France: The need for a truly democratic Republic – A state of the French Nation very similar to the Australian one

I copied this article from the French independant online newspaper Mediapart, written by its founder and translated to English by Michael Streeter. This article gives a perfect synthesis of the current affairs in France, in all points similar to what is going on in Australia. I believe that this article should be widely spread out and I hope not to get any copyright problems by posting it here. This article will be a very good introduction to my next article about the emerging  peaceful revolutionnary movements in France.

Support the French newspaper by reading the original version here

President François Hollande and his ministers seem determined to press ahead with their intelligence and surveillance bill which will give wide-ranging powers to the security services and police. It is the first time in more than half a century in France that a left-wing administration has been party to such a retreat from democracy. Instead of extending existing freedoms or creating new ones, the current government is following in the tradition of right-wing administrations, extolling the virtues of secrecy, refusing debate, acting in an authoritarian manner and handing greater powers to the hidden world of intelligence and surveillance, without offering any serious checks and counterbalances in return. Ahead of a day of protest on Monday May 4th against the bill, Mediapart’s editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel argues that all the time that the nation’s highly-personalised presidential system of government remains in place, France will continue to suffer from politics that lack true democracy.

Democracy is just an empty word if it is simply reduced to choosing our elected representatives every five years. This is even more true in France where those representatives are humiliated by a presidential system in which they are subject to the goodwill of a single individual, to automatic Parliamentary majorities and enforced obedience. To confront the complexity of the world and its challenges a living democracy needs a permanent debate that favours Parliamentary majorities based on ideas, and it demands strong counterbalances that are respected. Such a democracy also requires a relationship with society that is not reduced to public relations propaganda, and which instead backs the assessment of its citizens, their knowledge and grievances that come from experience.

If there is one furrow that the Left, in all its diversity, has always claimed to plough since 1981, when it enjoyed a settled period in power with the election of president François Mitterrand, it is certainly that. Yes, it might disappoint on social, economic, environmental and European issues, but at least it could claim to be extending individual and collective freedoms. The abuses of power seen under President Mitterrand – from telephone taps ordered by the Elysée to the Rainbow Warrior affair – did not deter the Left from this path, indeed those events strengthened its resolve to do more in the domain of freedoms and rights. But the current socialist government, under its president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls, marks an end to this ambition. Barely four months after the citizens took to the streets on January 11th following the Paris terror attacks to show support for the freedom to say, act and think, the government is using those attacks to blackmail the people, exploiting fear to restrict those very liberties. They are planning to put society under a generalised surveillance and in so doing force it to tow the line, to submit and obey (see Edwy Plenel’s previous article on the new surveillance law here).

At a stroke, January 2015 has been transformed into September 2001; a terrorist event leading to a security crackdown. The current surveillance and intelligence bill marks not only an unprecedented break with the political history of the Left over the past half-century, it is also an unprecedented blow for the very future of our democracy, whatever the governments of tomorrow. Without consulting or listening to society and without hearing the widespread protests of its citizens, a slapdash and rushed law voted through as a matter of urgency now risks giving the government, through the secret services and the use of digital techniques, a completely free hand in checking on individuals, their communications, whom they meet, their convictions, their ideological persuasions, their particular interests.

The government’s indifference, even scorn, towards the protests – for example the collective protests of the human rights watchdog the Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme (CNCDH) or the digital freedoms watchdog the Observatoire des Libertés et du Numérique (CECIL) – is testament to more than just blind stubbornness. It shows a profound retreat from democratic convictions on the part of our socialist leaders, and highlights their nervousness about divergent voices, their appetite for secrecy, their authoritarian inclinations, their fear of debate. The surveillance and intelligence bill confirms a backwards step that had been signalled by other unprecedented attacks on freedom of opinion with the anti-terrorism law at the end of 2014 and the planned law on racism, and also attacks on protesting and meeting, as seen in the banning of events.

But this demise of the democratic ideal can also been seen in the way Parliament is being railroaded, for example through the use of a constitutional device – article 49.3 – to push through a bill on economic reforms without a vote, in order to silence opposition. It can also be seen within the ruling Socialist Party (PS), whose current first secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis – who has still not yet been elected by party members – refuses a debate at the party conference in June with factions that are critical and who, in his New Year’s message, called for a united front that would put an end to all dissident opinions, imposing an almost militarist state of mind on the party. The weakening of the attachment to real democracy can also be seen in the addiction to secrecy over issues of public interest and money. This is shown, for example, by the lack of transparency in the selection of heads of various public media organisations by the media watchdog the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), whose own boss is appointed by the head of state alone.

Meanwhile, it would be hard to spot any advance at all in the area of freedom of information since the election of François Hollande in May 2012, even though we are in an era in which the digital revolution offers so much scope for participation and information. While France still lacks a fundamental law on the citizens’ right of access to all public information, along the lines of the freedom of information legislation in the United States and Britain, the government here has become obsessed with demonising the internet, its marketplace without frontiers, its social networks and the way citizens express themselves through it. The executive behaves as if it owns public opinion, fearing the “open to all” democratic ideal which today, finally, is able to stake its claim – without anyone needing privilege of circumstances, wealth, birth, origin or qualifications…

Even worse is the fact that, though it intends to place our private and intimate secrets at the mercy of state surveillance, the current government has continued to reinforce the secrecy that protects the established order, political as well as economic, against the legitimate curiosity of the citizens. Thus the previous government’s extension of national security secrecy to cover industrial sites and internal intelligence has been left in place by the current administration. In the same way the promise of a law that would genuinely protect the secrecy of journalistic sources, unlike the current law, has constantly been pushed back in the Parliamentary timetable, under pressure from the government.

This government, too, has been keen to impose with some force the protection of business secrets which, if it came into being, would prevent all fearless investigation of the damage caused by capitalism and the abuses of its bosses. It is clearly no accident that this priority features in the latest report of the Parliamentary intelligence authority the Délégation Parlementaire au Renseignement, whose membership includes Jean-Jacques Urvoas, the socialist MP who is overseeing the passage of the surveillance bill through the National Assembly. This report, in which American whistleblower Edward Snowden is described – or, rather, slandered – as a “useful idiot serving the interests of terrorist groups”, opens with a quotation in praise of spies from the not very democratic Napoleon Bonaparte.

This was the Napoleon who was a fierce opponent of freedom of the press and who dreamt of a France where there would be “just one party” and who would not put up with “newspapers saying or doing anything against our interests”. The Napoleon who symbolises the dictatorial approach against whose heritage the Left that advocates freedoms and social and democratic rights has always fought. The Napoleon who has now become the point of reference for the zealots in the current government.

Politics of fear and a state of emergency

Authoritarian Bonapartism would not have disowned the recent remark by the president of the socialist group in the French Senate, Didier Guillaume, a close ally of François Hollande, who attacked those whom he said “quibbled” over the question of freedom when faced with the threat of terrorism. The most troubling aspect about this episode was that the comment did not attract more outrage. For when concern for democracy becomes a secondary issue for the nation’s elected representatives in this way, it leads to a mindset that argues for a state of siege or emergency, for the idea that special powers are needed. This can, through blindness, resignation or indifference, lead to the very worst abuses in democracies that have become weak – as the United States experienced after 2001 and as France saw after the Algerian war of independence.

Just like the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), which was in government in the 1950s and which lost its way to the point that it lost all honour, this current government is turning its back on democracy as an ideal that is always incomplete and as a demand which must always be renewed. One could endlessly cite the thinkers on democracy, including the most moderate, who illustrate the intellectual heritage that is now being frittered away. French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville feared the “soft tyranny” of a democracy where “the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again” while “an immense and protecting government rises up, which alone takes charge of guaranteeing their pleasure and looking after their fate”. It was early 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson who recalled that democracy “came into the world as a protest” while “the formula of a non-democratic society would be ‘Authority, hierarchy, fixity’.”

The former French prime minister Pierre Mendès France also talked about “that ‘soft tyranny’ of which Tocqueville spoke” towards which “biased information, an initially moderate repression, special courts or, at any rate, courts made compliant, ambiguous legislation which will progressively be interpreted and deviated from, police provocations and intrigues, insidious attacks on freedom … lead imperceptibly”. As far as Mendès France was concerned, this temptation of soft tyranny is indelibly linked in France to the “personalisation of power” which, by encouraging “the Nation to believe that everything will be resolved by one man, without it intervening, choosing and deciding itself,” abandons democracy “to one layer of society, to an elite, to a vanguard”.

In more recent times the French philosopher Claude Lefort has thought of democracy as a place of conflict, contradiction and different voices rather than of conformity, obedience and homogeneity. The sociologist Edgar Morin upped the stakes with an appeal for “participative democracy” in the face of a representative system that is “losing its vitality”, which moreover is marked by a major “devaluation of political thinking”. The French historian Pierre Rosanvallon wants to see what he terms “complex sovereignty” with diverse and pluralistic political authorities that would allow the “increase of society’s influence in the political process”. In contrast, the election alone of representatives who are, moreover, themselves subject to the untrammelled power of just one of their number – the president – marginalises and dispossesses society (read Mediapart’s interviews, in French, with Pierre Rosanvallon here and his criticism of the surveillance bill here).

Most recently the constitutional expert Dominique Rousseau called, here on Mediapart, for “continuous democracy” in the face of an institutional system, that of the Fifth Republic, which has become “dangerous” in that it places governments in a “situation of political autism” where the power of decision and political responsibility are disconnected. In essence, it has become a “democracy without the people”, where the changes of direction of a president who has freed himself from the mandate that was bestowed on him – to the point where he no longer carries out the policy programme on which he was elected – are not subject to any endorsement at the ballot box.

These are not new problems. But after the hysterical approach of the Sarkozy presidency, the Hollande presidency under the government of prime minister Manuel Valls has dashed the hopes of the electors in 2012 and, far from solving the problems, has made them worse and institutionalised them. Faced with its failures and unpopularity, the presidency has chosen to show disdain for people’s alarms and hopes by opting for the easy solution: the politics of fear, which uses the terrorist threat to install a de facto state of emergency. This is not too strong a term to describe a state where the executive has extended its secret prerogatives in a disproportionate way by shielding itself from judicial procedures and press investigations.

With the same ideological blindness that the American neoconservatives showed, this government has transformed a fight against terrorism into an endless war, police detective work into a military challenge, a targeted crackdown into a general mobilisation. Rejecting a complex appreciation of the world, the government has opted for a simplistic, warlike approach which simply divides the world into friends or foes. By doing so it puts itself in conflict with its own society, with all its ethnic diversity and cultural plurality, fearing the working classes as dangerous classes and its unruly youth as a threat.

Saving the Republic as a place of democratic hope

Turning its back on the historic struggles of the Left against reactionary ideologies that sacrifice the ideals of freedom to the illusion of security, the surveillance bill aims to make official the “punitive society” that French philosopher Michel Foucault foresaw in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1973. This is a society, explained the philosopher, where “the system of permanent control of the individual” is like “a permanent test with no endpoint”. The philosopher stated: “It’s an investigation that involves general suspicion and the individual, which allows constant control and pressure, the following of an individual in every step they take, to see if this person is stable or unstable, orderly or restless, normal or abnormal.”

This generalised surveillance is a weapon of ethical and political coercion. By depriving an individual of the secret aspect of their independence, they are being invited to conform to the dominant norms, to never rebel, to keep to their place, to submit and to obey. “Private is in secret free,” stated the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), a definition whose political range extends beyond just the intimate issue of privacy. To keep our interior world away from the power of the state is the first condition of future freedoms. If we want not only to remain free but, above all, to invent new freedoms, we have to preserve from all state intrusion that space where we can think on our own and in our own way, think differently and contrarily, and where we can stand back and think outside the conventional.

The National Security Agency (NSA) documents revealed by Edward Snowden show that this question of democracy is what is really at stake over mass surveillance, and not the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism, which serves as a pretext. Far from being narrowly focused, this surveillance targets all and sundry, including friendly governments, foreign companies, commercial rivals, rebellious journalists, citizens who protest, dissident ideas and so on. The threat becomes blurred and as a result the suspicion becomes a general one. Instead of putting the democratic potential of the digital revolution at the service of society, it is being confiscated for government use, with the complicity of major commercial organisations. From now on whoever holds power will possess this knowledge, using for their own ends this all-seeing system of information, while the citizens’ right to know will be fettered, endlessly coming up against defence or business secrets that are protected behind barricades.

Anyone who still doubts the dangers of this downwards spiral for society and its political freedoms should read American lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s account of the Snowden affair, No Place to Hide (Macmillan). Basing his views on the NSA’s archives, he responds to the question of just how a surveillance state is dangerous. “All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about,” writes Greenwald. “Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience, and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being ‘left alone’, is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.”

When it comes to the press, whose freedom serves the citizens’ right to know, the current surveillance bill is a direct threat. Caught between public relations propaganda and secret service spying, the truths that, in the well-known phrase of the pioneering French investigative reporter Albert Londres, “stick the pen in the wound,” will find it ever harder to make themselves heard in public, or even to be heard at all. The remit of surveillance, as defined under article 1 of the bill (its final version, in French, is here) covers, without exception, all the sensitive investigations carried out by Mediapart, whether they involve foreign diplomacy, economic issues or domestic politics. Karachi, Gaddafi, Dassault, Tarnac, Sivens, Bettencourt, Cahuzac, arms sales, the pharmaceuticals industry, banking institutions and so on: all the revelations that have made our reputation could have been shackled by this generalised surveillance, without even considering the fact that in France the lines of enquiry that these investigations open up also involve the heart of state power, the presidency of the French Republic.

We will be confronted by the argument that journalists, just like judges, lawyers and Parliamentarians, are explicitly excluded from the scope of surveillance. But that is untrue, as the text gives the prime minister (who is nominated by the president) the right to authorise all “intelligence gathering techniques” on a journalist under a discretion of which he is the sole arbiter, as under the bill the opinion of the supervisory committee is simply advisory. Having been a witness to (and victim of) the Elysée telephone tapping scandal under the presidency of François Mitterrand, I know from experience the extent to which such controls are fragile, even futile, when the government itself asks the questions and gives the answers. Requests for surveillance are doctored, pretexts are invented to document them, people hide behind the secrecy of national security, the already inadequate or uncritical supervisory bodies are misled, and if, by chance, the plot is discovered, rapid efforts are made to concoct some slanderous tale to justify the unjustifiable.

The history of France has accustomed us to governments of the Right, conservative by reflex and authoritarian by habit, attacking freedoms. Yet it was not a hopeless situation, as the left-wing opposition became an alternative by rejecting this “permanent coup d’état”. So when a left-wing ruling majority in turn gives way to this reflex, with the zeal of converts and with the support of the Right, it represents an even greater disaster. To fight against the surveillance and intelligence bill is not just about rejecting widespread surveillance. It is also about saving the Republic as a place of genuine democratic hope.


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