Do English and French politicians act differently because they think differently?

pragmatism 

Aujourd’hui se pose la question de savoir quelle est la marche à suivre pour optimiser nos chances de réussite économique dans un monde de plus en plus complexe. Faut-il emprunter la voie du pragmatisme ou bien celle du rationalisme ?

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French and English histories, whether in war, partnerships or “The crunch” in which their respective rugby teams compete, have made the two countries similar in some ways and completely different in others. Despite the current economic situation, French and English governments keep their distances and act differently. Why is that?

A short comparison between Anglo-Saxon and French philosophy since the Enlightenment might help to shed light on this question.

While the French philosophers such as René Descartes are blessed as the founding fathers of rationalism and logic, the English philosophers, such as David Hume or John Locke, both of whom shaped the British society culturally and politically, are regarded as the bedrock of empiricism. John Locke and David Hume observed that our minds are shaped by our experiences. René Descartes, on the other hand, introduces his cogito where he states “I think therefore I am” and attempts to explain that there is one thing he can be sure of: given the fact that he is able to doubt, he is an existing creature.

Comparing the two systems may also help explain some contemporary tensions that exist between them. Taking for granted that experience is the basis of knowledge, the English have created a non-written constitution based on a readjustment of previous laws according to the context which strongly contrasts with our long-established Napoleon Code. Abiding by the law in France is sacred because it guarantees order from which the fundamental aspect of rationality can be built.

Observing the differences between French and English gardens of well known Chateaux such as that of the Munich Englisher and that of the amazing chateau de Versailles reveals a French tendency to be more Cartesian, to focus on symmetry, straight lines and geometrical perfection as a way to dominate nature, to avoid entanglements, and an English focus on nature itself. The French thus want to administer, govern and to render their landscape governable. That is to say more organized. This may explain why the French favor a top-down relation between the civilian and the governor, and take a “volontariste” approach. As for the English, they tend to follow the pragmatic way in which things naturally work out: they are not fond of admiring the view from above but are merely seeking to integrate the human into nature and adjust to the spontaneous or “bottom-up” order of nature itself. As a result, it goes without saying that the French tend to be deductive and the English inductive. In France, principle prevails over evidence. In England, for instance, the natural trend to specificity and multiculturalism are put forward rather than the principle of laicism.

But it is not always so clear cut. Described by countless philosophers, the notion of common sense or “bon sens” can be either a product of rationalism or a natural ability to adapt oneself to different situations. Paradoxically enough,  the Frenchman Descartes justifies the need to adapt oneself to social changes and conditions by “making the basis for legislation rational rather than tradition”.

In politics, the behavior of both French and English representatives and governments is a good illustration of the philosophy they stand for. When Edouard Balladur was asked to define the market, he answered: “it is the law of the jungle”;  and when asked about civilization, he answered: “it is a struggle against nature”. On the other side of the channel, Winston Churchill asserted “the English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable”.

But today, as François Hollande revises his economic policies so as to favour entrepreneurs and businesses, is France drifting towards a more pragmatic way of thinking, far from the principled reason-driven path?

For years, we in the European Union have been aware that we have fallen well behind owing to our disagreements. Maybe, even if France and England think differently, a recent coalition can hold the European Member states in an emergency meeting and no longer leave Germany alone.

Jules BRUNIER & Samuel MATA

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