La faute à Rousseau!# – so goes the refrain of the famous song of Hugo’s famous heroic street urchin Gavroche in Les Misérables, the first part of which runs like this : Je suis tombé par terre,/ c’est la faute à Voltaire/ le nez dans le ruisseau,/ c’est la faute à Rousseau#
“Free peoples, remember this maxim: freedom can be conquered, but it can never be retrieved. » These times have much to learn from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, more than they ever have! As though from the depths of his sepulchre in the Panthéon, swept by the current tempest, as France is beginning to celebrate the tri-centenary of his birth, he was reminding us of our obligations as heirs of the Enlightenment. At what stage is a symbol socially efficient, operative, energizing? Pierre Laurent, the French Communist Party’s secretary, yesterday brought the clearest, most startling, answer to this haunting question. Speaking first in the Senate, then on the square of the Panthéon, renamed square of the “great persons”, he anchored his very topical homage to the author of The Social Contract in the Left’s collective imagination and in the paradigmatic heritage of the story of “the France that suffers”. And in doing so he hit the mark. Is a democracy still alive, is it still modern, when it is no longer in the service of the people?
Has Nicolas Sarkozy read but one page of Rousseau’sConfessions or of his Reveries of a Solitary Walker? We know that for him (and for his scribe, Guaino) any opportunistic eulogy is worth all the symbols. For five years he has himself “done his shopping” of historic symbols from a long list of vending machines, exploiting these symbols for contrary purposes, distorting to the point of absurdity all the representative poles of collective consciousness, and in the process de-contextualizing all figures, signs and meanings. And more is to follow. Even though he has lost all his money, the CEO of the France Inc. has once more adopted the worst of symbols by requisitioning five TV channels on Sunday night in order to announce “the strong and structural measures” he has decided to impose on all of us following the so-called “social” summit. This hold-up of the media doubles a social hold-up. But what about the people in this affair?
The people? Though the word has vanished from the speech of most political VIPs, it remains the Holy Grail of errant knights on their electoral tours. So back it is, that accursed people, atomised by a dreadful social crisis and sky-rocketing unemployment figures. Even François Hollande, who avoids using the word and speaks of “living together” instead, has chosen a picture of blue-collar workmen for the home page of his new campaign site. But behind the pictures and the semantic disorders, what appears clearly is the “ideological contamination” from Left Front themes, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon suggests; and indeed the dynamism of his campaign is now noted by everyone. The real debate is beginning. Even the daily Libération’s front-page title yesterday was: “In the factories, Melenchon’s turbine is humming.” The presidential candidate puts it quite candidly: “The more Hollande plays the anti-capitalist violin, the more he validates the words I use! But now he is standing facing the wall! What will he do about it? What does he say about wages?
If the common people are sometimes quite justified in turning away from a Left that they feel has betrayed them,the credibility of the Left Front’s proposals may well take many electors by surprise. In the face of the most formidable rage of social destruction since the Liberation, the philosophical dimension is essential to win the people round. France needs a change of society, not just a soft alternation in the country’s “management”. Let’s once more turn to Rousseau: “Here is forged the first link in that long chain of which the social order is composed.” That long chain has a name: [the people].
Forks in history are possible as soon as public opinion once more becomes a people. Let’s never forget it!