It’s amazing how certain traits of a society never change. About 230 years ago, a young man refused to take off his hat for and hurled impudent ditties at a passing parade of nobles and notables in Paris; for this they cut off the hands that refused to to take of the hat and the tongue that sang the ditties, and then they burned him at the stake. Later they put up a statue of and monument to the young man who became known as the Chevalier de la Barre in a park in the shadow of Sacre Coeur and named the street that encircles this church — itself a symbol of repentance imposed on the losers of the Paris Commune by the federal authorities — after him.
60 years ago, in “The Stranger,” Albert Camus wrote of a nondescript civil servant who is persecuted not because he kills an Arab (to stick with Camus’s nomenclature), but because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral — in other words, not for the criminal act he actually committed against society, but for not conforming to societal norms.
Six months ago, frustrated by her department’s inability to capture those responsible for a series of rail sabotages and threats of sabotage, the French interior minister ordered the arrestation of an anarchist activist, Julien Coupat, his girlfriend, and a few members of their coterie, all of whom lived in a collective in rural southwest France reading and writing about anarchist theory. Absent sufficient proof linking them to the rail sabotage (Coupat and his girlfriend, Yiddune Levy, had allegedly been seen in the vicinity of one of the rail targets) the interior minister accused them of belonging to an ultra-left organization with links to terrorism.
The thinness of the evidentiary trail became clear to me when French authorities said they’d started tailing Coupat on the basis of a tip from the FBI, which consisted of saying he’d been seen at a meeting of alleged anarchists in the States.
In other words, for the past six months, Julien Coupat has been kept in prison not for any crime which, at this point anyway, is provable, but for what he thinks, writes, and reads — and, to be fair, for being at two meetings and taking part in two demonstrations. And, by implication, for being and thinking different.
On Thursday, the French parquet finally realized they had no choice but to release Coupat, albeit keeping him under ‘control judiciary,’ meaning he has to report in every day, post a 16,000 Euro bond, has to stay in the Paris area where his parents live and can’t associate with any other members of the supposed cell (all of whom had been previously released).
As for the not so extreme Left, it has been typically slow to respond to the government’s extreme treatment of Coupat; only now, after the damage has been done — and, conveniently, a week before the European parliamentary elections — are prominent leaders coming forth and denouncing a ‘judicial fiasco,’ with one, Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, going so far as to demand the resignation of interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie, and the Greens, meanwhile (finally), demanding a parliamentary investigation. The French daily Liberation, which reported these belated gestures in its Friday editions, appropriately made Coupat’s liberation its cover, with the fitting headlines: ‘Coupat freed; Investigation into a fiasco.’ “One has the right, in a Democracy,” the paper’s editor Laurent Joffrin wrote, “to deliver a radical critique of democratic society, to denounce the State, to lambast a system of power that one judges oppressive. It’s even one of the conditions of the existence of a democratic society.”
The question, then, isn’t whether one supports anarchy — I don’t, because under the guise of threatening just the government, it ultimately attacks the security of us all, a contempt for civil society underlying all the fancy rhetoric — but whether one supports plurality of thought. (Where anarchy moves beyond thought into acts of violence, there’s a solution: You prosecute for the criminal acts, adding ‘conspiracy’ to the charges where that applies.) One of the many things I love about France is that it ultimately does encourage multiplicity of political thought, much more than my own country. At the primary school down the street from me — as at the schools throughout Paris which will also serve as voting places next Sunday — 27 metal panels with messages from 27 different political parties with candidates for the European parliamentary elections are on display, the Socialists falling about in the middle. (When I was the student member of the San Francisco Board of Education 30 years ago, supposedly apolitical school system authorities accused me of being a ‘radical Socialist’ just for denouncing planned program cuts.) In the last French presidential election, 11 parties presented candidates in the first of two rounds. In the last U.S. presidential election and in U.S. elections in general, there are essentially two parties, one marginally to the Left and one extremely to the Right of the political center. Yes, there’s a Green Party and there’s even now a Socialist member of the Senate, but unlike in France, there aren’t any rules assuring equal advertising time for and thus equal exposure to the Greens and other ‘minor’ party candidates — indeed, the Democrats, Republicans, and major television networks have repeatedly colluded to exclude candidates from any other parties from the presidential debates. So the question isn’t whether, absent actual proof of illegal acts, one agrees with anarchists like Julien Coupat, the question is whether one wants a society that prizes freedom of ideas.