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The legitimate condemnation of a bankrupt government

Edwy Plenel 5 July 2016

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First published in Mediapart. Translated by David Broder. 

Democracy does not belong to either Left or Right. When it is besmirched by governments identifying with either of these political families, any republican worthy of the name must simply say "No." The government has put this attitude of principle on alert as it has imposed a socially regressive law on all workers in France without debate, despite having no majority in Parliament and being in the minority in the country.

Certainly this government has incessantly been boosting the worst enemies of the Republic. A few months ago, with the measures to strip citizens of their French nationality, it shamelessly espoused the identitarian ideology of exclusion and putting up walls, preparing to establish a hierarchy of French people according to their backgrounds. Until a parliamentary reverse — via the Senate — put a stop to it, it had been preparing to carve a far-Right measure into the constitutional marble with the aid of the Sarkozyan Right. And now it declares without haggling that to govern is to inflict violence, singing paeans to authoritarian methods trampling on parliament, humiliating the nation’s representatives and ignoring social protests.

The democratic legitimacy of laws is conditional on deliberation: the assurance that they are not the product of the executive mounting a coup de force against the legislature. Lacking this prior condition — the only true guarantee of their immediate credibility and their lasting solidity — they are not only fragile laws but bad ones. Whatever content they bear, they are stained by illegitimacy: for they are the product of a transgression, or even a violation. Indeed, from the US Patriot Act of 2001 to France’s 2016 state of emergency — to take two contemporary examples — laws of exception putting fundamental freedoms at half-mast have always been voted through at breakneck speed, with the theme of fear serving as a gun to the head.

In the name of security, François Hollande and [prime minister] Manuel Valls can brandish the pretext of the "war on terror," however dubious. This supposed military emergency is meant to justify suspending democracy, and in particular any discussion. Yet in the case of the El Khomri bill [Labour Law], which is a question of the world of labour, and thus of the daily lives of all those who create this country’s wealth, they have decided to resort to forcibly pushing the bill through even for want of a parliamentary majority. It must be that they are at war on this terrain too — a social war, or rather an anti-social war. Why else would they decide to impose a bill with only minority support, and without debate? When this bill was discussed in the National Assembly they did not even manage to get through the first article, out of 54 included in the final version!

True democrats — those whose republican sincerity is not eclipsed by their partisan interests — know almost by-heart this 1976 statement by [former French prime minister] Pierre Mendès France, "Democracy is a lot more than the practice of elections and government by the majority: it is a type of mores, of virtue, of scruples, of civic sense, of respect for one’s adversary: it is a moral code." In politics, method determines one’s project, and the means the end. If a law passes only thanks to a coup de force against democracy, this is the very admission that its very objective was a coup de force, in this case an act of violence against the labour code. In other words, an act of violence against decades of social conquests constructing this defence of the weak from the strong — the arm of the law coming to the worker’s aid faced with the boss, owner or shareholder, so that the worker is not the defenceless plaything of the latters’ desire for profit, accumulation or speculation

The El Khomri bill thus ends as it began, with a hold-up using the "49-3 clause" — the weapon against parliament provided by the Fifth Republic’s only weakly democratic constitution. After the abrupt arrival of this bill on the still-smouldering ashes of the measures stripping citizens of French nationality, Manuel Valls threatened as much with his authoritarian "correction" of the first interview the labour minister had given to Les Échos. Those like the CFDT union who were thus moved to the point of joining the initial protests, before then backing out and giving in, should reflect on what their ultimate acceptance of this illegitimate move will mean for workers. How can you explain to any trade unionist who fights the shareholder’s unilateral and authoritarian decisions through collective action, or who bends to the discipline of the workers’ majority vote, that what is inadmissible in the workplace is acceptable in political life? Or that the daily lot of the workers who s/he represents or defends will now be governed by rules resulting from an undemocratic coup de force?

"Nothing can replace the act of governing," François Hollande declared last week in his speech on the Left and power, in his guise as a candidate for the Socialist nomination. For him to say there is "nothing" else is amazing. Not only does this reduce democracy to the acts of those who govern alone — believing themselves temporary owners of democracy, to the detriment of its complexity (the diversity of separated powers, the plurality of independent counterpowers…). But in forgetting the whole history of republican conquests, it excludes from democracy those who yesterday invented and today invent it through their struggles, their fights, their daring. Indeed, the president continued this argument by showing his contempt for the will of the citizens assembled in the Nuit Debout square occupations and in the mass of demonstrations against the Labour Law: "You don’t change the world, you don’t change Europe, you don’t change France by standing still [lit. staying in the same place, a pun on place = town square]. And when I say place I mean all places."

So for François Hollande, he alone as president embodies movement, whereas the Nuits debout and street protests more generally are a matter of immobility. This self-satisfaction speaks to the abyss that has opened up between the governing and the governed during his presidency. The government addresses society like an old-school teacher would have addressed an undisciplined classroom. It has to be taught a lesson, it hasn’t understood, we need to explain better… And if, as it happens, society stubbornly refuses to understand, then the government makes society stand in the corner and whacks it round the head, as we have seen since Rémi Fraisse’s death in Sivens in 2014 with increasingly belligerent and less peaceful means of maintaining order. And this is confirmed by the recent promotion of the Rennes police prefect — in post when a demonstrator there lost an eye — to director of the interior minister’s cabinet.

Teach us a lesson or smack us round the head. Infantilise us or sack us. In either case, never listen to us.

Judged for who its enemies are — and never blamed

Closed off in the bubble of the state, they look down at us from on high dismayed or exasperated, as if those of us below were dunces or uneducated. As if we had no memory or knowledge. As if through these four years, ending with the fireworks of the state of emergency and the stripping of citizens’ nationality, the quantity of betrayals had not finally transformed into the quality of refusal. Into lucidity, audacity, and determination. As if we hadn’t understood that the discourse they use to cloak their arrangements — with themselves, with their promises, with their consciences and their loyalties — has become empty of meaning, cluttered with words that demobilise, devitalise and make things unreal. In sum, that they are devoid of truth.

It was thus that on Wednesday 11 May, the day after a lightning-fast cabinet meeting had given its green light to the 49-3 coup de force, another one was held to discuss "France’s action as part of the partnership for open government." The official press communiqué summarised what was at stake: "A growing number of citizens want to contribute to democratic debate, participate in the construction of state decisions and making state action more transparent. This aspiration for a new public governance is a strong one. It is at the heart of the policy conducted since 2012, driven by the President of the Republic …. In making this choice in favour of co-constructing [public policy] the government seeks to prove by example that in the digital era it is possible to contribute to a governance more open to consultation and deliberation, allowing each citizen better to understand and orient state decisions and thus unleash a collective intellect."

To say the least, they’re taking the piss out of us. Do we know of any greater separation of words and deeds? Any greater imposture of words, voided of their meaning by actions that state the opposite? What is governing — this imperative compared to which, according to François Hollande, our refusal is worth "nothing"? Is it lies, betrayal, trickery, turning one’s back on one’s promises, no accountability, disdain for any criticism, ignoring opposition, setting oneself above society, imposing oneself by force, forgetting that the governing only exist thanks to the popular will? Is it contempt for democracy’s ideal that it doesn’t matter who you are — thinking like the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime that this can produce only a free-for-all? Does it mean opposing to this the sole competence of a minority of political professionals, most of whom have never had any other job? For them to speak and act in our place, seek our votes and then cast us aside as soon as they are elected, ignoring the concrete experiences and practical knowledges of the many, better to serve the interests of the property-owning minority?

In his prophetic 1967 essay Society of the Spectacle — published one year before the events of May 1968 — Guy Debord unmasked the mechanisms of domination that serve the commodity-absolute, through which political representation is nothing more than the spectacle of our defeat. Twenty years later in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) he deepened his analysis, prophetically describing a democracy that believes itself "so perfect" that leaning on its "inconceivable enemy, terrorism" it now wants "to by judged in terms of its enemies rather than in terms of its results." "Of all social crimes," he continued, "none will be seen as worse than the impertinent pretension still to want to change something in this society, which thinks that thus far it has been only too patient, too kind, but does not want to be blamed any more."

Only being judged for who your enemies are, and never blamed… that’s exactly the pre-electoral strategy of this minority government, now that it is so devoid of a social base, having lost along the way not only the great mass of the working class but also the youth to which it had made such promises. And that’s not to mention its break with the Left that stands for human rights and fundamental freedoms — now a definitive break, after the [passing of law to allow] the stripping of French citizens’ nationality. Associating communication (our enemies have worse things planned) and repression (we can’t be blamed…) the manoeuvre is a crass one indeed. Who would believe it? They might be able to resort to force using the prerogative of the French presidential system’s authoritarian levers, but they cannot decree a collective amnesia. For we have memory. And this is the basic democratic vigilance thanks to which we maintain our hope that that one day promises will bind those who make the and not only those who believe them.

So we remember that in 2006 François Hollande — this president who has now for the fourth time used the 49-3 clause to impose socially regressive measures (the three previous times were for the Macron Bill) — declared that 49-3 is "brutality, a denial of democracy." He said this during the mobilisations against the Contrat Première Embauche [reform "flexibilising" youth employment], which forced the then prime minister Dominique de Villepin to beat a retreat. The Socialist first secretary [Hollande] berated him: "You seem afraid of democracy." "I tell you this: resorting to force is the sign of weak government." At the same time, in Devoirs de vérité, a book that he would now like to be forgotten, he wrote the following, every word and line of which now looks like an advance indictment of he himself:

Democracy is also a practice. Let’s take the example of what happened to Dominique de Villepin with the Contrat Première Embauche. If he had based himself on a solid and united parliamentary majority and not a divided or vassalised one; if he had a party capable to taking on a public debate, even on a controversial question; if he had himself addressed his bill together with the unions; if he had been capable of dialogue with the youth; in short, if he had grown up in a political culture in which consent is constructed and developed, he would not have found himself in this labyrinth, which he was unable to find a way out of.

There followed a radical critique of the institutional régime that blinds and deafens those who govern by cutting them off from society, making them arrogant and ignorant: "Concentrated on a site of power that everything else flows from, he is himself vulnerable. Everything depends on the [Presidential Palace] and when irresponsibility takes hold there, the whole system loses its balance."

The wager on the event, against the presidentialist agenda

The paradox is that this government only still appears powerful thanks to the presidential system. This is the system through which the popular will is denied and the democratic ideal trampled underfoot. Sheltered by the state machine, the government holds on only through the institutional illusion. Otherwise — particularly in a parliamentary democracy — it would already have been overthrown long ago. Its authoritarian onslaught seeks to mask its deep crisis — the necrosis of a system running out of breath.

The duel between Manuel Valls and [economy minister] Emmanuel Macron is just one of the symptoms of this, to which we could add the unprecedented proliferation of pretenders to the presidency, declared as candidates or being called upon to stand in 2017. Well aware of this debacle, the ruling class lacks the Bonaparte who could stride past the diffuse anger traversing the whole country and thus preserve it from the accident it has always feared. That is, preserve it from the upsurge of the event — the unexpected and improbable event through which democratic and social hope has always refounded and reinvented itself.

If we are not to let their catastrophe endure, we have to make a wager on this improbable and unexpected event — on its emergence, its extension and its deepening. The Nuits Debout born in the wake of this reactionary dynamiting of the labour code are still minoritarian, but have pointed the way for this event, beginning by inventing a new calendar. Starting on 31 March, the first night people rallied on Paris’s Place de la République, Nuit Debout sees the days pass only in terms of the continuation of the struggle, the endurance it has now achieved and the convergences that have been accumulated. A never-ending month of March is thus set up as a barricade of salvaged and liberated time, as against the clockwork machinery of power, its decisions imposed from above, its oligarchic turn to force and its authoritarian and inegalitarian agenda.

In his theses On the Concept of History — his last text, from 1940 — Walter Benjamin emphasised the extent to which every real democratic and social disruption of the existing order supposes another imaginary of time. "The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The day on which the calendar started functioned as a historical time-lapse camera. And it is fundamentally the same day which, in the shape of holidays and memorials, always returns." He also noted how in July 1830 during the Trois Glorieuses the Parisan insurgents were seen shooting at the clock towers.

Defying any history written in advance and which leaves no space for the unpredictability of the event, Benjamin counterposed the calendar to the clock: the invention of one to the repetition of the other. The mechanical, quantitative and immutable time of the clock or the watch is the time of domination, a time of immediacy, a time without memory or history, the time of a monstrous present which dismisses the possibility of the future by forgetting the past. With the unexpected of the revolt emerges the attempt to stop this empty time and open up the way to a qualitative time. This is a new time, bearer of an improbable hope that can chase away the probability of catastrophe.

To bet on this improbability is to reach for the time of invention, as against fatalism. It is to construct the "we" of our common causes, pulling the lever of the demand for democracy. The word democracy means little if it is reduced to choosing representatives. And even more so in France where these representatives are pushed down by a presidential system that submits them to the goodwill of a single elected official, the automatic majorities his party demands, and the forced obediences that the institutions impose.

If it is to confront the complexity of the world and its challenges, a living democracy must have the permanent deliberation that favours majorities of ideas. It must have strong and respected counter-powers. It must have a relation with society that is not reduced to propaganda communications but which, on the contrary, gives a due place to citizen expertise, the awareness and grievances born of lived experience.

An essential lever of expressing ourselves and sharing what we have in common, the democratic question holds the key to all the other hopes put on hold. That is the case whether the problem is social crisis, unemployment, poverty and precarity, urban suffering, ecological challenges, collective security or living together. This is true simply because the answers to all these urgent problems depend on our capacity to debate them collectively, to compare experiences, to learn from one another, to bring together innovations and exemplary cases, to deliberate and participate, choose and decide, act as close as possible to reality and on-the-ground: in sum, to remain masters of our own becoming.

Citing the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire, we like to say that "We belong to those who say no to darkness," faced with the fear and hatred fed and strengthened by the French presidential system’s anti-democratic pedagogy, from Nicolas Sarkozy to — alas — François Hollande. We should now add to this what Césaire said in his famous 1956 letter to [French Communist leader] Maurice Thorez. This was an act of rupture with a French Left that was too sure of itself, standing too high above the people that made its way in all its diversity of backgrounds, conditions, and cultures, inventing a hope of its own:

The result is that the world is presently at an impasse. That can only mean one thing: not that there is any way out, but that the time has come to abandon all the old roads. The roads that led to imposture, tyranny, crime. Suffice to say that for our part we do not want to settle for looking on at other people’s politics. At others trampling us underfoot. At others’ combinations. At the piecemeal measures of other people’s conscience, or at other people’s casuistry. Our own time is here.

Yes, that’s just it — time for we ourselves.

Edwy Plenel is author of For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France, out now from Verso


Filed under: france, nuit-debout