Sunday, January 11, 2015

Vive la France!

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.