“The French copy nobody, and nobody copies the French.”
That’s a line (as quoted by my girlfriend) from the legendary radio show “Car Talk,” and of course the topic was cars. The “Car Talk” guys were saying it’s ill-advised to take your Peugeot or Citroën on long drives through the American heartland– not because they’re bad cars, but because French automotive engineering has always gone its own way, producing its own weird designs. If you break down, your car will bewilder all but specialized technicians.
As anyone who spends time in France can tell you, that’s not just an automotive attitude. France is different all the way through, in culture, institutions, and social relations, and the French work hard to keep it that way– how many other countries have state-sponsored agencies charged with ensuring that foreign words don’t sneak into their language?
Which makes it both funny and sad that French culture these days so often pushes exactly the opposite idea.
More and more, the talk is about universalism, the idea that there’s only one set of ethical values, one form of human reason, one human community. Of course there are other voices in France, but this is the language you hear from opinion-makers and power-players– the mainstream media, government officials, many university professors. In France the term of art for this line is “Republicanism”– meaning (as far as I can tell) that you get to believe any crazy shit you like in the quiet privacy of your home, but once you’re out in the public sphere, the Republic, there’s a check-list of basic principles you have to buy into, or you’re not really one of us.
And the principles aren’t limited to things like “drive on the right,” “don’t kill,” “don’t steal,” “use the subjunctive properly”– the practical agreements that make any society livable. “Republicanism” makes much bigger demands than that.
Of course Exhibit A here is the famous clamor about kids wearing headscarves and other religious symbols to school; that effort has occasionally included girls getting sent home because their skirts were TOO LONG and thereby carried a stealth religious message.
But beneath these zany, easy-to-laugh-at particulars, there’s a larger worldview that’s not so funny.
Here for instance are some lines from a recent editorial in Libération, a center-left Paris daily that speaks for the governing Socialist Party and its voters– teachers and professors, many categories of government workers, thoughtful technocrats, the kind of people who’ve successfully navigated the French educational system. The writer is Libé editor Laurent Joffrin, about as establishment a journalist as you’ll find, and he’s writing in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo march of January 11:
“It’s now clear … that many of the French, especially in the impoverished suburbs around the big cities, are moral and social dissidents within their own country. Some of these young people… refuse to join in the general sorrow, and they question our common references. They heed identitarian and religious commitments alien to democratic values…. We have to fight an intellectual battle. The prophets of decline, the anti-modernity Jeremiahs, the identity fanatics have had their own way for too long, all the while presenting themselves as victims of conventional thinking. Conventional thinking, according to them, consists in the ideas of liberty and progress. We’ve put up with this for too long. Values are not relative, varying by cultures or religions; cultural identities … can’t replace the patrimony of reason. Values are universal, as are the rights of man. Those who preach in favor of closed-off communities or religious fundamentalism, like those who prefer religious revelation to rational deliberation, like those who want to break with Europe and internationalism in favor of an outmoded idea of France, don’t just commit a crime against intelligence. They’re attacking the country’s interests and its future.”
The abridged version runs: Dissidence, not joining in, pessimism, certain flavors of religious belief, and over-strong communal attachments are off limits. Relativism is bad and moral absolutism good, but it’s got to be the right moral absolutism– there are a lot of wrong ones out there, so be careful. No complaining about “internationalism” (not clearly defined, so we have to guess what’s included– the IMF? NATO? TTIP?) or the euro. You’re expected to believe in progress and the primacy of reason. Anything less constitutes an attack on the country.
“Republicanism,” I’m saying, is becoming its own creepy form of authoritarianism.
As a leftish progressive, Joffrin thinks he understands the forces that produce dissidence and disaffection — poverty, an under-funded school system, economic policies that crush young people’s hopes. It’s the old line, embodying the classic ambiguities of compassion; if you don’t buy into mainstream opinion, you’re probably a victim of social pathologies. You’re depraved because you’re deprived. You need help; your dissidence has nothing to teach the rest of us.
Of course, all this has a long history in France, going back at least to the Revolution’s campaigns to stamp out peasant dialects and superstitions, and continuing through the “civilizing mission” of French colonialism.
But that’s the point. The collapse of imperialism is supposed to have discredited the idea that there’s one reason, one value system, and that “we” know what it is and can teach it to others. We’re supposed to have learned that the Africans, Asians, and Native Americans had a point when they resisted Europe, that they were defending something important when they hung on to old belief systems. We’re not supposed to want the homogenization of the world’s cultures.
In the globally-dark days of the 1950s and early 1960s, France pioneered that kind of anti-homogeneity thinking. It was where you found anti-imperial protesting, just as it produced the bad-boy songs of Georges Brassens, the hard questioning from Michel Foucault, and, yes, the crazy auto technology of the Citroën DS; for a time it even dumped NATO.
Whatever happened to those guys?