Faked Equality

16 April 2012, 12:00

Marc-Olivier Padis is a Professor of Literature; editor-in-chief of Esprit, a socio-political magazine; Deputy Chairman of the Terra Nova think-tank; a member of the editorial board at the Eurozine magazine web portal; professor of European Studies at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies); and co-author of Les multinationales du coeur (Multinational Companies of the Heart: NGOs, Politics and the Market), a book published in 2004. On 23 March, Mr. Padis presented a lecture titled “Democracy and the Project of a United Europe” at the ‘Ye’ Bookstore in Kyiv as part of its European Experience series. After the lecture, he shared his ideas with The Ukrainian Week.

U.W: Did the recent tragedy in Toulouse where a Muslim shot children in a Jewish school signal the failure of the multiculturalism policy in France or a political provocation?

I don’t think it was a failure of the French integration policy. Some politicians, especially the right-wing ones, say so. But even Sarkozy and his competitor François Hollande are very cautious about that. The boy who did this (Mohammed Merah – ed.) did not have any support from French parties. I didn’t see anybody in France saying “He is a murderer and we want to be like him.” Even French Muslims don’t like the story at all. I’m not sure it will have any great political impact.

U.W.: How would you determine the policy of multiculturalism in Western Europe?

In Germany, AngelaMerkel said that multiculturalism was a failure there. We didn’t have this debate in France because we don’t have any multicultural policy. Multiculturalism has a different definition in every country. In the UK, for instance, they use the word to define the promotion of diversity and giving special rights to people who do not have enough access to scholarship, universities, responsibilities, political life and so on. It’s different in France. We have our own political culture that traces back to the French Revolution where the idea of equality is very important. It does not provide for creating special rights for anybody. Instead, we want to have policies that correct inequalities. Sociological surveys show that there are inequalities and we should correct them. It’s hard to do something special for the black or Muslim population because it doesn’t mean anything in law. It has no blacks or Arabs, just French citizens. We don’t differentiate. In fact, we don’t understand the British political debate, for instance, because we use completely different categories.

U.W.: Is the “imperialistic syndrome” still alive in France after the loss of Algeria and the end of the colonial period in the country’s history?

This year it is 50 years since 19 March 1962, the end of the Algerian War. In fact, that was the end of the French Empire. But people who face discrimination today often come from these colonies. Even if we think that the imperial age is gone, it’s obvious that we still have this problem. We talk of people as Algerian-born French even when they and their parents were born in France and their grandparents were born in Algeria. For instance, Mohammed Merah, the killer of Toulouse, was a French citizen born in France and so were his parents. He was a typical representative of this “third generation.” But people still see him as an Algerian. These French citizens often ask how long it will take to change this attitude. Even those from the West Indies, who have been French citizens since the 19th century, are still seen as black people. They also feel like second rate citizens.

U.W.: What are the significant differences in the way France and Germany look at the lack of a European policy?

Franceand Germany have different approaches to many issues. The first one is the euro. In Germany, they have this idea that political power should intervene with monetary policy. They think they have set the rules and that they are enough on their own. That was the idea behind having an independent European Bank, where clear rules would be sufficient. It could have worked in ordinary times but it’s not enough when a crisis comes and you have to decide and react. The French approach is closer to that: Paris suggested increased responsibility of European political leaders in terms of the common currency. This explains the long-time discrepancies between Merkel and Sarkozy on the common currency.

The other big difference is that the two countries have no common idea on what the European federation could be. And the reason for this difference is that Germany is a federal state while France is not. In Germany, every citizen has an idea of what a federal system is. In France, we’ve always had a centralized state so people hardly understand what the federal system is. As the debate regarding the Constitutional Treaty showed, people in France could not understand what the question of competences was all about. They didn’t understand what should be national and supranational functions. That’s what the federal debate is about. The French missed the point of this debate and that’s why they voted “no” at the end of the day. They did not understand what the question was.

U.W.: Does the French intellectual elite still have firm negative stereotypes about Eastern European countries?

Everybody in France was quite happy to see the changes in Central and Eastern Europe after 1991 (the collapse of the Soviet Union – ed.). But the general public didn’t understand quickly enough that it was really important for these countries to be able to enter Europe and that it would change the whole European idea. In 2005, the French in fact rejected the Constitutional Treaty as a way of saying, “nobody asked us” whether these countries should join the united Europe. There is great fear about employment, competitiveness and economic issues. People didn’t really understand how important it was to open Europe to these new countries and accept the fact that it would change the role of France within the EU. Finally, people realized it a decade too late. Political parties didn’t explain the issues at stake well enough so there was a big misunderstanding.

U.W.: What can you say about the role of the NGOs you called “transnational companies of heart” in the establishment of democratic society?

Together with Thierry Pech we wrote a book on this matter. We wanted to understand the role of NGOs in international relations. It was at the time when there was a big movement regarding globalism and anti-globalism issues. Many, especially the left, had an idea that NGOs could create another globalization. What we wanted to show in our book was that NGOs were part of the globalization process because they work with national governments and big companies. It’s always difficult to find a definition – a theoretical idea – of civil society and NGOs because they are too different and their roles change from country to country. It is important, though, to see what people actually do to build a new international consensus about what should be important and what should be the agenda of the international community. NGOs cooperate with governments and the market to do that. That was the idea of the book.

Of course, NGOs can also become instruments to promote democratic values, but in some countries they are used by governments or commercial groups to promote different goals. There are NGOs known as ‘GONGOs’, or government-organized NGOs, especially in non-democratic countries, that are used to show international organizations that the country has good NGOs which are meeting the right standards. Yet, if civil society is active and people are involved in public life, it’s better for the democratic progress of the country.

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