Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

La démocratie et la guerre

Yeah, yeah, I know. Two weeks ago I was early posting, and this week I am late. Well, there are good reasons for this. Okay, maybe not good reasons, but there are reasons.

As I recounted last time, I had rushed off to France at the end of March to lend my considerable support to the workers and students massing in the streets to protest the CPE, the law that was going to make it possible for employers to lay off younger workers who had been in their jobs less than two years. (Okay, I know that I immediately acknowledged that that was a lie, but go along with me on this.) Well, when I saw that my presence in the country for an extended weekend wasn’t sufficient to turn the tide, I made the ultimate sacrifice and headed back to la belle France. Sure enough, when Jacques Chirac saw that I meant business and had come back, he immediately beat a hasty retreat and repealed the law, thereby allowing all workers to remain in their jobs indefinitely no matter how well or unwell they are performing their duties. With that, my work there was done and I have now returned home to Ireland.

Okay, here’s what really happened. Long before the infamous Scottish brother-in-law by marriage and I had planned our extended weekend getaway to Bordeaux, the Missus and I had planned a family holiday in France during the Little Munchkin’s Easter school break. So, without thinking of myself or the effort involved, I selflessly went to France twice during the month of April, returning home for a mere five days of respite in between. It was a terrible inconvenience, but I was willing to make the sacrifice. On this second visit, however, we made the journey in our own car, using the ferry from Ringaskiddy (Cork) to Roscoff (Brittany). The nice thing about bringing one’s own car is that you can pretty much bring everything you own in the world, which is what the Missus does anyway, but at least this way we don’t pay excess baggage weight charges to the airlines. The other great thing about driving your own car (when your car is from the British Isles) is that you can terrorize the locals in the small villages as I drive erratically while the Missus calmly reads a book and sucks a lollipop in what they think, out of habit, is the driver’s seat.

But, quite apart from such mindless fun, this latest visit to France has got me to pondering about serious matters of democracy and war. Now, while I was fantasizing above about the reasons I had come to France twice, I was not fantasizing about the fact that the French government did repeal the CPE in the face of ongoing mass street protests. This is where my ruminations on democracy come from. There was a time in my life, specifically my youth, that I saw masses of people out protesting in the streets as a manifestation of raw democracy. Indeed, the media regularly treat us to spectacles of so-called “people power” in places as diverse of the Philippines and the Ukraine, among others. In my misspent student days, I even took part in a few protests, usually decrying things like the Vietnam war and then California governor Ronald Reagan’s education cutbacks. But, if the truth be told, I was pretty much a fair weather protestor. I mainly went for the buzz and the excitment. In fact, I really went for what was probably the same reason that Bill Clinton protested the war when he was at Oxford: it was a great way to meet women. I mean, the women one met at these rallies were inevitably vibrant, passionate and generally more free-spirited than the ones you might meet at, say, the campus Bible study meetings.

But having confessed all that, I always saw masses of people congregating in the streets as an authentic expression of democracy. And I was right, up to a point. Street protests are certainly more of a democratic expression than, say, a dictator’s edict. And they are a regular feature in many parts of the world, certainly in Europe as well as America, where crowds regularly turn out to protest everything from the Iraq war to proposed hard-line changes in immigration law. But, as I have gotten older, I have come to question how democratic these street protests really area. For one thing, fired-up crowds have frequently been a feature of fascist movements that try to intimidate the general public. And, in principle, in a democratic country, should a street protest comprised of even hundreds of thousands of people really trump decisions made by leaders elected by scores of millions of voters? In the case of the French CPE protests, as numerous as the protesters were, should they have the right to dictate government policy when, frankly, they are effectively using intimidation to keep in place a system that keeps an underclass of mostly immigrants unemployed indefinitely? But because of human nature and the fascination of images on television, street protests will continue to carry more weight than election results. Just as an insurgency numbering several thousands will, in the eyes of the media anyway, trump decisions made by millions of voters in Iraq.

Which makes a smooth segue to my ruminations about war. Part of our family holiday was spent on the Normandy coast, just a few miles from where the Allies landed in their invasion 62 years ago. When I was hitchhiking around France in the 1970s, it was important to me to see Omaha Beach, and so I made my way there. The nice couple that dropped me off near the memorial bid me adieu by wishing me a bon pélerinage. This was echoed on my recent visit to Bordeaux when I mentioned to the lady we had engaged to drive us around the vineyards that I had been a student at the University of Bordeaux more than 30 years ago. “Donc c’est un pélerinage!” she said. By referring to these returns to significant places as pilgrimages, the French have a nice way of putting the proper tone on the occasion.

The events of D-Day have been chronicled in many movies, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. Yet despite the power of such movies, nothing hits home like seeing the masses of graves covering the land near Omaha Beach. It is hard to conceive of how many lives were lost in that single military assault, let alone in the course of the Second World War and all the other wars fought in Europe and the rest of the world. Like the movies themselves, we cannot help but be ambivalent about how to react to the evidence of so much human carnage.

Some of us look at the loss of life in the D-Day invasion and think, nothing is worth this. Others of us look at it and think, how noble that so many would give their lives for a higher purpose. And some of us look at it and are haunted by a mixture of the two feelings. I sometimes envy true pacifists (as the son of a member of a Mennonite sect, I am descended from a long line of them) because life must be very simple for them. By refusing to participate in war and resisting others who try to participate in war, their world is a comforting black and white one. In reality, my observation is that there are very few true pacifists. Most people who claim to be “anti-war” tend to be selective about whom they condemn for practicing war, in effect giving tacit aid to one side or the other in a conflict.

What ruined the idea of true pacifism for me was World War II. Yes, it would be a great world if all people, or even most people, refused to take part in wars. But somebody always does. And, paradoxically, if pacifists are able to practice their beliefs in wartime, it is generally because someone else is defending the land on which they are living. Sitting out a war may make one feel morally superior, but how does one reconcile that with the millions of people methodically exterminated in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. If World War II had not been fought, how many more would have died? And WWII was not a one-off. Places like the Balkans and Rwanda remind us of that.

No matter how you try to think about things, life just refuses to be simple.

-S.L., 15 April 2006

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