Translated by Greg Johnson
This exclamation is probably a bit simplistic, but it sums up the feeling of revulsion spreading today throughout the fair country of France. When taxes were being raised to benefit various electoral constituencies, explosive revelations about the corruption of the minister in charge forced back the increase. This lovely scandal added to the rising anger of a large segment of the public against a clear intent to destroy them, as evidenced by mass immigration policy or the legalization of gay marriage.
Corruption and embezzlement by people in power, the politicians or officials of a bloated administration, is nothing new. Whole libraries have been devoted to the scandals of the successive republics. However, the Fifth Republic has broken all records since it was founded by General de Gaulle, a man of integrity who loved to be surrounded by rogues. It is not just that the temptations became more numerous, fueled by new financial powers granted to elected officials and huge windfalls to administrations, unions, and associations for this or that. No, there was something else.
The reasons for public corruption are manifold. Some are historical. I happen to remember that in the purge trials in the High Court, after 1945, against the ministers of the French State, otherwise known as the Vichy regime, it was impossible to identify a single case of enrichment through fraud or corruption, despite the strenuous efforts of investigators. The men who held power then were certainly criticized in many ways, but, in general, they were imbued with a sense of almost military duty to their country trapped in a situation of extreme distress. No doubt they also knew they were being watched by the large surveillance corps established by the State. The idea of duty then evaporated in many of their successors, who without doubt profited from the real or supposed dangers they faced during the war years.
But, since I wish to invoke the mindset, i.e. the “representations” that we all know exist and determine our behavior, we must surely dig deeper.
Europe since earliest antiquity has always been ruled by the idea that each individual is inseparable from his community, clan, tribe, people, city, empire, to which he is linked by a bond more sacred than life itself. This unquestioned belief, of which the Iliad offers the oldest and most poetic expression, took various forms. Think of the worship of ancestors for whom the city owed its existence, or the loyalty to the prince who was its visible expression.
The first threat was introduced by the individualism of early Christianity. The idea of a personal god emancipated men from the hitherto unquestioned authority of ethnic gods of the city. Yet the Church itself reimposed the idea that the individual will could not order things as it pleased.
Yet the seed of a spiritual revolution had been sown. It reappeared unexpectedly in the religious individualism of the Reformation. In the following century, the rationalist idea of absolute individualism was developed forcefully by Descartes (“I think, therefore, I am”). The philosopher also made central the biblical idea of man as the master and possessor of nature. No doubt, in Cartesian thought, man was subject to the laws of God, but God set a very bad example. Unlike the ancient gods, He was not dependent on a natural order anterior and superior to him. He was the single all-powerful and arbitrary creator of all things, of life and nature itself, according to His sole discretion. If this God was a creator free of all limits, then why not man, who is made his image, as well?
Set in motion by the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, this idea has no known limits. In it lies what we call “modernity.” This idea assumes that man is his own creator and he can recreate the world as he pleases. There is no other principle than the will and pleasure of each individual. Consequently, the legitimacy of a society no longer depends on its compliance with the eternal laws of the ethnos. It depends only on the momentary consent of individual wills. In other words, society is legitimate only as a contract resulting from a free agreement between parties who are pursuing their own advantage.
If self-interest is the sole basis of the social compact, there is nothing to prevent us from satisfying our interests and appetites, including by filling our pockets if the opportunity is offered by our position. All the more so, given that market society, through advertising, tells us that we are obligated to enjoy ourselves, indeed, that we exist only to enjoy ourselves.
Still, despite this individualistic and materialistic logic, we have long maintained communal ties of birth and fatherland and all the obligations these imply. These ties have been progressively destroyed across Europe in the decades following World War II, while the triumphant consumer society arrived from the United States. Like other European countries, France has gradually ceased to be a nation (based on nationality, common birth) to become an aggregate of individuals united by their pleasures or the ideas they have of their interests. The former obligation to “serve” has been replaced by the general temptation to “serve oneself.” This is the logical consequence of the principle that founds society solely on human rights, thus on each individual’s interests.
And now, before our eyes, this repulsive logic faces a revolt from the depths. We are witnessing the unexpected awakening of all those who, through atavistic reflexes, feel deep down that unquestionable ancestry is what make a clan, a people, or a nation.
1. See my Histoire de la Collaboration [History of the Collaboration] (Paris: Pygmalion, 2002).
2. Rousseau understood that this was the fault of the social contract. He sought to remedy it by justifying the use of force to compel the reluctant to submit to a problematic “general will.”