Nearly 250 years ago, the French and the Americans forged an unlikely friendship against a common enemy: the English. When the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau crossed the Atlantic to fight for the American cause, and subsequently, when Thomas Jefferson exerted an influence on the writing of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, inspired in part by the American Declaration of Independence, the fate of the two countries was sealed forever. However, despite these points of convergence between modern France and the newly established United States, both defining themselves as staunch defenders of Equality and Freedom, their respective visions of these values were and still are enigmatic to each other.
Although the French Revolution eradicated France’s feudal past and the Monarchy became a Republic, the State remains highly centralized and the head of state still enjoys unequivocal power. Equality became a real rallying cry, but authority remained in the hands of the elites and the much-maligned privilege system was maintained in new ways. This elitism still exists today through the education system, in the Grandes Ecoles system, similar to the Ivy League in the US, which is the subject of much debate. In essence, admission to one of these prestigious “Schools” still seems to be a condition of access for young French people who aspire to positions of economic or political power. Education is certainly less expensive than in the United States, even free sometimes, but the academic requirements and forms of self-censorship make access to these elite schools difficult for children from families of lower social classes, often of immigrant origin. Meritocracy is mainly academic in France: a diploma from a top school is seen as the sine qua non for success in life.
In the United States, the Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all Men are created equal,” so meritocracy is enshrined from the founding of the country by the early settlers. This belief, more aspirational than realistic, nonetheless attracts populations from all over the world. They immigrate to the United States with the hope of starting new lives thinking that their social or economic class, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation will not prevent them from succeeding or, at the very least, will not be an obstacle to their success. Millions of people risk their lives, abandon their families and roots to pursue the “American Dream.” They come with the hope that hard work and unwavering determination will be enough for them to improve the future of their children. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. American-style meritocracy is not determined by birth but by success and money.
This American egalitarian system was fueled by a strong ideal of freedom. The Declaration of Independence states Americans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words still resonate with Americans today, but many of them also realize that a segment of the population has not been granted these basic rights because of their race or ethnicity. The protests across the country following the death of George Floyd and other people of color are unique in bringing together both white and black people to denounce systemic racism, injustice and police violence due to the color of a person’s skin. Many realize that these core ideals do not apply to all Americans equally and how “discolored” the collective perspective is (pun intended). The current pandemic is bringing to the surface these socioeconomic disparities by dramatically and disproportionately affecting people of color. For many, the realization of the discrimination suffered by their friends, neighbors, or co-workers is a real shock. As a result, thousands have protested in the streets in recent months to demand that the principles of the Founding Fathers finally apply to all Americans, without exception. However, another perspective is exemplified by the recent uprising at the United States Capitol, the symbol of Democracy. This incident revealed the willingness of a crowd of Americans to take up arms to safeguard what they consider a threat to their freedom.
Likewise, in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, partly inspired by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, proclaims: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good… All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.” However, the French system, paralyzed by centuries of social stratification, mainly benefits the elites. Added to this are the colonial heritage and the impact of globalization that has changed the face of the increasingly multicultural population. Many French citizens have felt abandoned, unheard, and unrepresented by the elite, which resulted in the “yellow vest” movement, that led to violence and damage to monuments and other symbols of French Democracy.
Thus, in both countries, we are attached to the notions of Freedom and Equality, of which different interpretations have recently tested the strength of our respective democracies. A line of thought to explain the difference in interpretation of these values is the relationship with the Collective.
In fact, the French state was built on the preponderance of the community. Fraternity is institutionalized. The system is based on the sharing and redistribution of wealth by the state, which allows all citizens to have free access to education and health care. France believes in the welfare state with a social contract to protect its citizens and thus ensure their freedom and equality.
In the United States, the Founding Fathers wanted to mark a break by limiting the role of the state to sovereign functions. The current of thought was deliberately liberal and anti-interventionist in principle. According to Americans, the market and the private sector are the best way to guarantee individual freedom. One example of this is the healthcare system which was mainly private and primarily available to Americans through their jobs. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) attempted to provide universal health coverage, which remains an individual choice. Americans generally do not wish to pay taxes to finance the needs of the community, as the French understand it. American logic is to pay individually according to one’s respective needs, which explains the importance of philanthropy in the United States. Historically, the richest Americans have no objection to redistributing their wealth. However, they wish to choose themselves in the name of freedom but also of a core value that is belief in individual and personal responsibility. Fraternity is assured by individual initiatives. Equality is not guaranteed by the American state, but there is a belief that anyone can succeed. With equal opportunity, a person just has to take control of his or her destiny and is free to work toward his or her goal through self-determination. Many believe that minimal government intervention can guarantee the full development of Americans and too much intervention by the state could be the main threat to the country.
The two different approaches to managing the pandemic are a good illustration of this different perspective.
In France, there was initially a nation-wide lockdown; decisions were taken in Paris by the centralized state. When the government proposed to decentralize, leaving it to the regional prefects to make decisions adapted to their specific context to avoid a second wave of Covid-19, voices rose accusing the government of not fulfilling its responsibilities. And yet, the measures announced by the Minister of Health demanding the closure of all restaurants and bars in Marseilles triggered real hostilities between Paris and the French regions.
In the United States, as a result of federalism, lockdown and its rules vary from state to state. While Washington DC underestimated the effects of the virus, California decided to lockdown (shelter in place) as of March. Initiatives have been carried out at the local level and on an individual basis. Some American brands have donated their premises to carry out free screening campaigns. Celebrities have mobilized to act in place of the government. In April, Lady Gaga, supported by the Global Citizen movement in collaboration with the World Health Organization, hosted an 8-hour live virtual event, “One World: Together at Home”. Major international musicians performed from their homes and raised $128 million for the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund and local NGOs including food banks and housing providers.
These two countries are linked by their shared love of democratic ideals, but their respective historical roots lead to different interpretations of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. However, we find similarities on both sides of the Atlantic in their response to current events: identity crisis, demonstrations against police violence and racism, anti-mask movements and the freedom to work. So, is it love-hate or are they just different in the way they deal with current global upheavals? Looking back, we note that serious crisis situations are key moments for a culture to evolve. Thus, we notice that some Americans are beginning to realize the interest of institutionalized solidarity, and the French are beginning to notice the benefits of more local decision-making. Will our two great transatlantic democracies grow stronger as a result of the events of 2020?
This article is the result of a Franco-American collaboration: Sylvie Day (firstname.lastname@example.org) Julia Gaspar-Bates (email@example.com), Barbara Mattison (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Pamela Strawgate (email@example.com)