March 4. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens are marching today to defend “educational freedom”–that is, uncontrolled state subsidies for private Catholic schools. They cleverly present the idea of l’École laïque, a public school with equality for all, as nightmarish 1984, the symbol of the oppressive state stifling civil society. And where are the protesters marching? In Versailles. Ever since the Commune of Paris, the Versaillais have been known as the men of the massacre–the greedy, frightened and finally bloodthirsty executioners of the workers of Paris. Today they parade as the champions of freedom. How is that possible? Why is it credible? Quite simply, because in France political freedom is again confused with the freedom of the market.
The school issue is not an isolated case. Consider the response to the revival of a law designed to prevent press lords from obtaining a monopoly on national newspapers. Passed after World War II and being brought up to date, the law’s main target is Robert Hersant, the French Murdoch, who was abjectly pro-Nazi during the occupation. Hersant is now miraculously presented by the right as a martyr of freedom; the Socialist government as the chief enemy of liberty. Why? Because the former no longer stands for the crooked defense of private property but for “civil society,” while the latter stands for the overwhelming Leviathan, a state as metaphysical and’ undefined as civil society itself.
The government’s clumsy propaganda has contributed to the change in climate. The Socialists have never given the impression that they stand wholeheartedly behind the effort to restore the stature of public schools. The press law looks too obviously tailored to check Hersant, whose papers happen to be passionately committed to the opposition. But the reasons go much deeper. When a Socialist President and his ministers praise private enterprise not as a temporary necessity but as a virtue in itself, when supposedly leftist papers (Nouvel Observateur is a good example) repeat time and again that the market is the only rampart of freedom, why shouldn’t people begin to believe that interference with Hersant leads ultimately to samizdat or that subsidies for private schools are indispensable to avoid Stalinist education? When you preach irrational premises, why should people draw rational conclusions?
A few years ago you could hear in Paris the theme drawn from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera: The time of small thieves is over; we have entered the era of robber barons. What is it robbing a bank, compared with setting up a bank? Today you can read in Le Monde a professor’s earnest argument that “the worst outlaw is the one who breaks the laws of the market.” So what? Newspapers are allowed to publish fools, and a professorship has never guaranteed wisdom. The snag is that the same sentence could figure in a “leftist” editorial or a speech by Jacques Delors, the Minister of Finance. Indeed, its sentiment lies at the heart of Mitterrand’s policy. If the left is what it is, why should one wonder about the disarray of the French people and the triumph of the Versaillais . . .