One of the great controversies these last few days in France is the words of the French Minister of the Interior that not all civilisations are equal.
"Contrary to what the left's relativist ideology says, for us all civilisations are not of equal value (....) Those which defend humanity seem to us to be more advanced than those that do not (....) Those which defend liberty, equality and fraternity, seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred". (Daily Telegraph)
The French Minister of the Interior is in charge of the general interior security of the country, similar to the Secretary of Homeland Security in the United States or the Home Secretary in Britain. (the United States also has a Department of the Interior, but it is in charge of land and natural ressource management, the national parks and wildlife conservation).
A word must said to the actual name of the ministry whose full title is Ministre de l'intérieur, de l'outre-mer, des collectivités territoriales et de l'immigration, i.e. 'Ministry of the Interior, Overseas and local administrations and Immigration'.
The word "INTERIOR" is metaphorical in nature: it implies that the country is a building or a container and is different from the exterior. It is thus based on the dichotomy between the inside and the outside (if there is an interior, there has to be an exterior), and may also carry a view of the world similar to the Fortress mentality. This of course is the result of history - the term was first used during the French Revolution, when the French Republic felt it was in danger of being invaded by the monarchies outside its borders. As for the words "overseas territories" (l'outremer), it is a relic of the Ministry of the Colonies in the colonial era. This gives the outremer (literally 'over-seas') an ambiguous status of being both "outside" (since it is added to the the word "interior") and within the nation.
The word "HOME" used in the Anglo-saxon world carries a more positive but also more emotional connotation having to do with domesticity, comfort, hearth and fireside. (The French language only has one word for both house and home: "la maison").
What is unique to France, though is that this minister is now also in charge of immigration. It could have as well been part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or a ministry of its own. This is very telling as it links immigration with interior security and "the cohesion of the republican institutions".
It should be noticed that even this is not part of the official name, the French Ministry of the Interior is also in charge of Public Worship (Ministère des Cultes) - i.e. the relation between the state and religious institutions - it is for instance formally consulted in the process of appointing Catholic bishops, a way to show that the Republic supersedes the church in public affairs after the separation between church and state in 1905).
In the last few years, the Ministry of the Interior has been used as political tool to court the right wing of the conservative electorate. When Sarkozy held the position himself before he became president used it to further a platform based on tough law and order as well as anti-immigration rhetoric. This strategy has continued during his presidency, with Brice Hortefeux (who also made controversial remarks and was fined for making racist comments, BBC), and now with Claude Guéant.
Instead of getting into a deeper political analysis, I would like to focus on the specific words used by Guéant.
A FRENCH CIVILIZATION
The word "CIVILISATION" became popular in both French and English in the 18th century and is thus a product of the Enlightenment. It was seen as an ideal, and was opposed to savagery and barbarism and is meant to be about societies that have attained a particular level of advancement. So it contains the idea of hierarchy of societies and cultures.
Because it was also used as a justification for colonialism and imperialism in the 19th century, it became out of use in the late 20th century, most above all in the academic world.
First, Guéant seems to confuse political systems (tyranny is a form of political system, not a cultural phenomenon) with "civilisations". By talking about civilizations that "defend liberty, equality and fraternity", Guéant clearly talks about France whose motto is precisely "liberté, égalité, fraternité". Rhetorically, France thus becomes the embodiment of this ideal of civilisation. For Guéant the very values define what civilization is. This is very similar to the rhetoric used by G. W Bush (and other president) to talk about America as 'beacon' of the world.
So in essence, the words mean that France is superior... but superior to what? To "to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred". What comes to mind to most Westerners when they think of cultures that accept these things, especially the "the subservience of women"? The undertext is clear: it is a code word for the Muslim world.
So here, not only is Claude Guéant wooing the far-right wing voters, he is actually doing so by embracing the theory of "clash civilizations" formulated in 1992 by Samuel P Huntington that considers that people's cultural and religious identities as the main source of conflict in our post-Cold War world. The problem with this theory is that it fails to give a satisfactory definition of "civilization", it treats other civilizations, notably the Islam world as monolithic and it is highly ethno-centric. (Edward Said's "Clash of ignorance" is a good short rebuttal).
One last point that deserves some comments, is the attacks on the "left's relativist ideology". This is a common argument used by conservative circles both in France and in the United States against the left. Arthur Goldhammer, and acute American observer of French politic believes this is actually an import from the American right, and had these harsh words for the Sarkozy government:
'And this last, pathetic attempt to borrow from the American Christian right the anathema upon "secular relativism" that Guéant pronounced yesterday before the right-wing student group Uni is similarly doomed to the failure it so richly deserves."Sarko l'Américain" seems to want to import "dogwhistle politics" from the United States. France should definitively reject this contribution of American "civilization" to the French debate. (Blog)
There is something worth pondering over the fact that this is a major fault line between conservatives and liberals in both our countries. Of course, this is the result of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1960s. It is also clear that people love holding absolute beliefs, especially in our confusing post-Cold War world. It is reassuring as it simplifies our view of the world in binary terms.
One interesting observation is that virtually all people who believe in an absolute moral system also happen to believe that their own view is the one by which moral judgement should be made. This smacks of bias and subjectivity.
While I believe by faith that there are certainly universal timeless truths - otherwise, I would not believe in God - it is a dangerous assumption to think and say that OUR truths and OUR value system are the absolute compass by which one may be judged superior to another, let alone that they are superior to others.
Besides, I have yet to see France or the United States put into practice the values they preach, even within their own borbers. (After all, didn't "le pays des droits de l'homme" -the country of human rights- sell its expertise in torture learned from the German and used in the Algerian war to the dictators of South America?)
Finally, if nothing else, science has shown that our judgement and decision-making process are based on our (changing and relative) senses (called cognitive bias) and on our cultural background and upbringing.
One last updated note: last night, when Sarkozy was asked during an interview with Angela Merkel about the controversy, he dismissed the criticism as "ridiculous" and said:
“The interior minister said that a civilization ... that does not give the same place and rights to men and to women doesn’t have the same value,” he said. “It's common sense". (Le Soir)Has anyone looked at the picture of the French parliament lately? Same place to men and women.... Really?
What about non-white French? See them anywhere?