Wednesday, July 06, 2005

the abstract citizen and the consumer

The traditional French republican ideology requires that individuals be perceived by public institutions as citizens. No less, no more. Thus, the State and all other public actors should not give any recognition to identity factors such as regional or foreign culture, race, religion, sex, place of birth etc.

This model of an abstract citizen was born during the French revolution in reaction to the hierarchised society of the Ancien Regime. The dominant intention was certainly to bring about a form of broad social equality. But notwithstanding these intentions, the abstract citizen turned out to be Parisian, white and Christian, Jewish or atheist. Of course all individuals don’t meet theses standards and for those who don’t it’s much harder. Getting elected is much more difficult, exercising religion is much more complicated (fewer places of cult, no religious vacation days...); even when buying stamps at the post office, it is often the case that the civil servant reminds them that they aren’t a sufficient abstraction of a citizen. The kind of republican equality underlying this concept of abstract citizenship is traditionally a left-wing idea. Thus the French left-wing has always refused to introduce policies of affirmative action. The French right-wing has also become republican during the 20th century and they refused affirmative action as well, until now. Sarkozy, possibly the most populist and racist main-stream politician that we’ve had under the 5th Republic is in favor of establishing such policies. How strange does that sound from the US?

In the private sphere the citizen turns into the consumer. But since there hasn’t been a revolution in this sphere, the consumer is not abstract; he’s got a face, a skin color, a religion, an accent and a culture. But guess what? They match those of the citizen. This white, Christian, Jewish or atheist, Parisian consumer is all over TV and on the too many commercial advertisements that pollute the streets of this country. You would think that black people don’t buy close, that Muslims eat pork and that we all live in Paris.

TV and real-life are parallel worlds that in this case have nothing to do with one another. In the metro for example, which is so full of commercial advertisements that it makes me want to puke (excuse my French), if your eyes shift from the typical consumer on the wall to the real life people around you, you’ll think there is a mistake, that the geniuses that plan the commercial campaigns are missing something.

Recently the mechanisms of the market started to overturn the discriminatory reflexes of the private sphere. Some people realized that discrimination was causing financial losses as whole portions of the population were not concerned by their campaigns. Now the main distributors of meat is commercializing hallal steaks, one of the main chains of hair dressers is opening exotic salons (sic) where blacks can get their hair cut properly. On TV we’re starting to see black and Arabic people commentating the news; on the walls of the metro and on TV, some are selling such things as glasses. Even better, it now happens that in movies some are just there as “the abstract citizen” as opposed to the juvenile delinquent, the dancer, the rapper or the gifted athlete.

I must say that as a left-wing partisan I feel there is something a little strange with the idea that Sarkozy and the mechanisms of the market will, in part, save us from our racist left-wing republican demons. The capitalist republic works in mysterious ways...

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