Before I moved to France, I took the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto somewhat for granted. Lovely aspirations, I thought: who would not agree with them? Now that France is in fully-blown election fever, however, I have had cause to note that the égalité part, at least, is not merely a soundbite for a long-forgotten manifesto, but an obsession that permeates every aspect of French public life.
In the centre of our village, there are a series of metal panels onto which posters can be pasted. For most of the time the peuple ignore the affichage libre signs instructing them where they can stick their notices (so to speak) and compete riotously with each other to plaster their adverts closest to the middle of the only section where they have no right to do so. A few weeks ago, these metal panels suddenly multiplied. Within minutes, they had been slathered with François Fillon posters.
Then, one day, everything was taken down and stern notices went up telling people to refrain from further campaigning. The panels remained naked for about 24 hours whereupon, one morning, they sprouted numerals, from 1 to 11, to each of which a single poster promoting one of the 11 presidential hopefuls was assigned. Since then good citizens of St Cyr have obediently left the panels well alone.
It took me a while to work out that this unusually orderly bout of affichage was a symptom of the literal-minded French obsession with égalité. If all the candidates are given the same surface area on which to advertise, the State can say that they are equal.
It is not just posters that are singled out for the equality treatment. The live presidential debate broadcast across French television screens in early April allocated precisely 18 minutes of speaking time to each of the 11 candidates. In other words, it didn’t matter whether you had a great deal or nothing at all to say on any particular issue, or indeed whether or not anyone wanted to listen, you would be able to express your views for precisely the same amount of time as everyone else.
The debate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to égalité in French political broadcasting. France Télévision and Radio France are, it transpires, required to give equal time to all of the candidates in all of their broadcasting — quite a feat of coordination across their many networks and channels. I listened to an interview with one of the officials in charge of this policy during which, the interviewer, quite reasonably, asked what the state intended to do about social media. The official responded that ça fait déjà beaucoup de travail de surveiller les antennes. Throwing social media into the equation would require more resources than were available. Well quite. Not to mention the blatantly North Korean note that such an initiative would strike…
On the one hand, it is touching that France continues to strive so earnestly for égalité in politics despite the obvious futility of such an endeavour in the internet age. On the other, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s most intractable ideological blind spots.
Running provides an instructive metaphor here. In a sprint, officials can do their best to make racing conditions fair: they can make sure that everyone runs the same distance, starting at precisely the same time; and without the help of any detectable drugs. What the linesmen cannot do, however, is create equality. If they could, then Eadred would stand a chance against Usain Bolt. The fact remains, however, that Usain Bolt and Eadred are not equal in running, or in anything else for that matter. That is the point of a race: to root out the inequalities, and celebrate them.
In politics, as in sport, the State can make conditions fair (although arguably much less comprehensively than is possible under sprint conditions), but they cannot make the candidates equal. By allocating everyone a single panel for their poster and 18 minutes of speaking time, they will not give them all an equal chance of winning. Some will have more money backing them; some more notoriety to thrust them forwards; and some will simply be willing to engage in bare-faced corruption. Others may be female, from an ethnic minority, ugly, impoverished or just championing a difficult cause. Whatever it is, there will always be some candidates that have an advantage over the others.
Does this matter? The inequalities in any system certainly have an impact, for better or for worse (take Donald Trump, for example). If you can’t bring yourself to care about whether or not all politicians are created equal, you probably can care about kids in school. It is the same mule-headed muddling of the concepts of fairness and equality that has led to the creation of an education system where no special considerations are shown to children with dyslexia, or autism, or indeed just those who have a practical rather than an intellectual brain. Well, says the State, we gave zem la même scolarité, ils peuvent se débrouiller, non ?
Fine, though I’m not sure that liberté, sink or swim, fraternité will catch on as a national motto.