web analytics

Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

France, the Roma, and the Divine Right of States

In the 17th century, Britain fought a civil war over the principle that no one – not even the King – should be above the law. This conflict resulted in the destruction of the concept of divine right in Britain and the gradual emergence of the system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that has formed the basis of so many constitutions ever since (yes, even some of those without monarchs involved).

But at its heart, the English Civil War laid down the concept of the rule of law. This was such a good principle that pretty much the entire world runs on it now, in one form or another.

This idea that no one should be above the law was the first principle of the emancipation of the people. Without this fundamental concept, the subsequent developments in Western ideas of liberty and democracy (primarily via the French and American Revolutions, both partially inspired by aspects of England’s Civil War rhetoric) could never have progressed – for without the rule of law, we are nothing. We survive merely upon the whim of others. All we have and all we are can be taken away in an instant, and there is nothing we can do about it.

In 21st century France, all the Roma have is being taken. Systematically. By the state. Which in turn pleads that it is merely supporting the rule of law, because “they” are in the country illegally. Even though, in most cases, the French state has no idea precisely who “they” are, because “they” don’t deserve to be tried on a case-by-case basis to determine who is and who is not in France illegally. “They” don’t deserve to be presumed innocent. “They” are just a group of undesirables. “They” don’t have names, or rights. “They” are automatically guilty, merely by being of a particular ethnicity. “They” merely need to be removed.

And yet France has the gall to complain when the European Union’s Justice Commissioner points out the similarities between their current actions towards the Roma and the ethnic persecutions of the Second World War?

In 17th century Britain and 18th century France and America, the call was for no monarch to be above the law. In the 21st century the call should be that no government – or, to be precise, no state – should be above the law.

I’ve long argued that this is one of my key reasons for favouring some form of supranational governmental structure:

I for one would welcome legal restrictions on the ability of the state to interfere in our lives through unjust laws. I would like there to be lines in the sand, over which no government can step.

The Economist’s new Charlemagne has the best overview of the background to the current crisis over France’s explusion of the Roma, while The European Citizen has the best overview of the implications of French treatment of Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s strongly-worded speech:

Meanwhile, France is hitting back in a manner that only further underlines the fundamental problem – the French government’s belief in the divine right of states: “That is not how you talk to a large state,” says the French Europe minister.

In the old days, no. No it wasn’t. Because if you talked to a large state in a manner they disliked, they were likely to vent their anger through force, just as the monarchs of old did before them. And look how well that turned out for France, back in 1870-71, 1914-18 and 1939-45…

This is why the English Civil War was fought. It’s why the French Revolution started. It’s why the American Revolution happened. “The rule of law” isn’t just about words written in some dusty textbook – it’s about core, fundamental principles. It always has been. It’s about the rights of man – hence Thomas Paine’s use of that phrase as the title of his most famous work. In another, Common Sense, he likewise noted “in America, the law is King”.

This is a principle that the EU has been trying to bring to Europe, a mere two centuries late.

How big does a state have to be to be above the rule of law – laws that France has signed up to, lest we forget? Laws that this very French government recently reaffirmed through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty? Principles that every member of the UN and Council of Europe has signed up to via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights (both of which exist independently of the EU, in parallel to its own rules, so important are these principles considered)?

If France can get away with breaking internationally-agreed laws designed to protect not just ethnic minorities but individuals of any race, colour or creed just because she’s large, can an even bigger country get away with breaking laws designed to protect France? A bigger country like, say, Germany? Remember how that went, France? The Nazis also won an election – does that mean they had the right to invade?

Just as one of the prime motivators of the English Civil War, French Revolution and American Revolution was to escape the oppression of kings, so one of the prime motivators for the formation of what has now become the EU was to protect Europe’s many peoples from the oppression of states, from governments who believe they have some kind of divine right to do what they like because they’ve got the largest army, but also – in the modern world – because they received more votes in an election.

Sorry, chaps – but the rule of law is not trumped by who has the most votes, just as it isn’t trumped by who has the most soldiers, or the biggest stick. Being voted into office doesn’t mean you can do what you like any more than being king means you can do what you like. We’ve progressed beyond that stage.

Or, at least, I thought we had.

20 Comments

  1. Congratulations, Nosemonkey! (Perhaps the EU isn’t as boring as you often say … ;-)

  2. Not that I have anything against Roma people, or in their favour either, but what hurts me is seeing the money I have to pay heavily, on taxes, to be attributed to people who do not want to work at all.
    The question has nothing to do with either nationality or race.The fact remains that I do not accept that anyone goes and lives in another european country, having no job,paying no taxes, having no shelter and expect the government of that country to support them, their families, relatives, etc.Things get even worse if many of those people are envolved in theft,bribery,beggering and police can do nothing because,in their majority, they are people under 12 years of age and bear no documents.As far as it goes they are,under the law,ineputable and thence they always get the best of it.The only thing to do really is to return them to their origin countries and get sure they do not return.

  3. No, Antonio – you’ve got nothing against the Roma. Except for believing *every* negative stereotype about them.

    And this is the whole problem. Gypsies (itself a derogatory term, though more familiar to British audiences) are the last European ethnic group that it’s acceptable to discriminate against.

    And where, exactly, is the origin country of the Roma? No one knows. Much like the Jews in the early 20th century, they have no state to call their own – yet they have been here so long that they most decidedly *are* European.

    The Roma do pose a problem, no doubt. But it is not a problem that has any *ahem* final solution along the lines of that currently being proposed by the French government.

  4. It’s just a shame the Protectorate that grew out of the English Civil War was as happy to ignore the rule of law as the Monarchy before it. Ditto with the new regime of the French Revolution. Which is why I’m uncomfortable with the idea of global supranationalism – there has to be someone to “police the police,” so to speak.

    “Global governance” seems to be preferable to “global government.” It also seems to be the way things are heading; several regional organisations like the EU, which overlap and have common laws and norms of behaviour, but which also keep checks on one another’s excesses. It’s not a simple nor perfect solution, but I think it’s better than the others.

    On the point about governments not being “above the law” – there’s a quote I like to wheel out from Benjamnin Constant on this question:

    When sovereignty is unlimited, there is no means of sheltering individuals from governments… No authority upon earth is unlimited, neither that of the people, nor that of the men who declare themselves their representatives, nor that of the kings, by whatever title they reign, nor, finally, that of the law, which, being merely the expression of the will of the people or of the prince, according to the form of government, must be circumscribed within the same limits as the authority from which it emanates.

    Good to keep in mind. Nothing is unlimited, not even the law. If I pass a law saying minorities cannot vote (as has happened many times in the past) it is plainly an unjust law, and as wrong as breaking the law to discriminate against minorities.

  5. Eurogoblin,

    The values and rules Nosemonkey referred to are related to “natural law”, given concrete and written content through the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights plus EU founding values. These are then interpreted by independent Courts.

    They form a basic protective shield created and upheld by supranational Courts, as agreed among states, but they cannot eliminate every wicked plot to introduce unjust domestic laws or subvert the use of laws for nefarious ends.

    “Romagate” is one important example of the continuing struggle to advance towards more civilised rights regimes, when elected politicians want to bend the rules.

  6. Pingback: France has no right to expel Roma and flout the rule of law | Liberal Conspiracy

  7. Pingback: Sarkozy’s France: A Land of Intelorance- Roma policy, Burqa ban, Le Monde scandal | Erkan's Field Diary

  8. And who is going to ensure the “supranational governmental structure” is not going to be above the law? If a written constitution then surely the same argument for such a constitution could be applied to the nation state? And who would write such a thing anyway if not the people who are in power at any given moment in time.

    A further point is the more international the structure the further it becomes removed from the people, it thus becomes an unaccountable self serving system of government. As we have debated before I do not agree that a state needs any outside control in order to ensure that it remains within its own laws, only an internal system of checks and balances and an accountable – hence controllable – government.

    If for instance the EU is the structure, does the EU not have the power, moral authority, sovereignty to decide who will be allowed into the EU? In fact the EU does say who will and who will not be allowed to stay in the member states of the EU.

    I just do not see a moral difference between the French action and EU sanctioned action, although I do agree that France has signed away its sovereignty in this matter to the EU and is thus seemingly acting illegally within the context that the Roma people in question are not French but from different European states. (Romania and Bulgaria) I understand. Perhaps if they wanted to retain sovereignty over their own borders the French should not have been so eager to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

    The concept of the Rule of Law leans heavily on those who make the law; perhaps it should also be founded on the concept of accountability of those who make the law to the population to whom the laws apply.

    Would you not also agree that a government that has been voted into power has more legitimacy than one which has not? At least assuming we can also vote them out of power, we can prevent any further interference in our lives from that government, and vote for a government that will remove the interference, I do not see a similar method by which we can prevent the EU interfering.

  9. Ken,

    That’s all very well – but problems come equally from interactions between states. We have an international system that may be governed either by law or by power; if it’s governed by power, then war on a horrible scale has so far been the result.

    In addition, it’s all right and proper for sovereignty to be sacrosanct and you happen to live in a functional government. What happens if you live in genocidal Rwanda or Sudan? Which is precisely why we have an (imperfect) system of international law, bodies like the UN and concepts like the “Responsibility to Protect.” It’s also one of the reasons for the EU and the European Court of Human Rights.

    I agree that there need to be proper checks and balances, which is why I’m against some sort of “world government.” Instead, I think we should be aiming (as Karen Slaughter argues) for a system of global governance.

    But if you really want to prevent the EU from interfering in your life, then don’t let me stop you; do go and vote for UKIP, by all means. You and the other 3% of the population of the UK that vote for UKIP (that’s close to the 4% of voters who believe the EU is a priority). If you can drum up enough public support, then you can pull the UK out of the EU.

  10. Eurogoblin:

    You have not actually addressed my points:

    Who controls the “supranational governmental structure?”

    What is the moral difference between say the EU deciding immigration limits and France doing the same? Obviously accepting in this case France has passed its sovereignty in this matter to the EU, but that is a legal matter. The EU also limits immigration and ejects those illegal entrants it does not want. So as far as I can see the only reason France should not do so is because it has agreed to limit its sovereignty and is thus breaking that agreement, I have no problem with that concept but it does indicate the gulf between the rulers and the people.

    I do not see that changing the word government to governance makes any difference. It is still the final authority with regard to the laws by which we must live. What about the voice of the people are they to be ignored.

    You make my point with regard to controlling the EU law makers admirably, in short we can not, all we can do is leave! But that is to ignore the basis of the question who controls the law makers in this supranational governmental structure. Then why would anyone want to replace a system of government that can be controlled democratically with a “supranational governmental structure” that cannot?

    I do not see an argument for introducing Rwanda or Sudan we are not talking about those states but states with already functioning democratically elected and democratically accountable governments.

  11. Who controls the “supranational governmental structure?”

    It’s not a simple question. There should be appropriate checks and balances on power (as there are with the EU). There should be democratic input (through national and regional parliaments). Ultimately, there probably needs to be some sort of “balance of power” between the world’s regional organisations. Imperfect as such a system might be, it’s better than a single world government (as you say: otherwise, who would police the police?).

    But a question for you. Who controls the “great powers” in the absence of international law? Who controls the hegemony?

    What is the moral difference between say the EU deciding immigration limits and France doing the same?

    There is no moral difference. The main issue comes from the fact France was breaking the law. You say it was breaking European law (law which it helped formulate), but it was also arguably breaking its own constitution by specifically targeting an ethnic group for priority deportation.

    I do not see that changing the word government to governance makes any difference.

    When a word changes, the meaning often changes too. Global governance is achievable and (I would argue) necessary. Global government is not. It’s the difference between a formal system of power (government) and a network of overlapping systems solving problems that affect everybody in the absence of a formal power structure (governance). It’s closer to the current UN system (flawed as it is).

    I do not see an argument for introducing Rwanda or Sudan we are not talking about those states but states with already functioning democratically elected and democratically accountable governments.

    When we are talking about the international system, we are also talking about Rwanda and Sudan. How would you propose countries deal with genocide (in other states) if not through international organisations?

  12. Pingback: Euroblog Round-up: France vs. Europe | Eurogoblin.eu

  13. Pingback: bloggingportal.eu Blog & Support » Blog Archive » The Week in Bloggingportal: France vs. Europe

  14. This would be the EU and all it devious apparatus that I wasn’t allowed a referendum on? With all its unelected and unaccountable elites who are undermining the very Laws that my forebears died to create and preserve? Give us our referendum and I will begin to care. And I speak for the ignored majority. We await our next Oliver Cromwell to do to you traitors (Law!) what he did to the last mob.

    Law? What do you lot know about Law? The purpose of Law is to protect, not to be created (in the form of unconstitutional and undemocratic statute) to control and force the will of a handful of zealots on the rest of us.

  15. Right. You speak for the “ignored majority” of about 4% of the population of the UK. Some majority.

  16. Just a few points.

    1) Okay, the war of five nations did involve for some the struggle for the rule of law as you say. It was also however a great outing for aggressive imperial English nationalism. Equally our current system in the UK has absolutely no constitutional guarantee of equality before the law. Plenty of room left for democratic republicanism I think.

    2) The racisms shown by the French state in its treatment of the Roma doesn’t surprise me at all. The current French government has also suggested that they might remove the French citizenship of people who come from abroad (not born French) and who commit certain crimes in France. This to me essentially says that there are two types of French citizen those born in France being slightly superior. So much for equality before the law.

    3) You may also know that the French state absolutely refuses to recognise the Council of Europes framework convention for the protection of national minorities and has for a long time tried to snuff out its own internal linguistic minorities such as the Bretons.

    Franco-french ethnic supremacism dressed up behind the language of legal equality and republicanism.

  17. Just a few points.

    1) Okay, the war of five nations did involve for some the struggle for the rule of law as you say. It was also however a great outing for aggressive imperial English nationalism. Equally our current system in the UK has absolutely no constitutional guarantee of equality before the law. Plenty of room left for democratic republicanism I think.

    2) The racisms shown by the French state in its treatment of the Roma doesn’t surprise me at all. The current French government has also suggested that they might remove the French citizenship of people who come from abroad (not born French) and who commit certain crimes in France. This to me essentially says that there are two types of French citizen those born in France being slightly superior. So much for equality before the law.

    3) You may also know that the French state absolutely refuses to recognise the Council of Europes framework convention for the protection of national minorities and has for a long time tried to snuff out its own internal linguistic minorities such as the Bretons.

    Franco-french ethnic supremacism dressed up behind the language of legal equality and republicanism.

  18. It’s hard for an American to read this. We used to have some allegiance to the rule of law, but both the last administration and the current one have done their best to overcome such niceties in favor of unlimited executive power. The current president claims the right to issue an order to kill an American citizen who has been convicted of no crime (however much of a bad guy he may be) who is on the loose in a foreign country with which we are not at war. Oh, and he also seeks to convince our courts that this assertion of power is not subject to review because review might endanger unspecified “state secrets” not to be revealed to the court.

    It no longer seems accurate to describe our state as adhering to the rule of law.

  19. janinsanfran posted some pretty strong comments. As an American reading this I have to at least partly agree with him. On the other hand I wish he was more specific in his veiled comments of our executive leader.

  20. Pingback: “This Is A Disgrace” | Geoff Coupe's Blog