Why France is so illiberal?
“I do not think I have ever met a Frenchman who was a liberal,” the late French literary critic Émile Faguet once ironically remarked. If he lived today, he could have preserved his pessimism, especially in the light of the latest work of the French National Assembly: A new law which penalizes “the denial of the Armenian Genocide” with a year in prison and a heavy fine.
Before getting into the trouble with France, though, let me tell you what I think about what really happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915. I do not go as far as using the G word, but I think that this tragic episode well deserves being called an “ethnic cleansing” – and a very gruesome one which killed at least half a million innocent souls. I also think that we Turks have made a big mistake for decades by refusing to see the great suffering of the Armenians, who used to be our good neighbors for centuries before the venom of ethnic nationalism befell all of us. I therefore not only believe in, but also push for, a more honest and compassionate attitude in Turkey to what is called here “the Armenian issue.”
That is why I would not be offended by any declaration by the French National Assembly, or any other parliament in the world, that expresses grief for the Great Catastrophe of 1915. I in fact hold that parliaments should not legislate history, but if they wish to express an opinion, that would be their call, and I would not object.
Now let’s come to France. Here, the first thing I would say is that it is only hypocritical for this county give lessons to others about the sanctity of human life: the more than 1.7 million innocent souls that the French colonizers brutally killed in Algeria is enough of a reason for France to remain shamefully silent when it comes to history and humanity. But countries do have double standards, and nations tend to see other’s crimes rather than their own. So, let me be lenient on that.
What I am not lenient on, though, is the shocking illiberalism that lies behind the new French law. It not only proclaims that 1915 was genocide, but it also penalizes all other opinions, launching a clear attack against freedom of speech.
Needless to say, such laws about “genocide denial” (including the most unacceptable of all, Holocaust denial) exist in France and some other continental European states, but not in the United Kingdom or the United States. For the latter Anglo-Saxon countries are the beacons of classical liberalism, while France certainly is not. (For the same reason, France has recently imposed a ridiculous ban on the burqa, which would be unthinkable in Britain and America.)
The roots of this illiberalism lie, I believe, in the two main pillars of French political thought, as it evolved since the bloodbath called the French Revolution: rationalism and laicite. These two principles can well curb individual freedom. For rationalism gives the state the power to figure out and impose “the truth,” whereas laicite gives it the power to oppress religion. Hence comes thought-policing and burqa-policing.
British thinker Tony Judt once expressed this problem well, noting, “To speak of natural rights, or rights against society, or about rights against state interference, was never a favorite topic in France.” He also observed that the French “displayed a strong propensity toward a strong executive power that in turn engendered a particular type of liberalism through the state, not against the state as in the Anglo-American liberal tradition.”
Unfortunately, we Turks can’t do much to help heal these problems in French political thought. We just need to de-Frenchize ourselves, by further expanding freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which were both tragically shrunk during our past French-wannabe century. And, of course, we need to reach out to the Armenians to establish a historic reconciliation in which no arrogant third party can interfere.
* For all of Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book, ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,’ visit his blog, TheWhitePath.com. On Twitter, follow him at @AkyolinEnglish.