If the fundamental principles of American democracy are based on the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, nothing should better embody the French democracy than these three words, the motto of our Republic: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. First used in 1790 in the middle of the French Revolution, they represent the idea of a harmonious society, a society where, according to the Declaration of the Rights of Men and the Citizen and Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Men and the Citizen, “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (Liberté and Egalité) and where they “do to others the good they want to receive from them” (Fraternité).
Now, 222 years later, those principles have become entrenched in our political subconscious. We cannot imagine and tolerate the thought of seeing our individual freedoms taken away from us. In fact, the list of these freedoms has grown over the years: freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to protest, and the right to go on strike. Similarly, it is hard for us to accept any attempt to take away the equality of all individuals in front of those rights. And we are very aware that our brotherhood, our solidarity, is the oil that allows our society to function. To cut a long story short, France is now one of the most democratic States in the world and any attack on those democratic principles would cause its people to protest.
Or would it? The idea of equal rights has always been subjective. France was one of the latest democratic countries to recognize the women’s right to vote in 1944. Today’s debate about everyone’s right to “marriage” in the case of homosexual couples deals with a similar issue: opening common rights to everyone “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” to use the phrasing of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Men from the United Nations in 1948. Meanwhile, the core of today’s politics consists of lobbying politicians in order to obtain exemptions from the law or favors from the State.
But Egalité is surely in better shape than Liberté. The end of the 20th century had seen great progress in terms of liberties. The libertarian movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s only vanished to leave place to the neo-liberal movement in the 1980’s and 1990’s. For both economic and social policies, it was a time of deregulation. Freedom of information, freedom of the body, and freedom to travel all drastically increased, at least in the democratic world. But the free individuals became scared and the same democratic world is experiencing a drastic setback: less freedom for more security. For this security, we are now stepping over the fundamental rights of the individual: from authorizing waterboarding in the United States to creating special tribunals to fight crime in France, there is always a good reason to infringe on individual freedoms when it comes to security.
And even then, Liberté is a great deal better than Fraternité. The last three decades have given birth to the most individualistic societies that democratic systems have ever experienced. In this society, the success of the individual has clearly taken over the good functioning of society in the definition of our policies. We had an evident application in France during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. One of his first decisions was to cut taxes for the wealthiest citizens. Meanwhile, he reformed the systems of retirement pensions, asking the average worker to wait two more years before being able to retire. At the end of his term, with the help of the economic crisis, the gap within the French society between the better off and the worse off had grown by dramatic proportions.
This is where Fraternité is at stake. In times of crisis, a nation is supposed to face difficulties united, to share the burden. That is what happened during the Great Depression: everybody was facing a challenge: unemployment for the workers and bankruptcy for the entrepreneurs. After the Depression and World War II, systems based on solidarity were built in Europe in order to prevent the same social catastrophe that had caused the war. Now, the situation is different, as the crisis has not affected everybody in the same way. While Europe is still dealing with massive unemployment and debt, the stock exchanges are back up. The poorest are coming out of the crisis with more difficulties, while the wealthiest were left almost unaffected.
In France, this difference of treatment undermines the unity of the nation in the same way as the difference of outcome undermines the solidarity with the European Union. As the result of this individualistic society, the better off complain more and more when it the time comes to contribute for everybody and pressure the politicians into reducing the mechanisms of solidarity. The belief that the success of individuals is more important than the functioning of society is in discordance with the Fraternité that constitutes the French Nation. This raises the following question: what society do we want? Will it be “Every man for himself and “let the best man win” or will we manage to compromise with individual interests in order to allow each person to live a decent life? This answer is up to us.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.