France: liberté, égalité, fraternité today

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Garden Room, Barbican International Battles

The world’s spotlight fell on France early this year with the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The subsequent wave of solidarity, which rallied France around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’, was heralded by many as a bold reassertion of the nation’s commitment to the liberal values of the French Revolution. Indeed, Voltaire’s ‘Treatise on Tolerance’ climbed to the top of France’s bestseller list in the wake of the attacks. These sentiments seemed to be confirmed by President François Hollande’s address to the nation, where he defended France’s ‘attachment to freedom of speech’ and said that ‘in France all beliefs are respected’. Nevertheless, this apparent liberal zeal was undermined by a government crackdown the same week, which resulted in the arrest of dozens of people, including the controversial comedian Dieudonné, for inflammatory remarks about the attacks on social media.

Does France really know what it stands for any more? A 2013 Ipsos study found that half of French people believe their country is suffering cultural and economic decline, and just a third believe their democracy works well. France’s assimilationist policies have failed to integrate large swathes of migrants, with the banlieues of major cities becoming deprived immigrant ghettos existing very much outside mainstream French society. And despite France having some of the toughest hate-crime laws in Europe, it now records the highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in the world, with a seven-fold increase in such violence since the 1990s. Meanwhile, laïcité, or civic secularism, originally intended to separate church and state, has come to be seen as a veil for discrimination against Muslims, especially with bans on certain kinds of dress.

A different kind of attempt to assert what are said to be French values can be seen in the rise of the far-right Front National under Marine Le Pen, which was the largest party in the 2014 European Parliament elections and won over 2000 seats in this year’s local government elections. Some commentators on the old left point to the weakening of the state as the problem, others mourn what they see as the end of working class solidarity and the rise of individualism. President Hollande’s election slogan was ‘le changement, c’est maintenant’ - change is now. So what really has changed in France, and how will it face the future?

Listen to the debate

Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh
fellow and tutor in politics, Balliol College, Oxford; author, How the French Think: an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people

Bénédicte Paviot
U.K. correspondent, France 24; regular contributor to news and current affairs programmes, BBC TV & Radio, Sky News, LBC and other UK and overseas outlets

Dr Shirley Lawes
researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques

Produced by
Dr Shirley Lawes researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques
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