Evolving Democracies or Devolving Democracies? The French Regional Elections, Dec 6

I’ve been brought up and educated to think that disillusionment with democracy and distrust of one’s fellow citizens is – and I recognize the Western-centrism here, forgive the irony – the prerogative of countries that are still democratizing or have obviously embarked upon the path of democratic failure. Yet, countries which supposedly have a long-standing democratic history and are thus arguably recognized as the model to follow have been coming up short, at least according to my criteria. I think we’ve reached a critical path juncture in world history: a time where established democracies are starting to devolve and regress, rather than evolve and develop. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the French regional elections this weekend: it should be taken for granted that the French have the utmost respect for human rights – after all, we all believe that these stand at the heart of our nation and society and boast about the original Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen – yet, it appears that we’ve forgotten this. Or, at least, a vocal minority has and it is those people who are apparently taking the reins of our country.

I’ll address the main counter-argument right here and right now because I want it to be understood when I make other points later. Yes, when one speaks of participatory democracy, it is possible to argue that elections such as the regionals in France this weekend – where the far-right FN party all but won a ticket to the second round of the 2017 presidential elections – simply broadcast the population’s wishes and current national interests since they are free and fair, and thus do nothing but show where the majority leans. Unfortunately, this falsely assumes elections to be stupidity-neutral tools. In turn, this causes major dysfunctions which can and do endanger democracy in even the most democratic of states around the world.

For one, this forgets that different parties and their rhetoric have drastically different channels for vocalizing their programs, some given more space by electoral campaign rules and formats than others. As such, it must be recognized that extreme parties have a much more powerful, and vicious, appeal when it comes to rallying citizens around a flag planted in a land barren of anything resembling respect for universal, basic human rights. War cries and enamored speeches about attacks on one’s country are prime currency here. This is true of the FN in France and of, for instance, the vocal Republican Party in the US. Their electoral tactics rely upon “racing to the bottom,” where actors compete for the palm of the most ridiculous and backwards proposal. In the US, this has been extreme in the case of the refugee discourse post 13/11. In France, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen has said she would stop funding Family Planning, and has also spoken against funding pro-LGBTI associations. It’s basically become a question of which rights are going to get shot down next. Equal opportunities for people with disabilities? Women’s right to seek divorce? Raising the voting age back to 21? Wait, no, that makes no sense. In fact, extreme parties would love to lower the voting age because younger, less educated voters are just as likely as the disgruntled elderly to side with the far-right in response to what they see as attacks on the good old France we were all hoping to be privileged in. And the young voters who aren’t voting for extreme parties, more often than not, don’t turn up to the polls anyways.

Which brings me to my next point. The electorate is unfortunately found seriously lacking in education. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen major news outlets in both France and the US, such as Le Monde, Le Figaro, or the New York Times, try and explain to the average citizens why certain economic propositions – *cough* leaving the Euro *cough* – are nonsensical, or why states in the US simply cannot refuse refugees once they have been screened and given asylum by the federal state. Yet the big declarations of disagreement with the ruling administrations ring far louder than the polite reminders of such policies being impossible. Why is that? Well, for one, not everyone reads the news. I think that much became obvious with the huge outcry against the lack of coverage of the Beirut attacks on 12/11 when they were in fact covered.[1] Furthermore, it stands to reason that, when a person is tired of their current government, an argument which seems to propose an alternative solution and thus allows one to make a pseudo-political stand is attractive (and, apparently, the crazier the better). Of course, this raises the question of whether citizens do this because they believe they lack access to other channels of contention, where they could raise their discontent with government policies. Is the gap between the state and the citizenry growing? Possibly. Think for instance of the depressing turnouts at the European elections or in other, democratizing, states around the world such as Egypt in October. However, does this justify buying into fear-mongering discourse and trying to close up one’s borders while retreating behind antiquated conceptions of social rights? Absolutely not.

Which brings me to my last point. It seems that the only way opposition parties have to build up their electorate and keep the governments on their toes anymore is to lash out against recent policies and work towards their repeal. This is especially true when we talk about human rights. Take for instance the legalization of same-sex marriage in France in 2013, or in the US in 2015: the typical response that opponents fell back upon was that they would repeal such laws once in power. In the case of the FN in France, it appears that illegalization is no longer an option: their solution, to cut all funding of pro-LGBTI associations. And don’t be fooled, this will take a huge toll on the rights of sexual minority groups in France. Some have argued that is only fair, because affirmative action towards some groups necessarily puts others who have not been granted the same resources at a disadvantage. Here is my question: if other groups are losing, why not work to give them similar rights? Why must our default option always be to go back to an old and apparently stable status quo? Since when have democracies been pro-status quo? Do we want to start festering? Do we want to stop evolving? It seems that we do. And you know what the most ironic of it all is? That the people who argue for one step forward two step backwards types of politics are often the same people who will argue that, for instance, Muslim-majority countries do not have a satisfactory human rights track record. Does no one notice the logic deficiency? When Marion Maréchal-Le Pen says that Islam will never stand on equal ground with Christianity in France because they have fundamentally different values, yet in the same breath argues that Family Planning should no longer be funded, thus hindering women’s access to services which can bolster their rights to their bodies and to chose, how is it not called out as hypocritical?

I digress and I conflate. Let me make one last point. France was built on the following values: equality, fraternity, liberty, and secularism. If this is what we French people stand for today, and if this is what we hope to continue exporting to the rest of the world, how has a majority of the electorate bought into the FN’s program, which scorns each and every one of these values? Free and fair elections on their own are a necessary, yet no longer sufficient, element for the survival of sustainable democracies. If we want regimes that promote the utmost respect for human rights which, why wouldn’t we, then why are we standing idly by while a twisted, racist, xenophobic and backward party steadily gains hold over the French?[2] I have an answer but it is too crude to be put in here, furthermore I don’t believe that my answer is carved in stone, thus I will leave this question open to debate because I definitely don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to have them.

[1] I do acknowledge that they were covered to an incredibly lesser extent, and I am in no way refuting the argument that different bodies are understood to have different values, at least in the Western media and by the average citizenry.

[2] While I do not have the necessary space to account for the arguments that human rights are a Western ideal, this is an important component of any discussion of this topic and should not be disregarded.

 

Margot Charles

 

Credit for Featured Image: Tuxboard

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