Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The French crisis V

There is an inability to imagine more than one possible future today in France, explaining the weakening of political decision-making in the country, writes Tewfik Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

In my previous columns I have tried to say many things. First of all, a proper understanding of the ongoing situation in France requires a good analysis of the crisis of the traditional way of doing things – the republican model – which bets on the ability to create a common French identity regardless of religion or ethnic origins.

Many people think this formula is ill-adapted to the massive arrival of migrants with vastly different cultural backgrounds who do not like the “French way of dealing with religious issues,” for instance. This says that individuals practise their religion at home, and people who mock religion have the right to express their views, two ideas that are considered by many migrants as a way of favouring those with no religion. Such migrants may also have problems with the permissive atmosphere in France, which they consider to be a threat to their identities and to their daughters, though not only to their daughters.

Others, however, say that this republican way of doing things should be trusted, as its virtues are obvious – it is thought to be the only way to create a common French identity and to set up a public space in which everybody can find a decent place. Moreover, France fought long and hard to curb and neutralise the power of the church, such people say. It should not now let people who claim to speak on behalf of Muslims stealthily impose new forms of religious power. The republican model says that in France one community alone is legitimate – the national one. However, many beg to differ, being committed to other sub- or supra-national communities.

 It is important to bear in mind that most of those who advocate the defence of the republican way – homogenisation through school, the defence of a staunchly secular public sphere, and a dislike of “communitarianism” – or who do not like the European Union are neither racists nor fanatics. Many are not even right-wing. It is possible to be a leftist on political and economic issues, while being a conservative on social ones. It is not necessary to be a loser, or poor, to dislike projects that want to replace the republican model.

It is not even necessary to think that the multiculturalist project brings nothing relevant to France or to consider it to be a dangerous project that is ill-suited to France’s traditions and that could create serious or unforeseen difficulties by naively presuming that all ethnic and religious identities can smoothly coexist without problems or deal in similar ways with matters such as gay and gender issues. It is possible even to appreciate some of the virtues and advantages of multiculturalism and of the European Union. It suffices simply to strongly prefer the traditional model.

Simply stating that the system has to adapt to newcomers also simplifies the issue. The school system would face serious problems even if the population were homogenous. There is a major crisis of authority in Europe and in France, and the school system needs to confront this, though it may be too late to cope with it.

The French sociologist Marcel Gauchet once more or less said that new forms of education assume that the child is free and autonomous and that schools should focus on not impeding the child’s natural development. This is an astonishingly wrong premise: A child is not born free and autonomous, and a baby cannot live and survive alone. A child has to learn how to be free and how to be autonomous, and this requires skills that paradoxically cannot be transmitted in the absence of authority, or at least of the right methods. This has nothing to do with newcomers. Basically, Gauchet seems to say, the school system has weakened its ability to transmit anything, whether traditional or reflecting a multiculturalist ethos.

Much the same thing is true of the nation-state. This is in crisis, and the therapy recommended by some, the European Union and a multiculturalist agenda at home, seems frightening and undesirable for a lot of decent people. Many of those who have legitimate concerns tend to think the agendas they do not like have weakened or are on the verge of destroying the nation-state and the republican model. They tend to overlook, or to forget, that the therapy, while controversial, is not the only cause of this weakening and is definitely not the main one.

The rise of the welfare state, while contributing to social peace and the stability of new forms of capitalism, has had the unexpected effect of making the population and the different social classes less coherent and weakening the principle of political representation.

The most important social relationship today is the one that ties the state to individuals bearing rights. Members of the French political class almost never say “the French people” today, but instead talk about “the French.”  

One young French scholar once told me he had been struck by the fact that the Egyptians are “one people.” In Egypt you meet “the Egyptian people” and not “Egyptians,” he said. But when a French individual needs to resort to collective action, he does not go to parliament, but instead turns to militant groups.

An unexpected piece of collateral damage to the collapse of Marxism and the former Soviet Union was the ability to think differently about the future. Despite all the talk today, the future is both unknown and inescapable: There is no option but capitalism, at least not in Europe. Both the human rights and the multiculturalist agendas, which differ on many points, try to hide this defeat, saying that there is now no longer any need to change society, just to try to make it more palatable.

Both Gauchet and the French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff have written important papers on the immeasurable impact of the “demise of the future.” One impact that has been overlooked is that the weakening of the future also means the weakening of political decision-making and its relevance. Decision-making and the ability to conceive different futures are closely linked.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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