly ideas don't exist is not a talisman against them, and pushing terrible ideas underground does not make them go away.  

Certainly, France is a free country, and I (and others) generally do not fear that Hercule Poirot - or for that matter, Inspector Cluseau - is waiting to put us in irons for making offensive statements.  But in this sense, as the French have obviously made a different bargain with respect to the balance of freedom and fraternity, it is somewhat less free than the US.

And after all, it's worth noting that the phrase "liberté, égalité, fraternité" once contained the closing phrase "ou la mort."

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