The French Socialist Party (PS), in an attempt to claw back some attention, respectability and perhaps even a little grandeur, recently organised a rally in Paris called (impressively) “The Spring of Freedom“. Chaired by the First Secretary of the PS, Martine Aubry (Photo:Left) the meeting followed Ségolène Royal‘s equally grandiose “Rally for Fraternity“, which was held last September. This time, though, it seems that, in the face of the rather dingy realities of today’s economic climate, the abstract noun – usually so effective in drawing French crowds – is losing some of its magic. Only about 1500 militants showed up in a venue built to house twice that.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité or (lest we forget) Death.
Working its way through the potent nouns that make up this country’s national motto – indeed, its very identity – the PS is attempting to lay claim to France’s revolutionary heritage and at the same time, draw the political discourse away from the pragmatics of the economy and towards more abstract territory, where it feels safer.
“Our struggle,” Aubry announced yesterday. “Is to make sure that equality and liberty go together.” («Faire rimer égalité et liberté, c’est cela notre combat») To help enlighten those who may be baffled by the intangibility of this objective, the PS recently published a book entitled, “La France en Libertés Surveillées” (“France: Liberty Under Surveillance), which condemns the Sarkozy government’s perceived attacks on civil liberties, within the domains of parliament, the police, the judiciary, immigration and the media.
Those looking for some hard facts may be a little disappointed by this 166 page document. The opening sentence, a quote from Montesquieu‘s “L’ Esprit des Lois” (The Spirit of Laws) sets the tone: “To prevent the abuse of power ’tis necessary that by the very disposition of things, power should be a check to power.” («Pour qu’on ne puisse abuser du pouvoir, il faut que, par la disposition des choses, le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir.») Ségolène Royal, who is quick to point out in her blog that she did not help to write this pamphlet, admits that the freedoms in question “are still there but…they are slowly being taken over (“mise sous tutelle”).
What emerges from all this is not so much a conflict of policy but of philosophy. We are seeing here the opposition between two notions of freedom, one being pushed by Sarkozy and his like and the other being defended by his detractors. In his work “Two Concepts of Liberty” Isiah Berlin defined these opposing notions as “positive” and “negative” liberty. Put simply, the idea of positive liberty is the possibility for an individual to attain the goal that he/she has set or to pursue his/her desires unhindered. In this view of the world, the individual is empowered and liberty is a form of power. The other concept of freedom is the provision of a space in which the individual may thrive without being bothered by others. It is simply the absence of coercion or molestation. France has a long and entrenched attachment (which predates the Revolution) to the idea of positive liberty, while in the Anglo-Saxon world we champion the rather less glamorous version. Paradoxically, it was an eighteenth century Frenchman who best formulated the differences between the two: “The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment … it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale.” Claude Adrien Helvétius.
So it is that when his enemies refer to our Sex Dwarf as “Sarko the American”, they are not only alluding to his shameless materialism and his philistinism, but also to his dangerous susceptibility to the Anglo-Saxon vision of what it means to be free.