Equality for All?

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Karl Marx Equality for All?It is yet one more surprising fact that France is perhaps the only developed, capitalist-oriented country on our planet where so many people are ready to believe that society is composed of a Manichean division between rich and poor, and where so much credibility is lent to a Marxist-inspired, ideological doctrine which seeks to create, through revolution, an egalitarian, classless paradise for all. For, as we already have had occasion to observe, this vision still imparts a distinctly red hue to the French political scene where it not only colours the moderate left (which, in consequence, has less room for manoeuvre than its European neighbours), but also weighs heavily on centre and even right – to which it imparts a more leftist inclination than with many Socialist governments elsewhere.

Syndicats francais Equality for All?And it also constitutes an important cog in that machine of state, la Fonction Publique, the Public Service, and is present enough to divert union efforts from necessary social reform by assigning to them a strongly ideological role. For, paradoxically, the main reason France is ravaged by strikes is not due to exceedingly high union membership (the opposite is the case compared to most countries), but because left-wing extremism is not diluted enough by the presence of sufficient numbers of non-politicized members. As a result, the more leftist syndicats are frequently controlled by a minority concentration of hard-liners who consider their function to be more political than social in so much as they perceive their union as a counter power to capitalistic governance and are, therefore, more intent on imposing egalitarian doctrine than reforming or improving working conditions. In addition, egalitarianists tend to be portrayed by much of the leftist media as being not half so diabolical as their extreme right-wing opposites, the nationalistic, anti-immigration stances of which are associated with strong fascist tendencies, reminiscent of Vichy collaboration with the Occupant during the Second World War, and as such a denial of the legacy of the Revolution, and the values represented by a country still proud of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and individual freedom.

Réussite professionnelle Equality for All?So anchored in the mentality are these egalitarian attitudes that they can be frequently observed in the banal situations of everyday French life. And it is certainly this same egalitarian factor, moreover, which has spawned that exclusive French tendency whereby more private satisfaction is gained from the failure of others than by one’s own success, and has produced in many a Frenchman the secret urge to end what he perceives as ostentatious personal advancement by reducing the successful person to the level of everybody else.

In this respect, my English alter has recalled to my mind that experience my company-owning neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had during a period when the relative tranquillity of the town where we live was disturbed by a series of top-of-the-range car thefts. One evening, on leaving the restaurant where he had been dining with a customer, Monsieur Martin was mortified to find that the space in which he had carefully deposited and then locked his recently-acquired limousine some two hours previously was now as vacant as the most gaping of yawns. It was certainly the same soporific kind of simile which occurred to Monsieur Martin, for it took a series of vigorous, self-applied pinches to convince him he was not in the land of dreams, and send him along to the commissariat, the police station, to report the theft.

Policier assis 300x163 Equality for All?A policeman was seated at the reception desk, his eyes intently focused on the sports page of the local newspaper spread out before him. It soon becoming obvious to Monsieur Martin that his precipitous arrival had in no way altered the policeman’s resolve to finish the article he was perusing before indulging in any professional activity of note, my businessman neighbour took the liberty of producing a discreet cough. The policeman slowly lifted his head and, raising a peremptory finger in the vague direction of the three subdued-looking citoyens Monsieur Martin had failed to see perched on a bench opposite, gruffly enjoined him to ‘Wait your turn … like everybody else!’ Monsieur Martin meekly complied. A few minutes later, wishing to inform Madame Martin of his predicament, and realizing he had left his cell phone in the stolen car, Monsieur Martin again approached the policeman, and politely asked if he might avail himself of the telephone reposing on the desk. The same imperious forefinger was lifted, this time towards the door, and the same grumpy voice was heard to say, ‘Why can’t you use the public phone box outside … like everybody else?’

Renault Equality for All?After a lengthy wait the officer finally summoned Monsieur Martin to come forward so that he could take down his statement. After noting his name and address, he asked him for the registration number and make of the stolen vehicle. On being informed it was an expensive German marque, the policeman’s eyes shot up and his lower jaw dropped down in an expression of irritated stupefaction. ‘But why can’t you drive a Renault,’ he growled, ‘like everybody else?’

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Some More Equal Than Others?

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Liberte Egalite Fraternite Some More Equal Than Others?From the Revolution of 1789 up to recent times perceptions of liberty had a balanced dimension in that they contained a general acceptance of the equilibrating social and political function of equality – the equal right of others to enjoy the same degree of liberty as oneself, along with one’s own duty to abide by the decisions of a democratically elected majority. Regrettably, in present day France, we can observe a growing bi-polarizing tendency which rejects the limitations imposed on personal liberty by these social and political considerations. As a result, the country is withdrawing into self-seeking egocentricity which, in defense of personal or corporate interests, considers authority – not only in the form of persons or bodies professionally, legally, traditionally or institutionally invested with the right to direct others, but that constituted by the obligation to respect democratically-established laws or generally-accepted rules essential to the harmonious functioning of society – as a constrictive force, and as such an enemy of individual freedom.

Manifestations Some More Equal Than Others?Consequently, more and more widespread is the attitude that personal liberty and fulfilment can only be obtained at the expense of, rather than in co-operation with authority. Authority, by very nature, works against individual and corporate liberty, and all forms of  resistance – even when illegal, violent or extortionist in nature – are justified. When, in order to obtain higher salaries, better working conditions or in protest at planned government reform, truck drivers hold the country to ransom by paralyzing road networks in defiance of European and national law; when strikers hold their boss prisoner, threaten his family with physical reprisal (or worse), or intimidate non-striking colleagues; when workers menaced by redundancy threaten to pollute rivers, burn down (or blow up) their factories, or even sabotage the security systems of nuclear power stations; when small farmers and environmentalists illegally destroy fields of genetically-modified plants; when strikers and demonstrators block petrol refineries with the aim of creating national fuel shortages, these forms of action are considered by a large section of the population as part of the free and legitimate entitlement of a minority to defend its specific rights or views against the powers-that-be.

CRS Some More Equal Than Others?And not only are these self-appropriated rights upheld by a large section of public opinion, but often by the media, opposition parties (anxious to glean a few votes for the next elections), and even spiritual leaders who display public sympathy for such movements by depicting those responsible as hapless victims or defenders of freedom against oppression, and designating authority, in the shape of the government, as the real culprit. All too often the latter, after repeated appeals to demonstrators’ sense of responsibility and respect of the law (while at the same time instructing the police to adopt a policy of non-intervention), attempts to obtain a semblance of moral victory by trying to convince us that their surrender is due, above all, to their willingness to make concessions in a spirit of conciliation and tolerance. Of course, this mix of corporate protestation, violence, blackmail and government pusillanimity  throws considerable discredit not only on laws, institutions and politicians, but on the democratic system itself, with the result that an increasing number of citoyens are becoming more and more convinced of the futility of participating in a system of elective government, when the combativeness and determination of a minority can override democratically-established laws. In the France of today, then, with regard to that most basic of equalities, the one before the law, some are far more equal than others, and may manifest their opposition by going to sometimes spectacularly unlawful lengths to achieve their ends, while comforted in the knowledge that they will be able to do so in all impunity.

Just one example of this was provided some time ago when a powerful, extreme left-wing trade union decided to call a dockers’ strike in protest at the government’s declared intention of placing in private hands – with the aim of reducing heavy financial loss – a state-owned shipping company operating cargo and passenger ferries between Marseille and Corsica. Union leaders went to some pains to point out that, since the principle aim of the company was to provide a service for all, and not a substantial dividend to capitalist shareholders, their militant action was prompted by a desire to protect public interests rather than the wish – admittedly less commendable – to preserve their own.

SNCM Some More Equal Than Others?The strike was particularly effective: the ferry service was totally paralyzed, passengers and truck drivers were blocked for several days, considerable damage was done to local business, not to mention to the image of the port – all to the accompaniment of daily demonstrations and violent clashes with the police.  But what followed was more in the tradition of an action-packed Hollywood movie. In a spectacular sign of defiance, and to a carefully orchestrated media coverage, the hardline leaders, along with a group of the more radical strikers, hijacked one of the company’s ferry boats moored in the port of Marseille, and promptly set course for Corsica. On the evening T.V. news we were informed that this type of action, like skyjacking, was considered by law to be an act of blatant piracy, and as such punishable by long years in prison. A military force of intervention was helicoptered out, and the following evening we were treated to a stage-managed reality show of armed, masked commandos sliding down lines and retaking the ship – all to a background of ironic applause on the part of the perpetrators, filmed from the deck of the ferry. The pirate crew was, of course, taken into custody, shipped back to Marseille, where its members were ‘interviewed’ by the police. In the following morning’s press there was vague talk of legal measures being firmly applied – to which the union promptly responded by issuing a declaration to the effect that, if this were the case, even more extreme methods would be applied. After a day or two of negotiation, however, an agreement was apparently reached: for the hijackers were discreetly released, everybody quietly went back to work … and that was the last we heard of that.

Fruits et légumes Some More Equal Than Others?In contrast, an article which appeared in my local weekly newspaper during the period when truck drivers were blockading the country in all impunity provided perfect proof that in France, though authority can be mercifully accommodating in face of mass protestation, it can be mercilessly unyielding when confronted with lone dissent. The owner driver of a small, itinerant greengrocery business who plied his trade at the different fruit and vegetable markets of the region, rolled up early one morning at the town where he was in the habit of pitching his weekly Saturday stall, only to discover that the place normally allocated to him by the municipal authorities – the central position of which favoured rapid disposal of his wares – had been mistakenly attributed to a competitor. Furious at the mistake of the former and the stubborness of the latter (who systematically rejected all attempts at conciliation), and presumably inspired by the tactics of his fellow drivers at a national level, our itinerant greengrocer decided to register his personal brand of protest by driving his van into the town centre, bringing it to a halt in the middle of the narrow, one-way Grande Rue, locking the doors and … vanishing into thin air! The blockage which ensued caused indescribable confusion and popular fury for the next two hours.

Arrete par la police Some More Equal Than Others?The police finally hunted him down in one of the town’s numerous cafés where he was quietly savouring his revenge behind an umpteenth pastis. He was promptly arrested, handcuffed and frogmarched off to the commissariat where he was charged, and left to spend the rest of the day and following night in solitary contemplation of the vulnerability of lone opposition. A few days later he was sentenced to a stiff fine, plus a three-month licence suspension for impeding the free circulation of traffic.


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Treating Unequal Things Equally

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I think we’d all agree that treating equal things unequally is unjust. Paying Peter more than Paul when both work under the same conditions (same job, same number of working hours, same seniority, etc.) would be grossly unfair. But what if their working conditions weren’t the same? What if Peter worked longer hours in a job involving far more responsibility than Paul’s? Would it still be fair to pay them the same? I’m sure most people would answer in the negative, and thereby conclude that treating unequal things equally was also unfair – perhaps just as unfair as treating equal things unequally. However, judging from the contents of some readers’ letters and emails published on the Forum Page of my local newspaper a certain section of the French public (is it yet one more manifestation of the Marxist factor?) would not agree.

Impots sur le revenu 300x206 Treating Unequal Things EquallyNow the Forum Page of my local newspaper invites readers to express their views on matters of topical concern. I remember, in particular, one occasion when they were asked to send in their reactions to the declarations of a right-wing presidential candidate who, as part of his election campaign, was going to considerable lengths to try to convince the voting public that, if elected to office, one of the first measures he would take would be to reduce the amount of income tax le citoyen is required to pay. The country was immediately split into two ferociously opposed camps: the income tax payers (around 50% of the population in France), and those who paid none. The Englishman in me recalls one indignant reader who wrote in protesting that the poor non-income tax payer would be unjustly penalized by this proposed measure which would be to the sole benefit of the ‘rich’ income tax payer, and would, therefore, only serve to increase even more the shameful inequality which existed between la France d’en haut, the ‘privileged’ middle classes, and la France d’en bas, the ‘down-trodden’ working classes. He then went on to condemn the ‘inequitable’ attitude of those who maintained that, since this measure was aimed at reducing the level of income tax, it was logical that only those paying income tax should be concerned. On the contrary, he declared, the only fair solution was to treat unequal things equally: the government should provide the non-income tax payer with some form of direct financial compensation which, if not reducing the gap between rich and poor, would at least go some way towards preventing it from growing wider.

vintage cigarette packets Treating Unequal Things EquallyOn another occasion, the same newspaper invited its readers to send in their reactions to a government proposal to increase substantially the price of cigarettes. One reader expressed his exasperation at the proposed measure which, he declared, reeked of provocation, injustice and … class distinction. For not only would the impecunious working class smoker be once again penalized in that he would have to make a financial effort out of all proportion to that required from the ‘rich’, but this would compel the government (tobacco is a state monopoly in France) to market cigarettes in miserable packets of ten, or even five. This would lead to the same scandalous situation as the one which used to exist in England where the rich were instantly recognizable by their elitist packets of twenty, and the poor by their modest packets of 10. He could only conclude that the sole equitable solution was, once again, that of treating unequal things equally: the government should place a total ban on the sale of cigarettes for all.


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Liberté versus Egalité?

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Liberté égalité fraternité Liberté versus Egalité?The French people are provided with permanent daily reminder that the edifice of State reposes on the three Republican pillars of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité by their prominent display on postage stamps, coins, the frontage of public buildings as well as on official documents and tax-related forms – the latter presumably in an attempt to assure the citoyen that the money levied will go towards furthering a noble cause.

Robinson Crusoe Liberté versus Egalité?Total liberty – being able to live without the slightest restriction – is, of course, an impossible dream. Even if we were marooned on a desert island we could never do what we want, when we want, where we want, or how we want. For, though Robinson Crusoe would have been free to walk about stark naked, had he so desired, his liberty was considerably limited by the obligation to respect those implacable, natural laws of survival which compelled him to devote significant time and effort in finding bodily sustenance, providing himself with protection against the elements, and any predators he might have been sharing the island with. And since, at the beginning at least, he lived outside all human society, the question of equality never arose.

Man Friday Liberté versus Egalité?But when Man Friday came onto the scene things became more complex: the two men had to accept certain limitations on their freedom by establishing a number of rules with the aim of making co-habitation as harmonious and fair as possible. And here another problem arose. What should the aim of these rules be? Should they be based on the principle that the right to freedom of each can only be limited by the right of the other to enjoy the same freedom? In other words, should they be oriented towards creating and maintaining the maximum of liberty for each? This, in fact, was the substance of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789: La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui: ainsi l’exercice des droits naturels de chaque homme n’a de bornes que celles qui assurent aux autres membres de la société la jouissance de ces mêmes droits. Ces bornes ne peuvent être déterminées que par la loi’ (Liberty consists in being able to do all that is not detrimental to others: thus, the only limits to each man exercising these natural rights are those allowing other members of society to enjoy these same rights. These limits can only be determined by law).

Or should the rules be directed towards benefiting both in terms of the social entity they now constituted? In this case the notion of social equality predominates. So, to which principle should the laws of a society give precedence: freedom for each, or equality for all? For, in spite of what the French national slogan would seem to suggest, individual liberty and social equality are antagonistic rather than complimentary concepts. No better proof of this is provided by the fact that individual liberty and social equality supply the ideological basis for those opposing political notions of right and left wing, of conservatism and socialism. And it will take a good dose of fraternity (the French now seem to prefer the word ‘solidarité’) to bring the two together.

Too much individual freedom, then, will automatically result in too little social equality, and too much social equality will produce too little individual freedom. An exclusively private, fee-paying education system, for example, where parents were free to send their children to the school of their choice would automatically exclude the offspring of parents who didn’t have the financial means to do this, and thereby increase social inequality.  On the other hand, a totally state-controlled system of the same, free, obligatory schooling for all, regardless of whether parents were rich or poor, would be detrimental to individual freedom of choice.

French Revolution Liberté versus Egalité?It is interesting to note that, from the Revolution of 1789 onwards, the different French Constitutions which began by giving almost total priority to the notion of individual liberty have gradually – though there have been periods of hesitation – come to place more and more emphasis on social equality, thereby creating that unique, incongruous mixture of conservatism and collectivism which has come to characterize the France of today. For it is yet one more paradox that France is perhaps the only developed, capitalistic country on our planet where so many people are ready to believe that society is composed of a Manichean division between rich and poor, and where so much credibility is lent to an ideological doctrine which seeks to create an egalitarian, classless paradise on earth. And this vision imparts a distinctly red hue to the French political scene where it not only colours the moderate left (which, in consequence, has less room for manoeuvre than its European neighbours), but also weighs heavily on centre, and even right – to which it lends a more leftist inclination than with many socialist governments elsewhere.

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