As an American youth, I grew up with an uneducated view of the French people. Cartoons taught me that they were “great lovers”. I learned that French words sell a lot of women’s cosmetics.
I heard that France had “allowed” the Germans to easily take over their country. I heard the foolish joke about their army tanks having one gear forward and five for reverse.
I saw that the French would periodically hold strikes and shut down their country over unpopular government policies and took note that their government would be forced to reconsider them. I was told that the protests were merely a demonstration of socialist self-interest and that the disorder they caused was embarrassing and undignified.
In the years since, I’ve grown to have an admiration for the French people’s way with their government. My respect was for their spirit. That a truck driver could dump a load of manure in front of the French National Assembly seems to make it clear who is in charge of the country: the French people.
Deference by the government to a nation’s citizens is an American ideal, but sadly, it is not our reality. We don’t see this deference. There certainly isn’t any fear of us. There is no longer even a pretense of it. There is, however, a broad and growing authoritarian wariness of us by our government and there are overt actions that seem aimed at encouraging our acquiescence.
In today’s environment, demonstrations like those in France would likely be investigated as a “terroristic threat” and our shallow, scurrilous “news media” would have food for another hour.
To the French people I say that I respect you. I won’t pretend to know much of your culture or history, but I know that many years ago you humbled an elite that had worked at depriving you of your dignity. You have never forgotten this and neither has your government. This is why I am deeply disturbed by what has just happened.
When the Charlie Hebdo event played out, I watched, stunned. I am a researcher, and in the weeks prior to this tragedy, I had reflected on what I could learn from the French about how ordinary American citizens can rein in their own government. Instead, I found myself watching in sorrow as the French people experienced a “9/11”. I suspected that this event would put you on the path that we are on.
Cause and Effect.
The American 9/11 resulted in a fundamental change in the relationship between us and our government. These changes were made possible by the Patriot Act and related security laws passed in response to 9/11. Would this happen to the French people?
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo event, I struggled with Google Translate to find news of a nascent “Patriot Act” in France. I was sure a French government official would sieze the moment and call out for additional security.
My search found only a few warnings against “Patriot Act” laws by wise and perspicacious French commentators. My concern was quieted and I had let some weeks pass. Maybe the French are too alert to allow such a law to be considered, I thought to myself.
Then I watched as a Patriot Act for France was put together and passed. It happened as quickly as it did in our country. Knowing what I have seen in the U.S., I felt as though a numbing blow had been made against the French people’s spirit of self-governance.
The country that most openly displayed citizen action and government responsiveness had caught our dangerous political disease: an unquenchable thirst for security. It is like a vicious “autoimmune” disorder that co-opts a body’s defenses and increasingly sensitizes until it attacks anything that could be seen as a challenge to “the new way”. It is a transformative law. The old ways must die out.
To the French people I say that we in the United States are in serious trouble because of our new laws. Many of our congressman are openly concerned about how they have been used. Even the congressman who wrote our Patriot Act, Jim Sensenbrenner, is angry. These laws have thrown open doors that have been extremely difficult to close. You must protect yourselves! You must not acclimate to this! It is a descent of a thousand steps.
The heart of France will continue to beat so long as national strikes, government shutdown and private telephone calls are still possible. The day that you are no longer permitted to protest – as you have – may be the day that you have lost the historic control of your government, your civil liberties and in the end, your dignity.
If the French and American people lose control of their country, control will have been transferred to those with the power of force, and those who cannot live without liberty will die sorrowful deaths.
The age of government for the people will have died.