Reason or openness? The French Paradox

By Cather­ine Fieschi.

If you want to car­ry out an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment, go out to din­ner with some of my French com­pa­tri­ots and coax the con­ver­sa­tion toward a dis­cus­sion of ‘open soci­eties’. Any­where else in the world, you would be sit­ting with your lib­er­al (in the sense of ‘social­ly lib­er­al’) friends – most­ly drawn from the cen­tre or the cen­tre-left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, or per­haps an enlight­ened ver­sion of Chris­t­ian Democ­ra­cy – and you would quick­ly agree on the unde­ni­able ben­e­fits of an ‘open soci­ety’. This same con­ver­sa­tion in France will dredge up a few par­tic­u­lars – and quite a bit of dis­agree­ment from peo­ple with whom you would oth­er­wise agree on most things.

On the mat­ter of the open soci­ety, over the past few years France has drawn a lot atten­tion to itself giv­en the gal­lop­ing gains made by the Front Nation­al (FN) – to the extent that some trem­bled at the thought that Marine Le Pen might beat any can­di­date in the sec­ond round of last spring’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The FN had suc­ceed­ed for years in dic­tat­ing the French polit­i­cal and pol­i­cy agen­da; This has meant that polit­i­cal debate has been dom­i­nat­ed by mat­ters of nation­al iden­ti­ty (Sarkozy went as far as to cre­ate a gov­ern­ment depart­ment for ‘nation­al iden­ti­ty’ in an attempt to out-LeP­en, Le Pen), the role of reli­gion in the pub­lic realm, inane debates about burki­nis, more press­ing debates about failed inte­gra­tion as well as inevitable debates about the cost of immi­gra­tion. All this in a con­text of ter­ror­ist attacks and increased secu­ri­ty mea­sures. Le Pen’s vot­ers have not dis­ap­peared in the after­math of Macron’s vic­to­ry, but the lat­ter has, for the moment, put a stop to the FN’s monop­oly on polit­i­cal dis­course. This gives the French a chance to re-exam­ine their attach­ment to the val­ues of open­ness, diver­si­ty, and inclu­sion — away from the con­tin­u­ous hys­te­ria whipped up by the FN and by some of the main­stream right.

In what one hopes will be a long paren­the­sis of san­i­ty lead­ing to a more serene atti­tude toward these issues, the re-exam­i­na­tion promise to be inter­est­ing. In great part because the open soci­ety is not only a taboo for the pop­ulist right and its vot­ers – it can often, as sug­gest­ed ear­li­er, be a taboo for French pro­gres­sives. The roots of this mis­trust are often mis­un­der­stood and they are worth exam­in­ing as we embark on the Voic­es on Val­ues project.

The dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of an ‘open society’

The expres­sion ‘open soci­ety’ encour­ages count­less ques­tions – is this a soci­ety whose insti­tu­tions encour­age open­ness toward the world? Open­ness toward each oth­er? Are the two nec­es­sar­i­ly con­nect­ed? Or one whose insti­tu­tions are very light-touch in terms of reg­u­la­tion both of the mar­ket and of the mar­ket of ideas? Is this sim­ply a social­ly lib­er­al soci­ety that tol­er­ates very dif­fer­ent atti­tudes and behav­iours? Or a soci­ety in which all opin­ions are giv­en equal weight? Or are express­ible? For many, an open soci­ety is one that abides by Karl Popper’s def­i­n­i­tion that an open soci­ety is one in which no one has monop­oly on the truth. Of course, we know that this begs the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: must we not at least have one truth—that no one should have a monop­oly on the truth. Much as it may sound like it, stu­dents of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy know that this is not the neu­tral ide­o­log­i­cal ground it pur­ports to be. It is a lib­er­al position–with which many will disagree.

Such a dis­agree­ment is the basis upon which the French case becomes par­tic­u­lar­ly tor­tu­ous: Because from day one of the Repub­lic, rea­son was billed as the only truth. In reac­tion to the priv­i­leges of the monar­chy and the super­sti­tion of reli­gion, the French rev­o­lu­tion enshrined rea­son as the basis for pol­i­tics – there­by rel­e­gat­ing belief (except belief in rea­son) to back­ward, sus­pect, pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary times. As a result, French soci­ety sees itself as right­ly, foun­da­tion­al­ly, dri­ven by rea­son rather than open­ness — and to some extent sees them as a zero-sum game. But through the prism of rea­son, many atti­tudes, pref­er­ences, and beliefs that some include in a soci­ety that regards itself as ‘open’ could then be sim­ply rel­e­gat­ed to the pri­vate realm – becom­ing invisible.

None of what hap­pens sub­se­quent­ly in France can be divorced from the strength of belief in this foun­da­tion­al moment in which every indi­vid­ual enters into a deeply meta­phys­i­cal rela­tion­ship with the Repub­lic that pro­tects him or her from the shack­les of belief in order to exer­cise their right as a cit­i­zen. This means that the Republic’s moto (lib­er­ty, equal­i­ty and brotherhood/solidarity) are guar­an­teed through the priv­i­leg­ing of one truth: rea­son. The rea­son­ing (no pun intend­ed) is that through rea­son you are free of belief, rea­son pre­serves the lev­el play­ing field by being blind to dif­fer­ence (reli­gious, lin­guis­tic, eth­nic, wealth). And between these rea­son­able equal cit­i­zens, sol­i­dar­i­ty is uninhibited.

Para­dox­es and reality

For many, an open soci­ety with­out a foun­da­tion­al truth is an open door to acknowl­edg­ing dif­fer­ences that will impede rea­son, and will impede equal­i­ty. An exam­ple of this is the atti­tude toward head-cov­ers in pub­lic spaces. For many French peo­ple, and main­ly pro­gres­sives, allow­ing this kind of dif­fer­ence in what is the space of rea­son (the state, pub­lic schools, pub­lic ser­vices) is a sure-fire way of get­ting in the way of a lev­el play­ing field. Recog­ni­tion of reli­gion or eth­nic­i­ty is taboo in part because it is felt to be anti­thet­i­cal to free­dom and equal­i­ty. The rea­son mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, or ‘worse’ com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism, is by and large unac­cept­able in France, is in part because it is seen as a Tro­jan horse for a recog­ni­tion of dif­fer­ence that is both a) root­ed in per­son­al super­sti­tion or belief, and/or b) as an act that would fun­da­men­tal­ly run against the nec­es­sary neu­tral­i­ty that guar­an­tees freedom.

Many have argued (myself includ­ed) that there are plen­ty of ways in which this Repub­lic ends up dis­crim­i­nat­ing against dif­fer­ence any­ways,[1] but it is impor­tant to recog­nise that the con­cept of an open soci­ety can be prob­lem­at­ic for peo­ple whose aims and atti­tudes are quite specif­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive. Indeed, for some, the notion of an open soci­ety is one that is at odds with an egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety – because its very open­ness under­mines the role of the state; A state that is still thought of as play­ing an active role in pro­tect­ing cit­i­zens and guar­an­tee­ing equal­i­ty. This is how one can actu­al­ly find both a right-wing pop­ulist par­ty such as the FN and a pro­gres­sive social­ist par­ty in favour of a ban on head-cov­er­ings for girls in schools. Both can defend their posi­tion on the grounds of a Repub­lic that allows no dif­fer­ences in state schools in order to pro­tect equality.

French atti­tudes

The French case study we are con­duct­ing as part of the Voic­es on Val­ues project is designed to mea­sure what kind of atti­tu­di­nal change there has been in France around the con­cept of an open soci­ety and the rela­tion­ship to diver­si­ty that it entails. What does being an open soci­ety mean in France in 2018? What are the oth­er ways in which inclu­sion and diver­si­ty are being talked about? The recent reports[2] by the CNCDH (France’s high­est human rights author­i­ty) are encour­ag­ing: there seems to be deep atti­tu­di­nal change. On the oth­er hand, there is a staunch refusal to dis­cuss diver­si­ty and inclu­sion through the vocab­u­lary of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism or recog­ni­tion. Can a rea­son­able soci­ety sub­sti­tute itself to an open one? And can it pro­tect society’s most vul­ner­a­ble, and grant them access to insti­tu­tion­al goods and rep­re­sen­ta­tion which is what open­ness should rep­re­sent polit­i­cal­ly? Watch this space.

Dr Cather­ine Fieschi is Founder and Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Counterpoint.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] See Cecile Labor­de, ‘Laïc­ité, sépa­ra­tion, neu­tral­ité’, in Jean-François Dupey­ron, Christophe Miqueu (eds.) Ethique et déon­tolo­gie dans l’Education Nationale. Paris: Armand Col­in, 2013, pp. 171–183.


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