'When I look at France, I see greatness that has become hysteria'

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Belgian political thinker, historian and award-winning writer David Van Reybrouck believes that France has the most ossified political system in Western Europe, a “paternalistic republic invented by Charles de Gaulle as if he were presiding over a Sunday lunch” and in conflict with major societal trends. In this interview with Joseph Confavreux, one of a series presenting foreign commentators’ views on French society, Van Reybrouck says that in France “you can vote or demonstrate, but there’s not much in between”. He says the country would do well to look with interest - “rather than condescension” - at recent democratic innovations in smaller countries like Belgium, Ireland or Iceland.

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Mediapart: Why do you say that France has the most fossilised political system in the whole of Western Europe?

David Van Reybrouck: For a long time I thought Belgium was the ultimate "party-ocracy", meaning a democracy that the main political parties carve up between themselves. This is characterised in particular by the politicisation of the civil service, and the quasi-necessity of having a party card in order to have a job as a senior civil servant. But I observe that in France, at least at a national level, things work in just the same way, maybe even worse. The entire government apparatus is in the hands of political parties that represent only a small fraction of the country.

The other thing specific to France, which continues to surprise me, is the aristocratic status of the elite schools, and a system that reproduces very major inequalities in a country that has nevertheless put equality at the heart of its Republican ethos. I have read [French sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu, but I did not think the system he described was so powerful and enduring over time.

When I look at France, I have an impression of a greatness that has become hysteria. National pride has been transformed into hatred of oneself and of others. France embodies a hatred of elected representatives coupled with a veneration of elections, which I analyse in my book, and which creates frustrations across the board. Those who vote [for far-right party] FN are frustrated by traditional politics, but those who still vote for the parties considered as governing parties seem just as dissatisfied with the political class, and unable to imagine a remedy for the democratic crisis that France and Europe are going through.

Mediapart: From Belgium, which recently had a period of several months without a government, how do you see the institutions of France’s current constitution, the Fifth Republic?

D.VR: France, like all other Western countries, is in the process of becoming structured in a more horizontal way, yet the Fifth Republic is a very vertical regime, and this disparity creates both difficulties and blockages. The new technologies are accelerating a process in which societies become more horizontal and develop less hierarchical and pyramidal methods of organisation, and these are in conflict with your paternalistic republic – which was invented by the pater familias Charles de Gaulle as if he were presiding over a Sunday lunch.

At the time when books were still copied by hand, princes and abbots held a monopoly over information and its distribution. The printing press brought about a democratic broadening of this. Nowadays we are facing an equivalent leap with the development of social media and new technologies. We have all become princes or abbots. This changes the basis on which we function democratically, yet our democracies' political and institutional structures remain very hierarchical and under state control.

This is also true of the energy network, for example, which is incredibly pyramidal. Yet we are seeing more and more citizens organising in favour of local and decentralised production. So I think that social mutation is gathering pace towards becoming more horizontal, a bottom-up way of functioning, while France's political and institutional system remains profoundly top-down.

So it is not surprising that dissatisfaction with the so-called representative democracies is being felt most keenly in very vertically organised countries like France or Spain. In this vein, I found the way France set up the French National Public Debate Commission [Commission National du Débat Public] some years ago symptomatic of the problem. It was a pioneering attempt to allow a form of citizens' participation, but it immediately became constrained by procedure. The free exchange of ideas was immediately contained, and France had invented a national, vertical institution to look after public debate, as if in reality it were afraid of a free debate.

What is strange is that France has many thinkers who have demonstrated the limits of so-called representative democracy and proposed possible ways of remedying the democratic, including Bernard ManinPierre Rosanvallon, Loïc Blondiaux  and Yves Sintomer, among others. But these inspiring reflections have barely been translated into practice at a national level. These ideas do not inform the actions of French society.

In the United States, someone like James Fishkin,  a professor at Stanford, immediately set up experiments in deliberative democracy[1]. In Belgium, three years after launching the G1000 manifesto, in which we invite a thousand citizens from countries chosen at random to a meeting, I observe that ten out of 12 parties now support participative democracy, sometimes even with some kind of random selection.

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1: In deliberative democracy, decisions derive their legitimacy from being the outcome of a discussion rather than the expression of preferences involved in voting. Fishkin pioneered the deliberative opinion poll, which involves using a representative sample of the population to discuss the issue at hand and then polling the participants for a result.

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