Focus: Elites and Democracy in France

Jacob Hamburger
5 February 2018

 

This month, the Tocqueville 21 Blog will be featuring a series of articles and interviews on the subject of elitism and democracy in contemporary France. All democracies have to confront the tension between the democratic principle of equality—the idea that all citizens are fit to participate in public life—and the near-inevitable development of institutions designed to preserve political privileges for a small segment of the population. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only the first of many in a long line of political thinkers who have argued that political representation, in which a small elected elite govern, is itself inherently anti-democratic. But as the work of Pierre Rosanvallon has shown (notably in Le sacre du citoyenLe peuple introuvable, and La démocratie inachevée) French democracy has been particularly troubled by this tension since 1789, and its institutions have attempted to reconcile elitism and equality perhaps more ambitiously than those of any other democracy. Hence, for example, France’s peculiar system of Grandes écoles, which claim to train the republic’s best and brightest, supposedly regardless of socio-economic background, giving them a fast track to political, economic, and cultural influence. The idea that a competent political elite can be selected on democratic terms has deep roots in the country’s political history.

 

2017 saw the strange combination of a revolt against this sort of institutionalized elitism, and the victory of Emmanuel Macron, who is nothing if not its product. The popularity of explicitly anti-elitist candidates from Marine Le Pen to Jean-Luc Mélenchon—despite the obvious differences between them—suggested that French voters had begun to doubt the democratic legitimacy of the political classes and the systems that produce them. But Macron’s 66% victory in the second round of the presidential election (not counting blank votes and abstentions) appeared to give a strong mandate to a man who embodies the notion of technocratic elitism.

 

In the attempt to sift through these apparent contradictions, we’ve called on a diverse group of scholars to guide us through the current discussions of elitism and democracy in France. First, this week, the historian of French immigration and citizenship law Patrick Weil explains the dangers of a political landscape where elite civil servants have taken power for themselves. In an updated translation of an interview he gave last summer, he examines what can be done to achieve a more balanced distribution of power and to break the monopoly of the Ecole nationale d’administration and Sciences Po Paris on the elite ranks of French politics.

 

Next, we’ll hear from Aurore Lambert, a specialist in the cultural capital of French elites, who asks whether it is really necessary to have read Ricoeur in order to govern. Eight months into the Macron presidency, she gives an assessment of how the attempt to reconcile intellectual elitism with a politics of dégagisme has squared with the realities of current French politics.

 

From there, the political scientist Olivia Leboyer introduces us to a different kind of elites in her take on the current state of the French military. Since the resignation of the General Pierre de Villiers early in Macron’s presidency, she explains, there’s been a renewed questioning of the implicit understanding between the country’s military and civilian leadership.

 

Finally, the historian and political theorist Hugo Drochon takes us back to the “Machiavellian moment” of the 1970s, when a number of important French political thinkers rediscovered the notion of politics as a contest for power between elites. If history is any indication, he suggests, elitism is a recurring theme for intellectuals during times of democratic crisis.

 

Look out for these contributions over the course of the month of February. We may also have some surprise additions in the coming weeks, and as always we hope that this conversation will extend beyond the Hexagon to democracies around the world.

 

 

Photo credit: World Economic Forum, Youtube still: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-vI3xbPfEM

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