Oxford Union

Ladies and gentleman

What an honor to come and speak to you in your prestigious university at this important political moment for France and the United Kingdom!  

To begin with, I would like to quote General de Gaulle, here at Oxford, in 1941 ( nineteen forty one):

France and England have been … the champions of human freedom. Freedom will perish if  …these champions do not unite ».

These words resonate strongly for me in the current political crisis.

While you are facing Brexit, my country is currently shaking under the tremors of a grassroots movement known as the Gilets jaunes, the Yellow Vests.

This spontaneous, non-partisan movement has been demonstrating for months.

There is no shortage of qualifiers to define this France:

peripheral France,

the forgotten France,

globalization losers,

similar to the “somewheres” versus the “anywheres” identified by David Goodhart.

So who are these Gilets jaunes?

According to geographer Christophe Guilluy, this peripheral France is estimated to represent nearly 60% ( sixty) of the population.

The France that works and pays taxes,

the underprivileged middle class at risk of being left behind.

With a tax rate that is the highest in the EU (nearly 48% of GDP), France nevertheless suffers from a very precarious situation:

more than 6 million people are totally or partially unemployed,

8 million live in poverty,

one in five French people cannot afford to eat three meals a day

and one in four French people are deprived of healthcare for financial reasons

Despite this situation, many members of the elite, from our President to ours ministers or journalist isolated themselves. They refer to the Gilets Jaunes as :

 » wild herd, a plague, slobs, racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, etc. « .

Perhaps, these characterizations will remind you the words that have been used just after the referendum to describe those who supported Brexit.

The populist moment:

Behind these two events, which can seem so different, there is a common reality.

The Gilets Jaunes are very similar to your Brexiteers.

We are in the middle of a populist moment.

I am aware the negative connotation of the term populist.

To quote a French journalist:

« Populism is the name given to the people by the left-wing when the people don’t agree with them. »

 A populism of the people born out of the elitism of the elite.  

The divide is ideological, sociological, territorial, democratic.

The social gap described by Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century is unfortunately an accurate description of  France’s current situation:

“Two nations with no relationship or sympathy between them;

who are just as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings “

An ideological divide:

Behind the word populist, there is first the word people:

people abandoned,

people with no representation.

Populism can be either left-wing or right-wing.

It does not have any set doctrine.

It is rather a style than a program.

Under the banner of populism, there is also the word « politics ».

Populism is a call for the great rebirth of politics.

The liberal democracy has replaced the government of men with the administration of things.

This fact has left many French people with the feeling that history is being written without them.

It has become the prerogative of experts, economic organisations, supranational institutions and judges.

Therefore, they maintain a « republic with limited democracy ».

The Gilets Jaunes movement is a response of the people to such a « system » that is an ideological consensus of a main part of the ruling class.

This system advocating diversity and immigration as a moral obligation unrelated to the country’s capacities or needs,

the utopia of « soft trade » as a regulator of human relationships,

uncontrolled financial globalization as a vehicle for prosperity,

a humanity made up of replaceable « homo economicus »,

the promotion of « individual rights » as a response to the constant fear of « the tyranny of the majority ».

A democratic divide:

Why does the protest of the Gilets jaunes take such a radical form in France?
This is not only due to the French heritage of the “jacqueries”, the peasant revolts, but also to the response of the French rulers to this new clash between the elite and the people.

Let’s consider the comparison made by sociologist Emmanuel Todd of how France and UK deal with this kind of conflict:

  • The United Kingdom may be divided on the application of Brexit, but the political elite – even the “Remainer” MPs – accepted the vote and requested the EU to trigger Article 50. The debate is sometimes confused but the search of a compromise is real.
  • What a contrast with my country where the working class is utterly ignored by the elite. Let’s not forget the referendum on the European Constitution, when France said no. President Nicolas Sarkozy, had no hesitation in violating the French vote by imposing the same text, the Lisbon Treaty voted by Parliament.

A recent study confirms that

85% (eighty five percent) of French people believe that politicians do not care about them

Yet 89% (eighty nine percent) of French people believe that democracy is the best way to govern a country.

It is not surprising that the main demands of this movement are less fiscal than democratic: the Citizen-Initiated Referendum and the dissolution of the House of Parliament followed by the organization of new elections.

There is no crisis of representative democracy, there is just an unfair voting system and politicians who refuse to make fair use of democracy. For exemple o the Marrakech Pact on international migrations and the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle with Germany have been voted without a debate in Parliament.

The crisis of the liberal system

In our societies, it is not only the process that is dysfunctional, but man himself that is in crisis.

The great French philosopher Simone Weil sheds light on a major part of the problem:

« uprooting destroys everything but not the need for roots. »

As a consequence of the industrial revolution, we have seen the disintegration of the collective institutions that structured

our societies, our consciousness, our feelings :

family, nation, Churches, school, army, trade unions, intermediate bodies and so on.

However, our political system in Western Europe, the liberal system, contributed to aggravate the crisis.  

Why is that?

Well, because for liberals nothing exists outside human reason;

because it advocates a total emancipation of the individual from a past perceived as restrictive and alienating.

Moreover, the only political link that exists is the social contract defined by the will of individual.

Liberalism is not based on religion, nation and family instead of traditional English conservatism and French political tradition.

It even tends to neutralise them.  

Transforming the divisions into a vision/political response: a French conservatism/ a conservative democracy for Europe

The real political question is no longer to restore past collective institutions exactly as they were, but rather to rediscover the civil society, intermediary bodies, family, territories, nations as levers of liberty and emancipation.

A conservative vision is the solution to reach the common good.

Today conservatism is more a question of nurturing a disposition of the mind that integrates the benefit of preservation.

A disposition of the mind that refuses the immature fascination of Progressivism for the future.

So, preserve !  but preserve what?

Preserving national fraternity:

You are certainly familiar with France’s motto: freedom, equality, fraternity. Allow me to highlight fraternity.

Unlike freedom and equality, fraternity cannot be decreed.

It is not enforced by a political decision.

Fraternity is experienced.

It is a natural feeling in the company of a group of people who share with me enough cultural, moral, spiritual and historical ties to allow me to see myself in them.  

A vibrant nation naturally generates fraternity, which in turn ensure harmony.

Fraternity is an essential condition for being a people.

Without fraternity, no people. Without people, no nation. Without nation, no sovereignty.

It’s clear that fraternity is more than just a good feeling, it is a political tool.

Without it, democracy becomes a war of selfish interests, a battle of contradictory visions, domination of minority lobbies and financiers. 

Without Fraternity, political parties will no longer look for the common good but spend their time on electoral market studies and diversity politics.

If national fraternity falls apart, we will be left with a law of incivility and violence because neighbors have become strangers. 

The main goal of politics is to build friendship between members of the city, the citizens, said Aristotle, it is to preserve peace and social harmony.

(not what like we see outside !)

To succeed in this mission, two things must be preserved: identity and sovereignty.  

Preserving our identity

Immaterial identity

The question of immigration is central to the preservation of the national fraternity.

We can integrate individuals into one nation, but we cannot integrate entire peoples into a nation.

Preserving our identity is not only a moral imperative but also a political imperative to ensure the security and well-being of our peoples.

That is why we must fight against

 the cultural isolation of many predominantly immigrant neighborhoods,

against the spread of radical Islam and its political corpus, the Sharia,

That’s why we must defend our values, our principles given by our Christian and Greco-Roman civilization.

To ensure national peace we have the right to impose our civilization codes on those who demand hospitality.

Identity is an immaterial but also a material body: our old stones, our environment, our land.

Material identity

That is why conservatism cannot be the accomplice of unregulated globalization

that has become a machine for standardization, impoverishment and pollution.

A true environmental policy must be rooted in a territory as Sir Roger Scruton explains. In others words, address environmental issues locally instead of globally.

An efficient way to create environmental policy is to produce and consume locally. It is the preservation of local ecosystem

and encourages virtuous agricultural practices.

This model is attractive but it has a price. It is difficult to implement it if you don’t hold big business accountable. For that, we need to master our trade agreements.

For conservative, environment is part of identity.

Maintain sovereignty:

Identity and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin.

For exemple a French Islamic republic, even with a strong sovereignty, would not

be France anymore. This is the great illusion of the EU : to imagine that they can be a sovereignty without identity.

This EU is a democratic failure – ok perhaps a complete failure – because there is no such reality as a European people or a European sovereignty.

 There can only be national sovereignty backed by a nation-state.

That is why the European Union must be limited to an international organisation. It should be confined to the defence of common economic interests and protection against migratory flows.

The necessity to foster a new political tradition

In conclusion,

The United Kingdom is a country that knows how to reform, while France is merely changing through Revolutions.

They are invariably tragic and the consequence of a persistent phenomenon in my country:

the betrayal and alienation of the ruling elites, the dissociation of the people and their representatives.

It is therefore our duty to draw inspiration from your tradition of conservative democracy to prevent another Revolution.

We certainly have our own approach, enlightened by extraordinary thinkers:

you have Burke but we have Tocqueville;

you have Chesterton and we have Bernanos;

you have Orwell, we have Ellul.

To bring about these great shifts, we have to train a new elite, teach them the greatest principles of Western thinking, which were all aimed at social harmony in the first place.  

The elite must reconnect with the people.

This is the daunting task awaiting you, dear Oxford students,

and it is in a much more modest way the role I have set for myself with ISSEP, a school where students in politics, economics and social sciences are trained in the spirit of democratic conservatism.

Thank you very much !