Lawrence has always been unique in that it attracts a fair amount of lecturers speaking on diverse issues. That tradition was upheld when the French consulate from Chicago, Dominique Decherf, spoke last Monday. The title of his lecture was “America and France: Two Universalisms, One World.” Decherf highlighted three universalisms that he identifies with French society: religion, perception of the international community, and France’s foreign policy.
Decherf’s argument was that French culture treats religion with a stronger stance than American society. He explained that the French society was transformed by the enlightenment, which was a secular movement. Therefore, religion was associated with a critical culture. However, this church-state debate has been pacified, hence he suggested that freedom of religion in present day France is weaker than the United States. In France, church and state are not separate but distinguished.
Decherf went on to delineate differences in American, French, and European perceptions of the international community. France, he argued, believed that historically there has not been an “international” community. Polarization of world powers has dominated the world political scene, leaving out smaller nations. He insisted that the French perception of the international community is one of unity, where all nations should participate. He then argued that the United States perception was not that of an international community, rather American sees a unipolar system that ensures American interests are paramount in the world. The greater European community believes that mutipolarity dominates the international scene, but like France all nations together form a true international community. Decherf concluded these points by insisting that international relations are not “black and white.” Moreover he implored the audience to “search for the true international community.”
Lastly, Ducherf answered the question that is frequently on the minds of the French, “Is France still a world power?” He first argued that France is certainly one of the world’s great powers; they are the world’s fourth largest exporter, they are one of five permanent members of the Security Council, and they have nuclear capabilities. However, these factors are mitigated by what Ducherf called international “failures.” He cited the failure of the international community to solve the plight of most African economies. He also cited the Middle East and the recent elections in Nigeria.
Ducherf did not ascribe hopelessness to these causes, rather he pointed out that the international community could benefit from France’s reactions to these failures. Societal protectionism was the first French reaction that was cited. He spoke of the “French Exception,” and how this portrays the French defense of “what is left of their culture.” He pointed out France’s stringent immigration laws, and the emergence of the far right.
Next he spoke of the French steps to integrate Africa. He contended that recent streamlining in the French bureaucracy have made adequate steps to better address the economies of African nations. Lastly, he spoke of France’s reaction to the current crisis in the Middle East. He pointed out that nine percent of the French population is Muslim. Decherf argued that Muslims in France are peaceful and thus uphold an important norm that “can be exported.”
Decherf concluded his lecture with three observations. First, France’s foreign policy will be reformed in some way or another after the final elections. Second, the world has changed substantially since Sept 11, and therefore policies on the international stage must change. Finally, he suggested that these changes be made in such a way that French and European society were not marginalized. In this way France can remain true to its universal values.
Questions followed the speech. The initial questions were as one would expect them to be. Decherf was asked about France’s policy on a forthcoming Iraqi invasion. He replied that such a move is a logistical difficulty and would destabilize the region, and therefore felt that other options should be more fully explored. He was asked about Turkey’s possible entrance into the EU. He replied diplomatically by saying that Turkey would have to reform its society first.
Interestingly enough, Decherf inserted that Le Pen has pushed for France to get out of the Union so that the capital punishment can resume. On the subject of Le Pen, Decherf made his opinion quite clear: the emergence of Le Pen is not as important as it is played up to be, however in the slight chance that he were elected it would be a deficit to French society.
The most lengthy and controversial statements were made in response to the question of the nature of French exceptionalism and its relation to the recent emergence of the far right. His reply was that French society is a product of assimilation. He went even further to suggest that domestic tranquility in France is based on a certain group’s ability to assimilate to a greater French image. When asked about the rampant anti-Semitic activity in France, he suggested that this was due to French Jews not assimilating enough.
Decherf was a welcome addition to the Lawrence lecture circuit. However, his message was shocking and left quite a few people wondering if the views presented accurately represented French perceptions.