Review: Human Rights in Crisis: The Sacred and the Secular in Contemporary French Thought, by Genevieve Souilac

June 4, 2006 9:13 | By Dr Ingrid Wassenaar

Geneviève Souillac's book acts as a timely reminder of the specifically French contribution to the very idea of human rights. This is important territory, given the kinds of human rights conflicts that we have been witnessing in the wake of 9/11, as well as the ongoing use of human rights as a sort of triage tool, allowing or disallowing developing countries into rich Western trading zones.

The point about the French approach to human rights is that it is philosophical in kind, rather than instrumental. The great difference between the American and the French model of Human Rights is inscribed in the very embryonic stages of their development.

The Americans needed a concept of rights in order to sever ties with England, and set up their New World. In a sense, they could be quite slap dash about exactly what those rights were.

But the French needed rights in order to do away with monarchy altogether, and establish a new order over the top of it. The French, after their Revolution, were in a much more uncertain position than the Americans, a few years earlier. They needed to justify their revolutionary actions in putting the monarch to death. They had to do away altogether with the ghost of the divine in kingship. In other words they had to find a way to secularize what had been a sacred institution.

They were therefore determined to base their justification of human rights on reason, rather than nature. Their conception of human rights was highly experimental, a projection of an entirely new system of governance into an uncertain future, rather than a way to protect the little guy against big government. Their view of human rights was foundational rather than protectionist.

For the French revolutionaries, the whole point was to integrate the notion of the individual into an understanding of citizenship. They refused to divorce the private from the public realm, pointing out the paradoxes of such a separation: every individual participates in the formation of the State, and unless power is defined in this way, tyranny of the one over the many inevitably follows, they argued.

The French tend to go back to first principles in order to critique the current state of democracy, and it is because French thinkers are searching and critical of their own experiment in democracy that they have something to contribute to the Anglo-American debate on human rights.

Souillac's account is exceptionally clear and careful. It details the way four French philosophers - Gauchet, Kriegel, Ferry and Balibar - look at human rights as a way of shaking up democracy and making it think about itself.

Her chosen philosophers all insist that individuals are political and social before they are private, and that human rights are about the public consequences of abuse - not purely a way to protect personal freedom. The French individual is first and foremost a citoyen, an element linked into a unified whole, not a person out for his own self-interest. At least that's the idea.

The one problem with French thinking about human rights, Souillac argues, is that it runs the risk of reifying 'Society', making it into another overarching, overwhelming, quasi-divine category. But this is only if we forget that the analysis of human rights can be used a kind of deconstructive tool, unsettling fixed definitions of democracy. And the fundamental point to bear in mind here is that human rights belong to flesh and blood humans, encountering one another, vulnerable, engaged, and burdened with the responsibility of their own democracy.

Gauchet, Kriegel, Ferry and Balibar all see themselves as critics rather than rulemakers, though some are more critical, others more reformist. Here worried about the loss of political engagement in established democracies, there idealizing the return of the humanist subject, they are all suspicious of triumphalism when it comes to democracy.

Democracy is not 'here to stay', or 'the way of the future', not unproblematically. Democracy has to be earnt, as each individual takes on board his or her civic responsibility. It is condemned to perpetual renewal and a terrifying provisionality.

Souillac's book comes as a very welcome intervention in an often airless debate. Her impressive and toughminded marshalling of the arguments of her four chosen thinkers will give invaluable leverage to students trying to understand the shape of the human rights debate today. It offers a wonderfully searching and coherent counterview to the dominant definition of democracy in thrall to free market ideology. For these French philosophers, democracy is a struggle, not a format.

The reviewer, Dr Ingrid Wassenaar, works in the Department of French at the University of Sydney, Australia