Liberty in London

John Zvesper

December 1, 2004

In their late eighteenth-century revolution (they have had several since), the French missed a trick when they chose to pursue the visionary theories of Rousseau, instead of following the more liberal advice of Montesquieu, the slightly older and infinitely saner political philosopher. Montesquieu was far less influential in his own country than in America, whose own revolution was guided in part by his books.

The scaled-down versions of the Statue of Liberty that since the late nineteenth century have been publicly displayed in several French cities, though they are signs of the political kinship between France and the United States, have also occasionally been the focus of political differences that go back to these countries’ different revolutionary experiences. Appropriately, one of these replicas of "Liberty Enlightening the World" stands in the center of Montesquieu’s town, Bordeaux. It is a replacement (put up in 2000) of the original Bordeaux statue, which — like several others in France — was melted down during the occupation to feed the Nazi arms industry. Inappropriately, but — sadly — not wholly unpredictably, this new Bordeaux statue (along with a plaque in remembrance of victims of the September 11th attacks) was damaged by vandals in March 2003, during the invasion of Iraq by the American-led and French-opposed Coalition.

Montesquieu admired the English polity of his day (the first half of the eighteenth century). He saw in it a modern republic hidden beneath the trappings of monarchy. England displayed not only such useful constitutional devices as the separation of powers, but also the liberal democratic moral strategy of supplanting the more martial virtues and activities of ancient republics with tolerance, humanity and commerce.

Many Englishmen instinctively distrust grand ideas even while they apply them in constructive ways. They know that the light of freedom needs no torch on a statue. So in London, "Liberty" is not a statue grand or small, it is a retail store. It is nevertheless a good practical monument to that moral strategy of liberal democracy described by Montesquieu. And as if by providential design, the business was started up by a man named Liberty.

Liberty, which specializes in fabrics and domestic furnishings, opened in 1875 — the year that the French began constructing the Statue of Liberty (the big one). In contrast to the Nazi transformation of liberal monuments into weapons of aggressive war, the store soon beat swords (admittedly, decommissioned swords) into ploughshares. The fine oak timbers apparent in the interior and exterior of the store’s mock Tudor building came from two Royal Navy warships. The business first imported far-eastern goods, but soon found many of the fabrics too delicate to be useful. So it encouraged domestic manufacturing of oriental-inspired designs, and promoted new British craftsmen, in order, as their brochure says, "to give the ordinary person the chance to buy beautiful things."

All this is perfectly in the spirit of Montesquieu. American republicanism, too, seeks to replace war with trade, and, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, encourages citizens "to practice and improve those arts which tend to increase our comforts." Jeffersonian Americans — and Montesquieu — would also like the fact that the business set up by Arthur Liberty does not promote domestic comfort at the expense of artistic excellence. Liberty & Co. (now Liberty plc) has always been a patron of the arts. In design-conscious Italy, art nouveau is called "stile Liberty." In 1975 Liberty’s centenary was marked by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This modern republican combination of utility and beauty is by no means absent in France. However, France’s renowned art of living well and stylishly was already highly developed — though not widely shared — in its pre-democratic days, while its republican politics, when they came, got off to a bad start, delaying the establishment of a liberal democratic republic until 1875 (that year again). This regime was disrupted by four years of Nazi occupation after "the fall of France" — a trauma that still stings — in 1940. Given this rocky road of a history (and there’s more where that came from), it is not surprising that in the current regime (with a new constitution in 1958, which is still under construction), good liberal democratic republican institutions, habits, opinions and policies do not always coalesce, and thinking about the country’s interests is not always perfectly lucid.

For more than a hundred years, and more intensively since the Second World War, one thing that has often inhibited or distorted French thinking about the interests of France is French obsessions with (not to say deep knowledge about) the United States: usually anti-American, sometimes pro-American, obsessions either way. These obsessions currently affect not just the Franco-American disputes about terrorism and war, but also the relations between America and Europe more generally, as well as relations among France and other European states.

In mid November, to celebrate the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain, President Jacques Chirac visited England. He appeared at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here both leaders politely — cordially — conveyed the impression that apart from the little matter of Iraq they were pretty much in agreement on everything important. However, two days before, they had each hurled more antagonistic words across the Channel.

In Paris, Chirac had noted that Blair had failed to get, in return for Britain’s contribution to the Coalition in Iraq, any American commitment to push Israel towards making some concession to the Palestinian Authority. This was a variation of the standard French theme that Britain is weak and undignified in its relationship with the United States. As Charles de Gaulle used to put it, Britain is America’s "able junior partner."

This French view (which quite a few British critics of Blair share) has an insulting clarity, but it is based on the error (very common — my sons sometimes point it out) of assuming that juniority, whether of age or of strength, is incompatible with prudence, maturity, or dignity. Perhaps this error is built into French, a very conservative language that betrays suspicion of youths. French has no noun meaning (male) "youth" or, for that matter, "girl"; "jeune homme" and "jeune fille" are the best it can do. And in French, "prudence" principally means not practically wise but merely cautious. For example, every official comment about the efforts to secure the release of the two French journalists held since August as hostages in Iraq ends by remarking that while there are some hopeful signs, one must remain "prudent."

Blair, for his part in this not altogether cordial exchange with Chirac, made his annual address at Mansion House into a very diplomatic but nonetheless comprehensive critique of Chirac’s view (which many British but more French citizens share) that Europe must build a more distant, less British-style relationship with the United States. Blair’s speech has been very badly reported by a press that is evidently still out to get G. W. Bush. Headlines have commonly agreed with the Associated Press spin: "Blair Urges U.S. to ’Reach Out’ to Allies." No one who has listened to or read the speech could recognize it under that rubric. Blair’s primary audience was not Americans, but the British and other Europeans, and his message was that Europeans should reach out, to each other but mainly to the United States. His address — one of the best political speeches of 2004 — is a concise, spirited and reasoned case for "a strong bond" between Europe and America.

Blair rejected Chirac’s opinion that the "privileged" relations between Britain and the USA are not political but "familial" and therefore cannot be a model for European-American political relations. Chirac forgets that such "familial" ties with America can be seen in many European countries other than Britain (admittedly not so much in France, which has sent relatively few immigrants to the USA [or anywhere else]). Already in 1776, Thomas Paine pointed out that "Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America." As Blair remarked in his address, "in America, Hispanics, blacks, Asians and former Europeans live together, worship in their different ways and can rise from the bottom to the top in a manner we could do well to emulate." Maybe some American should write a newspaper article with the headline: "We Are All Non-Americans."

But there is a more serious defect in the French picture of relations between Britain and the United States: it entirely omits the rational and political basis of these relations. This is the crucial point that Blair made in his address.

Chirac insists that the European-American relationship, being less sentimental than the British-American "family" relationship, requires each side "to be aware of the respect that it owes to the other." Blair accepts that such political relations among states are, as Chirac rightly demands, relations in some sense among equals — not as among equal common citizens, but as among equally sovereign states — in other (Thomas Jefferson’s) words, among "powers of the earth" with "separate and equal station[s]." Thus, Blair asserts that "neither Europe nor the US should be arrogant about the other" (subtext: France, too, is sometimes arrogant). But he sees that the British-American relation is already essentially a relation of equals, and that every other sovereign country (including France) has (or could have) such a relation with the United States.

Blair criticized America’s insularity and obstinacy, and noted some differences between American and European political culture (e.g. with regard to the death penalty). But he set out very clearly why it is rational not just for Britain but for all Europeans to maintain close relations with America. In agreement with Chirac’s view, Blair emphasized that the relevant basis for these relations is "hard-headed interest" rather than sentiment. But he argued that such practical considerations will lead Europeans to be "enthusiastic for the transatlantic alliance." Not some atavistic "familial" solidarity, nor some dark compulsion to be "America’s poodle," but "the good old British characteristics of common sense" show that Europeans should ally themselves closely with the world’s "one superpower," given that, in spite of many important differences, "their way of life and ours is lit by the same light of freedom, the same love of democracy, the same fellowship of reason." This argument can be rationally disputed, by France or anyone else, but only if it is treated as an argument, not as a sentiment or an unavoidable and indisputable "familial" duty.

Paradoxically, then, it is the French, not the British — nor any other European country — who bring too much sentimental baggage into their relations with America. It is the French who treat their relation with the United States as if it were a family affair — a relation between two "sister republics," who share ideas and exchange grand presents, but also endure constant jealousy and occasional shouting matches or even periods of stony silence. It is the French who let their sentiments of envy or resentment of the United States interfere with a clear-headed calculation of their interests. Are the French not aware that such sentiments are rife in Britain and other European countries as well? Maybe some European should write a newspaper article, too: "We Are All Anti-Americans," concluding: but some of us don’t let that get in the way of the rational pursuit of our interests.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in southern France.