How the notion of France's long-cherished 'Republic' has been hijacked

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The word 'Republican' has a hugely positive place in the French collective memory. But recently the concept has come to be used – and abused - as a form of political shorthand to tell people to obey the rules. Mediapart's Fabien Escalona talks to French academics about the shifting meaning of the concept and how it is now cited more to protect existing privileges rather than to extend safeguards and rights to new groups.

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The Republic has become a convenient excuse for many things. It was in its name – or at least in accordance with its “values” - that two senior government ministers, Jean-Michel Blanquer and Marlène Schiappa recently launched an investigation into school sick notes. They want to find out whether some parents are routinely using medical certificates claiming their daughters are allergic to chlorine in order for them to avoid having to wear bathing costumes in mixed settings during school swimming lessons. The probe was announced in February 2021 by the education secretary and the minister in charge of citizenship against the backdrop of the French government's campaign against religious 'separatism'. Nor was it the first time that the pair have summoned up the principle of 'Republicanism' in this way.

After the murder of teacher Samuel Paty in the Paris region in October 2021, Jean-Michel Blanquer invoked the need to defend the “Republican model” when he launched a witch-hunt against “intersectionality” theories apparently flourishing in French universities. According to supporters of the education minister, these same universities are also home to “indigenist, racialist and 'de-colonial' ideologies”.

In the wake of the same murder Marlène Schiappa announced the setting up of a “Republican counter-speech unit” to combat “cyber-Islamism” through “counter-propaganda”. This initiative has raised numerous doubts, apparently even within the government itself.

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Under this presidency more than ever, and following on directly from the martial declarations of prime minister Manuel Valls during the last presidency, the notion of the Republic has become a totem, in the sense of being a mythical entity that demands the loyalty of its citizens, upon pain of begin ostracised. What is being invoked when its name is uttered is not usually the nature of the regime as such, but more the “spirit” that is supposed to drive it and nurture the acceptance of its members.

Being singled out as a suspect or non-believer can happen disconcertingly quickly. All it takes is one disagreement or for someone not to subscribe to the vision of the Republic shared by its self-proclaimed defenders. The mere fact of having expressed or proven your attachment to this ideal in the past does not soften the punishment. An example is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the radical left La France Insoumise (LFI) party. Ever since he took part in the anti-Islamophobia demonstration the Marche contre l’Islamophobie on November 10th 2019 and displayed a positive attitude towards 'creolization' he has been pilloried for “sectarianism” and even for having links with “Islamo-leftism”. In November 2021 the socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo spoke of Mélenchon's “ambiguities” on such issues.

The fervour with which the Republic is invoked is however accompanied by considerable vagueness when it comes to trying to define what it actually means. The speeches that proclaim it are delivered with such self-evident certainty that only very rarely do they seek to detail its real content, in other words the essence that is supposed to bring about a form of collective communion. In a recent essay published by Presse de Sciences-Po, academic and civil servant Jean Picq expressed regret about the way that “too often in France, the Republic is reduced to a slogan, declared to be self-evident, in a battle over language which masks what's really at stake”.

A demonstration in Paris against Islamophobia on November 10th 2019. © LÈo Pierre / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP A demonstration in Paris against Islamophobia on November 10th 2019. © LÈo Pierre / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP

The opaque nature of the Republican model certainly makes it easier for it to be picked up and used at every opportunity. Nonetheless, it cannot be reduced simply to an empty symbol, an easy way just to get people to fall in line. On the Right, in the current centrist government and on the Left, too, the term is used in markedly ideological ways, as a form of reminder to obey the rules. This is not just a concept that has been appropriated by the far right.

A combative rhetoric that in the past was used to attack forces and elites that were hostile to the Republican regime is now turned on minorities or forms of activism that have the misfortune to dispute the existing hierarchy and to expose the wrongs suffered by certain groups. This is despite the fact that these wrongs run counter to what, on paper, the existing law decrees.

Chloé Gaboriaux, a lecturer at Sciences-Po Lyon university, says the problem lies in the understanding of the universalism that is supposed to be conveyed by the French Republican model. “Let's be clear: there are many 'Republicans' who don't have a problem with diversity as long as it doesn't threaten their own hegemonic position,” she says. “When certain figures attack the universal side of it as a mask for masculine, white, elderly power, [these Republicans] feel that it's universalism as a whole that's under attack and get wound up.”

Magali Bessone, a professor at the Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne university, agrees and regrets how a simplistic vision of the concept, one divorced from reality, has developed, as if the French Republic had in fact achieved all its ideals. The political philosopher is the author of a work which looks at demands for justice in relation to colonial crimes and slavery. She argues that these demands are legitimate and require an institutional response because they are not simply based on a distant past that no longer concerns today's citizens.

Instead, Magali Bessone says that these crimes continue to weigh upon the modern era by impacting the very “legal, political and social structure of the Republic”. The issue is thus not about punishing or compensating anyone after the event, but instead about getting rid of those structures that are still linked to a history of domination. “It's desirable to move towards the universal, or rather the 'communal', but you can't act as if it was a given from the start, as if some people did not feel crushed by it,” she says. This shows the importance of the idea that “by its very nature the Republic is not static, it's dynamic”, as Jean Picq wrote in his latest essay.

That is also how Olivier Christin, director of the Paris-based Centre Européen des Études Républicaines, sees it. The modern historian believes that there is no reason why recent feminist and LGBT movements, and also those that target police violence and the mechanisms of racialization that operate in society, should be dismissed in the name of the Republic. “[The Republic] carries with it the promise of liberty that has to be progressed. It puts in place freedoms and legal procedures and recognition, which in turn fuel fresh demands for recognition,” he says. “That's how you had a succession of struggles for universal suffrage, employment rights, secular schools, the press and so on. Fortunately, no one in the Republic is in a position to say 'stop'.”

However, Republican rhetoric is today being used to undermine many of these struggles, and to lump them together with more identity-based and fanatical causes which do also exist. The confusion this causes favours the status quo.

Sarah Mazous, a sociologist at France's national research centre the CNRS, notes that “the Republic is now widely used as a normative label which ensures nothing changes and that concrete questions about how to achieve the promise of equality when it comes to how people really live their lives are shrugged off,” she says. Weighed down with emotional and historical baggage, the “notion [of the Republic] helps make a nationalist discourse acceptable by passing off acts of exclusion as progressive actions. It's comparable to the way that the objective of male/female equality is manipulated to twist secularism in an illiberal way.”

The academic notes the irony of a situation in which “the government uses [the notion of] the Republic on all occasions, while threatening to undo all the laws that enabled the Third Republic to take hold against the Ordre Moral [editor's note, a conservative movement that flourished between 1873 and 1875]”. In fact, the first few years of that period culminated in the adoption of fundamental freedoms that were crucial in establishing the democratic nature of the Republican regime, and which are today still part of the constitutional make-up of French state law. Yet the current government's proposed law on separatism has raised concerns about the potential modification of several fundamental legal texts.

To be fair, one cannot only accuse the current government of appropriating the Republican concept. If it has not always had the same confused appearance as it has now, this misuse of the Republican idea first took hold some decades ago. This can be observed indirectly by delving into past publications that established a diagnosis very similar to that of the academics quoted earlier.

Ten years ago, for example, teacher Béatrice Durand devoted an essay to what she identified as La Nouvelle Idéologie Française (published by Stock in 2020). The author saw in this new ideology a nostalgic and authoritarian vision of the school, and in particular a pathological mistrust towards any claims of affiliation to groups.

A little earlier, in 2006, the journalist Denis Sieffert expressed his dismay at what he saw as the “appropriation” of the Republic by a “tendency that wants the Republic all for itself and which it has given a fixed definition”. This, he noted, simply served to sow tensions over issues of identity.

Meanwhile, at the end of the 1990s writers Hugues Jallon and Pierre Mounier wrote about what they described as a “crusading” spirit that was used to serve a particular “heritage” view of the Republic, one that consisted of grand abstract references and which was out of step with the movements that were discernible within society.

So how did Republicanism become distorted into a form of reactionary conservatism? But before we even ask that, is what we are seeing really a misappropriation of the concept of Republicanism? Or does in fact this concept contain within itself the germs of a unitarist, homogeneous interpretation - which could potentially lead to exclusion – about what the Republic should be? Further articles on Mediapart on this theme will seek to offer some responses to these questions.

Going back in time we see that French history has in the past been dominated by forms of Republicanism which encouraged a confusion between equality and homogeneity. This confusion has returned in the modern era in reaction to the ever-growing – and, for some, worrying – ethnic and religious pluralism in society.

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  • The original French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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