Before American readers embark on this inquiry into the particular democracy that was born in France with the French Revolution, I should warn them that they had better be prepared to enter a world of ideas so removed from reality as to make it almost impossible to believe there were people who actually took those ideas as principles for action.

I fail to see the reasons for the special prestige that the French system has enjoyed over the past two centuries—unless it is that, being derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s oneiric vaticinations, it happens at the same time to embody the pure essence of democracy, what democracy is when taken to its logical extremes.  In which case, what follows may be understood as a warning to reflective—and pragmatic—minds and to other nations.

There are two entirely different types of Frenchmen.  There are still a few descendants of the generally civilized people that one could not infrequently meet in most places, before the great leveling was finally completed.  These people used to know how to read and write, speak proper French; have elementary manners, reverence for learning; and were still capable of ideas and beliefs.

And then there are the French this article is about, the sons of the French Revolution, heirs to the frenzied levelers who went hammering at the past of France and the sculptures of her churches, much as the saintly Taliban disposed of the centuries-old Buddhas carved out of their mountainside.  These are the ones I intend to describe, not only because, beyond a certain level, human stupidity and wickedness becomes fascinating but, sadly enough, because they and their ideas are more and more obviously the dominant force dooming French history to an unhappy ending.

They hate old France with such a consuming hatred that what they have always had in mind has been nothing short of starting history anew (initiating a novus ordo seculorum) and, specifically, generating an entirely new type of Frenchman.  “Considering the extreme degradation to which the vices of our old social system have reduced mankind, I consider it necessary to proceed with a complete regeneration, and, so to speak, create the French people anew.”  So said, in 1792, Lepeletier de Saint Fargeau, a representative in the National Assembly, presenting a proposal for a general reform of the French educational system.

One has to weigh the words: They convey at least two meanings, the intrinsic idiocy of which has never seemed to dawn upon the many, nor weakened the words’ allure.

They amount, first, to the new French—the progress-minded ones who think tomorrow will always be brighter than today—declaring a perpetual war on the traditional French, who are deemed to be custom-obsessed and fearful of any change.  Where the good and the bad ones stand is obvious: On one side are generous men, anxious to provide a better fate for mankind; on the other side, the selfish ones, entrenched in their acquired privileges.  A fight to the death is on between the virtues of the future and the vices of the past.  To understand the political situation of France, one must realize that the country has been in a state of civil war, raging hot and cold but always rampant, ever since the French Revolution.  (One might even claim that two wars have been waged at the same time, though with the same purpose: a general one between progress and conservatism, and another one within the ranks of the new French, between the moderates who want slow change and the radicals who always want everything to change overnight.)

A second thing is readily apparent in the spontaneous choice of words by our unwittingly profound reformer: He does not want to create, he wants to create anew; his ambition is not to devise some extraordinary new being, but simply to regenerate man—i.e., to allow him to be again what he used to be when he first appeared on earth and, so to speak, for him to be born again.  A wise man, Mr. Lepeletier does not wish to play God; he simply wants mankind in general, beginning with Frenchmen, to revert to their natural selves.  The reader is probably acquainted with what became the battle cry of the Enlightenment, but you must realize that our illuminated gentlemen could not actually have cared less about what man’s nature might be.  Whereas the pagans and the Christians both maintained that man had to strive to discover and accomplish his own nature, that he had to understand and become what he is by nature (this is what education is all about), our enlightened reasoners claimed all that was nonsensical gibberish, man’s nature being very simply and without further ado what he happens to be at any given time of his life.  (Not surprisingly, ever since the 16th century, the French intelligentsia have been growing more and more forceful in their demand that education be essentially self-education, meaning zero education.  Their success is now almost complete in France.)

The idea (and its philosophical background) may best be understood in theological terms.  For the pagans, the passions of man were always conspiring against his nature as part of the cosmos; for Christians, man’s liberty amounted to his ability to go against his nature as a son of God.  Now, if this sort of theological approach is invalidated on principle, there is indeed no reason why man should be a fallible creature, and the individual has nothing else to do or be than what he feels like doing or being.  It is enough that he feel an inclination toward something for this inclination to be considered natural.  It should come as no surprise that what may be called the scientific outlook on mankind has since prevailed over the moral one: Man is like a stone on a slope; he can be understood as a mobile entity whose only purpose is to keep going without any particular goal, because movement itself is his nature.  What is truly fascinating is how easily the metaphysical idea translates into ordinary behavior: Always follow your impulses, as they cannot but be natural; do whatever you like, because it is natural.  (Wouldn’t you think you are listening to homosexual propaganda?)  And since there is no criterion outside of nature that can be used to judge nature itself, whatever is natural is good.  In other words, you have a natural right to be whatever you are.

This is precisely the gist of the ideas that eventually resulted, with the help of the Revolution, in the French conception of democracy.  Unbelievably (at least if you have not taken leave of your senses), this childish principle has been the sun blazing the path of the French Enlightenment, from its inception in the 16th century to its triumph in 1789.  At the beginning was the famous Montaigne boasting that it is a divine gift to be able to enjoy oneself, whatever one is.  (Thus, he devotes 800 pages to blabbering about himself, the topics ranging from his interest in Plato to the variety of foods that are liable to make him vomit.)  At the other end, Rousseau, the herald of those times and the scourge of ours, proclaims the love of oneself as the primary and most natural impulse of man, so much so that he is naturally wary of the company of others and lives most happily when alone: Man is “a perfect and solitary whole.”  Everyone knows that God thought His work good, but that is nothing compared to what the individual should think of himself: I thank God, says Rousseau, for what He has done, “but I don’t pray to Him.”  Why should he, indeed, since there is nothing beyond what he is that he could dream of being?

This intense satisfaction with the self seems (blatantly, as I see it) to permeate the famous Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme, which, far from being some kind of fantasy, is actually the cornerstone of the dozen or so definitive constitutions France has managed to frame for herself in the past two centuries.  Let us consider the first and most famous article: Men are born free and equal.  Now, if freedom is freedom from need, this phrase is just plain stupid.  If freedom is an ability to act reasonably without being enslaved to impulses, prejudices, ignorance, or passions, the phrase remains just as idiotic: It does not make sense to claim that, at the very instant he utters his first cry, the baby is endowed with a real ability to decide what is best for himself and does not need to be educated, except by himself—which, nevertheless, is exactly Rousseau’s thesis in his Emile.  Whatever one may think of his disciples, it is hard to believe they were that foolish.  We are therefore left with the only plausible meaning of the sacred motto: that men have an absolute right to be as they are or as it pleases them to be, and any idea that might hint they ought to be otherwise, on whatever grounds they can imagine, is perfectly spurious.  As of 1789, modern Frenchmen have come to assume that their very nature forbids men to feel bound by any kind of duty, law, principle, or affection that would imply they could be better off than they are, whether intellectually, morally, socially, politically, or spiritually.  So you do not teach in France any more; you try to be pleasant with a student, who is supposed to teach himself.  Whether one marries cows instead of women, prefers chocolate to fish, worships eggs instead of gods, or ranks Gore Vidal over Plato is one’s absolute right: The true nature of man is to have no nature but that of his choice.  To enjoy himself as if he were born without parents and were to die without descendants is the ideal of the modern Frenchman.  Is this the dream of a deranged mind?  Probably, but it is, all the same, a basic principle of the present French constitution, which forbids discrimination of any kind among citizens.  This is an ominous proscription: Let us remember that, according to the arch-enlightened Babeuf, “intelligence” is supposedly “a matter of opinion . . . accepted . . . because the clever ones have managed to impose it . . . though actually but a license to exploit the less clever.”  Which is why primitive ideologies, stupid ideas, and inane intellectual fads are so powerful among people who so willingly boast about their intelligence.  Frenchmen love them, because these various conceptions speak the language of their primal passion: Let us not have rules to follow, enemies to fight, values to respect; let relativity reign, lest there be some criterion of behavior or thought.  As one could read on the walls in 1968, “It is forbidden to forbid,” or, “Question authority.”  The French have entered, as of July 14, 1789, a new era: the me era.  (“I’m certainly worth it,” says the perfume ad.)

The overwhelming primacy of the me principle since the 18th century has branded the French idea of democracy.  Not surprisingly, this principle has become the very reason for the unique worth of a regime that can so easily appear as tailor-made to embody it.  What, indeed, is democracy if not a regime in which the citizens (the people) are sovereign?  Rousseau phrased it very nicely, but he was only expressing the spirit of the times: Democracy, he wrote, is a society in which “everyone unites with everyone else, but obeys only himself and remains just as free as he was before” (i.e., before he entered this society).  It is difficult to overestimate the impact of such words.  Ever since the summer of 1792, when the decision to assassinate the king had finally matured, the goal has been set (which is the trademark of French democracy): If democracy means the sovereignty of the people, it means each member of the people has a sovereign right to be whatever he may be, and it eventually ends up meaning that there should be no discrepancy between the will of each citizen and the will of the sovereign (which is what Rousseau called the general will).  In other words, democracy becomes a regime in which nothing can be more offensive than monarchy, because it is a regime in which every citizen, to the last, is actually a king in his own right.  Even though the heirs of the Revolution have not always been absolutely aware of their own inner expectations, they have all been more or less explicitly dreaming of the day when their dream would come true and that marvelous society would be fully implemented which allows every citizen to live an absolutely unfettered life.

The improbability of the whole scheme has never seemed to matter: It is as if the very impossibility of drawing a circle that could be squared only resulted in grown men demanding increasingly that it be drawn.  This is probably why a revolution or riot has taken place in France at the steady rhythm of every 15 to 20 years over the past two centuries (save for a respite during World War I).  Short of actually turning everyone into a king, the fight for ever more democracy in France has been simply a fight for ever more rights for the individual (which easily translates into a struggle for more equality).  After the struggle for universal suffrage came, in the 19th century, the war for freedom of religion (which amounted to a right to tailor-made beliefs), while, during most of the 20th century, there was a fight for a growing share of the collective pie, and today takes place the final battle for the right to paid leisure, anarchic private life, and, generally speaking, an absence of any societal bond or duty.  Above and beyond Rousseau’s hopes (for he finally confessed democracy to be “only for gods”), his program is being slowly implemented and, of course, in the most grotesque way, since there is no other way to do it.

Before we proceed any further, it must be realized that the democratic coin has a flip side in France, and the me principle a twin, which is the your-fault principle.  Let us put ourselves in the shoes of an enlightened man (admittedly a rather undignified endeavor).  From the right to be as one is inclined to be, does there follow the right to be a thief or a scoundrel (as Spinoza did not hesitate to say)?  It is impossible to answer yes without either condoning murder (Sade did, but, strangely enough, revolutionaries were not enthusiastic) or destroying the creed that men’s rights are vindicated by the very fact that they are natural (and reverting to the supposedly outrageous notion that man is a sinful creature).  So there lies the rub, and there is even more to it.  For if the nature of a man is what he does or is—i.e., what he cannot help but be or do (precisely because that is the way he is made)—and if he is good by nature, then there is no way he can be bad, because that would mean having a nature and not having that nature, being and, at the same time, not being what he is.  The Stoic vision (there is no evil when you consider the whole) being hardly agreeable to the individualistic spirit of the Enlightenment, the only way out appeared to be a very simple tautology: If nothing is wrong with man, but man can nevertheless be evil, then, obviously, it must be because there is something that prevents him from being what he is or forces him to be something he is not.  The enlightened Parisian clubs erupted with enthusiasm: Eurekas were heard all over the place.  Is it not obvious that a man has to become mean when in shackles, and a thief when hungry!  Remove oppression, poverty, humiliation, or whatever, and, as a river artificially forced out of its bed reverts to it when the dams break, man will run again his natural course.  The notion started as a rivulet and ended as a flood.  Liberals, romantics, socialists, even modern Catholics baptized again with the new ointment sang in unison the praise of the second great principle of the French Revolution: the your-fault principle.  Democracy becomes revolutionary in essence, an endless revolution, because it consists basically in shattering everything that stands in the way of the individual, by means of science (whose goal is to enslave nature for the benefit of mankind’s whims), on one hand, and, on the other, politics, which will erase all the differences that deprive the nonprivileged of their humanity and turn them into beasts.  Democracy is like a bulldozer out of control whose first function is to demolish.  History demonstrates the lasting impact of the idea.  The Russian nihilists of the 19th century, who wanted to “go full steam through the mud,” clearly reflect it.  So does the whole of Marxism, for what is Marxism, in a nutshell, if not a lengthy development of this elementary principle: If I am what I am (e.g., a wretched proletarian, bereft of anything human except sheer humanity), then it is your fault, you vampires living off my blood who have taken so many forms over the centuries (the last one being the bourgeois form)?

The identification of the your-fault principle helps shed a new light on the well-known and badly misunderstood concept of progress.  Everyone knows it to be the guiding beacon of that Century of Light.  From Fontenelle to Condorcet, through the Encyclopaedists and whoever else had a name, there is not a single fashionable voice to deny that mankind is on the path of indefinite progress, and even Rousseau decides that man is a perfectible being.  Now, this should have raised a few eyebrows.  For again, if man is good by nature, how can he get better than good?  Far from meaning, therefore, that men can improve on what they already are (which is the Christian idea that men must actualize their essence), the idea of progress as conceived by the French Enlightenment very simply means that man is an animal unlike the others: He need not adapt to his environment and change himself to survive but is able to adapt his environment to what he is, so that he may keep being what he already is and still survive.  In other words, the goodness of man has two enemies: untamed natural forces and human (or inhuman) monsters.  Progress is therefore very simply a two-pronged offensive against the natural harshness of physical nature and the artificial deformities of moral nature.

The me principle and the your-fault principle are the bases on which was built the rather outlandish system the French have lived in since 1789.  To remain within reasonable limits, let us choose only four examples of what it has become.

Is there a tourist who has spent a few days in Paris without being exposed to the charms of a strike, or the dubious harmony of some street demonstrators shouting their demands?  Very unlikely, because it is a structural habit.  No governmental decision can be absolutely satisfactory to all citizens.  But each citizen has the constitutive right to be satisfied by his government, since it is his own, so an unsatisfactory government must be illegitimate.  Now, is there another way to fight illegitimacy than by force?  So any move by the government that may be unpopular to somebody becomes just an opportunity to take to the streets.  Even if the demonstrators have previously elected this government, it is not their government anymore but a tyrannical one, since its will and theirs no longer coincide.  This is a cause of troubles that goes far deeper than any that the professional rabble-rousers, such as the shady ultraleft, can devise.  And what does the dissenting citizen care about this government having been elected by his fellow citizens, since he himself is supposed to be the real sovereign?  What right does one citizen possess that another does not?  On what grounds does one take precedence over another?  In good French democratic logic, even the majority does not have any such right, because a majority may have more votes, which means more brute force, but not more legitimacy.  At best, and purely for the sake of pragmatism, the majority may be given the power to decide, but only for want of a better way to determine who should have it, and never as an entrenched right.  (According to Rousseau, under certain circumstances that remain, at best, unclear, the majority may be assumed to represent not sheer numbers but the “general will,” the will that all citizens ought to have.)  No wonder that, in any post-election discussion, it is standard behavior for French politicians—and, most of all, the defeated ones—to claim they represent the real majority.  No wonder, either, that, in France, all political parties claim to serve the public interest.  No wonder that, in France, the street is always right in their opposition to the political establishment.  No wonder that French Jacobin-style democracy is just another word for anarchy: What else could it be, if it is the acknowledged privilege of every citizen to be an absolute sovereign?

French enlightened democracy, however, is not anarchy, pure and simple.  The latter combines in an almost unique way with what has to be identified as a despotism of a most pernicious nature, because it appeals to the multitude, who see it as the very means of their freedom.

A tyranny may be defined as a political regime in which one man (or, conceivably, a few) possesses virtually all possible powers and wields them alone (or with the help of his mercenaries); is in no way bound by any law or any standing norm of any kind (except perhaps those of sheer immediate rationality); uses these powers for his own benefit (or his followers’), regardless of his subjects’ interests; and relies on fear as his most efficient means of leverage.  It is rather ironic to realize that the four features of this archvillain of a regime very obviously and precisely apply to the regime the French call democracy.  Again, the residual strength of the prerevolutionary past of France has delayed the actual blossoming of democracy in its purest form; its time has come, however, or so it may be argued.  Let me explain.

It is difficult to overestimate the extent and the scope of power that has been monopolized by politicians and bureaucrats, who are supposed to be mere representatives of the people and curators of their will, and who do not hesitate to wield this power against some of their fellow citizens.  The fact has a very visible root: the me principle.  For, once more, what is democracy if not a regime in which the citizen is supposed to be sovereign?  Hence, his natural propensity to identify himself with those who hold public power.  That he is continually disappointed, and sooner or later comes to hate what he used to adore, should not hide what is an essentially logical leaning: Since there is no legitimate authority but every citizen’s own, it is only natural that he more or less consciously try to see the top man’s will as a reflection of his own particular will.  Robespierre and De Gaulle seem to have understood perfectly that the rule of the game is, so to speak, to incarnate the quintessential citizen.  The famous expression, the “cult of personality,” is misleading: The citizen loves a particular individual all the more as the latter seems to him to be a glorified version of his own self.  Hence, he will tolerate any display of power, even arbitrary, for as long as he can identify with whoever holds it.

Thus the following paradox.  In France, the majority may be considered just as entitled to wield a totally despotic power as unfit to wield any legitimate one.  It depends on the number of egos that see it as an expression of their own personal desires.  In other words, the majority has no right because the individual has every conceivable one.  At the same time, however, only the majority has any right at all, because it is supposed to represent the will of each citizen.  Anarchy and tyranny are opposite sides of the same coin.

Even more disturbing is the scope the true democrats are prepared to allow political power to encompass.  Laws have been passed, supposedly by the people through their representatives, regulating births (and probably deaths in the near future), property, opinion, individual safety—that is to say, the rights to live, to possess, to think, and to defend one’s life, limb, and property when the public authority fails to do so, which are the basic freedoms whose defense is supposed to be the main purpose of modern French democracy.  (Maybe the only freedom that is really left is to flee the country, provided you are willing to forfeit your means of support.)  There is logic behind all of these constraints.  If the sovereignty of the citizen is to be taken seriously, there cannot be anything standing in his way, provided it is his will to go that way.  Now, let us consider things from the free and sovereign citizen’s point of view.  Why should a woman have to pay for a few moments of natural pleasure with a lifelong burden?  Isn’t taking care of one’s elderly retired parents an endless bother as well as a financial strain on society?  As for the small house one owns, is it reasonable for it to stand in the path of the highway others need in order to reach the seashore faster, and, all things considered, isn’t one’s ownership of a powerful SUV an infringement on another’s peaceful enjoyment of his battered wreck?  Finally, shouldn’t some opinions be forcefully prohibited—such as, for instance, precisely the opinion that abortion should be prohibited?  The French never had any qualms about being despotic: “No freedom for the enemies of freedom,” shouted Robespierre in defense of political murder, whether performed on an individual or a nation.  And Rousseau concurred: Whoever resists, said he, will have “to be forced to obey, which amounts to forcing him to be free.”  In other words, the more total the freedom for some, the more total the denial of freedom to others: To be absolutely free, the free citizen must have an absolute power.  Since everyone wants absolute power, however, the rule of the game is that one have as much power over one’s neighbor as that neighbor has over him.  An absolute democracy—the one the French are after—must be an absolute tyranny, because it is an unprincipled constitution—that is to say, a me-principled constitution.

If tyranny is lawless power, then, again, that is what French democracy is.  It is not that France lacks rules.  According to the French conception of democracy, however, a law derives from nothing but the sovereign will of the people.  The king was a tyrant when he dared sign the laws with the famous formula “because it is my will,” but the people are not, when they claim whatever pleases them is the law, because, in good Rousseauian logic, the people’s sovereignty means their will becomes the rule for no other reason than the fact that it is their will.  Law is not the law because it is just, reasonable, or good; the law is just, reasonable, or good because it is the law.  This means that the only legitimacy of the people’s law lies in the sheer brute force of the collective will.  One will argue: Their will is the will of the many.  But what legitimacy is there in numbers per se, except that a majority possesses more brute force than a minority?  Again, a blending of the me principle with the yourfault principle explains this interesting paradox: As long as the will of the majority supports a law, this law is supposed to be legitimate, but, at the same time, the minority has every right to consider that very same law as nothing but a constraint imposed by the sheer brute force of the majority, as if it were a tyrant’s whimsical, arbitrary ruling.

The French legislature is in constant turmoil—almost 300 laws in 20 years (a new one every third week); laws that are haphazardly implemented; political parties promising to repeal old laws and pass new ones if they are elected.  All that is logical.  Any will that is not bound to any principle of reason or justice must be a changing will and, actually, just a whim.  But then how could anyone have respect for a whim?  How can there be any law when citizens are allowed today what yesterday entailed imprisonment or loss of life (abortion, for example, which is even reimbursed by the national health insurance) and, conversely, are punished today for something that was lawful yesterday?  Some might argue: France has a constitution.  Wrong: Today’s is only the 13th or so in 200 years, and France is ready for a new one.  Modern France does not perceive that laws are made for the sake of justice or for the punishment of obvious criminals.  (What an antiquated notion!)  In modern France, laws are made to punish those who dare dissent from the momentary alleged will of the people.  Laws are not made to deter criminality; they are made to define it.

The same logic also explains why, in France, political power is mostly used for the benefit of those who wield it and those who help them obtain it, which is the standard behavior of the typical tyrant.  The me principle is again at work.  Behind the idea of social contract (basic to French democracy) lies a very simple question: Why would a man who thinks he is a world unto himself enter society if not because he finds some advantage in doing so?  The French founding fathers explicitly rejected the ancient idea that man is by nature a social animal; the principle of their democracy is that men do not come together because they love being together but because they can get something out of one another.  They do not love their neighbors; they need them, but that means they need to get something out of them.  Hence, the unbroken string of scandals that have riddled the French Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics, some of which have remained infamous (the Panama Canal, the Stavitsky affair, the Crédit Lyonnais).  And French democrats have added a corollary to this principle: Since it is perfectly clear that every citizen is after his own interests, why shouldn’t he maximize this interest when in a position of power?  By what miracle would the democratic princes be the only citizens not entering society for their advantage?  Hence political corruption, whether it be making public decisions for a moneyed profit or making them for getting votes, which means power and, eventually, wealth.  In the United States, rich men enter politics.  In France, men enter politics to get rich.  The truth of French democracy is what used to be the essence of despotism.

This is all the more the case because not only corruption but fear, though lying low, is always lurking in the background of French political life.  The revolutionaries were never sparing of their fellow citizens’ blood: As of 1789, the former continually knifed, hanged, dismembered and ate, beheaded, shot, and assassinated the latter, one at a time or en masse.  (They invented genocide, planned it, and experimented with it on the people of Vendée.)  Now, there were many reasons for this lust for blood, but they were never as powerful as the political—or philosophical—one, the your-fault principle.  Take any individual, endow him with rights—some definite, and most indeterminate (to freedom, for instance), that is to say, endow him implicitly with a right to everything—and in no time, since his rights can never be fully vindicated, this individual will feel frustrated, nay, angered.  For these are his rights, of which he feels cheated.  But there is no theft where there are no thieves.  Thus, one may consider as the symbol of revolution the law that Robespierre passed in 1794, which was called the Law of Suspects, and which basically called for every citizen to spy on, denounce, and send to the scaffold every other one.  For a thief, who mocks justice and law, must be worse than an enemy: He has, so says Rousseau, forfeited his right to be treated as a citizen, and even as a man.  Man has always been capable of cruelty, but democratic cruelty is different, because its goal is the vindication of individual rights, because it is an act of justice, which is why it must be systematic, legal, legitimate cruelty.  The true symbol of the French Republic is that of a regime based on fear: the guillotine, which is still in use inasmuch as physical b