Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: France

5 lessons from the French elections

1. The post-war political arrangement has broken down. For the first time, the Socialist and Gaullist parties were both absent from the second round of a presidential election. This means that France is the only major country where the parties of left and right have been pretty much wiped out, removed from the political scene. (The Gaullists came third but were nearly pushed into fourth place by a leftist party formed only last year, while the Socialists scored a paltry 6%). Throughout the election campaign, there was a great deal of instability, with parties rising by 9% in the space of a month or two, or falling correspondingly. Fourty-four percent of the vote was gained by parties formed in the past year. This wipe out of left and right is about time: it has been well known that these labels meant little for the past 20 years or more. It is in principle a good thing that the illusion of ‘zombie parties’ has been removed.

2. There is a public hunger for political representation. All the candidates were forced to respond to public exasperation with the political system and appetite for something else. One watchword of the election was ‘ras-le-bol’, an expression of being fed up, someone who has had it up to here. All the candidiates had to play the card of being outsiders and against ‘the system’, however much they were in fact part of it. There is a palpable political tension: a feeling that the current set-up is unbearable and has to change, and a desire for people’s concerns to be represented in the public sphere.

3. This sentiment has not yet found an adequate form of expression. The names of the parties in this election read like something out of a revolutionary uprising: ‘France Unbowed’; ‘Together!’, ‘The Republicans’; ‘France Arise’. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’, or ‘Forward!’, has now cranked it up to become ‘La Republique En Marche!’ for the legislative elections. But this populism is largely a question of dressing up, mouthing words, with members of the political elite changing names and parties and putting on new costumes. The inside of the book is different to the cover. Emmanuel Macron’s best-selling book is called ‘Revolution’, but the inside is full of bland Blairite homilies. The Front National, meanwhile, has settled for a pick-and-mix of policies, embodied by the fact that it wants to have the euro and franc circulating simultaneously.

4. The French elite remains stable. Macron and Le Pen have accused each other of being part of the establishment, which of course they both are. (Macron calls Le Pen ‘l’héritière’, the heiress, while Macron was educated at the prestigous elite school ENA and is a former minister). The cohesion of the French elite and state has always been more important than that of the volatile party system. This is why many Gaullists and Socialists have been flexible and rallied around Macron, offering their services for the legislative elections and ministerial positions. He is similarly pragmatic: he won’t even force them to leave their other party in order to stand for his. So even though the French elite is showing signs of corrosion, it remains stable in comparison to Britain.

5. The most significant shifts are the establishing of the Front National, and the rise of the ‘vote blanc’. FN: With nearly 11 million votes, the Front National won more than double its score from the 2002 second round. The party’s appearance in the second round was neither a surprise nor a shock: the FN is now an established part of the political system. Since Macron doesn’t really have a party (he is advertising for candidates on the internet) this means that the FN stands as the primary developed political force in France.

Votes blancs: Meanwhile, blank or null votes in the second round reached a record level of 12%. There are ‘vote blanc’ movements, which pose the casting of a blank vote as a political statement (‘I want to participate but the options you propose don’t suit me’). In a way, the blank vote is perhaps the most adequate expression of the anti-system feeling and the inchoate desire to be represented. The blank vote sees through the fake slogans and says these are not what it is looking for, but it doesn’t withdraw or not bother. Someone made the effort to go to the booths; they wanted to vote, but refused to affirm any of the options available. Ultimately, the the blank vote points towards the future – to the development of political forms that are adequate to public frustrations and desires.

Terrorism and the crisis of Western culture

Islamic terrorism has no positive meaning or drive in itself. Instead, it is merely a negative, shadow form, an externalisation of the vacuum within Western culture and societies.

The defining feature of Western jihadis is their complete disdain for the places they are from: for their families, neighbourhood, country. They see their country as a nowhere place, somewhere they stand completely outside of and hold only in contempt. Their radicalisation is an activation of this negative orientation towards their home, a definitive cutting of ties. The attacker of the Paris Kosher supermarket branded his nine sisters ‘infidels’, and said that ‘for me, religion comes first, I don’t give a damn about family’.

This is not a religion in any classical sense of a practising community. There was a radical Islamic mosque network in the 90s, but today’s jihadis are deracinated and individualised, existing outside of community or institutional forms. As the Islam expert Giles Kepel says: ‘They situate themselves in rupture with society and shut themselves away…they fabricate their own beliefs and practices’.

This, then is the basis of the jihadist identity: not Islam as a thing in itself, but only an Islam held in a pose of hostile conflict with Western culture and society. Islamic observances are an adjunct to the attack, and not the other way around. Two of the Paris attackers only started to pray and stopped smoking dope in the weeks when they began to prepare for the attack. The cousin of the organiser of the Paris attacks was shown in a headscarf flashing V’s at the camera: the headscalf is the accompaniment to the V’s and not a sign of religious devotion.

To be in the state of jihad, of oppositional identity, becomes their new ‘place’ and their new grounding. ‘Since I began with religion that has always been in jihad and I knew that this was my place here’, said one of the other attackers.

This process is suggestive not so much of exclusion, but of the lack of a positive pole into which they might be included or excluded. The Conservative French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said that he had been assimilated as a young Polish Jew through an education that ‘introduced me to a world older than myself’, to a philosophical and cultural tradition (1). This inheritance was not specifically French but European or civilisation-culture: you had to really know your Plato.

Now, says Finkielkraut, there is a turn against ‘old school’ culture, the self-dismantling of a cultural inheritance. The teaching of French language and literature is reduced in favour of ‘preachy eco-citizen and practical interdisciplinary assignments’. The position of the teacher is ‘de-intellectualised’ and seen as a facilitator rather than a transmitter of knowledge. To assimilate is to maintain the connection with a cultural tradition, says Finkielkraut: ‘today we break it, and the same dissaggregation strikes native French as new arrivals’.

The self-negation of Western culture is not a genuine New School. The left-wing philosopher Alain Badiou laments the equal loss of the ‘revolutionary tradition’ in France, which was first republican, then socialist, anarcho-socialist, communist and leftist. The new order is not radical or libertarian, instead it has a nothing quality, illiberal but devoid of values or content. It amounts to a cultivated non-attachment to values and a particular self-distancing from the works and history of Western civilisation.

It is only in relation to the non-place of Western culture that the jihad is something and attains the status of an obligation. One jihadi’s phone had an image of the Eiffel tower up in smoke, and the message: ‘Oh France! We are coming, prepare yourself for bombs and assassinations on your territories’. It is now ‘we’ against ‘you’ and ‘your country’. They plant their feet in a war-torn desert and point to say they will kill kuffirs ‘over there’. The owners of a Brussels bar return to Europe to shoot at people sitting in bars.

The form taken by Islamic terrorism has become increasingly arbitrary and fragmented over time. The attacks of 9/11 were the structured negation of the West, an attack on the military, political and economic centres of American power. The attackers were highly trained and disciplined, part of a hierachical organisation and following orders. It was the organisation that sent their plane tickets and paid for their flight training.

By contrast, as Giles Kepel observes, the attackers on the Jewish supermarket and the Bataclan behaved like ‘wicked adolescents’ playing video games (2). They have the moeurs of criminals or hoodlums, without ‘ideology or grand doctrine’. The terrorist act has become arbitrary, DIY: any act of violence or destruction can be pinned with the flag of jihad. They source and pay for their own weapons and plan their own attacks, often badly.

Much had been made of the ‘professionalism’ of the Paris attackers, but this should not be overstated. They apparently under-specced their suicide belts such that they failed to kill anyone in blowing themselves up: the ‘attacks’ at the Stade de France basically amounted to a series of Islamic extremist suicides. One would-be bomber bauked and abandoned his suicide vest in a Paris suburb, while the ‘mastermind’ allowed himself to be found by police at the same flat the team had used to hide out.

If 9/11 was the structured negation of Western culture, contemporary terrorism is the immediate negation, the arbitrary and nihilistic turn against Western culture and society. It is less and less distinguishable from plain gangsterism or events such as the American school shootings. One European Isis fighter announced that European Muslims should ‘kill anyone’ they can get their hands on back at home. Two of the Paris attackers independently used the same phrase to describe their actions – to ‘make everything explode’ – suggesting the undirected nihilistic impulse.

The black flag is used to give a universal and historic guise to lone operators acting on impulse against the things they do not like (such as Jews), or acting out petty resentments, such as the US Christmas dinner shootings or the Muslim employee who decapitated his boss. Workplace disputes are transmuted into the terms of some grand religious clash, whereas they in fact remain in all their banality as a workplace dispute. The abstraction of an ‘IS attack’ is stuck like an afterthought on violence of the basest particularity.

In this context, there is an equal inutility to repressive and appeasing measures targeting Muslim communities. The French government is currently preoccupied with an effort to strip French nationality from dual-nationals convicted of terrorist offences. Do they really think that terrorists care about their carte d’identité? He who wants the Eiffel tower up in smoke would gladly add his ID card to the bonfire, and indeed this is perhaps what the bonfire is about.

Meanwhile, the appeasing measures are even worse. There is a pedagogical discussion about ‘having the conversation’ with Muslim students after terrorist attacks – i.e., how to tell them that the attacks were wrong. If you cannot tell them that then you cannot tell them very much. Education experts are developing methods of ‘engaging’ Muslim students, for example teaching them to critique the conspiracy theories that are common in their ranks. One exercise involved setting the students a conspiracy theory assignment, designing a world-wide plot linking their French teachers and the CIA. This ‘engagement’ is only an encouragement down their disintegrative lines of thought. What is actually required with Muslim students is to have something to bear before them, something bigger than themselves.

Islamic terrorism is the self-negation of Western culture appearing in an external form: as a hostile, foreign force existing in a state of war against it. Their strength, their belief, is only the inverse of our lack of belief.

This situation makes clear the sacrifice that has been made: when a civilisation gives up on its values there are consequences. It doesn’t seem that serious, day to day, when the curriculum is being dismantled or cultural non-attachment is being cultivated. Discussions occur in smart conference halls with coffee breaks. It doesn’t seem that serious when museum officials judge that dusty old objects are ‘irrelevant’. But now we can see what it means: it means Palmyra in ruins, machine guns in concert halls.

Who dies now defending civilisation? The archaeologist who died defending Palmyra, perhaps he is the only one. The different aspects of civilised life should be pursued again with the status of an obligation. We should replace the self-negation of Western culture with its self-affirmation – not as an anti-terrorist strategy but because this is what is of value and true.

(1) Le Un, No 88, 6 January

(2) Le Un, No 84, 25 November

French ‘state of emergency’: the irrationalities of arbitrary power

The thing that separates a gendarme with a tricolour on his shoulder from a militia member with a gun, is that the gendarme is supposed to represent the law.

The thing that separates a modern state like France from pre-modern or retrograde political authorities is that the French state is supposed to embody rational principles: it acts where necessary to preserve the state of liberty.

Now the French state is responding to a terrorist attack – the embodiement of irrational force – by extending the arbitrary powers of state authorities. As with America and Britain before it, the ‘security’ agenda in response to terrorism amounts to the extension of arbitrary powers as an end in itself.

There appears to be a notion that the more latitude given to police authorities – the more latitude to enact surveillance, to put electronic tags on people, to confine them to residences, to ban events – the safer everyone will be.

President Hollande’s declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ was a performance in reassurance, the gesture of asserting state authority. By extending powers he says: I am in charge, things are under control.

Yet all that has actually happened is that the administrative parts of the state have been unleashed to use their force as they please. For the next three months suspects can be confined to their homes by an administrative order, searches and raids can be carried out without legal authorisation, and local prefects have summary powers to restrict the movement of groups or particular individuals, banning local events or declaring curfews.

‘In another context, I would be the first to condemn such a proceedure’, said the socialist president of parliament’s legal commission. There were some murmurs of dissent but a general view that this was not the time for questioning or for argument. The vote on the enactment of the state of emergency was 551 votes for, 6 against, and one abstention. Such majorities achieved without debate indicate the rubber stamping of administrative edicts not the enacting of laws.

An article on the leftist magazine Rue.89 argued that this amounts to ‘legalisation of arbitrariness’, and noted that ‘state of emergency’ powers were used in the Algerian war to arrest thousands of supporters of Algerian independence and inter them in camps.

The Rue.89 article points out that Hollande’s law allows someone to be confined to their home on the basis of ‘serious reasons to think that their conduct constitutes a threat to security and public order’, a condition which is ‘much vaguer’ that the Algerian war version which targeted ‘activities’ rather than conduct. Which radical political protesters could not be targeted under these powers?

Indeed, a Le Monde investigation of some of the 118 people confined to their homes finds that one man’s fault lay mainly in the fact that he had twice driven a radical Islamic preacher to the airport. The man describes how 12 police officers arrived at his house and said: ‘We have something for you to sign.’ The documents seen by Le Monde included a mix of correct and incorrect facts about the person’s ‘connections’, but were mainly based on the simple assertion that the person represents a risk to national security and is intent on joining jihadist forces in Syria.

‘They are taking people randomly to make examples of them’, said one confined man. Another said ‘They didn’t have anything to write, they charged me for the sake of charging me, to be able to tell people, “look, we’re doing something”.’ The lawyers who accepted these unfavourable cases said that the reasons for confining people to residence were ‘often obscure, or indeed unfounded’, and that the ‘rush to punishment plunges us increasingly in a zone of non-droit where we risk conducting ourselves like our aggressors’.

Now there are parts of France where people live under curfew, or where demonstrations are banned (though some are going ahead in spite of the prohibition). Events that have been cancelled on mayoral order include Lyon’s Festival of Light and Nancy’s festivities of Saint Nicholas.

Yet the French state’s inability to prevent the Paris attacks appears to lie in the failed use of existing powers, rather than for want of new ones. Several newspapers have criticised intelligence agencies’ failure to pick up on movements of the key suspects – many of whom were known Islamic extremists, and not because they once drove an iman to the airport – and indeed authorities were tipped off by an Islamist in August that Abaaoud (the Paris ringleader) had asked him to ‘attack a concert hall’.

The pressures of today are not, in fact, those of the time of the Algerian war. There is no civil war or threat of a coup, and the powers of state are not threatened. Dealing with terrorist action falls within the normal domain of police function. Perhaps the police need different skills, or more resources, but their task remains one of normal police function and not dealing with a crisis of state. Therefore they can perform this task with the normal judicial equipment.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens provides a ringing statement of the proper function of modern criminal law:

‘The law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society. What is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered…No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement, except in cases determined by law… All who promote, solicit…or cause to be executed arbitrary orders, ought to be punished’.

Bien dit!

It is worth remembering that these controls upon state power do not only protect public liberty, but also guide state action towards effective ends. That is, legal protections exist not only to protect the public from arbitrary sanctions, but also to guide law enforcement down rational and effective lines. This applies for the pursuit of terrorists as much as for other areas of public service.

When 12 police officers are employed to deliver unsubstantiated accusations to an innocent person – who then has to report to the police station four times a day, taking their own and officers’ time – this represents the use of state force for a gesture, for the sake of it, which in fact distracts from the apprehension of terrorists or the routing of future attacks.

Charlie Hebdo: The crisis of the public sphere

Charlie Hebdo embodied the spirit of the early public sphere: the negative-critical consciousness, which questions every authority and holds nothing sacred. This is the scurrilous, anarchistic principle that defined the early French Revolution, with its sudden explosion of critical pampleteering and obscene caricatures.

The universality of Charlie Hebdo‘s targets is shown by the fact that anti-Islamic Michel Houellebecq was mocked on the front cover the day the editorial team were shot for insulting Islam. This is satire pursued with a kind of Socratic diligence, revealing the pretensions or limitations of every position.

Such anarchistic universal irreverence was characteristic of the early public sphere, but has now largely been eclipsed. Therefore, Reason magazine is correct when is says that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t representative of a general culture of liberty, but rather its solitary bearers.

The attackers, by contrast, who were Parisian born and bred, did not represent some strange and foreign principle, even as they employed barbarous and extraordinary methods. Instead, they were enacting a principle that has become a mainstream, even constituting part of public life in Western societies.

This principle is the way in which the use of coercion has become an ordinary way of relating in public life. Virtually every interest group now invests the primary part of its energies in seeking to ban or restrict its political opponents. Gay rights organisations become organisations for the prohibition of homophobic opinions, just as Islamic organisations invest their energies in prosecuting anti-Islamic points of view (including Charlie Hebdo).

Indeed, French republicanism itself has increasingly been defined through the suppression of ‘anti-republican’ points of view or symbols. The debate about republican identity takes the form of definition by exclusion. This is why over the past decade there has been a growing restriction on the Islamic veil. Jacques Chirac said there is ‘something aggressive’ about the veil, and politicians heralded the niqab ban as ‘constitutive of our collective history’, a ‘founding principle of our republic’ . Left liberals now call for a ban on the headscarf in private crèches, which they say ‘puts collective life in peril’.

On the other side, French republicanism is also defined by the exclusion of the National Front (who were in effect barred from the Charlie Hebdo march on Sunday), as well as critics of Islam. In 2012, then foreign minister criticised Charlie Hebdo for ‘provocation’ of Muslims, and recently foreign minister Manuel Valls criticised Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Soumission about the Islamic takeover of France. Yet Manuel Valls was himself sued for ‘provocation of discrimination and hatred’ for comments he made about Islam in 2013.

This dynamic of offence-coercion is a universal and reciprocal way of relating: everybody is trying to prosecute or ban everybody else. In this sense it is distinct from previous forms of censorship – such as obscenity, blasphemy, or sedition – which were about enforcing dominant mores against a minority.

There is a way in which any particular political position cannot bear the existence of its opposite, and experiences any criticism as an unbearable ‘provocation’ and offence. But at the same time, its own position is only defined through the act of coercion exerted over its opposite. One’s own identity, one’s own position in public life, is increasingly defined only through the attempt to suppress opposing points of view. Only through the suppression of an opposing view is one’s own view given shape.

This routine use of coercion – to the extent that it becomes one of the primary ways of relating and of arguing – short-circuits the public sphere. The public sphere which formed in 18th century England and France consciously disregarded relations of status or economic dependence, which stood one person over another. The new public composed of private persons, as Jurgen Habermas says, met as equals, the ‘parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy…’.

Now, when people meet in debate they are always trying to stand one over the other. Censorship occurs through non-violent means of court cases, online petitions or twitter storms, but there is a violence to the use of coercion which ultimately seeks to eclipse a person or a publication from public life. The plaintiff seeks not to counter an argument in the independent realm of public debate, but to annihilate the argument with which they do not agree, to deny it the right to exist in the public world: to withdraw or destroy a publication or to imprison a speaker.

There is a way in which the terrorists enacted this principle of coercion through violence by their own hands. With Islamic extremism, the dynamic of offence-coercion is mediated through a consciousness of otherness: people who feel themselves to be outside of and hostile to mainstream society. The offence-coercion dynamic is experienced not as a relation between individuals or groups within a society, but between Muslims as outsiders, and that society. So they feel themselves to be their own authority, to do with their own hands and guns what others may seek to do by judicial means. They sought the eclipse of their adversary in fact, firing the shots that left dead bodies: ‘we have killed Charlie Hebdo’.

In the attacks, we see how these men – weed-smoking petty criminals and irregular mosque attenders – constituted their faith primarily through the act of violence against critics. In these terms, their Muslim identity is primarily founded on the eclipse of the ‘insulters of Islam’; it is through the act of violence that they constitute their faith.

Therefore, the truth of events is in some ways the opposite of the way it appears. There is an appearance of the unity of society against the terrorists, everyone is Charlie, whereas in certain ways it was Charlie Hebdo who were the marginal figures, representative of an outdated public spirit, and it was the terrorists who represented the mainstream principle of coercion, albeit in extraordinary and barbarous manner.

On the French radio station France Info on Sunday an artist said that it amused him to see so many ‘hommes politiques’ who have ‘nothing to do with liberty’ lining up in the Charlie Hebdo march. Others noted the presence of Islamic groups who had sought to take the magazine to court, as well as the statesmen of countries without a free press.

And yet in the spontaneous demonstrations of support for the magazine there was something of the nascent sensibility of the public sphere: a sense of ease, conviviality, face-to-face dealing with fellow citizens. In France these demonstrations sprung up in small towns and regional cities as well as Paris. The revival of public spirit should be the correct response to events. That is, not to further restrict the internet, or to limit French citizens’ right to travel overseas – as some are suggesting – but to eclipse coercion from the sphere of public debate.

Another interviewee on France Info said that the demonstrations wouldn’t change everything in themselves, but they would provide a benchmark, something by which people could be held to account next time they called for a publication to be banned or a group to be taken to court. ‘You can hold them to account for the things that they have said today.’ In this respect, we should start with the 54 people being charged for the offence of ‘apology for terrorism’, including the comedian Dieudonné who briefly posted a satirical message on Facebook mocking the Charlie marches.

Are we really all Charlie? If so, this would mean nothing less than the reconstitution of the public sphere in Western societies.

%d bloggers like this: