Monsieur le President
In opening his three-day official visit to France yesterday with a speech at the Sorbonne, President Michael D Higgins weaved Ireland’s rich intellectual legacy and cross-fertilisation of ideas from France into recurring personal themes of his presidency, most notably, the responsibility of the public intellectual and the malign pervasiveness of a quietist philosophy of “inevitability”, particularly in economics. “Scholarship is at its best when it is emancipatory, ” he argued.
Paying tribute to the influence of thinkers from Diderot to Delors, Kant, Habermas and our own Cantillon, and to Paris as a laboratory for ideas for such as the Fenians, Mr Higgins used his address, “Defining Europe in the Year of the European Citizen”, as an opportunity to redefine republicanism and citizenship. His critique of the proponents of the “limited state”, or its neo- or ordo-liberal versions, had something of Barack Obama’s inauguration reminder “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”.
“Our existence we must remind ourselves is as social beings,” he said, “not as commodified consumers without a history, incapable of envisioning an alternative future.”
It was also a defence of the postwar consensus on a social Europe now under threat, and a call for a new collective European “narrative” to empower citizens. He quoted Montesquieu: “the tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”
Such ideas, expressed in a very French way, and not least the idea of a kinship of ideas, are likely to find an echo in France, and particularly with a socialist government which has already shown a desire to warm the froideur perceived by many in recent years in Franco-Irish relations. France remains one of the EU states most suspicious of the downside on the economy and culture of globalisation, and most amenable to such appeals. How close Mr Higgins’s radical analysis is to our own Government’s is, however, another matter.