Tough times– some more thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

These are tough times for those of us who love France. The Charlie Hebdo shootings would have destabilized any society, but they carry an extra punch in one that’s usually as peaceful and orderly as France. An extra punch also because of the historical context: ethnic and cultural tensions have been rising there for years, and authoritarian voices have been getting louder. The Charlie events are sure to speed up those trends.

But in some ways it’s the response of France’s governing elites that’s been the most depressing part of the story, and that raises the biggest questions.

You probably already know about the craziest example. Three days after France’s president led millions of marchers honoring free speech, his government arrested the comedian Dieudonné for “glorifying terrorism” in a Facebook post. The post? “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly”– not exactly a call to holy war or ethnic hatred. I don’t know what Dieudonné himself had in mind, but I read his post mainly as an expression of empathy for the dead.

Dieudonné’s only the highest-profile arrest over the past week. As of Tuesday the police had already hauled in thirty-six others for “glorifying terrorism” and seventeen for “threatening” it; by Wednesday noon, the total had reached sixty-nine, and it was expected to keep rising. The perps include a drunk driver who shouted about the Charlie gunmen while being arrested, a twenty-one year old who expressed his endorsement of the killings while riding the streetcar (for that, he’s already been sentenced to ten months in jail), and two teenage girls who threatened a streetcar conductor.

The French government is also going heavy on the military option, sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier toward Iraq, where it will help the US bomb ISIS. As it happens, it’s the Charles de Gaulle, named in honor of the French president that Charlie Hebdo’s title also commemorates– de Gaulle had closed down the magazine’s previous incarnation, and the editors used his name for their new venture just to piss him off.

So to sum up: France has arrested a comedian, some drunks, and two teenagers, and it’s started bombing another Muslim country. Does anyone believe these efforts will make the country safer or heal its internal divisions? Could the ISIS PR department imagine a response that would better validate its claims about the West?

Of course we Americans expect these kinds of moves from our own leadership. Since 2001, we’ve bombed a long list of Muslim countries. We don’t normally arrest people for statements like Dieudonné’s, but we do fire them, as in the Stephen Salaita case.

I expected better of France. Not a better level of political ethics– French states-persons have always prided themselves on their toughness and readiness to ignore political pieties– but more serious thought about what’s going on in the world and how to respond to it.

My faith rested on the defining qualities of those French elites I mentioned at the start. For the last century or so, France has made a sincere attempt to create a meritocratic society, in which the smartest and the hardest-working run things. Pretty much from day 1, French kids take a long series of competitive examinations. Those who do well move through a series of high-intensity schools, and eventually end up in top positions all through society. There are no legacy admissions or athletics scholarships in French higher education, no extra points for volunteer work.

The state plays a big role in the process. It sets the standards and provides the schooling, more or less for free, right through the French equivalents of Harvard Business School and MIT. Among top students, government service is an expected, widely admired career path, and so also is a certain breadth of humanistic culture. A few years ago, the famously abrasive, business-friendly Nicolas (“President Bling Bling”) Sarkozy created a minor scandal by describing his school-boy dislike of the seventeenth-century novelist Madame de Lafayette.

It goes without saying that there’s always been plenty of corruption mixed in with the meritocracy– cheesy deal-making, self-interested definitions of merit, big privileges, revolving doors.

But both ideals and practical arrangements in France encourage something better. French leaders aren’t expected to be lowest-common-denominator, NASCAR-watching regular guys basking in their ignorance. They’re supposed to have been tops in their classes at the best institutions; they read real books and travel, and they know foreign languages. Many hold lifetime civil service positions, so they’re not thinking about next year’s reelection campaign or about careers as lobbyists.

So what does it mean that when the going gets tough, these smart, cultivated, cosmopolitan leaders act pretty much the same as their yahoo American analogues?

There’s a range of possible answers, some of which eerily track the standard explanations of Islamic radicalism. There’s the possibility of outside influences: maybe Americanism really has taken over the western world, to the point that France has now adopted our political reflexes, just as in the 1950s it adopted our Coca-Cola. Or there’s the “it’s-baked-into-the-culture” explanation: maybe the universalistic, Enlightenment beliefs that are so central to Frenchness bring with them intolerance of alternatives, just as critics have charged for years.

Or it may be that intelligence, study, and cultivation just doesn’t count for as much as we professors like to think. When the big social and political forces hit, maybe the best and brightest are just as lost as the rest of us. Maybe the guidance has to come from other sources, from fundamental ethical and political commitments.  When those weaken, maybe intelligence, study, and cultivation don’t help.

Like I say, tough times.

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