Europe Daily Bulletin No. 12479

5 May 2020
Contents Publication in full By article 39 / 39
Kiosk / Kiosk
No. 014

La sauvegarde du peuple

This phrase coined in 1789 by Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the first President of the French National Assembly, is taken up by this work, which is concerned with press freedom and, even more so, the critical role of information as a means of regulating politics. Although the phrase and, incidentally, its originator, have largely fallen into obscurity, it has lost none of its topicality. Indeed it is more relevant than ever in a world dominated by political communication and Donald Trump’s tweets and in which the latest technologies are harnessed by political powers and economic giants to put their own spin on information or to extend their control over the citizens. “Publicity is the safeguard of the people”, Jean-Sylvain Bailly said, expressing the very concept of transparency as a vital element of the exercise of popular sovereignty (our translation throughout).

The essay or, more specifically, the investigation into this maxim naturally prompted Edwy Plenel to examine how it went down with the public in times of revolution and a happy coincidence led him to discover that it is still engraved the pediment of the town hall of Verviers. The journalist and co-founder of Mediapart is well known for his political engagement and some will doubtless criticise him for the handful of anti-Macron rants that he seems to have been unable to resist. His acerbic writing style is a useful tool, however, as it reminds us that we are responsible for carrying out checks and balances on those who govern us, even though they were elected to do so, rather than the other way round.

A characteristic of when powers are seized by dizzying authoritarianism is that lying becomes second nature. They add the permanent use of falsehood to the regime of the permanent coup d’etat (as François Mitterrand described the Fifth Republic: Ed). No more common reasoning, no more shared truth, no more mastered reality, the only thing that counts is the statement that shores up power, even if there is no truth behind it. It is no longer just about lying to pretend, it is about lying to remove”, writes Plenel, with particular reference to the management of the ‘yellow vests’ movement by the French authorities. Excessive? Not all that much, in actual fact. To understand this, one needs only analyse the origin and handling of the current crisis, i.e. coronavirus, which has also been strewn with denials, lies and excesses. Writing off testing and wearing masks as pointless simply because there weren’t enough to go round is an excellent example of this. The lamentable state of the hospital system, which has faced systematic budgetary cuts despite the repeated warnings of healthcare professionals and structural streamlining, with the sole aim of reducing the number of beds or hospitals, speak to that verticality of powers that are disconnected from everyday realities, a power that believes it knows best and pretends to manage. With equivalent investments in public health (around 11% of GDP), France had 5000 intensive care beds before the crisis, compared to 28,000 for Germany. This is one of many differentials that speak volumes about the state of preparedness which the communication machine, with its belligerent tone, and the overreaction, with a generalised lockdown and much red tape and repression, tried to hide.

So yes, the people, the national community, European citizens need their eyes, be they journalists, bloggers, whistleblowers or just citizens, to see, to understand, to keep an eye on what the public elected representatives are up to. So yes, it is in publicity – today, we are more likely to use the word transparency – that the safeguard of the people lies. It is their only weapon to prevent democracy being snatched away by the few.

The emblem of the idea, the eyes of the people, was “central to the revolutionary imagination and imagery after 1789”, Plenel points out. “The symbol of the active sovereignty of the people, of a right of scrutiny to guarantee the freedom to discuss and to choose”, as this freedom is only worth having if it is enlightened by publicity, most often took the form of an eye in the centre of the triangle, “a geometric shape symbolising stability”, the author explains, but also representing perfection. With or without its triangle, the eye could also emit rays of light. These symbols borrow from each other and reinterpret each other and this was used frequently in the 18th century to represent the eye of Providence. The old church of Saint-Nicolas, next to Grand-Place in Brussels, has no fewer than three examples of this on its own and the inspiration – conscious or otherwise – of the imagery used for the eye of the people is no doubt partly the reason. But what if the people were no less than the Providence of world of politics?

Olivier Jehin


Edwy Plenel. La sauvegarde du peuple – Presse, liberté et démocratie (available in French only). La Découverte. ISBN: 978-2-348-05584-3. 202 pages. €14.00


Traçage numérique: pourquoi c’est non

 Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. This is a quotation from Benjamin Franklin and appears prominently in this 12-page note written by Cyrille Dalmont to criticise the digital tracking initiative being developed by the French authorities in the framework of the fight against COVID-19. The text does not stop at cataloguing all the potential risks of the application known as StopCovid, but goes on to call on French MEPs to vote against it. Without denying the fact that the project is not yet ready, the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, spoke in favour of it on Tuesday 28 April, pledging to the National Assembly that when the time came, it would be the subject of a “specific debate and a specific vote”. Although the researcher, an associate of the Institut Thomas More, focuses on the French plans, his study applies to all European citizens facing digital threats that are growing constantly.

As a springboard to mass surveillance, this type of digital tracking is a threat to individual liberties and fundamental rights. Already in place in China, Singapore and South Korea, it is currently being planned or deployed in various forms, notably in Italy, Poland, Germany, Spain and France. Having considered the idea, Belgian has currently decided not to go ahead. “The speed with which France, like most European countries, fell headlong into this digital nightmare is extremely worrying”, argues Dalmont, who points out that the technology used in digital tracking is identical to that used in “electronic tags” worn by persons subject to court or prison order conditions (our translation throughout).

The author takes the view that digital tracking intrinsically represents a “major infringement on the fundamental liberty to come and go” as well as an “infringement of privacy, as the user’s interpersonal relations and movements will be known through continuous exchanges between the user’s smartphone and all connected devices he or she comes into contact with in the course of the day”. “There is a risk of the concatenation of the gross data collected by digital players, which will allow them to establish future digital profiles and to access health data, which is of particular interest to them as it has always previously been out of reach”, Dalmont adds, suggesting that this is the reason the two mega-companies Apple and Google on 10 April announced plans to work together to set in place software infrastructure for “social tracking” applications in the framework of the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. Finally, Dalmont argues that there is a “considerable risk that the exception will become the rule and that tools of this kind will be used in the future for many purposes, but always on the pretext of the safety of those taking part and others: monitoring street demonstrations, monitoring fans at major sporting events, monitoring those attending major cultural events such as festivals, etc.”. The author goes on to stress that “although a comparison with the Chinese social credit system still appears excessive to some, we cannot deny that the logic of tracking is getting closer to us”. (OJ)


Cyrille Dalmont. Traçage numérique: pourquoi c’est non. Points clés 23. Avril 2020. Institut Thomas More. This study is available (in French only) to download free of charge from the website of the Institute: http://www.institut-thomas-more.org


Le “big-bang” du 9 mai

Paul Collowald. Le “big-bang” du 9 mai. Interview by Henri Lastenouse and Jean-Pierre Bobichon and published (in French only) on the websites of Sauvons l’Europe (http://www.sauvonsleurope.eu ) and of the Institut Jacques Delors (http://www.institutdelors.eu ). An audio version (in French only) is also available: https://bit.ly/2wW9oil


Europe in the world

Gilles Grin. Europe in the world – L’Europe dans le monde. Fondation Jean Monnet. Collection Débats et Documents, edition 14, February 2020. 69 pages. Available to download from the website of the foundation: http://www.jean-monnet.ch


Le défi de la transition écologique

Hugues de Jouvenel (under the direction of). Le défi de la transition écologique. Futuribles. Edition 435, March-April 2020. ISBN: 978-2-84387-448-2. 144 pages. €22.00


Enjeux olympiques

Frédéric Saenen (under the direction of). Enjeux olympiques. Presses universitaires de Louvain. General review, Spring 2020. ISBN: 978-2-8755-8946-0. 254 pages. €22.00