By Peter Jamieson

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix

France is in danger. To be more specific, its soul is in danger - but that's surely about the gravest danger of all. This danger has come primarily from its custodians - its government, and the current philosophical underpinnings of that government. For me personally this is a great shame, because French people in general are some of the best people I've known. But with the situation in France now so bad, it's perhaps time to explore what's going on, with no attempt to spare the feelings of those in power, or more particularly the feelings of those French people who identify themselves with their government.

- Advertisement - is under attack from the French authorities. Ostensibly, they seem to be implying that it's a cover for some sort of doomsday cult. Obviously it isn't - but how do you prove a negative anyway? Instead,'s ongoing research into the dangers from incoming cometary fragments, and into the widespread psychopathology of people in power, plus a host of other sensitive topics, is bound to make SOTT unpopular with the Powers That Be. That might be enough to stir the French government into action, and naturally, smear tactics are a cheap and easy way to attack anyone.

I'm not going to say anything more about's character, and the scurrilous nature of the attacks directed against it. That's already been covered here, here, here, here, and here.

Instead, I'd like to say something about France itself, and its very peculiar attitude to non-conformity in matters of religion - because it's in this sphere that the French authorities have a long-standing tradition of identifying 'opponents' of the French system, and eliminating them. In a sense this is not terribly surprising: France is constitutionally a secular state, with a long-standing idealistic antipathy to religion in any form which dates back to the French Revolution of 1789. But is that really what is going at the highest levels of French government? Or do we actually have a return to the status quo before the Revolution - what historians call the Ancien Re'gime - when Roman Catholicism was the official religion? Is it possible that Revolutionary ideals are only being given lip-service?

- Advertisement -
Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël

The French authorities are quick to denounce anything beyond the Roman Catholic Church as a secte - a term which corresponds more or less exactly, with all its overtones of run-for-your-life moral panic, to the English term 'cult'. The government agency tasked with "combatting cultic deviances" is MIVILUDES, though there are other actors behind the scenes who act as advisers (principally the CCMM-Centre Roger Ikor and UNADFI). But do these jokers in MIVILUDES, who display open contempt for the religious freedoms enshrined in the French constitution, even recognize that terms like secte and 'cult' are scarcely ever used by responsible sociologists of religion? The point is, of course, that for them to do so is clearly derogative of people's religious choices. (Even in France this point is recognized: see this interview where two sociologists quite properly call into question the government's attitude to sectes.)

Terms like these have strongly propagandistic overtones. What we have here is a pathology in French government, whose actions have precious little academic backing in the rest of the world. But what should we expect in such a society which is indoctrinated into thinking that only French academia has all the answers, and the rest of the world is too unsophisticated to understand? However, this superior attitude has only led to French academia becoming isolated from the broader international academic discourse and deteriorating and declining, thereby. In short, France's intellectual isolationism has led to something worse than mediocrity: stagnation and regression.

Massimo Introvigne, a noted Italian social scientist, had this to say on the subject of 'cults' back in 2001:
Since statutory protection against heresy may no longer be invoked, mainline Christians substituted the old label, "heresy", with new ones such as "cults" or "sects" (the latter more used as a derogatory term in languages other than English), implying that the newer religions were harmful to society in general. A whole counter-cult Christian literature flourished, followed much later into the 20th century by a secular anti-cult literature, claiming that the newer religions were harmful to mental health and public order. Social scientists started devoting serious attention to these newer religions in the 1960s and 1970s. They refused to jump on the counter-cult and anti-cult bandwagon, and started looking for a different terminology. British sociologist Eileen Barker popularized the use of "new religious movements", a value-free term much more palatable to scholars than "cults" or "sects". Later, "new religions" was also used in order to designate the largest and most established among the newer religions, most of them tracing their origins in the 19th century, such as the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses. Scholars did welcome these terms, and almost unanimously adopted them in order to avoid the derogatory words "cults" and "sects".
That's the way things are usually looked at by academia outside France. Scholars are sensitive to other people's feelings, and naturally try to treat such things dispassionately, in order to achieve at least a modicum of scientific objectivity. Which makes the French attitude so peculiar - so much so that scholars are wondering why on earth the French attitude should be so passionate, derogatory, and, well, unsophisticated. Isn't France supposed to be the most intellectually sophisticated country on God's green earth? Apparently not.

Let's look more closely at the phenomenon of France - the phenomenon of being French.

- Advertisement -
Foothills of the French Pyrenees

I've lived for about a year in France; I've eaten the legendary French food, savoured the delicious wine, marvelled at the beauty of the countryside - especially the Pyrenees, about which I've bored countless people into catatonia; and I've worked, like many others with a passion for archaeology, for a French academic institution (CNRS: the National Scientific Research Centre). By and large I've enjoyed all these experiences. For someone like me from Britain, France has the feel of a sister country - possibly because both sets of populations have the general air of having been cowed into submission by authority. French people are generally easy to get along with, in my experience.

But there is a caveat, and it's a big caveat: there's a strong feeling that they're a little uncomfortable with things that don't conform to traditional French standards. Obviously, I'm speaking very generally about the essence of French thinking - not pointing a finger at anyone in particular. And obviously there are perhaps, oh I don't know, tens of thousands of French people who don't conform to what might look like stereotyping.

But how useful are national or cultural stereotypes anyway? Unscientific, right?

Perhaps not. What we're dealing with now is what the scholars Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell of the School of Organization and Management at Yale University called institutional isomorphism: the tendency of different organisations in one geographical area (for example) to become like each other - whether they actually wanted to or not.

Like the Pyrenees, I can't recommend their article "The Iron Cage Revisited" highly enough. Ever wondered why pretty much everything around us in our society is so similar - to the extent that it can become rather boring and so-so? DiMaggio and Powell provide some thought-provoking answers. Here's how their paper begins:

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber warned that the rationalist spirit ushered in by asceticism had achieved a momentum of its own and that, under capitalism, the rationalist order had become an iron cage in which humanity was, save for the possibility of prophetic revival, imprisoned "perhaps until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt". In his essay on bureaucracy, Weber returned to this theme, contending that bureaucracy, the rational spirit's organizational manifestation, was so efficient and powerful a means of controlling men and women that, once established, the momentum of bureaucratization was irreversible.
(Let's not forget that bureaucratization was more firmly established in France at an earlier date than perhaps anywhere else in Europe. The soulless nature of this bureaucratization was, it's often argued, one of the major causes of the French Revolution. We'll look at the effects of all this later, when we take a wander through the charming formal garden of French history: it's pretty much all dead-straight paths and neatly-trimmed low box hedges, so we shouldn't get lost. And, yes, garden design is important if we want to understand France, and its attitude to form and conformity. Just think for a moment of Le Notre's garden design for the palace at Versailles, the template for all subsequent formal jardins la française, up to the present day. This is France, the land of the straight line.)

Straight lines please, we're French... a formal garden at Versailles

What DiMaggio and Powell suggest is that there are powerful tendencies in society which tend to make us all conform to certain standards: ways of thinking, and ways of doing things. We ourselves may not have much personal inclination to think and act according to these unwritten precepts. But those precepts are there nevertheless - and they condition us to think and act in certain ways. In order to fit into society, to have a secure place there, we have to conform. And those who conform with no inner discontinuity are those who succeed the best. That's what lies at the heart of a national culture: the societal pressure to conform to hidden standards and precepts. Institutional isomorphism becomes personal isomorphism: people become the same. A national culture establishes itself and perpetuates itself - though national bureaucracies, as Max Weber said, strengthen those characteristics (good and bad) into an iron cage, a prison of the mind.

Geert Hofstede is also important here. His name is familiar to anyone who has made a study of organisational behaviour, as someone who concentrated on defining general national characteristics - i.e. 'cultural dimensions', as he termed them. Hofstede's study wasn't an attempt to denigrate any particular national culture; instead, it was an attempt to understand cultural differences, so that multinational companies could manage their foreign workforces as effectively as possible, and not cause discontent in their foreign offices by misunderstanding workers' hidden drives and attitudes. It was an attempt, if you like, at diplomacy.