First Amendment, French Style

Citizens, however, do no get the point. They think their media are in fact free and that their journalists are usually honest and courageous. Again, it has to do with age-old traditions and delusions.

The French do not believe in unfree systems because they were quite free under what is portrayed as the most unfree period of their history, the Old Regime. Until 1789, the king was theoretically an absolute monarch, free to issue laws and orders at will. However, he had to win the support of almost everybody in the nation, a situation which led to global paralysis and eventually to revolution. Theoretically, publishers and journalists were scrutinized and controlled by the king’s agents. In fact, "illegal" pamphlets or satiric writings circulated quite freely, and had to be taken in account. Hence the famous saying: "France is an absolute monarchy limited by satirical songs."

Lessons from the Old Regime were not lost to the really authoritarian rulers that dominated France later on, from Napoleon, the military dictator turned emperor, to the Gaullist-elected dynasty of "republican monarchs." They understood that a measure of "song," of apparent freedom, would make their rule palatable. Real freedom has to do with habeas corpus, property, and the Bill of Rights. Freedom, French style, is essentially sticking to 18th century novelists' standards, from Marquis de Sade to Les Liaisons Dangereuses: the freedom not to go to church on Sunday and the freedom to cheat on one’s wife or husband. Enforce "French freedom" -- church not being relevant anyore, only sex is at stake -- and nobody will bother you about real freedom.

Now the French media and indeed the French political class know how to feed the naive French citizenry with unending love, romance, and hard sex stories. What really mattered in France when François Hollande, the socialist leader, was elected president last June was the ongoing fighting between his ex-companion and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, herself a presidential candidate in 2007, and his current companion, Valerie Trierweiler: a tale of jealousy, hatred, and near hysteria. That "Ladies' War" ("Guerre des Dames") sold better than anything narrowly political.

The French were then feeling as if they lived in the freest nation in the world. Why bother, then, to report Mitt Romney’s electoral campaign in a truthful fashion?