Last Sunday, November 2, Paris witnessed an unusual demonstration. A group of classical liberals, led by a fire-breathing 21-year-old college student, planted genetically modified seeds and distributed them to the all the passers-by. This happened in Champ de Mars, in front of the Porte de la Paix.
This shocking demonstration is how Liberté J’Ecris Ton Nom, a group of French libertarian students, answered to the “obscurantism” of all of those who want to inhibit free inquiry and scientific research–in the name of food safety. Liberté J’Ecris Ton Nom objects to the food protectionism of the European Union, and stresses the importance of freedom to trade in genetically modified agricultural goods. The debate is no longer monopolized by Jean-Luc Bové’s cries; the neo-Luddite farmer has found an opponent up to him.
This opponent is a 21-year-old student who is both famous and infamous in France and an sudden celebrity across Europe. Her name is Sabine Herold. The Paris-based daily Le Figaro has called her “the Joan d’Arc of the liberals.” Britain’s largest quality Sunday paper, the Sunday Times, hailed her as “Mademoiselle Thatcher.”
Just six months ago, Miss Herold was an ordinary student in political science at the University of Paris. On May 25, as striking workers marched through her hometown of Reims, she denounced the trade unions from the steps of city hall. Miss Herold mocked the strikers as “reactionary egotists.”
Soon a crowd gathered, which French newspapers estimate at 2,000 people. They began to applaud–someone finally said it! After months of crippling strikes, the French, long known for tolerating even the worst excesses of their Soviet unions, had had enough.
Over the next few weeks, Miss Herold kept drawing ever-larger crowds. By June 15, she addressed a crowd of 80,000 in Paris with the same message. But these were no spontaneous gatherings. It was the start of a grassroots movement.
While the French are not about to abandon their chic anti-Americanism or launch a Thatcherite revolution any time soon, Miss Herold’s is part of a larger trend. By all means, she is not the only French young person to preach free-market, private property, and sound science. An astonishing number of largely free-market clubs, online groups, and grassroots associations, have sprung up in France in the past few years. One estimate by the London-based Libertarian Alliance, which works closely with liberal groups in France, puts the number at 200. Most recently, a free-market think-tank for the French-speaking world, the Institut Molinari, was founded in Brussels.
Last June, when the masses were fed up with the arrogance of trade unions (who immobilized Paris to protest against prime minister Raffarin’s pension reforms), Sabine Herold arrived as the answer to the middle class’s prayers. Interviewed by a number of publications, she likes to drop names such as Nobel Prize winner F. A. Hayek, and refers with admiration to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as two political figures whose path she would like to follow. This is simply not done in French politics.
Now Miss Herold has succeeded in becoming a symbol of the free-market Right in Europe, a minority which has never been successful in manufacturing icons. We invited her to speak at a conference in Italy with Chilean social-security reformer Jose Piñera. She electrified the room. She was what no one thought existed and represents a new political combination: a Thatcherite with charm and, beauty.
And there is a chance that Miss Herold will last more than 15 minutes in the spotlight. She shows a firm commitment to free enterprise and seems eager to use her current popularity for the sake of advancing classical-liberal values. She is fascinated by the great classical liberal thinkers in France’s past–even if liberal policies were seldom implemented. To fill the gap between theory and reality is the mission of this new generation of liberaux.
This is not the first time France’s middle class seems ready to revolt against established authority. Fifty years ago, angry taxpayers joined the “Union in Defense of Merchants and Artisans,” led by Pierre Poujade, a bookseller from the southern French town of St. Céré. Winning election to the local council, Poujade persuaded the area’s merchants to refuse to pay their taxes to the central government and to resist government inspectors who demanded to see their books. Successful resistance spread the idea and the movement to neighboring towns, and finally to a large portion of France. It was France’s first and only tax revolt.
But the Poujadists ultimately achieved nothing; the movement collapsed in but two years and didn’t generate a lasting legacy. The success of a political movement requires more than exceptional individuals, but a sense that the time has come for change.
Increasingly, France looks ready to reexamine its postwar love affair with socialism. It has elected a center-right government. Public-opinion polls show support for reforms and tax cuts. Now Sabine Herold has emerged. The French shouldn’t worry that she will succeed in liberalizing France, but that she could fail.
–Richard Miniter is senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, a Brussels-based free-market think tank. Alberto Mingardi is visiting fellow at CNE.