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Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: What We Could Learn From France

If there’s a better model for law, order, and justice, made in the U.S.A., this would be a good time to hear about it. 
Protesters seen shouting slogans during the demonstration.

Speaking to a national television audience on June 14, French president Emmanuel Macron was crisp and to the point about the possibility of vandalizing riots coming to his country: “The republic will erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues. We must instead lucidly look together at our history, and in particular our relationship with Africa.”  

In those two sentences, Macron covered the concerns of both the right and the left: To the right, he offered law and order, and to the left, he offered an examination of racism. Yet Macron was careful to add, too, that any such examination of the past would not lead to a “hateful” rewriting of French history. In selling this message, it helps that Macron’s press secretary is the Senegal-born Sibeth Ndiaye, whom France 24 describes as daily “earning a reputation for blunt speech and a willingness to put the press in its place.”

Yet undeniably, Macron was putting more of his political chips down on the side of law enforcement, adding, “Without republican order, there is no security or freedom, and this order is ensured by police officers and gendarmes.”  

Macron is right, of course; more questions are, indeed, settled by blood and iron than by papers and speeches. 

Still, Macron’s political artfulness—he was elected as a centrist in 2017, leading a party that had come into existence only the year before—is to combine concepts dear to both the left and the right in the same message. 

And yet Macron’s political effectiveness is based on much more than just the man himself; it’s based on the credibility of the French state. Indeed, as we think about how that state keeps order, we might better appreciate why France has existed as an identifiable nation for the past 1,500 years—the French must know something about statecraft. 

So at a time when America seems to be coming apart, drifting maybe even toward civil war, we might seek to learn from a political model that enshrines solidarité. 

After all, these days, we’re getting a lesson in the impact of non-solidarity. And we might conclude that there’s something about Trumpism that is so provocative—so much of a red flag to so many—that it’s painful to imagine what would happen to the country if this president is re-elected. And yet at the same time, we can observe that the rise of the Woken is so fearsome, to so many, that a second Trump term, as a purported antidote, is still conceivable.

So maybe Americans can learn something from a country whose president can make a pronouncement about public safety, and the public mostly goes along—with confident cops there to make sure everything stays in place. 

Unsurprisingly, the roots of French order run deep. In 2017, this author recalled Cardinal Richelieu, who dominated France in the early 17th century. To be sure, even the slightest brush with Richelieu’s biography reveals a man whom wokesters today would seek to cancel, for any number of reasons—although as we are learning, such cancellation could apply to just about any historical figure. The difference is that in France today, the statues of Richelieu are safe. 

Of course, in between Richelieu’s time and ours, France has been rocked by its share of civil wars, revolutions, riots, and desecrations. And yet in each instance, France has been renewed, by figures such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Adolphe Thiers, and, of course, Charles de Gaulle. And so to walk around Paris, or any city or town in France, is to see plenty of intact history, watched over, as need be, by les flics. (There’s no such thing as a French Civil Liberties Union.) 

Of these renewing French historical figures, the most proximate is de Gaulle (1890-1970.)  A hero in both world wars, de Gaulle led the country briefly in 1944-6 and then, again, from 1958 to 1969. And even now, a half-century after his death, his memory still looms over French politics. 

De Gaulle’s life and influence were ably captured by historian Julian Jackson in his 2018 biography; Jackson portrays his subject as cold and imperious, befitting a 6’4” man of ramrod military bearing and intense ambition. Yet at the same time, de Gaulle was well-read and oft-published. And he always possessed, as he himself wrote, “a certain idea of France.” He was emphatically on the right, and yet de Gaulle was no ancien régime monarchist, nor was he an anti-Semite. Instead, he was inspired by the French poet-turned-war hero Charles Péguy, who extolled a Catholic-influenced “patriotic faith.”  

It was this love of country that made de Gaulle flexible: He knew that a nation could survive only by adjusting, as required by events and circumstances. 

As Jackson details, de Gaulle led the French government-in-exile in London during World War Two, working closely with Resistance groups in Nazi-occupied France. Indeed, in 1943, his agent, Jean Moulin, pulled eight different groups into a Conseil National de la Résistance. Its goal was not only to coordinate a sabotage campaign against the Germans during the war, but also to outline a new social contract for the post-war nation. That accord combined both market forces and strategic nationalizations, thus outlining the sort of mixed-economy balance that enabled all groups to feel invested in the system. The result, starting in 1945, was the trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of unparalleled prosperity. 

De Gaulle proved flexible again in 1968, when student unrest threatened to metastasize into outright rebellion. In response, the president first reinforced his governing coalition by bringing in law-abiding left-wingers. Next, he arranged for a counter-demonstration on the Champs-Élysées—spearheaded by Gaullist labor unions—that outnumbered the protestors. And then he held a snap election, giving him an even larger majority. 

Indeed, like Macron a half-century later, de Gaulle played the protestors two ways, brandishing a stick and offering a carrot. On the one hand, he called the rebels in the streets a “totalitarian enterprise,” a not-so-sly way of calling them communists—which, of course, many of them were. And yet at the same time, he co-opted the  term “revolution,” declaring, “If a revolution consists of fundamentally changing what exists, and notably the dignity and conditions of the working class . . . I am not at all upset to be called in that sense a revolutionary.” 

As The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote two years ago of de Gaulle and his enduring influence, “With his love of honor and pageantry, de Gaulle might seem to offer a very dated model of politics. And yet in an odd way there’s an urgent, living lesson for the twenty-first century in what de Gaulle accomplished, one that can’t be overlooked—indeed, President Macron spends every day trying not to overlook it.”  

Continuing, Gopnik added that de Gaulle’s sense of nationhood transcended the familiar ideological and partisan differences: “What de Gaulle’s example reminds us is how valuable an insistence on the shared symbols of a common fate can be if carried out with integrity and a residual deposit of democratic values. The politics of grandeur, he shows, need not be the exclusive province of bullies and gangsters and crooks and clowns. It’s a fine French lesson.” 

Today, Macron would agree that one specific lesson of de Gaulle’s life is that, yes, sometimes, power must be used to protect the state. As he wrote in 1938, “All the virtue in the world is powerless against firepower.” Indeed, just this week, after a moment of indecision, Macron’s government announced that the police would continue to use chokeholds as a tactic to subdue miscreants. The French may sometimes talk a good game about free expression, but for them, always, the bottom line is hard-nosed raison d’etat. 

Still, the French model isn’t only force majeure, it’s also about liberté, égalité, fraternité. That is, France has a comprehensive government, and so the face of the state is more likely to be that of a school teacher, or a social worker, than that of a police officer. Of course, this thickness of governance doesn’t come cheap: The French state consumes some 55.6 percent of GDP, which is higher, even, than the European Union average of 45.8 percent—and far higher than the U.S. share of the economy going to government, 37.8 percent. 

Most Americans would likely be appalled to think of a government as big as France’s. But then, again, they are likely to be more appalled—if not downright horrified—by the strife we’re seeing today. So if there’s a better model for law, order, and justice, made in the U.S.A., this would be a good time to hear about it. 




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