On May 25, hours before George Floyd was killed in the US for all the world to watch, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner reacted to the public accusation by a celebrity that the French police were racist and capable of brutality in the execution of their duties.
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The minister began his response by declaring, “I am strongly attached to public debate.” That sounded like an invitation to the kind of discussion that is now taking place in the US following nationwide protests after Floyd’s death in police custody. Castaner appeared to be calling for the debate to begin. But to clarify what he meant, Castaner added, “The freedom of public debate doesn’t allow anyone to say everything and anything.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A space occupied for a majority of the time by public authorities in purportedly democratic nations, who have designed it as an environment to stimulate discourse approving their actions, but which is occasionally disturbed by individuals who allow themselves to deviate from the approved discourse before being promptly and publicly reprimanded and branded as mendacious and disloyal
Castaner’s statement cited above contains two significant words in the French original. “Everything” is the unambiguous translation of “tout.” “Anything” is a colorless attempt to translate the expression “n’importe quoi,” which literally means “no matter what.” The expression is commonly used in everyday parlance to dismiss a proposition, a suggestion or an idea as totally absurd, inappropriate, ridiculous, defying belief or simply untrue. The tone that accompanies it is far more arrogant and condescending than its translation, “anything.” In some contexts, it’s the polite and indirect French equivalent of “bullshit.”
The minister was reacting to the assertion of the French-Algerian actress and singer Camelia Jordana, who, during an interview on French national television, dared to claim that “Men and women who work in the suburbs get massacred for no other reason than the color of their skin. It’s a fact.”
In a true debate, Castaner might focus on the exaggeration conveyed by the idea of a massacre. He might also engage with the idea that it isn’t only the color of their skin, but also the culture within which minorities are confined through a policy of governmental and social neglect with regard to education and social services. But, in a true public debate, Jordana might then answer that race becomes the outward sign of the cultural divide based on historical injustice. She might also add that by specifically designating the suburbs, she was calling attention to the contemporary socio-geographic reality of French society.
But for all his sworn attachment to public debate, Castaner prefers to cut it short. In this instance, he used a rhetorical strategy popular in France that consists of redefining the term one is using to make it appear to mean the opposite of what everyone takes it to mean. He defines debate not by what it allows but by what it presumably forbids, and, in his reading, that includes “everything” and “anything” (or any old bullshit).
The French adore debating and are generally very good at it, though they do have a tendency to privilege rhetoric over logic. Good debate should seek a balance between the two. It would have sounded highly unpatriotic — indeed un-French — for Castaner to deny his attachment to public debate. It would be like an American insulting the flag. But his (and French President Emmanuel Macron’s) manner of “debating” the yellow vests movement during their protests was closer to US President Donald Trump’s in the face of the protests in America over Floyd’s death — though without the tweets — than it was to the great tradition of public debate dating back to France’s 18th-century Enlightenment.
The debates of the Enlightenment had an important historical effect. In 1789, the French people revolted against the monarchy. When the dust first cleared, they had theoretically abolished class privilege and promoted the notion of equality, giving a voice to the people. Although it wasn’t immediate, and there were very significant lapses into empire as well as restoration of the monarchy, by the end of the 19th century, France had settled on democracy as the best embodiment of its values made sacred by the revolution: “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Those three ideals define the conditions in which public debate becomes not only possible but necessary.
Public debate stands as the bedrock of any democracy since laws cannot be drafted and adopted without debate. The minister of a nation that takes liberty, equality and fraternity seriously ought to understand that public debate is all about allowing discussion to occur before any definitive political position can be established. It not only permits but encourages the confrontation of disparate ideas, some of which may end up discredited after debate has offered the justification for doing so, but never before the debate has actually occurred.
The European Scientific Journal offers a definition of public debate that most people find reasonable: “Public debate is essentially a series of forums where people’s opinions, interests and expectations are expressed on an issue that concerns the whole or part of the society.” It further defines the process of debate, which takes place through forums “that bear the traces of how people wish to be governed in the context of preferences and expectations that have been voiced.” More significantly, it underscores the goal of public debate, reducing to a minimum the “risk of power abuse … in an administration which is constantly supervised and held accountable through public debate.”
Despite its spectacular revolution, France has never quite abandoned the idea of royal privilege. Under the current Fifth Republic (founded in 1958), France has seen several presidents who, despite the nation’s democratic institutions, thought of themselves and their authority as beyond or above debate. The founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, set the standard simply by being such an imposing figure thanks to his physique (just under 6 feet, 4 inches tall), his legendary status as the general of the resistance, and his air of military authority as he reigned — rather than presided — over the democratic institutions defined in its new constitution.
The Fifth Republic has seen a curious alternance between tall and short presidents. De Gaulle, Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac were tall and used that feature to affirm their authority. Three rather diminutive (height-challenged) presidents — Francois Mitterand, Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron — invented ways of appearing to stand above their taller contemporaries.
During his 14 years in office, Mitterand’s lordly behavior led satirists to refer to him as “Dieu” (God). A family legend relates that at 14, young Francois, who pondered entering a seminary, claimed, “I want to be king or pope.” Today’s rather short president, Macron, achieved the monumental feat in 2017 of splitting the powerful parties on the left and the right to assume the presidency, just as Moses split the Red Sea. Upon taking office, Macron famously invoked the notion of being a Jupiterian president.
Sarkozy was a bit different. The French called him “Sarko l’Américain” (the American) because of his taste for bling-bling, celebrity culture and the idea in his mind that he could rise to the level of imperial power he associated with contemporary American presidents… without even managing to speak English (his celebrity wife, Carla Bruni, handled that for him).
When Christophe Castaner defends the police against those who have noticed their systematic brutality toward minorities, he is acting not as a participant in a public debate, but as the minister who is there to execute Jupiter’s will. For all his lip service toward national solidarity, Macron is positioning himself as a president of law and order. He is due to speak on the subject on June 14. But he has already made a resounding accusation designed to set the tone: “Academia is the guilty party” (“le monde universitaire a été coupable”). Their specific crime is “the ethnicization of the social question” (translation: playing the race card).
In other words, all the blame belongs to those whose profession consists of researching and feeding public debate.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.