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Paulina Velasco Paulina Velasco Paulina Velasco graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with an International Politics major and a certificate in Social and Political Thought. Originally from Mexico City, she studied in Paris for a semester, where she wrote...

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Junior Year Abroad Network 2010/2011


Junior Year Abroad Network

The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
Velascopaulina

Paulina Velasco on Religion and International Affairs in France

May 3, 2011 | 3 COMMENTS

It is often difficult to discuss France’s politics in terms of their relation to religion considering the fact that “laïcité,” or France’s strict relegation of religion to the private sphere, is tenaciously upheld as a national value, right up there with liberty, equality, and fraternity. France’s “laïcité” is very different from the United States’ separation of Church and State because it is much more skeptical of any and all intrusion of particular religions into national political culture.

Both countries, however, are most definitely not exempt from the influence on political actions and discourse of politicians’ personal faiths or of talk of spiritual-like national objectives. That is to say, there is often a sense of mission and a calling to defend certain values for both American and French political leaders.

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture here at Sciences Po Paris by the Berkley Center’s Director Professor Tom Banchoff on “the religious dimension of the American sense of mission in international affairs” that made me realize the role of religion in American foreign politics that cannot be denied, and that was greeted with some degree of criticism by the French audience. As Professor Banchoff highlighted, American political discourse is threaded with Judeo-Christian references. The calls to be the “light on the hill” to lead the world in the defense of freedom and individual rights has led to what we now consider a sort of American exceptionalism, which has been appealed to as well as challenged in the past years with the American intervention in the war on terror and recently in Libya.

Professor Banchoff’s speech made me reflect the past few weeks on whether France itself has a similar self-conception of its role in international affairs, considering that it is also a major player on the world stage, as has been seen in the recent discussion on what to do in Libya and Syria. While France denies all reference to religion in its internal and external politics, it has come to my attention that France has still fashioned for itself a role comparable to that of the United States as a defender of human rights.

France’s equivalent in terms of political discourse, at least, is its appeals to the Universal Declaration of human Rights, of which France was a key creator in 1948 within the United Nations, and to its own Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, fundamental document of the French Revolution and of the French spirit, I dare say, and of which I have seen numerous lovely paintings and engravings in almost every museum in Paris. The French, to put it somewhat informally, are all about defending their individual liberty, a value that manifests itself all the way from the pedestrian fighting violently against the driver for his right of way along the Boulevard St. Germain to the French diplomatic discourse on the recent violence in the democratizing African states.

For example, for one of my courses here at Sciences Po, we have weekly assignments where we pretend to be French diplomatic spokespeople while the class poses questions on a particular subject, a task that is more difficult than it seems because we have to stay in character and not give our personal or politically biased responses to very pertinent foreign affair issues. It seems that each time we end up citing “the defense of human basic human rights and liberties” as French diplomacy’s motivations for “sharply denouncing” the violence in Syria or in Libya or in Egypt. It would certainly be interesting to ask where this strong belief in human rights originates, because it may very well be that this deist, Enlightenment concept can be said to be religious at its foundation.

Nevertheless, today it seems to be the distinguishing feature for French foreign political discourse the way “American exceptionalism” based on Judeo-Christian traditions is for the United States. I wonder if I might possibly conclude that the self-constructed “religion” on which France bases its foreign politics, in word especially, is the defense of universal human rights.

COMMENT FROM GINA BULL– MAY 18, 2011

Hi Paulina! I think you've made an interesting point about human rights being a sort of "religion" for French politics. They are certainly very proud of their Declaration of Rights of Man, and the protection of human rights is placed foremost in their constitution and political mindset. I would maybe make a distinction though between American and French exceptionalism in this regard, though. I think American discourse stresses the importance of individual liberties, whereas in France, it's more of a Rousseau-ian communitarian liberty-stress on the "egalité," "fraternité". You certainly see a lot of French claiming their due rights and benefits, but I think it comes from an expectation of getting what they deserve from the community and the social system. In the US, on the other hand, we have the tradition of the puritan work ethic, the emphasis on the capitalist free market, everyone out for themselves. On the international scale, though, I agree that France and the US both see themselves as exceptional defenders of democratic principles and liberties, probably stemming from our perspective revolutions.

COMMENT FROM PAULINA VELASCO– MAY 21, 2011

Thank you, Gina! I think you are right about the nuance between American and French “exceptionalism,” in their defense of liberty. I find it very true what you say about the French, at least today, considering their liberties as stemming from recognition by the whole of society (and defended by their extensive social security system), whereas we Americans tend to defend our liberty more as a right gained by our hard work as individuals. I wonder if we don’t end up both heading in the same direction politically, both nationally and internationally, with our talk of defending liberties. Also, I think it important to note that it is, mainly, “talk” and that when it comes to action, both countries could be said to rely on more realist tactics in international politics.

COMMENT FROM MICHAEL MEANEY– JUNE 7, 2011

First, I'd like to compliment Paulina on what I thought was a very well written post. It was a lively read and every turn, and I am grateful that you shared such an interesting insight.

There is much to discuss about your letter itself, but I found some of the comments particularly interesting. Gina casually points out at the end of her comment that the nuanced distinction between American and French "exceptionalism" probably stems the different nature of each country's democratic revolution. I think that this is a very worthwhile insight that could be pushed a bit further. I'd say that the ideological driving forces behind each respective revolution are fundamental reasons for the differing conceptions of exceptionalism. The French Revolution was predicated by bubbling hatred of not just the aristocracy but also the clergy, after all -- Qu'est-ce que le tiers-état? The American Revolution was rooted in wanting liberty from excessive British political interference, but not so much religious interference. The colonist were lifted from the oppression of the Church of England by emigrating to America in the first place. I think that the religious nature of America -- and its idea of its role in world -- and the more secular nature of France -- and its idea of its role in the world -- are functions of the no-so-nuanced differences in the respective revolutions.

Also, I think you were spot on to point out that each country adheres in practice to a much more realist view of world politics!


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