Reinventing The French People

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© Yann Vernerie

PARIS – “It is accomplished…” In the years when I listened to music nonstop, the passage marked by those words was for me one of the most intriguing in Bach’s St. John Passion.

In a plaintive soprano accompanied by a cello’s lament, lingering between song and silence, the memory came back to me on Monday morning, the day after the second round of France’s parliamentary election. The event that has been accomplished, of course, is President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to obtain a majority in the National Assembly.

But, whether we like it or not, there is more to the event than that. Another accomplishment was the record-high abstention rate: 57% of French voters disdained the rare and precious privilege of voting, a privilege invented several centuries ago by men who believed in deliberation, reason, and enlightenment.

Inevitably, we will hear commentary about an electorate exhausted from a dramatic year in which France’s political foundations shifted and its traditional points of reference were obscured. We will be told about the inner wisdom of a nation that already knew the outcome and wished, without saying so, to avoid the appearance of an excessive victory. Blame will be placed on the weather, the bridges, the media, the bitterness of spurned leaders, and the unknown quantities represented by the new faces of the president’s army of candidates.

But I do not believe that these anecdotal responses will hold up for long. I cannot avoid hearing, in the deafening silence of the millions who abstained, the dissonant note one always detects in victorious fanfares. One never knows, at first, whether it is just a false note, the sound of things falling and continuing to roll briefly before finally coming to a stop, or a real clunker, a more jarring interruption, the herald of a real crisis.

And we cannot rule out that Sunday’s most salient statistic (that 57%!) signifies not only the last gasp of the supine corpses that had been yesterday’s political apparatus (and that may rise again to become tomorrow’s populist parties). It could also reflect a process of dereliction, desertion, and dispersal; one that affects, beyond the vote, the idea that the French hold of themselves, an idea that suddenly appears phantasmagoric.

Hobbes warned us. “The people” is always an artifact. Given the unsociable sociability of human beings, driven by their appetites and passions, the process by which it is fashioned is both brazen and fragile.

And, in the real world, it is the social contract, with its institutions and procedures, its modes of deliberation, delegation, and mediation, and, in particular, its votes, that stands behind the noble invention of a “people” and accounts for the fact that those who comprise it occasionally take a break from tearing each other limb from limb. I cannot help but wonder, in the aftermath of France’s “Abstention Sunday,” whether the sound we hear is not the seizing up of this splendid, subtle machine.

I wonder, too, if we are not nearing the end of a process of dissolution that now threatens to turn the abstraction of “the people” irreversibly into a fiction, one nearly impossible to imagine (let alone put a face to) and even more difficult to believe. I wonder if the satisfaction of being a people – as invented by the first Europeans and Americans, reinvented by the French celebrants of national unity on July 14, 1790, and celebrated by the French historian and poet Michelet – is not becoming a thing of the past.

That would seem to leave us to choose between two stances. We can accommodate ourselves to this irreality and Macron’s newly installed representatives, so preternaturally smooth and remote as to suggest that they might have been elected while Leviathan was sleeping. Or we can rely on Facebook and Twitter to restore a semblance of will and sovereignty to what used to be called the people, by technical means that enable real-time responses to instant referenda.

But there is another alternative: to detect in the prospect of answers without questions and choices, without deliberation or even thought, a path that will lead eventually only to more inhumanity, owing to the urges that may at any moment take hold of a people that senses itself withering away. In that case, we could gird ourselves with intelligence, reason, and courage; return in force to the political arena; and, inspired by the Enlightenment’s legacy, recast in today’s language the theorems of representative democracy, a political system that remains (and will long remain) without peer.

We must reassemble what is falling apart and drifting away like icebergs. We must close the wound from which flows the lifeblood of a fragmented society. In short, we the people must refound ourselves on the rubble of a smoldering world that trembles beneath our feet. Such is the true revolution toward which Macron and his parliamentary majority will have to work in France.

The task is immense, historic, and ultimately meta-political. No single individual, nor several, nor even an overwhelming majority can accomplish it. What will be needed is the general will – no longer just individual or collective, but truly general – of the Republic of France. And then, as in Bach’s St. John Passion, in which the lamentation that “It is accomplished” is followed by strings of Resurrection, it will become possible once again to discern in France’s politics the traces of French history – and the path to France’s future.

Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy