Sunday 11 January 2015

Republican values, Zola, Jews, Muslims...

We'll hear a lot today about 'Republican values'. It's not a phrase that means very much in the British context as it represents a line that stretches from the French Revolution to now, skittering around such events as the Napoleonic reformation of France, the 1848 revolution, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, the secularisation of the state, the Popular Front government, Vichy France and the Resistance, wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the recent laws against 'the veil' - and much, much more.

There really is no direct equivalent in Britain. Quite apart from the fact that we still have a monarchy, a House of Lords, an established church and state funded faith schools and Christian worship in state non-faith schools, all the bourgeois values espoused by the state are spread across many documents, laws and interpretations of laws.

As a phrase used in France, it cuts in several ways. To take some examples: even as Emile Zola took up the principled - and extremely dangerous - stance of defending Dreyfus as a defence of republican values, he was writing a piece of fiction which suggested that it was the utopian job of republican France to civilise Africans with these values in the French empire. Or, again, at ceremonies at monuments which commemorate the deaths of members of the Resistance, speeches are made which demand a return to the values of the Resistance and to the Republican values of peace, justice, anti-racism, anti-discrimination. They often give these speeches surrounded by veterans holding the French flag inscribed with the words Indochina and Algeria.

Some on the left say that it would be better to junk the phraseology of 'Republican values' - it's been too tarnished by all this. Some say just the opposite. It's important to reclaim it, restate it, seek out its origins, quote the words and deeds of heroes who defended the core or original values involved - which is where Zola comes in.

I've only recently come to fully understand the nature of the rage and hate that he confronted when he chose to defend Dreyfus. It entailed opposing the state, the army, the monarchist faction and a large part of the Catholic church. But more than that, it meant opposing a fanatical, abusive, massively popular faction which self-described as 'anti-semitic'. The faction was so voluble and popular that many parts of the state and the army absorbed it and embraced it. Zola was almost alone as a non-Jew to write against this faction, against this anti-semitism, and, though of course he had supporters, he was the one to face up to the consequences of saying this by being taken to court and sentenced. Of course this is not to detract from the pain experienced by Dreyfus and his family. I'm talking about something different here: the defence made by someone not belonging to the persecuted minority Dreyfus belonged to. And, as it happens, it came from someone who had made his main job, writing fiction. Zola didn't need to get in there and do what he did. But he did. On that account: legend, hero. Those in France who think it's their republican duty to mock and vilify Muslims might find a word or two in Zola's defences of a minority, how shall I put it…. interesting, or relevant. In fact, much of what the anti-semitic faction said then about 'the Jews' is said today about 'the Muslims'.

Plus ├ža change….

(None of these words should be taken to justify or condone the murders.)