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Gaspard Koenig

Are the French viscerally anti-libéral?

By Adrienne Benassy

French people have a tendency to be especially critical of liberalism as a major cause of the economic crisis. Bank excesses, uncontrolled capitalism, dangerous deregulations, soaring unemployment, mounting social tensions and swelling public debt: all our woes seem to be caused by this vile Anglo-Saxon system. Yet rare are the French, if asked, that are against freedom of speech or low taxes. Liberalism is also a major part of our philosophical tradition even if it seems to have been progressively erased from our accepted thinking. To counter this generalised anti-liberalism, Génération Libre, a liberal think-tank launched in March 2013 is addressing issues such as the debt crisis, digital liberties and the status of civil servants. Its founder, Gaspard Koenig analyses France’s anti-liberalism and gives us perceptive insights into Génération Libre’s alternative solutions.

Gaspard Koenig

Gaspard Koenig studied philosophy at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, which led him to be a teacher at Lille III University. He then went on to be the speechwriter to IMF head Christine Largarde when she was the Economy minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. Since 2009, this young author (Octave avait vingt ans, Un baiser à la russe) lives in London, where he has been working for the BERD before campaigning to be an MP of the French citizens abroad in the Northern Zone (which includes Britain). Today, he regularly writes in various French media and manages his think-tank, Génération Libre.


What do liberals want?

Briefly, liberals are moderate people, in favour of the separation of power and free markets. Liberal doctrine is profoundly modest. According to Friedrich Hayek freedom is given to all because, by definition, we know that we do not know. It would therefore be absurd to make decisions for someone else because we do not have all the information this decision requires. Liberalism accepts human flaws and has no intentions of either changing or constraining them.

Do French people reject liberalism?

Most French intellectuals despise this tradition. If you trim down all the political programmes, whether they are right, left, centre leaning or extremist, they seem to all agree on one point: we should put an end to the excesses of so-called “neo-liberalism”. All the problems of the State suddenly become the markets'. Administrators and elected politicians rarely try to explain what exactly these markets are nor why they are useful, as a scapegoat to their own failures. Yet, it has not always been the case. There is a French liberal strain of thought, although it has been substantially eradieated from the intellectual spectrum since World War II. However, there still are liberal thinkers in France, such as Guy Sorman or Philippe Nemo.

How do you explain this anti-liberal resistance?

French people are very individualistic. You just need to walk around in France to feel this basic part of our culture. We are, however, a capitalist country and the 6th largest global economy with some of the biggest companies in the world. Yet the country is still rooted in an ideological refusal of liberalism which prevents most French people of seeing it as a positive doctrine. Even if people act in a very liberal manner, they still blindly hang on to public services and to the Nanny State. The French State always had a fundamental role to play, but liberalism has not always been criticised so much. 

Does university education participate to this anti-liberalism?

Broadly speaking, in the French university system, especially when it comes to humanities, it is very clear that everyone is socialist. Nobody even discusses it. I hardly received any classes that included the French liberal strain of thought during my philosophy degree. I had to wait until I came to the United States (Columbia University) to get to know this part of France's intellectual tradition. 

But France is not viscerally anti-liberal either?

In my opinion, French are not genetically bound to be anti-liberal, they have just been taught that the State has a huge importance. It is a shame because the French have so many assets to compete on an international level, we could easily turn back into a great power. But French people have been taught that globalisation is a bad thing and our politicians do not manage to inspire youth. If we followed former French president Georges Pompidou's advice to“stop bothering the French”, France would be far more successful. 

Do you believe France needs a Margaret Thatcher?

Putting aside everything that can be criticised, what people want to see in France is her extraordinary force of conviction. She only had two or three main ideas but she fought for them all her life. On the contrary, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected on the base of a liberal programme, did not follow his convictions. We wanted to get rid of French taboos about money, was in favour of working hard to earn more. He had much more power than Margaret Thatcher, but he totally changed his approach following the crisis, and started to call for a restriction of neo-liberalism’s excesses. On the contrary, Margaret Thatcher had strong convictions and stuck with them.

Génération Libre is hence an alternative to current public policies?

Génération Libre is a French think-tank, with the ambition of publishing everything in English too and to acting as an intermediary between France and the globalised world. The main aim is to speak about social issues, freedom of speech, which is far more interesting at a first glance than speaking about the debt problem. It is a part of liberalism that is often left to one side by liberals in France, and it is important to defend this part of the tradition.

By giving solutions to French problems from London, are you not afraid you will miss out on your goals?

Now I live every two weeks in Paris, so I am in London without being there. Also the website makes no reference to France or London, it is "dot eu", which makes a huge symbolic difference as it is a European think tank. The idea is to have a network of French people around the globe and especially in Europe. The think tank’s strength stems from the power of expatriates, but the idea is neither to take the UK as a model nor to give lessons to France from foreign countries. 


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