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Je Suis Robespierre

This year’s terror attacks in Paris have resurrected public discourse old French ideas: liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Following the anniversary of Robespierre’s birth, Karthick Ram Manoharan revisits his ideas in contemporary context.

In the aftermath of the Islamist terror attacks in Paris that killed journalists of Charlie Hebdo and Jews at a kosher store, the French government has passed a new surveillance bill that would give extra powers to intelligence agencies to infringe on individual privacy for the sake of public security. While few civil liberties groups have condemned this, MPs from the center-right UMP and the Socialist party have given their support for the bill. Is this the logical conclusion of the “Je Suis Charlie” movement, that free-speech can be paradoxically defended only by increased surveillance? Should we agree with French philosopher Jacques Rancière that universalism has been appropriated by the establishment and “Transformed into the distinctive trait of a particular group, it serves as a charge against a specific community”?

One should not be cynical here. The protests that followed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that saw millions on the streets of Paris, were indeed genuine in their concern for French laïcité and the liberté that emerges from it. But this is not enough. This liberté cannot be sustained without the other two essential ingredients, égalité and fraternité. Which is why we need to revisit the ideas of the greatest European revolutionary whose birth anniversary fell earlier this month (no, Google Doodle did not honor him.)

Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort

The slogan of the Jacobins under Maximillien Robespierre was liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort_. That is, there was a political will, almost a passion, to court death for the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity. This was the foundation for modern French laïcité. After the Thermidorian reaction, “_fraternité_” and “_ou la mort” was removed. And under Napoleon Bonaparte, it was reduced to liberté and ordre public – much like the present regime, which seems to want to balance liberty of speech and surveillance for public security. The radical universalism of the French Revolution, represented in its call for fraternité, was to be replaced.

In his speech “On the Trial of the King”, Robespierre said “We invoke forms, because we have no principles; we pride ourselves on our delicacy, because we lack energy; we flaunt a false humanity, because the feeling of true humanity is foreign to us”. We can extend this and say that we preach tolerance for particularities, because we have lost faith in universality; we submit to surveillance, because we do not dare to think beyond the system; we pick sides between majority and minority bigots, because we have lost the will to imagine a united fight against all bigotry.

Where should we stand now? In his last speech, Robespierre emphasizes “When reason is proscribed as a crime, tyranny reigns; when good citizens are condemned to silence, then obviously scoundrels must rule.” Here, both the state that persecutes individuals for treading on too controversial topics (like foreign misadventures) or the multiculturalist liberals who engage in censorship and self-censorship on topics that might be considered as offending minorities (like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons) obey the same perverse logic of criminalizing reason.

State Violence or Islamist Violence?

This again brings to the other problem, of violence. Here too, simple binaries operate. One is either an apologist for state violence, or one is an apologist for Islamist violence. Yes, one can argue that with all its flaws, the French state is far better than the Islamists that oppose it, that secular tyranny is any day preferable to religious tyranny. But this too betrays a lack of political imagination, the desire to create a new world order. It is probably only that vision, a revisiting of Robespierre, and a reinvented Jacobinism that can really safeguard French culture. If anything, the greatest threat to French culture comes not from immigrants, but rather from the general apathy of the French to their own radical past and its significance for the future.

Michel Houellebecq’s recent dystopian novel Soumission, unfairly accused of Islamophobia by some liberal critics, deals precisely with the costs of apathy and cynicism that pervades Western society and politics. Islamism is merely a metaphor in the novel for any dangerous and regressive ideology than can take over a nihilistic society with the promise of order and meaning.

Charlie Hebdo’s sacrifice served as a wake-up call for the values of laïcité and liberté. To defend and to take forward the “Je Suis Charlie” movement and to make it genuinely universal, we need to now say “Je Suis Robespierre”.

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