An Australian in Paris
By Paul Belien
Friday, January 6, 2006
I just received this e-mail from the young Australian science fiction author Joel Shepherd, who recently returned to Australia after having lived in France for a while.
Some months ago I wrote some stuff on Instapundit about the French riots, you might recall. I also was writing an article on Libert╗ Ch╗rie, France's leading libertarian organisation. I was hoping the mainstream media might pick it up, but no joy... so I've put it on my blog instead. I learned some things writing it, I thought libertarian-minded people might enjoy reading it.
Here is Joel's article:
by Joel Shepherd, www.joelshepherd.com
France has been going down the tubes for years. Finding out why is easy – the French Statist, centralised system simply doesn't work in the modern, globalised world. Finding out how French people actually feel about this is somewhat more difficult. After all, if one couldn't believe three contradictory things simultaneously, one wouldn't be French.
My French teacher at the language school on Boulevard de Grenelle is well aware of the malaise. She's young, blonde and pretty with startling blue eyes and that effortless Parisien fashion sense that manages to make her look like a model while utilising only one or two accessories. Her favourite topic for discussion in class? ‘France en reinseignement'... or France in decline, broadly speaking. The politicians are crooked, the unions are always striking, the schools are no good, unemployment is terrible and the government doesn't give people any freedom. Clearly she loves her country, she's just annoyed that it doesn't always function as advertised.
A lot of young French people appear to feel the same. Whatever the traditional French disdain for private enterprise, commerce and business degrees are amongst the most popular university courses. Many graduates then leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere, the kind of brain drain usually found in poor developing nations. Everyone seems to want to learn English. Passports to success, it seems, are no longer trusted when they're issued by the state.
Now, however, that youthful disillusionment is driving a new force in France, a force that has been largely dormant since the Revolution. That force is liberty, supposedly one of the three great principles of the Fifth Republic (libert╗, ╗galit╗, fraternit╗). France being France, however, this new movement doesn't just come from the pragmatic impulse to fix the problem at hand. No, the founders of Libert╗ Ch╗rie arrived at liberty as the herald of French salvation because they liked the philosophy. As one does, if one is French.
Libert╗ Ch╗rie (liberty most-cherished) is a liberal think tank comprising of 2000 members in cities throughout France. It's far from the only libertarian organisation in France, but it is perhaps the most prominent. Neither is it a political party – rather it functions like an information and PR centre for the promotion of the concept and philosophy of libertarianism. The organisation's President is Aur╗lien V╗ron, a handsome 36-year-old who works for the bank BNP Paribas, runs his own small business, and somehow manages to find two hours more each day for Libert╗ Ch╗rie. At least two hours, he concedes with a wry smile, when we meet at a cafe for a chat.
Libert╗ Ch╗rie's first brush with fame came two years ago, during one of Paris's predictable general strikes that paralysed the city. Libert╗ Ch╗rie called for a counter-demonstration, against the strikers. A little publicity was expected to draw perhaps a few thousand people – instead, 80,000 exasperated Parisiens arrived. ‘We didn't keep very many,' Aur╗lien admits sheepishly, in excellent English. ‘We weren't very well organised, we only managed to take a few people's details. The rest went away after a short while.' But the newspapers noticed, and journalists have been asking Aur╗lien's opinion on various political matters ever since.
Aur╗lien may love libertarian philosophy, but he knows the key to attracting ordinary French men and women to liberty's cause is relevance. France is not entirely the nation it once was, and muttering unintelligible philosophical pronouncements over a glass of merlot with a marlborough in one hand and a pretty arts graduate's thigh in the other just doesn't impress people like it used to. The ‘╗lites', in France, are smelling quite bad these days. The recent European Constitution smelled very strongly of these elites, and the French public shot it down in flames. And so Aur╗lien spends much of his time for Libert╗ Ch╗rie thinking of new ways to get the message out that are relevant to the real concerns of real people.
“We don't have a history of libertarianism in France,” he says over his lemon-flavoured beer. “It is difficult to explain to people exactly what it means to be libertarian.”
And small wonder. For many French, ‘liberal' remains a pejorative. The French Revolution didn't just lop off the king's head, it enshrined the State in his place as the new sovereign. In some ways, perhaps, it was easier to kill the king than it was to kill the notion of kingliness. In France, someone is always in charge. Today, the bureaucracy is bloated and all-powerful. Bureaucrats rule their petty fiefdoms like little Napoleons, and the state regulates everything it can see. Welfare rules the lives of millions, and entrepreneurialism as understood in Australia or America is almost non-existent. People don't just go out and do things, people wait to be told what to do. The king is dead, long live the king.
Aur╗lien V╗ron has resorted to all kinds of things to try and sell the French population on his radical, not-so-new idea – personal freedom of thought and action. Aside from occasional rallies, there are flyers, leaflets, and media appearances by the dozen. He and his colleagues have even created a satirical board game – ‘Monopole Public' (Public Monopoly), which pokes fun at the incestuous and, in Aur╗lien's view, frequently dysfunctional world of French politics. But it's not easy to get peoples' attention in a country where neither the established ‘left' or ‘right' wings of politics are offering any alternative to statism, and where all the top politicians, bureaucrats and journalists are products of the same top schools, with the same opinions, and the same elitist dogma.
Assisting Aur╗lien in getting the message out is Libert╗ Ch╗rie's most well-known name and face in France – Sabine Herold, the group's spokesperson. It's easy to see why the media like to do stories on Sabine – she's young, articulate, definitive in her pronouncements of things she considers not just ‘wrong', but ‘stupid', and yes, extremely pretty. In the aftermath of Libert╗ Ch╗rie's first brush with notoriety, a journalist or two might have become somewhat carried away, suggesting this twenty-four-year-old business and politics student might be ‘France's Margaret Thatcher', due in part to her undisguised contempt for most of France's unions. But would Margaret Thatcher have supported gay marriage and legalised pot?
“To be a libertarian is not to be either ‘right wing' or ‘left wing',” Sabine insists when we meet on another evening for a coffee. “To be a libertarian means that you're for the rights of people to live their lives without the government interfering. In France, when two people are married, they are not just married by their priest, they first have to get permission from the local mayor. If they're gay, they won't get permission. We think it's stupid that people have to ask the mayor for permission to get married. Why should they?” Sabine's indignation on this point, and others, is very real. By removing the mayor and thus the government from the process, the reasoning goes, they will remove the government's right to block gay marriage.
On economics, Libert╗ Ch╗rie's ideals put them squarely in what we Anglo-Saxons would call the ‘right wing' – abolishing the hated ISF ‘wealth tax' which drives all the wealthy investors out of the country; abolishing further taxes on possessions and investment; dismantling the Common Agricultural Policy (farm subsidies) which accounts for 40% of the EU budget; and stripping down the industrial relations act, which at about 2000 pages is surely the stuff of John Howard's nightmares.
“Isn't there a certain romantic attachment in France to the notion of farmers and the land that would make dismantling the CAP difficult?” I ask Sabine.
“No, not really,” says Sabine. “They just have lots of very big trucks that they use to block the highways when they strike.”
Then there's those unions, and the legendary, paralysing French strikes. Well prepare for a shock – far from being a union dominated nation, France's unions only account for about 7% of the workforce, as opposed to more than 50% in nations like Denmark. In Denmark, business leaders praise the unions for their constructive attitude, and there are very few strikes. So what makes France different?
“There's no transparency,” Sabine explains. “We'd like to make them publish their accounts, like they demand of the private companies and their CEOs.”
“So where do they get their money from?” I ask.
“No one knows.” Sabine smiles, seeing my puzzlement. “We'd like to know. We think the reason union membership is so low in France is because the unions are held hostage to a few radicals, and a lot of their funding is illegal. If it were made transparent, the unions would have to look for other funding, which would mean broadening their support base and their membership. And that would make them less radical.”
“So you'd actually like to increase the size of the unions?” I ask.
“Yes, exactly.” Whatever would Margaret Thatcher say?
But Libert╗ Ch╗rie is not just economics and free choice. In foreign affairs, they'd like to see France form its closest relations with democracies, not dictatorships. And Sabine expresses herself horrified at the outpouring of anti-Americanism in France following the Iraq War (she proclaims herself in favour of the war, although it's clear the rest of Libert╗ Ch╗rie can feel free to disagree).
All of this sounds rather similar, in parts, to the known or inferred policies of populist golden-boy and current Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, the son of immigrant Hungarians, is widely expected to run against, and defeat, either Dominique deVillepin or Jacques Chirac in the 2007 Presidential race. But neither Aur╗lien V╗ron or Sabine Herold are impressed with the suggestion that the favourite for 2007 is already carrying the libertarian banner forward.
“He's Baby Chirac,” Sabine snorts. “He's too populist. He doesn't have the conviction to make the difficult policies.”
Here, of course, lies the rub for all French politics. For too long, ideology and dogma have triumphed over pragmatism. The French love a philosophy, or a grand ideal, and will quite happily follow it over a cliff in droves. They can't leave anything alone. Why eat food, when you can have cuisine? Why wear clothes, when you can sport fashion? Why just speak, when you can expound?
In French culture, this creative, decoratively utopian instinct makes for a sensual appreciation of life that has lured countless envious foreigners to France for many centuries, and God willing will do so for many centuries more. But in politics, it can be the stuff of nightmares. Modern politics are about compromise, but did Renoir compromise? Did Foucault? Napoleon? Monet? Sartre? The French have never been big on compromise, in anything. Compromise is for weak, shrivelled little imaginations incapable of comprehending the grandest possibilities. Thus, perhaps, the most definitive French politician is perhaps not Chirac, nor even de Gaulle, but Robespierre, who midwifed a Revolution with the best of intentions, and thought it so grand it became a terror, and then a bloodbath, that eventually added Robespierre's own head to its gruesome pile.
One can see hope in an organisation like Libert╗ Ch╗rie, but one can also suspect the seeds of its possible demise. Certainly France today could use a stiff dose of liberalism, but even liberalism, with a Robespierre at its head, could be as disastrous as anything that preceded it. Libert╗ Ch╗rie's young, enthusiastic leaders do seem largely aware of this, which is encouraging, but only time will tell if youthful enthusiasm will know when to step back from the brink. And whether the French public at large, sheltered by an unquestioning media that leaves the greatest French assumptions unchallenged, will come to share their enthusiasm anytime soon.
Paul Belien is the editor of the Flemish quarterly Secessie and the editor-in-chief of The Brussels Journal. He is a columnist at the Flemish weekly Pallieterke and at the Flemish monthly Doorbraak and a regular contributor to the Flemish conservative monthly Nucleus, which he co-founded in 1990. Paul can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other articles by Paul Belien, Brussels Journal