Explained: why France continues to be provocative


Written by Shiny Varghese, edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |

November 3, 2020 1:23:21 p.m.

A girl writes during a course on freedom of expression and secularism, Monday, November 2, 2020 in Strasbourg, in eastern France. In schools across the country, students will read the letter from Jean Jaurès, a 19th century French thinker and politician, to instructors urging them to teach the country’s children to “know France, its geography and its history, its body. and his soul ”. (AP photo: Jean-François Badias)A country does not often walk to the rhythm, “I regret nothing”. It’s a hymn over half a century old, but No, I don’t regret anything of French singer Edith Piaf has crossed borders and languages ​​as a symbol of resistance. While France holds its place in its fight against “Islamist separatism”, it is a country which has written, sung, fought and dreamed of resistance. Recently, authors, booksellers and publishers called on the French government to make bookstores an “essential” service.

France has given us writers, philosophers, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers – all of whom have left indelible imprints on the world. He never shied away from provocative expressions. Subversion, skepticism and irreverence have been the cornerstone of the country for centuries.


There is a saying that 19th century Western literature was divided between before Hugo and after Hugo. The widely acclaimed novel by Victor Hugo Wretched (1862), written in exile and smuggled into France because he revolted against Napoleon, shook a complacent country from its romantic reverie to see the poor and disenfranchised living a difficult life. The Miserables continues to haunt the world stage with his explosive performances.

Almost three decades later, in 1898, another well-known author Emile Zola published a letter on the front page of the Dawn newspaper accusing the government of anti-Semitism and the unjust imprisonment of a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, accused of treason. The letter titled J’accuse (J’accuse) left the country divided between French conservatives and liberals. This conundrum gave the world the phrase “Dreyfus Affair,” which indicates bitter political divisions, and is even used to explain the upcoming US elections.

Long before them, the father of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave the world The social contract (1762). Born in Geneva, Rousseau settled in Paris and dreamed of a society where governments would allow freedom to all its citizens. His fundamental question, how can humans live freely in society, shaped the principles of the United Nations Charter and the United States Declaration of Independence.

Parisian salons and cafes were hotbeds of new thought and the City of Light engendered many minds in the Age of Enlightenment, which above all favored reason and research.


It is therefore not without surprise that when the famous philosopher Voltaire turned his arms against all religions, be it Judaism, Islam or Christianity, the deist in him did not tolerate the intolerance of any sect. A first advocate of religious tolerance, he encouraged people through his writings (from the 1730s) to have a sense of “detached rationalism mixed with observation.” He was also not popular with the royal family; he was expelled from Paris for writing a satire on the French royal family.

This idea of ​​a critical self-image can be found centuries later in the writings of playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. When he wrote “Hell is other people” in his play Sans issue (1944), it is this sense of judgment that he denounces. He gave the world the theory of existentialism, where he presented that each individual has the power to choose, which has consequences. During this time, her lover and companion Simone de Beauvoir wrote the founding book The second sex (1949), who examined the idea of ​​”the other” and in doing so presented the innate sense of distrust of people. This feminist manifesto recognized that one is not born into one’s identity, whether it is a woman or a man, it is soaked. And therefore, women have always been in a lower position in society.

Also in explained | France’s complex relationship with Islam and Macron’s recent remarks
France, anti-France demonstrations, France freedom of expression, French culture, French philosophy, Indian Express A schoolboy sticks the word Freedom on a wall during a course on freedom of expression and secularism, Monday, November 2, 2020 in Strasbourg, in eastern France. (AP Photo: Jean-François Badias)

This is why, when the writer Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary (1856), society was scandalized that it might engage in extramarital affairs. Flaubert even faced a lawsuit for the book.

Being irreverent and demystifying tradition of all kinds has been second nature to French culture. As Marcel Ducamp did, when he shocked the art world with his “readmade” objects or found objects with a urinal he called Fontaine (1917). His goal was to “put art back at the service of the mind”, which for him had become the slave of the visual. 📣 Click to follow Express explained on Telegram

And finally, the oft-cited thinker Michel Foucault said that power is everywhere. According to him, “new governments control people by focusing on their minds.” Ultimately, whether it was Foucault in the 20th century or René Descartes in the 17th century, the French have always believed in a fundamental principle: “I think, therefore I am.”

Read also | Explained: What explains the calls for a “boycott of France” in the Muslim world?

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