Interview with François Hollande, President of France from 2012 to 2017. Translated from French by Gillian Eaton.
La Fonda. Everyone agrees with the concept of faire ensemble (working together) on paper, at least. At the same time, the French are very attached to the state being a protective power. Isn't this a very French contradiction?
François Hollande. There would be a contradiction if the state had the ambition to preside over everything and be the sole standard bearer for the public interest, as if the involvement of its leaders was enough to handle day-to-day affairs, deal with emergencies, and even contend with crises. On the contrary, the state plays a leading role in working together: the state sets the long-term objective, which enables citizens to know where they are going together. The state also provides the resources so that each grouping and each citizen can take ownership by inventing ways of using them. Consequently, I see no contradiction between an active, present and even visionary state, and working together, which is given further impetus because it has a defined framework for action.
The state defines public interest under France's sovereign tradition. Citizens often take a back seat. However, are third-sector organisations not the cornerstone of democracy, rather than the opposite?
I would like to qualify the idea that only the state can define and champion what is in the public interest. Obviously, the state has this objective because of the legitimacy given to it by universal suffrage. However, citizens themselves, notably via the third sector, contribute to the public interest. These organisations embody everyday solidarity by offering close support. Every single day, they devise new initiatives to help our planet, and they launch local innovations to transform daily life. They encourage participation in many forms in the decisions that affect us all. That is also how the public interest is served.
I challenge the almost individual concept of public interest, which, according to a liberal version, states that our individual commitments make up the public interest. Nor do I share a vision that states that there are sectors, which due to their profit-making nature, single-handedly contribute to the public interest and therefore stand apart from the rest of society. In fact, public interest is all about compromise, even cooperation between the state and citizens. The middle ground needs to be sought.
In France, we need to acknowledge that we find it hard to strike this balance: intermediary organisations have often been marginalised or challenged, while major organisations have been considered of lesser importance, and innovative involvement has been sidelined. Often, the state crushes all those who invoke objectives other than those it has set itself, or methods other than those that it tolerates. However, in my view, we need to continue to find this social democracy-based middle ground.
In that case, what can be done to ensure that third sector stakeholders are more effectively taken into consideration and recognized by the state?
It would be in their best interests to join forces more! "Small is beautiful" has long been the preserve of a large number of organisations, but this concept has reached its limits. The sector obviously needs to preserve its citizen-based and local character, but links also need to be forged between all of these organisations. This is the role of the social economy and the large umbrella groups for non-profits. However, the latter tend to focus solely on dialogue with the state, forgetting that their vitality first and foremost depends upon local innovation. This is one of the toughest challenges for the non-profit sector: showcasing all the plentiful initiatives, along with any disruptive features, but also giving it the means to make its voice heard and respected. The sector needs to empower itself to be able to negotiate fiercely with the state for the benefit of the public interest.
In my time as president, I was able to observe the strength of the non-profit sector and the large French NGOs operating worldwide. At each international conference, such as the G7, G20 and the climate conferences, often the ideas and proposals came from non-profits, in addition to the public administration and political parties. Likewise, during the terrorist attacks, we wanted the country to hold out, for victims to be heard and freedoms to be safeguarded, and it was the third sector that guaranteed all that. On the other hand, I found regrettable the divisions between small organisations and large federations, as well as the ideological wrangling (which is legitimate in itself), which may have weakened the third sector per se.
However, I am reassured by the real vibrancy of the commitment that I observe, to this day. Some thought that it would have faded with the rise of individualism and because of the succession of crises; that this would have stifled the desire to work together. In fact, this is not at all the case. One of the reasons for this is the well-established tradition of solidarity in France; a tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next.
Precisely, individuality is forged in relation to others. However, our society has developed a form of individualism which creates real fragmentation without bolstering autonomy and people's "capacity to take action". How can we work together when everyone is seeking to stand out from the crowd?
This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge! Individualism has a long history. For a long time it was regarded as being an assertion of independence and therefore of emancipation. Individualism has gradually become a form of isolationism. However, there is a 100% positive aspect to individualism: the recognition of each individual's uniqueness, their differences, and their life story. However, there is also the risk of a distance opening up between the individual and others, or even worse, of a desire to fend for oneself. If we add the dynamic of social media, as a means of fuelling passions and resentment, we can see that it is increasingly difficult to work together because everyone wants to work with people who are like them. The temptation is to only get together with like-minded people. However, working together is all about doing things with people who are different and who enrich us. This enables us to get out of our own silos. The major challenge is to work with everyone and not necessarily with those who we have chosen.
You had the Equality and Citizenship Law voted through in 2017. Does this law foster "working together"?
There was a context to that law: that of the terrorist attacks in France. France's MPs and I felt the need to bring to the fore engagement and citizenship in response to the threat of stigmatisation and becoming isolationist. However, the law is not enough in itself: it only provides the framework and the instruments. The next stage is to make available resources so that everyone takes ownership of them. There is still much to be done in this area. For instance, the citizen reserves were called in as reinforcements to deal with the Coronavirus crisis. But there are relatively few young people undertaking civic service. Obviously, there is a legitimate desire during a health crisis to protect one's own health, but volunteering is a powerful means of supplementing solidarity mechanisms. I suggest that we draw on the wave of generosity and the community when exiting this crisis. Lockdown is creating an immense frustration. Being released from lockdown must give people a desire to take action. The socio-economic situation will have greatly deteriorated, and unemployment and vulnerability will undoubtedly have risen. I am sure that the easing of the lockdown will heighten this need for social relationships rather than for consumer goods.
The Sustainable Development Goals actually foster a level playing field: the state, corporations and civil society organisations all contribute in their own way to Agenda 2030. What is your view of these developments?
We are obliged to have a level playing field. It persuades us that even if the state must get more involved and always be far ahead of the rest of society, nothing can be done without everyone's involvement. Everyone feels concerned but powerless in the face of climate change, but in fact it is the opposite way round: it is because everyone can act that we can find solutions at the highest level. It is this growing awareness that is returning states to their role, as well as citizens, organisations, local government, and businesses to their responsibilities, in a way that they would never have imagined acting in the past.
It is even more urgent to update the Paris Agreement. The next COP, aiming to get the world to enter a new phase, has been postponed. The fact that the world has stopped turning for several weeks have nevertheless caused us to collectively reflect and this will only step up the pace of the process of radical change. Cooperation will need to be bolstered: the links and relationships between stakeholders, even though they are of different sizes and have diverse intentions, are the only way for us to be effective. Finally, by at times placing us in a position of submission (we have had to give up our usual lives), this crisis is also raising us up, as it is enabling us to understand that everyone has a role to play and helps each other. Individual sacrifice is no longer enough if others fail to act.
François Hollande was president of France from 2012-2017. In 2014, third-sector involvement was declared a "cause of national importance". Immediately afterwards he launched his presidential initiative, La France s'engage foundation, which identifies and supports socially innovative initiatives. In the same year, Hollande passed the social economy law. He subsequently bolstered civic service resources and in 2017 got the Equality and Citizenship Law adopted. The law created the civic reserve, which anyone could join, and also sought to bolster volunteer and citizen involvement. Hollande was also the architect of COP21, the international climate agreement, approved in 2015. He is now the president of La France s'engage Foundation. He is also the author of several publications on democratic issues: Les Leçons du pouvoir, Répondre à la crise démocratique and Leur République, expliquée aux jeunes et moins jeunes.