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Analyzing French Political Culture

Political culture describes a set of political values, beliefs, and attitudes widely shared throughout a society, and these influence the way the members of that society perceive the world around them and respond to it (notes 9/3). As a result, understanding a polity’s political culture is vitally important to understanding the political behaviors of that polity. This is very apparent in the case of France. French nationalism, a product of pride in their history and culture, has prompted the French to assert themselves internationally but has also brought them into conflict with immigrant subcultures. Secularism is integral to French political culture as well, and also brings the French into conflict with their politicizing subcultures. The French are prone to ‘hero-worship,’ giving charismatic individuals enormous amounts of power, but this tempered by a distrust of authority. Their conflictual political culture has manifested itself in the numerous changes of government type experienced in modern times. The French hold public service in high esteem, and have distinct expectations about what the state should do for them.

Nationalism is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the French political culture. The birthplace of prominent thinkers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, and Diderot, France can be credited with beginning the age of Enlightenment. The French began the tradition of revolution in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They defined and cultivated the concept of the ‘citizen’ and developed the idea that citizens have inalienable rights. During the Revolution and under Napoleon, they fundamentally changed the nature and character of the modern state, altering the international system forever. The French can therefore take extreme pride in France’s international prestige, culture, and intellectual accomplishments. There is a sense of belonging to the French nation and its vibrant history. This reflects itself in many ways in contemporary France. Proud of their rich artistic history, the French are eager to sponsor the arts and culture. To achieve that, the French government has a Minister of Culture in charge of promoting, protecting, and support the arts in France and abroad (notes 10/31). Some in France are worried about the excessive influence of mass culture and the ‘pollution’ of French art, cinema, culture and language by ‘Americanisms’ (Safran 118). To combat this and preserve France’s culture, the French government has placed limitations and restrictions on what foreign films can be shown in theaters (notes 10/31). Recognizing the enormous historical influence France has had on intellectual thought and philosophy, the French retain a culture of intellectualism now devoid in many other societies (notes 10/31). French nationalism is a result of their great pride in France’s accomplishments, and reflects itself today in a continuing commitment to creating and spreading French culture.

French nationalism has also significantly impacted the way the French act in the international arena. Throughout its history, France has profoundly impacted the international system and the states in it. The French Revolution introduced concepts such as popular sovereignty which forever changed the way states behave and are legitimized; by bringing down the ‘Ancien Régime,’  the French can be credited with ushering in the modern era of statehood (notes 10/29). Under Napoleon, France conquered and dominated much of Europe, leaving behind a heritage of reforms, such as the Napoleonic Code, which continue to influence the world to this day (Safran 115).  The French have had much influence on the world, adding to their national pride. This pride has manifested itself in an assertive foreign policy, perhaps even more assertive since France lost its overseas empire and status as a global power. One of the main hopes of the Gaullists was to reassert France’s global role and rediscover its grandeur. de Gaulle began France’s program of nuclear weapon development and,  protesting what he perceived to be the United State’s overly domineering role in NATO, withdrew France from the alliance in 1966. He did so arguing that he had to preserve French independence in world affairs, a reflection of the pride the French feel in their country’s historic global influence (Safran 148).  The French desire to influence the international system is also reflected in its relations with other European nations. Seeing it as a way to increase French power and influence in global politics, France has played an important leadership role in creating, expanding, and sustaining the European Union (notes 10/29). This is because they hope to shape that supranational organization, and in turn the global system, with French values. France’s history with human rights has also played an important part in influencing the international system (notes 10/31). The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was a document instrumental to the creation of human rights, and most French consider a commitment to human rights a vital part of their political culture (Safran 120). The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1960 European Convention on Human Rights, and the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union owe their existence to the precedent set by the French and their commitment to human rights.

However, the strong sense of nationalism and belonging to the nation has also created serious tensions with France’s subcultures. These subcultures engage in different practices, hold different values, and follow different faiths. They represent a departure from the values and norms which the French hold with such regard and pride. As they increasingly politicize, they influence the political system and its policies with their perspectives and values more and more. It is because of this that there have been significant instances of violence and discrimination aimed at those subcultures (Safran 110). The paranoia about the ‘other’ is reflected in the growth of xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant groups such as the Front National, which has entered mainstream politics because of support for those positions. Meanwhile, the economic, political, and cultural marginalization that these subgroups have felt as a result of these tensions were released in 2005, when Muslim and African immigrants engaged in massive riots. Many of these rioters were unemployed, lived in ghettos, and saw other way out of their isolation and neglect (Safran 120). To combat the conflicts between the dominant political culture and the subcultures of France, the National Assembly has passed a number of antidiscrimination laws penalizing ethnic, racial, and religious hatred while also making efforts to acculturate minorities and integrate them into mainstream society (Safran 112).

Perhaps one of the most pervasive aspects of French political culture is their secular outlook. The intense secularist sentiments in France stem from the state’s history with religion. Following the Protestant Reformation, bitter rivalries and struggles were fought between Catholics, supported by the ruling elite, and the Protestant Huguenots. The consolidation of centralized Bourbon rule coincided with the firm establishment of Catholicism as the state religion. The church intimately supported the monarchy, and in return was rewarded with state support. As a result, anti-monarchical, republican sentiment became closely intertwined with anticlericalism (Safran 111). Religion was seen as a tool of the elites to keep the masses complacent and, in turn, oppressed. The French Revolutionaries tried to do away with religion, and during the Third Republic the commitment to secularism made considerable headway. The hold of Catholicism, meanwhile, gradually weakened because of industrialization, the rise of a new working class, and social changes. The French, with their rich history of Enlightenment thought, associated more closely with reason than superstition and faith (Safran 111). As a result, in 1905, France became a constitutionally secular state. Today, the doctrine of ‘Laïcité,’ the separation of church and state, plays a prominent role in French society. The state has outlawed any outward demonstration of faith in public spaces, banning icons such as the cross and the Yakima. Talk of religious affiliation is taboo, and the practice of religion is seen as an private affair. It is also constitutionally prohibited from recognizing any religion and, except in the case of the province of Alsace, providing religious organizations with funds (Safran 111).

As has been the case with their strong sense of national identity, the French commitment to secularism has brought them into conflict with the influx of Muslim immigrants and the recent politicization of that subculture. There is a perception that practicing Muslims adhere to a “fundamentalist” religion at odds with French secularism, and therefore pose a challenge to French values (Safran 112). In an attempt to deal with the influx of Muslim immigrants, the French government established the ‘French Council on the Muslim Faith,’ which represents a variety of Muslim organizations and functions as an intermediary between them and the state.  In 2011, to counter the perceived encroachment of Islam into the secular French state, the government banned the wearing of Islamic headgear such as the niqab and burqa (Safran 112). The French culture of secularism has thus contributed to the hostility aimed against religious immigrant populations, whose outward practice of religion is seen as conflicting with French values. This conflict in values leads to a perception of these subcultures as the ‘other,’ and again it is from this perception that some groups have framed and found support for their nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric.

Hero-worship has played an important role in French history, and as a part of French political culture has played helped shape the French state. The French have historically been enamored with charismatic, powerful individuals, looking to them for leadership and guidance and occasionally granting them enormous powers over society (Safran 118). In the confused aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant war hero, was seen as the ‘savior’ France desperately needed. His position as ‘Emperor’ was legitimized by plebiscites; the people of France granted him his dictatorial powers. With them, he fundamentally changed the administration of the French state and dramatically altered the international system through the Napoleonic Wars. Louis Napoleon, Napoleon’s nephew, also benefited from the French culture of hero-worship. His presidency, and eventually his declaration of Empire, were derived and legitimized by the support of the people (Safran 116). The culture of hero worship is also clearly seen in the case of General Charles de Gaulle. A prominent war hero of World War 2, it was to de Gaulle that the French looked for the leadership needed to solve the Algerian crisis. Employing popular referendums, de Gaulle instituted the Fifth Republic, making sweeping changes and reforms to the French political system His foreign policy decisions reasserted France as a power of significance in the international arena (Safran 122). History has shown that the French are inclined to give their ‘heroes’ enormous amounts of influence and control over society and the state. The French culture of hero-worship has therefore enabled charismatic individuals to play enormously important roles in shaping and guiding France’s development.

However, this culture of hero-worship has been tempered by a culture of rebellion and suspicion towards authority. It was in France, after all, that the tradition of revolution was established. Because of this aspect of their culture, the French have historically been inclined to replace and dramatically change their political order. French citizens have frequently participated in uprisings and revolution, with the French Revolution of 1789, 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871 serving as powerful examples (Safran 115). Large segments of the population have traditionally adhered to political ideologies and parties oriented towards the replacement of the existing political order (Safran 115). The French culture of suspicion towards authority continues in some ways to this day. Many French citizens feel that their politicians are little or not at all concerned with what they think (Safran 119). The judiciary in France, as a result, is growing increasingly independent; the Constitutional Council now serves as a medium through which citizens can challenge legislation and, therefore, the decisions of their politicians. Many elected officials have also been subjects of investigation and targets of indictment for the misappropriation of public funds and other legal violations, a further reflection of the French distrust and antipathy towards authority (Safran 119). This culture of suspicion further manifests itself in voting behavior. About half of adults do not vote, and many of those who do tend to vote against the government, as can be seen in the failure of the 2005 referendum on the European constitution (Safran 119).

This is all a manifestation of the conflictual nature of French political culture. This was reflected in the inability of the French to create a political formula that would satisfactorily resolve the conflict between the executive and the legislature, the state and the individual, centralism and localism, and the representative and ‘direct democracy’ (Safran 115). The conflictual nature of the French led to the frequent toppling of governments in the Third and Fourth Republics and contributed significantly to their instability and inability to govern (Safran 117). It is a direct cause of the quick succession of governments and political orders that modern France has experienced – monarchy, republics, empires, monarchy, and republics again – all with drastically different concepts of the proper division and function of governmental authority. The conflictual French political culture, along with the culture of rebellion and suspicion towards authority, are thus the reasons why France has experienced much political turmoil and change. It has not been until the Fifth Republic’s stability, a product of de Gaulle which again shows the influence an individual can wield because of hero-worship, that most French have accepted their political institutions as legitimate. Even then, it is only because of the way the Fifth Republic functions that the conflictual political culture has been prevented from interfering with effective governance.

An important aspect of French political culture is the French reverence for public service. This is clearly evident in the fact that the state employs more than 3 million and constitutes about 15 percent of France’s total labor force. A major factor contributing to this reverence is the prestige attached to the civil service, which attracts many of France’s most talented and intelligent individuals (Safran 119). Indeed, a variety of elite national schools, called the “grandes écoles,” train specialized civil servants. These schools have intensely competitive entry and graduation requirements, but train the majority of the civil service’s higher administrative personnel. Among the graduates of these institutions are two presidents, Chirac and Giscard d’Estaing, and several prime ministers. Members of the cabinet are frequently selected from the higher civil service, often beings graduates of these prestigious schools (notes 10/31). These schools are very difficult to get into, allowing only the most talented to attend. However, it is then the graduates of these schools who populate the higher administration of the French civil service and the government. As a result, France is governed and administered by a skilled cadre of highly talented individuals. French reverence for public service has therefore endowed France with an administrative system staffed with talent and given prestige. While in some societies the most talented individuals often enter careers in non-state sectors, in France they enter into the civil service, contributing their efforts directly to the governance and betterment of the French state.

This culture of public service is intertwined with French nationalism and, in turn, leads to a distinctly French perception of the state. Though the French have been strongly critical of their regime, they have a strong sense of belonging to the nation and have high expectations of what the state should do for them (Safran 119). From the Enlightenment, they developed the concept of the “citizen” and that the citizen has certain inalienable, natural rights due to them. It is from this idea that many rights and benefits have been granted to the citizens of the state, such as the 35-hour work week and generous paid leave (notes 10/31). It is also from this idea that the French express a distinct willingness to fight for those rights and solidarity with those doing so. Strikes are common in France, with recent examples seen in the 1995 and 1996 strikes by transport works protesting threatened social security cuts and the 2006 strikes against a government bill making it easier for employers to lay off young entrants into the labor force (Safran 119). These strikes are also reflections of the French culture of rebellion against authority. While many in the other Western societies see the actions of striking workers as an annoyance, the French support their cause. Their expectations of the state make them unwilling to have traditional welfare entitlements called into question. This is clearly seen in a 2004 poll in which 74 percent of respond ants opposed the privatization of hospitals, 85 percent opposed an increase in cost sharing by patients, 78 percent opposed raising the retirement age, and 81 percent opposed easing protections against layoffs (Safran 120).

Political culture manifests itself in the way a polity thinks and behaves, and this is clearly the case with the French. French nationalism has led to an array of domestic policies aimed at protecting French culture and foreign policies intent on spreading it. Secularism in France has removed religion from the public eye, but brings the dominant political culture into conflict with religious immigrant subcultures. Charismatic individuals have played an enormously influential role in shaping the history of France, and have been thrust into positions of power by the French tendency for ‘hero-worship’. However, their distrust of authority and their conflictual nature has led to instability in government and numerous changes in government type. The French hold public service with high esteem, and it is from the civil service that many of France’s top political elites are chosen. Finally, their distinct expectations of what the state should do for them has led to a solidarity with strikers uncommon in most polities. As can be seen, French political culture manifests itself in the domestic and international policies and attitudes of the French people and government. It is what makes the members of this society so distinctly and uniquely ‘French.’

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1 Comment

  1. Julia Lassakova

    Hello ! I would like to use your article in my diploma work. Could you send me your name or copy information, please ?

    Thank you !

    Mrs. Lassakova Julia from Slovakia

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