“Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If you would become Republicans”

The French Presidential

The Marquis de Sade penned the above text sometime after his release from the Bastille where he had been incarcerated earlier in the wonderfully named ‘Tower of Liberty.’[1] He was there, courtesy of his mother-in-law who, one can imagine, was chanting ‘lock him up’, though of course, not for his corruption but for his libertine ways. The libertine ways have not, for all of that, disappeared from France given the former IMF head Dominque Strauss-Kahn’s extracurricular activities or outgoing French President Hollande’s scooter rides with his girl friends—to name two recent examples- and naturally, one might wish to extend the comparison to America with the long list of allegations concerning Trump’s equally sexist and misogynistic treatment of women. In the Marquis’ favour, I suppose, is the fact that he extended the natural right of libertinage to women as well, however perverse the logic.

The question raised by de Sade about becoming republican is, nonetheless, a timely one even if his proscriptions were less than enlightened. Sade wanted to extirpate religion, especially Christianity, but we clearly know that did not happen. The continuing remonstration over abortion and adoption by same-sex couples found its way into the primary debate between François Fillon and Alain Juppé—the contestants for the Parti Républicain nomination. As for Islam, the situation in France goes from bad to worse, perhaps as most cynically caught in Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission,[2] the not-so-innocent novel about a France run by a Muslim party. Houellebecq is no stranger to depictions of France in a sensationalist manner, for example, in Plateforme,[3] where he treats French sexual tourism in a way that would have pleased de Sade. All of this reinforces the growing fundamentalism and racism as evidenced in the rallies against same-sex marriage, in municipalities insisting on serving pork in school cafeterias, and in the banning of headscarves and burqas. Fillon emerged as the victor in the primary perhaps in part owing to his recent publication on the subject of the Islamist terrorist threat.[4] Sadly, it looks like this erosion of human rights has no good end in sight.

The French revolution did bring forth the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, a document that owed much of its inspiration to the American revolution and especially, to Thomas Jefferson, as is well known. Both the American Declaration of Independence and the French document clearly were not universal in spite of some of the language — so the struggle continues. In the case of France, as many have noted,[5] the Declaration’s assertion in Article 1 that men are born free and equal is virtually reversed in Article 3 which asserts the sovereignty of the Nation. Universal right turns out to be that of the French citizen and excludes women, most individuals who are not white and the poorer class. The tension embodied at the beginning of the French Republic continues as a binary that oscillates between inclusion and exclusion, usually at the service of the capitalist class and now, more directly, at the service of the right-wing parties.[6]

In the debate in France concerning the Declaration, a distinction was drawn between so-called active citizens and passive citizens. Ironically, de Sade was both, depending on which list his name was on: either he was a supporter of the revolution or alternatively, was a member of the aristocracy. And we know, we are not through with voter lists and their political use to restrict voting as seen in the recent American election.

The active/passive distinction is one that reappears in a rather ahistorical way in Jean Baudrillard’s early concept of the silent majority.[7] Yet Baudrillard’s depiction of the silent majority as a sponge that absorbed all messaging without return, has been turned upside down or at least split in half by the recent electoral experience. Voting in both the American presidential election and the Parti Républicain primary demonstrates that there is a response from fifty percent of Baudrillard’s masses. Part of the reason for this about face was the rejection by many individuals of the assumptions that underlie thinking about the social. In economics, the modelling assumes the individual to be a rational consumer, just as in politics the voter’s vote is also conceived in the mode of rational choice. Commentators, as well as pollsters, also assume such rationality. This is evident in a typical newscast from the French television chain Antenne Deux where statements made by political or economic actors are presented on the video screen with true and false choices that the commentator checks off. A similar fact-checking is just as characteristic of American electoral coverage – that is, possibly until Trump, when the whole exercise became futile.

This type of binary logic of true and false, of course, has already disappeared in most of today’s culture. No entrepreneurial capitalist would for a minute expect to make any money from advertisements based on factual arguments in the face of overwhelming evidence that advertising and truth have parted company years ago, and that consumers have long since abandoned the real in favour of, to use Baudrillard’s language, the hyper real or the virtual. Voting is no different in an era where truth is hardly interesting when pitted against media frenzy. In fact, the old tension between truth and myth reappears with narratives taking precedent. Less and less one expects such narratives to be followed but more and more they address the sense of disenfranchisement.

It is no wonder then that polling itself suffers from such a bias in taking voter response as factual when the response may be anything on the gamut from ill-informed, deceptive, strategic to unthinking. Worse still, responses may, as we have seen, be based on xenophobia, racism, and/or sexism interlaced with valid concerns about being disenfranchised, the latter providing cover for the former. Even abandoning the real for simulation polls still fail to replicate the voters’ intentions. As in capitalism, where just-in-time production is the norm, the citizen is more apt to practice just-in-time voting, especially as the polls themselves become immediately part of an automatic feedback loop that can change on the instant voting preferences and, ultimately, the results.

The French Revolution may not be a very good reference but the descent into terror and the consequent rise of dictatorship gives one at least pause. France may not yet follow the Front Nationale into Frexit, being satisfied with Fillon’s FN Light, however perilous making any prediction is these days. But it seems that, more and more, liberty is itself being incarcerated under a continuing state of emergency that was initiated with the attacks in Paris.[8]

The Marquis, for his part, went into the asylum where he carried on much as before. He was, at least, safe in this gated community until his final demise under Bonaparte. There are times, though, when one wonders, if the FN wins, whether the inmates at Charenton might be better at running the country. Let’s hope that ‘les enfants de la patrie’ will prevail—and, if you will excuse the phrase, make France republican again.


[1] Marquis de Sade, “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If you would become Republicans”, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other writings, trans. Richard Seaver & Austryn Wainhouse, (New York: Grove Press, 1966), 296 -384.

[2] Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, (Paris: Flammarion, 2015).

[3] Michel Houellebecq, Plateforme, (Paris: Flammarion, 2001).

[4] See François Fillon, Vaincre le totalitarisme Islamique, (Paris: Albin Michel, 2016).

[5] See, for example, Julia Kristeva, Nations without Nationalism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[6] Such alterity finds its way as well into discussions about the receiving of the guest/ host ranging from Albert Camus’ short story “The Guest” (L’ hôte) which signaled the demise of relations in Algeria, to Jacques Derrida’s writings on hospitality. See Albert Camus, “The Guest” in The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom, trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: The Modern Library, 1957). An attempt recently to give voice to the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger, trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Vintage, 1954) can be found in Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, (Alger: Editions barzakh, 2013). See also Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, trans. Rachel Bowlby, Of Hospitality, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[7] Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and John Johnston, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

[8] The prolongation of states of emergency itself is a source of concern treated by Giorgio Agamben in The State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).


David Cook teaches at Victoria College and in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.