Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tangled Web: The Complications of Politicized Mourning

There is--there long has been--a troubling ambiguity about the word républicain in France. It has become a polemical term, a way of excluding on grounds of respectability or frequentability what cannot be excluded on legal grounds. Thus the Front National has been mis au ban de la République even though it is a legal party representing as much as 25 percent of the electorate. This exclusion was and remains a perfectly normal and legitimate part of electoral practice when it results in the resignation of the least well placed candidate of the "governmental" or "republican" parties in une élection triangulaire, an election in which 3 candidates make it to the second round. In that sense the idea of une république that does not encompass the entire population is one I would not contest.

The practice is more questionable, as I have already argued, when the word républicain is used to exclude from a national day of mourning, intended as a show of unity of the entire French people, the official representatives of a legal political party. It is of course true that the dead being mourned detested the Front National. But they weren't tender toward the rest of officialdom either, and no other party has been explicitly excluded. What is more, these dead, who are being mourned in the name of freedom of the press, will find among the mourners the representatives of countries where freedom of the press is less than fully honored: Russia, Turkey, and Gabon, for example. The head of the Palestinian Authority will also be in attendance. All this is perfectly legitimate, indeed welcome. One wants to see crimes against humanity denounced by as much of the human race as possible. If the Front National wishes to declare its allegiance to the decent portion of mankind, I don't see why it should be prevented. Certainly it can't be hypocrisy that is being alleged, since there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

And now for a rare word in defense of the president of the Republic. I have seen comments to the effect that while France and the world have reacted en masse to an attack on freedom of the press, the specific attack on French Jews has received less attention. Philip Gourevitch puts it this way in The New Yorker:
The attack on the press shocked the conscience of France and of the world. The attack on the Jews, not so much.
This may be true of the world but it's not quite fair to France. President Hollande made a point of saying in his address to the nation that the terrorists had committed a grave antisemitic act. Today, to underscore this aspect of the tragedy, he will go to the Grand Synagogue of France, which was closed yesterday, on the sabbath, for the first time since World War II because of security concerns. Given that laïcité is a core value of the Republic, and, what is more, a value defended with particular vehemence by Charlie Hebdo, this is not an insignificant gesture on Hollande's part. He is recognizing the particular pain of French Jews within the general pain of the French people. Since the essence of the French conception of republicanism is the uncompromising subsumption of the particular in the general, the symbolism here is worth noting.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Thank you. Excellent comment, very well said and absolutely correct. Praise for Hollande's synagogue gesture also most welcome. Time for others to recognise that plurality is fundamental in a democracy. (French News Online)

bernard said...

Well, given the disgusting statements today of both père et fille Le Pen, I wonder what the infinitesimal probability of them rejoining decency is.

Further, I note that President Hollande has at no time banned any French whatsoever from marching today, contrary to what your various comments of the past few days might lead uninformed readers to believe. What he has not done is accept to invite officially the Le Pen family to join French elected officials in our demonstration.

As for the issue of being shocked or not by the assassination of Jews, I would argue that there is a kind of misunderstanding. Taking my personal example, within a couple hours of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, knowing that the culprits had successfully fled, I wondered sadly how many days it would take for them to switch to attacking Jews. And I think many of us must have thought like that: we have come to expect unfortunately that terrorists will concentrate on Jews. So we were devastated but not shocked because this is hardly surprising: it's what you expect from terrorists. BTW Cohn Bendit had some very good words on this in his oped in today's special edition of Liberation. I suppose I am just a bit more pessimistic than he is on this subject.

My pessimism was however counterbalanced by the reaction of the entire French population today, which I could witness and participate in as I happened to be in France for a few days. Truly today, we were all cops, we were all Jews, we were all Charlie, we were France. That was very clear in this unprecedented, calm and resolute demonstration. I just hope it will last longer than the period of mourning.

Art Goldhammer said...

Bernard, You're being disingenuous. The leader of every other political party was invited. MLP was not. She complained to Hollande; he refused to do anything about it. That's exclusion, and there was no need for it, if only to call Le Pen's bluff that she is excluded. And yes, the response of France was heartening. It gives one some hope, though we've seen these moments of national unity dissipate quickly before, as in 2002.

bernard said...

I am not disingenuous, actually. The simple history is that there was a call by the "usual" left organisations to demonstrate, which was then extended to organisations of the republican arc (UMP etc.), and a call for all French (and immigrants) to demonstrate was issued. The FN, which we do not consider a member of the republican arc, was not invited. Then, President Hollande, in an unlinked but not separate move, called on all who wanted to come and demonstrate.

Now MLP et alii play offended that they were not invited (everything always has to revolve around them as you know) and are behaving in a way that will be unhelpful to their disgusting cause, that's fine with me. Personally, if the devil wants to join my dinner, I don't feel obliged to extend an invitation. The devil can dine by itself, looking at its image in a mirror.

Steve said...

On the subject of hypocrisy, I found this op-ed in the Post both interesting and distressing: