Thursday, April 14, 2005

France, Her Républicains, and Her Republican Values

Whenever French politicians insist on their dedication to democratic values, they proudly declare themselves to be 'republican' — a word which has taken on so many meanings it has become almost meaningless
writes Graham Tearse, the editor of Expatica France, as he discusses the "republican values" (valeurs républicaines) that are ubiquitous in the speeches of France's political life.
La république variously alludes to the French as a nation, France as a country, French institutions or even its government — but rarely the political system of a republic, which France shares for example, and one is tempted to add 'unwittingly', with the United States.

Privilege and abuse of power are, to varying degrees, elements of everyday life in every country in the world. George W Bush and Tony Blair have done their best to discredit the theory that political democracies constantly evolve towards the eradication of abuse of power, while in France there is a pretence that it has long been legislated out of the system.

The notion of the republic and republicanism is of course rooted in the French Revolution of 1789, when one of the world's most powerful royal families had their heads chopped off, supposedly to usher in a society based on liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Instead, it actually led to a continuation of the same, in a different guise.  Republican titles, like Monsieur le Maire or Monsieur le Ministre, replaced those of the nobility — even to the degree that former prime ministers and presidents, the nouveaux monarchs, are for life addressed by the title of their temporary and briefly-elected position.

This tradition becomes more than a little comical in the case of former French president Valérie Giscard d'Estaing, predecessor to François Mitterrand and the man more recently tasked with drawing up the European Union constitution; snobbery motivated Giscard's family into changing its common name by grafting on the noble-sounding "d'Estaing". Thus the one-time president of the republic carries in pretence what was once the name of a French noble family.

The irony of it all is that Giscard's family aspired to gain the social respectability of the hundreds of once-noble, but still mainly elite, families — identifiable by the particule of 'de' something or other — and who include that of President Jacques Chirac's wife Bernadette.

The endemic corruption in French institutions, as illustrated by a decade of judicial investigations and press revelations concerning the most astounding abuses of power in a western democracy, has flourished under a society so based on power and favour that Marie-Antoinette herself would not have felt out of place had she been re-incarnated as, say, former Socialist prime minister Edith Cresson.

Cresson served under Mitterrand, whose own disturbing confusion about the validity of democratic accountability saw him dubbed 'The Sun King'. As with all French presidents, Mitterrand engaged vast sums of public money building memorials in advance to his self-perceived glory, like the library which carries his name, in the same style as the ancient kings of France. In the case of Mitterrand, the circle was drawn with his building of the pyramid in the former royal palace that was once the Louvre.

While it may seem obvious that having a monarch as head of state, as opposed to an elected politician, is essentially un-democratic, it is unfortunate that a country like France maintains a popular myth that the 18th century storming of the Bastille has left it in 2005 with institutions as accountable as those of, say, Sweden.

Indeed, polls on accountability and corruption regularly show that the kingdoms of Scandinavia, say, have far more of the former and far less of the latter than republics such as France and Italy.
What is important is that a nation recognises democratic principles as its own and tackles the storm of change with these unfaltering convictions, and not as slogans to be used for political expediency. It's often not an easy process, and it only survives through debate, through consultation, with an equal dose of modesty and respect for others.

The defiant cry of "je suis un républicain!" appears to have as much meaning as "a length of rope", and we all know what can happen when you have too much of that.

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