The French Republic denounces the French State

“In tribute to the thousands of Jews of the Rhone who were tortured and executed, deported and exterminated in 1942, 1943, and 1944.

Let the locations of their martyrdom be engraved in our memory:

Fort Montluc, The School of Military Medicine, the Hotel Terminus, Rue Sainte Catherine, Rue Sainte-Helene, the Catelin cul-de-sac, Venessieux Camp, Neyron, Rillieux, Dorieux Bridge, Bron, Saint Genis Laval.

Let those who helped them, at risk to their lives, be thanked forever.

The French Republic, in tribute to the victims of racist and antisemitic persecution and crimes against humanity committed under the de facto authority called the “Government of the State of France” (1940-44). Let us never forget.

This is a pair of plaques on the wall of the former School Military Medicine in Lyon, headquarters of Lyon’s Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie. The building was used for frequent torture and executions until it was destroyed by Allied bombers; the site is now a small Museum of the the Resistance and Deportation.

What should we make of the French Republic denouncing the Government of the State of France?

One view might be that individual human beings are always the only responsible parties. In 1940-4 in France, human beings denounced Jews, or killed them, or saved them, or did nothing. They also actively supported, complicitly upheld, resentfully accepted, subtly undermined, or bravely resisted the government of France as it was constituted before, during, and after WWII. They should be judged on whether they hurt or helped people and whether they strove to make their governments just.

That view denies all moral agency to groups and institutions, which would have some problematic implications. It would mean, for one thing, that responsibility never survives a change of generations. If an individual didn’t denounce Jews in 1941, that person has nothing to be concerned about. We are born with a clean slate.

Yet an individual can inherit the advantages of an institution, such as the French Republic (or the USA). Not only does a state have has a treasury from which it pays benefits–and which represents the accumulated balance of all its past debts and credits–but it also shapes and realizes citizens’ rights. Insofar as our rights are important components of our identity, a state helps to constitute us.

Another view is that France (again, like the USA) is a morally responsible entity to which its citizens are tied, like it or not. The past belongs to the living. Today’s French inherit the responsibility for Vichy as much as for the Third or Fourth Republic that bracketed it, because they inherit France.

But surely we bear more responsibility for democratic governments than for authoritarian governments that rule us in our name. In that sense, the sins of the French republics should perhaps weigh more on modern French people than those of Vichy. Yet we know that Vichy was pretty popular, and the Third Republic was rickety. Public support is a sliding scale, not an on/off switch. So is any government’s responsiveness to the public.

Also, the laws and policies that result from a democratic process depend on precisely how the democracy is organized. Americans would have different laws if we elected one unicameral legislature with 10,000 members as our sole branch of government. We are constituted in one way; we (the same people) could be constituted differently. The US has not been re-constituted since 1789, although some of the changes have been pretty basic. France was definitely reconstituted in 1940 and again in 1945-.

I am inclined to think that the French Republic is an institution that is distinct from Vichy, as proven by the armed conflict between the two. The Republic can describe Vichy as an “it.” The Republic speaks just as it pays bills or forbids you from walking on the grass: as a corporate body.

However, the Republic has particular corporate responsibilities for the crimes of Vichy, not because the two states are the same thing, but because the Republic inherited the debts and assets of Vichy, like a business that buys a bankrupt firm. One of the Republic’s many assets is the address at which Klaus Barbie tortured his victims, and France is obligated to memorialize that space in the right way.

Meanwhile, French citizens have a particular obligation to assess whether the Republic is saying the right things. Reading those plaques on the wall, a French person should not ask, “Do I say that?” The speaker is the state, not the citizen. Instead, the citizen should ask, “Do I endorse the Republic’s saying that?” If not, the citizen should speak to the Republic by expressing a public criticism, because it is, after all, the citizens’ state (res publica).

By the way, I think the first plaque is the statement, and the second attributes it to the Republic as its author. Although the second plaque has no punctuation, I think the last three words form an imperative sentence in the third-person-plural: “Let us never forget.” The Republic expresses its view and then refers to a “we.” The metaphysics is odd here, but I this may be a way of capturing the particular relationship between a people and their state. The state is telling its own people to do something as individuals: read and remember.

In turn, the people may–and should–judge the state, including this declaration that they can read on the public plaques. However, the French people cannot unanimously and directly decide this position about the Deportation, or any different stance. Rather, they can act as individuals through the mechanisms of government to make a corporate change.

(Written on the way home from Lyon. See also: against methodological individualism; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; what constitutes coordination?; rebirth without metaphysics; is social science too anthropocentric?; how many foundings has the US had?); Social Ontology 2018: The 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference; and system, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitions.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.