On the Democratic Charms of the French Bourgeoisie (Part one)

(A couple of month ago, I drafted this up, but kept putting off posting it, because I thought it was too long and perhaps a little dilettantish. A conversation I had last week with Antoine Garapon, a noted French judge and legal scholar, has convinced me that I should post it anyway. )

Some six months ago, on January 31st, the New York Times ran an editorial by Roger Cohen entitled “America’s Riveting Democracy” in which he praising the US for having “the most vital, open, self-renewing and democratic society on earth.” While his ‘argument’ in this regard was pretty silly (but oh-so-typical of so many American political comparativists), it did get me thinking about the nature of ‘democracy’: particularly, how we might go about evaluating (and thinking about) what we might call – for lack of a better term – it’s ‘vitality’.

To being with, we might first try to identify a democratic ‘vitality’. To me, American democracy, while certainly entertaining (Cohen’s principal point) is not particular ‘vital’. Once all the entertainment is over, it turns out American elections turn on almost exclusively on two factors: campaign finance and incumbency. The fact that a majority of the Americans that voted for the re-election of the incumbent (and well-financed) in our last national presidential election believed (1) that that president supported the Kyoto Accord, and (2) that that president had actually found WMD in Iraq does not suggest, to me at least, a democracy that would be well described as ‘vital’.

In light of this, my own nomination for a particular ‘vital’ democracy, which I tender in large part simple to annoy Republicans and the remaining followers of AV Dicey, is that of . . . France.

Why? Well, first, the French polity has been that polity which appears to have been most able to resist the dominant global trajectory of neo-liberalism. Not that I am not claiming that neo-liberalism is bad policy. I am simply claiming that neo-liberalism is anti-democratic, in that it substitutes technocratic measures – namely those having to do with economic growth – for democratic measures in its evaluations of regulatory legitimacy. Maybe, this is a good thing. But here, I am simply concerned with ‘democracy’, not political wisdom. And so the fact that the French have been particularly resistant to this global teleology suggests to me that ‘democracy’ may be a distinctively critical component of its political system.

Consider, along these lines, France’s recent decision to try to implement a general four-day work week. As many noted, such a decision threatens to severely curtail French economic growth. What polity would rationally choose to sacrifice economic growth simply in order to secure more free time for the ordinary labour force? Actually, I think the answer would be ‘most’ -- if such a decision were left to a democratic polity. The recent experiences of much of the world suggest that at least in recent times, national economic growth has often not positively impacted the quality of life of the general citizenry. The life-quality benefits of national economic growth are largely captured by only a small portion of the population. This being the case, I think if it were put to vote, most polities would choose the immediate life-style benefits of a four-day workweek over the temporally and economically remote benefits of ‘economic growth’ (indeed, France’s legislation does seem to have spurred considerable grassroots (read ‘democratic’) movements for similar legislation in many other Western countries.

France is also the modern polity that most retains the political practice and constitutional significance of political practices akin to what earlier democratic cultures used to refer to as ‘mobbing’ (today, the term ‘mobbing’ carries a largely negative connotation; historically however, its connotation was often much more positive). ‘Mobbing’ (in this context) involves the use of mass public and disruptive demonstration, generally distinctively targeted again property but not against the security of the person, as a means of making a distinctly political point. Historically, mobbing was seen as critical means by which the lower economic orders in a democratic polity could counteract wealth-effects in the political arena. Today, it remains a distinctive feature of French political society, as recently exemplified by José Bové’s highly choreographed destruction of a McDonald’s restaurant in 1999. And related to our point above, has notably been a particular prominent feature of that polity’s relatively successful opposition to neo-liberalism.

Finally, more evidence for my claim is the French polity’s rejection in 2005 of the proposed EU constitution. One of the things that surprised friends of mine who supported that constitution was who informed the average French citizen was about the issues involved. The proposed constitution was an extraordinarily complex document, and it was supported by the elected government. It would have been easy for the French voter to save the effort necessary to comprehend these complexities and simply vote as she has been told to be some trusted source. Assuming that my friends were right and that the ordinary French voter did in fact go out of her way to make an independent and informed judgment regarding the proposed constitution, it suggests to me ‘democracy’ that is more ‘vibrant’ than many of the others with which I am familiar.

Why might this be the case. Well, this is a long idea, so that will have to wait for my next post.