Tale Of Two Republicanisms: Why Even Conservatives In France Don't Get The GOP

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Roger Pol Droit


PARIS - If we ask the French what they don't understand about the U.S. elections, we are spoiled for choices. Having seen French commentary on the Obama-Romney duel, the most pointed area of incomprehension is "what it means to be an American Republican."

We just can’t seem to wrap our French brains around this American reality. The proof is the flood of misunderstandings and prejudices on every side, guiding, or rather disorienting, people's judgments.

In French commentary, the Republican is a stupid blunderer, making gaffes, rustic and ignorant. We tend to forget that the Republican movement also includes true thinkers, whose importance we need to recognize, whether or not we agree with their analyses.

For example, there is libertarian Robert Nozick (1938-2002) and neo-conservatives Irving Kristol (1920-2009) and Norman Podhoretz. The standard-issue Republican is also supposed to be racist and misogynist, although the party was founded in 1854 to combat slavery, and the first Republican president was... Abraham Lincoln. Admittedly, today, the Republican camp, with its multiple schools of thought from the religious right to centrists, is still more conservative than the Democrats, and closer to business than it is to unions.

However, if we are satisfied with thinking of the typical Republican as a rich, know-nothing, bigoted white male voter, we are severely limiting our comprehension of history.

The Republicans have dominated American political life since 1968, winning seven out of the 11 presidential elections since then, and they have controlled Congress for years. Today they are the majority in the House of Representatives. Forgetting this massive reality produces strange distortions in our views. George W. Bush seemed so shameful that we cannot understand how he was reelected, while Obama looks so friendly that we do not want to face the fact that his reelection is uncertain.

These optical illusions are even odder because they come from the French, who unanimously call themselves... "republicans," who espouse "republican" ideals and "republican" values. Are we talking of true republicanism on one side of the Atlantic and false republicanism on the other? It certainly looks that way. The original common meaning-- the concept of res publica, the "public affair," as opposed to private affairs-- does in fact lead to contrary ideas on opposite sides of the ocean.

One word – two meanings

The French idea of republicanism not only emphasizes secularism, freedom, equality and fraternity, but also makes the state the guarantor of citizens' individual rights. The bigger the state, the more protection for its citizens. The American idea of republicanism is exactly the reverse. The federal government protects the borders, but the less it intervenes in its citizens' lives, the better they preserve their rights. The difference between these two completely opposite visions of "republicanism" is the relationship of individuals to the central authority.

This difference has profound consequences on our ways of looking at politics, the common good, money, business, personal success, attitudes toward work and free time, social welfare, and foreign policy, among others. In fact, the two ways of looking at the world are so different that it seems almost inevitable that we French, on the whole, don’t get American Republicans. All you need to do to confirm this is try it in reverse. Immerse yourself for a moment in the perspective of American Republicans. As soon as you understand their major lines of thought and internal logic, there is necessarily something you will not understand very well: the French, of course.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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